Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl (1974)

I am not a voyeur. I hate that sort of thing. But in this case, I stood there absolutely transfixed. (p.130)

Apart from his well-known children’s novels, Dahl also wrote movie screenplays, TV scripts, and some fifty-four short stories for adults which appeared in various magazines throughout his career, the first in 1942, the last in 1988. Over the years these were collected together in ten or so collections, and further rounded up into six ‘collected’ or ‘best of’ selections. More recently, Penguin have published ‘Complete Short Stories’ volumes one and two.

Switch Bitch (1974) contains four 30- or forty-page stories, making up a slender paperback of 130 or so pages. Basically, they are stories for teenagers, or middle-brow readers on holiday. Undemanding, obsessed with sex, sometimes very funny, sometimes gruesome.

The Visitor (first published in Playboy May 1965)

The nameless narrator claims to be a nephew of Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a rich bachelor and connoisseur, collector of spiders and scorpions, expert on Chinese pottery, and unstoppable philanderer. Upon Cornelius’s death the narrator receives a big crate containing all thirty-six volumes of the old man’s scandalous memoirs, detailing his outrageous sexual escapades, mainly during the 1940s. Almost all of them involve people (generally women) who are still alive and are therefore unpublishable without running the risk of prosecution. Except for the story he tells here.

Whereupon the text cuts directly to Cornelius’s own diary account of the incident, which commences on 24 August 1946. (Note: the Second World War had ended just nine days earlier, on Thursday 15 August, an incident Uncle Cornelius is too narcissistic to mention.)

Having set the tone by making love to a lady at the top of the great pyramid at Giza, Cornelius drops her off (he tells us he can never stand a woman’s company for more than 12 hours, ideally only eight) and motors across north Egypt towards the Suez Canal, planning to carry on up to Jerusalem.

He is driving his Lagonda sports car and singing opera – entire operas – at the top of his voice, as is his wont.

Unfortunately, pulling over at a very remote gas station in the desert, the mechanic informs him that his fan belt is just about to break. The garagiste makes a phone call and returns to tell a hot and bothered Cornelius that he’s ordered a new one from the nearest town but it won’t be delivered till the morning.

As luck would have it a Rolls Royce, no less, comes driving the long straight desert road and Cornelius flags it down. The sleek, well-dressed Syrian owner, Abdul Aziz, speaks perfect English and has immaculate manners. ‘Oh my dear chap, how ghastly for you, well, you can’t stay here, you simply must come and stay at my place,’ and so Cornelius gets into the Rolls with his overnight bag, telling the garagiste he’ll be back in the morning.

Throughout the preceding narrative Cornelius has revealed in various asides how very fastidious he is about personal hygiene, continually washing his hands and, when the filthy garagiste breathes over him, immediately taking a snifter of scotch to cleanse his mouth and nasal passages.

So he is delighted to discover that Mr Aziz’s house is a marvel of modernity and cleanliness. It is entirely alone out here in the middle of the desert, but with all mod cons. He is introduced to Mr Aziz’s dark-haired wife and daughter and they all persuade him to go for a swim in the pool. They lend him trunks and soon all four are splashing in the pool. Then it is time to retire to their rooms to wash and change for dinner, for which black tie is required (Uncle Cornelius, of course, is never without full dinner suit).

Over dinner Uncle Cornelius shares with us his extremely frank assessment of which of the two women, mother or daughter, it would be best to take to bed. The mother is a little fuller figured but would have experience. The daughter, leaner, would have more energy. Throughout the entire meal he is entirely focused on fantasising about which one to sleep with and is convinced that both of them appear to be making eyes at him. Why does their father/husband, Mr Aziz, sitting right there at table with them, not mind?

Considerably aroused, Cornelius is disappointed when both ladies simply shake his hand at the meal’s end, withdraw, and he is left to walk upstairs to his bedroom, a bit disconsolately. He tries to read to take his mind of sex. But in the small hours he hears the tell-tale sound of the bedroom door squeaking open and tiptoes across to his bed. He moves to turn on the light and speak but dainty woman’s hands stop him.

Instead he is treated to a night of passion unlike he’s ever experienced. Upside, downside, right side, wrong side, every which way he can imagine this woman’s fertile imagination treats him to. Hours later and utterly exhausted, she finally leaves him, picking up her clothes and tiptoeing out the room.

But not before he had given her a tasty little love bite on the neck. Next morning he dresses for breakfast on tenterhooks to discover which of the two ladies it was. When the wife comes in she is wearing a light scarf around her neck and Cornelius thinks oho, and yet she is strangely reluctant to make eye contact. And then he is thrown when the daughter appears, also wearing a scarf hiding the teeth marks. Hmmm.

And before he knows it it is time to leave and he bids a polite and formal goodbye to the two ladies, still mystified about which one gave him such a sexual marathon the night before. On the drive back to the garage Mr Aziz is also a little quiet. Cornelius asks, Isn’t it boring for you with only your wife and daughter for company? Oh, Azis replies, he has another daughter too. We didn’t see her, says Cornelius, is she living away? No, she lives with us but doesn’t socialise very much. You see she has leprosy! The worst, the most incurable kind.

‘But you needn’t worry my dear fellow. There is no way to contract the disease unless you have the most intimate contact with the sufferer.’

When they reach the garage and Uncle Cornelius steps out, he is shaking so badly he drops his pack of cigarettes. A classic case of the biter bit, the colonialist tricked, the white man duped, the philanderer punished. It is so neat it could be a folk story, or one of the traditional tales told in the Canterbury Tales.

The Great Switcheroo (Playboy, April 1974)

Much more straightforward in structure. The first person narrator is Vic, husband of Mary, father of Victor (9) and Wally (7). He’s at a party given by his neighbours, Jerry and the slinky Samantha. Vic has a theory that a woman’s lower lip tells you how sensual she is. He reckons Samantha is a scorcher. And all of a sudden he conceives a plan.

He goes and sits with half-drunk Jerry and tells him a story, a story about a bloke he knows who has come up with a plan for wife-swapping. This ‘friend’ came to an agreement with a mate of his, they agreed to swap, they got to know the layout of each other’s houses, and at 1am on a Saturday night, walked across the road, passing each other on the way, crept upstairs into the other man’s bedroom, gradually awoke and aroused the other man’s wife, and then made love to them, in the dark, without putting on a light or uttering a sound. Then waited for the wife to go back to sleep. Then snuck downstairs and crossed the road, saluting each other as they passed, on the way back to their own bedrooms.

All this time Jerry is watching Vic’s wife chatting to one of the party guests, himself with mounting fervour in his eye. He’s taken the bait! He suggests trying it. Vic acts surprised, but tentatively agrees.

And what follows is a peculiar combination of lechery with boys’ own enthusiasm. They decide to call the evening when they’ll do the deed D-Day. They come up with a sequence of preparations numbered one to eleven. The more Vic describes it, the more juvenile and ridiculously boyish it sounds. Both men will pretend to nip their fingers earlier that day while chopping vegetables and make a point of showing their wife a finger with a plaster on it. In the weeks leading up to it, when the wives are out, they go round each other’s houses and put a blindfold on, and practice moving from back door, down the hall, up the stairs, and into the bedroom in pitch darkness. For hours. Three hours in Vic’s case.

They discuss physical differences but agree that since Jerry is six foot tall and Vic five eleven, there’ll be little difference there. Vic stops smoking cigarettes and takes up a pipe so he’ll smell the same, and they make sure to both use the same hair lotion and after shave.

To cut a long story short, it works. They take their wives out for a double date dinner at a steak house, come home, clean teeth, go to bed, wait till wives are fast asleep. At 1am on the dot meet at the gap in the hedge between their front gardens, sneak upstairs as practiced so many times, slip into bed, begin to caress and arouse the other man’s wife, then make love to them, and so on.

In Vic’s case he touches up the beautiful Samantha for a few minutes in silence and then suddenly she jumps on him and ravishes him. And here’s the funny thing. All the excitement and interest has gone into the planning of this juvenile feat and yet, when it comes to it, a) Vic is completely unprepared, and b) Dahl is oddly reticent about the act itself.

It was only 1974 and this is, essentially, a story for teenage boys. Sex with a woman is just ‘the goal’ of this game, the actual deed itself almost comes as an afterthought, certainly he is astonished at how Samantha makes love to him, and yet it is described in the silliest boyish way.

I never dreamed a woman could do the things Samantha did to me the. She was a whirlwind, a dazzling frenzied whirlwind that tore me up by the roots and spun me around and carried me high into the heavens, to places I did not know existed. (p.75)

This sounds like the description of someone who doesn’t actually know very much about sex, just that it is this great big fireworks display.

In his tenth novel, Girl, 20 Kingsley Amis has two lecherous middle-aged men discussing the sexual practices of their much younger girlfriends and one is simply dazzled by the fact that this young woman is prepared to put his penis in her mouth. In a flash you realise the kind of absolutely straight-down-the-line, missionary position-in-the-dark kind of sex these kinds of characters had been having in the previous decades, the 1950s and 60s. It reminds you that The Joy of Sex was regarded as a breakthrough book when it was published in 1972.

From Vic’s description it sounds as if he fingers his wife until she’s aroused, then clambers on top of her and fucks her till he comes, then rolls off. That is the content or end point of all his leching, the driven wish to do the same to more or less every woman he sees. This explains why when it finally gets to the point of actually having sex the narrator here, and in the previous story, slips into a riot of metaphors about tigers and passion and whirlwinds which, you suspect, conceals something much more mundane.

Anyway, the boom-boom punchline of the story is that the next morning, Mary, his wife, is oddly distant and asks their sons to leave the kitchen and close the door as she has something to tell their father. Vic’s guts tie themselves in a knot and his heart is pounding fast as he is sure she realised he played a ‘trick’ on her.

But it is worse than that. She confesses to him that she has never once enjoyed sex with him (and, from my analysis above, we can see why), but that last night, for the first time ever, she understood the point of the whole thing, and finally enjoyed it. Oh thank you thank you thank you, she says covering him in kisses while, of course, his self-image as a great stud and pleaser of women and sexual adventurer turns to ashes in his mouth.

The Last Act (Playboy, January 1966)

This story has genuine grip. It is the least juvenile and at moments rises to what you might tentatively call a real investigation of human nature. It’s set in New York state. Anne Cooper is making dinner for her three twenty-something kids and expecting and expecting husband Edward home at any moment, when there’s a knock on the door and two state troopers are there to tell her Ed’s been killed in an auto accident. (The joy of driving, eh.)

She becomes hysterical, needs sedating and spends months in an institution, never getting used to the idea that the one great love of her life is dead. And, later, when she’s allowed home, she finds her two daughters marry in quick succession and then become increasingly distant, committed to their new husbands. And her son goes away to university, leaving her in the big empty house alone. In her darkest moments she thinks about taking an overdose of pills. Or using a razor to slash her wrists. Tricky, though, it’s easy to cut the veins, but you need to sever the artery to really bleed out and that is buried deep deep down.

Then she is rescued by a good friend who runs an agency in New York, and one day has almost the entire staff off with flu, and just won’t take no for an answer but comes and collects Anna and takes her to the busy downtown office where she is rushed off her feet, and discovers, at the end of a really gruelling day, that she feels shattered but emotionally great!

From that point onwards she throws herself heart and soul into her friend’s business, an adoption agency. Some months later she has to fly to Dallas, Texas, for a tricky case involving a mother who adopted a child but, when her husband died, changed her mind and wants to give it back. She has a terrible day and returns to the hotel where she’s staying drained and demoralised. Once again, the pills beckon… but then she suddenly remembers that an old flame of hers form high school moved down here. He always wanted to be a doctor. She looks him up in the yellow pages. Dr Conrad Kreuger. She leaves a message with his receptionist. He phones back and says, Anna! How wonderful! What brings you here! We must meet for a drink!

And so commences the heart of the story which is that 1. Kreuger is still as phenomenally handsome as ever. 2. He is rich and successful. 3. After Anna dumped him at High School for Perfect Ed, she remembered that Kreuger not only started going out with a bosomy girl in the class but the next year married her. However 4. Conrad now tells her that they had one child, a son, but divorced after two years and 5. that he never recovered from her dumping him. She has carried a torch for her ever since. Now, now is a chance for them to be together in the way he’s always dreamed.

As if this wasn’t enough information, two other things have been going on in tandem. They have met in the quiet, dark hotel bar and Anna has been drinking quite heavily. By the third martini she is positively floating. But she and we have also noticed Kreuger’s tendency to lecture her, to adopt the pose of doctor and warn her about the health risks of her behaviour. He tells her smoking mentholated cigarettes is bad for her. A little later, in the middle of discussing emotions and suchlike, he interrupts to tell her that drinking gin is also bad. Juniper extract is bad for the uterus. Turns out he is a gynacologist.

By now Anna has made herself drunk enough to be ready to be splayed and fucked like a chicken. She lets herself be paid for, guided to the lift, floated up to her floor, through the door of her apartment and into the darkened room. Here Conrad suddenly kisses her, covering her mouth and cheeks in kisses which she observes as if from a great distance. But eventually he hits the jackpot when he kisses her in the ear and her whole body lights up with lust.

She strips and unbuttons his shirt but two things happen. 1. Conrad behaves coldly and clinically. He sits fully clothed on the bed and undoes all Anna’s buttons and straps and bra and stockings and panties and pulls them off carefully and precisely. Then he himself stands and takes off all his clothes, folding them carefully and placing them over the back of the bedroom chair. At one point, looking own on her head, he notices that she is showing signs of incipient alopecia. She tells him to shut up and kiss her.

Only then does he grab her wrist and fling her onto the bed where she floats and the room spins in a great swirl of sensations as, we gather, he fingers her vulva, working her up into a state of screaming arousal, and then swings his body over hers and starts making love to her. The reader is reminded, again, that this story is from over fifty years ago. There is something very stiff and constrained and embarrassed about it all. I can see why Anna had to get drunk to nerve herself for the ordeal.

But right in the middle of sex Conrad asks if she is wearing a cap or diaphragm. Obviously the head of his penis is bumping against something. She indignantly says no, but she insists that she must be and… suddenly she is sober-remorseful, suddenly she sees the whole situation with blinding clarity, suddenly his face over hers looks like a dentist peering into her face and about to use a drill.

She starts screaming at him to get off, he argues that she can’t just change her mind like that, in mid-stream, but she carries on, pushes him off at which he, ungallantly, pushes her right off the bed. She gets up, weeping, and flees into the bathroom locking the door behind her, and Conrad hears her rooting about in the bathroom cabinet, by implication – after the running thread of suicidal thoughts – looking for an overdose of pills to take.

Quietly, Conrad dresses, wipes the lipstick off his face, combs his fine black hair, takes a last check in the mirror, and walks out.

The men aren’t coming off very well in these stories, are they? Obsessed with sex but, when it comes down to it, narrow and unimaginative, but also getting pretty rude come-uppances.

Bitch (Playboy July 1974)

Uncle Cornelius is a great creation, a fabulously shameless posh boy aesthete and philanderer. He collects women, or more accurately one-off sexual experiences with women, the same way he collects Persian carpets and Chinese porcelain. Here’s an example of his thinking:

He was a totally amoral man, that much was clear, but then so was I. He was also a wicked man and although I cannot in all honesty claim wickedness as one of my virtues, I find it irresistible in others. (p.121)

In this, the second ‘excerpt’ from his outrageous memoirs, he describes his encounter with a French scientist, Henri Biotte. This man is an expert on smells and scents and perfumes. He devised the two of the most famous perfumes in the world for a Parisian perfumier. Now Biotte persuades sceptical Uncle Cornelius to fund his attempt to carry out a revolution in smell.

To be precise, Biotte claims that dogs and other mammals are susceptible to the powerful pheromones emitted by the female of the species when they’re on heat. Biotte tells Cornelius the ability to emit or smell this scent was evolved out of humans over 100,000 years ago. Now he proposes to recreate the scent and the chemical catalyst which will activate it, spray it on a woman, and see what happens.

‘You are a dirty old man,’ I said.
‘I am an olfactory chemist,’ he said, primly. (p.125)

Cornelius forgets about the project till he gets a phone call. Biotte has isolated the chemical. He invites Cornelius to witness an experiment. Biotta has booked a short wiry boxer named Pierre Lacaille. They place his assistant, Simone, on a chair and stationthe boxer six metres away.

Biotte makes the usually fastidious Cornelius place two nose plugs in his nostrils to prevent being affected by the wonder-scent, then he sprays a little on Simone’s throat. then they instruct Lacaille to move towards her a step at a time. Nothing happens and he is puzzled and Simone bored until… suddenly the scent hits him, he whinnies like a stallion, tears all his clothes off and ravishes Simone. It is an instructive display. Biotte goes up to the copulating couple and threatens Lacaille with a revolver, he ignores him. Biotte fires the revolver right over Lacaille’s head, he ignores him.

Wow. The scent really takes complete animal possession of a man. They wonder what to call it. Cornelius suggests Bitch.

So far Biotte has only manufactured 10cc of the stuff. Cornelius insists on being given 1cc for purposes of his own. He takes the carefully sealed phial to a gadget-maker he knows in Paris and asks him to make a tiny container, no bigger than an inch which will contain the scent but also have a tiny timing mechanism and hammer, so that the phial can be set to be punctured and leak its life-changing content. This the gadget-maker does.

But when Cornelius returns to the lab the next morning he discovers that the vixenish assistant Simone had used up the entire supply of scent on herself and sent Biotte into such a frenzy that he had a heart attack and died. And he hadn’t written down the chemical formula or the process for extracting the perfume. Damn!

(All these coincidences and extremities make you realise this story is really a cartoon.)

The special plan Cornelius has is to use the spray on the American president! The current president is (according to him) a particularly loathsome, lying reptile. He plans to get close enough to spray bitch on the nearest woman (while wearing nose plugs) and watch the president turn into a horny animal.

So he flies into New York, checks into a hotel and reads in his paper that the president is due to give a speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution that same evening. Cornelius discovers the head of the Daughters is one Mrs Elvira Ponsonby. He discovers which hotel she is staying in and goes round with a spray of lovely orchids and gets past reception by claiming they’re a gift from the president himself. Concealed among them is the phial of scent and the tiny little timer.

His plan is to pin the flowers onto Mrs Ponsonby’s enormous bosom, then watch as she goes off to sit next to the president, guest of honour at tat evenings dinner. And at 9pm precisely the little clockwork hammer will penetrate the little phial, bitch will spread across Mrs P’s bosom, the president will be transformed into a raging satyr, and ravish her right there and then on the table in front of all the other guests, and a television auience of 20 million. Cornelius cackles with anticipation. He will be ruined. he will be impeached. He will be thrown out in shame and dishonour.

Mrs Ponsonby answers the door to her room and, after some initial doubt, is persuaded that Cornelius is a courier bringing flowers from the president himself. Unfortunately, she is not only a very large lady, but very clumsy, and as she tries to force a pin through the stems of the flowers to attach them to her dress, the penetrates the phial, the precious drops of bitch leak out and… Dahl gives us an extraordinary description of how Cornelius feels, it is as if his entire body shrinks as his penis becomes bigger and more erect until he is nothing but penis with which he transfixes Mrs Ponsonby and they fly up into the sky, through exploding stars etc, in a sort of X-rate Disney animation.

What seems like hours later, he comes back to himself, finding himself stark naked in a hotel room which looks like it has been trampled by elephants, and, as he sheepishly finds his clothes and gets dressed, he hears a woman’s voice emanating from behind an upturned table in the corner of the room, ‘I don’t know who you are, young man, but you’ve certainly done me a power of good!’

Thoughts

The stories certainly reveal in graphic detail the thoughts of the kind of Playboy-reading male chauvinist pig which feminists have spent fifty years hunting to extinction. Nobody nowadays could write such frank assessments of women solely in terms of their fuckability as the narrators of three of these stories do.

But then, the obvious feature of the first two and fourth stories is that the male chauvinist pig gets his comeuppance: in the final one Biotte dies and Cornelius’s plans collapse into fat-bottomed farce.

The exception is The Last Act which swings in and out of sexist territory, skirts along the borderline. But I found his portrayal of a woman destroyed by grief, redeemed by finding a tough demanding job to do, and then undone on a disastrous date with a high school boyfriend, contained surprising depths and acuities.

Uncle Cornelius is a monstrous cartoon caricature and I want to read much more about his outrageous escapades and absurd pratfalls (apparently, there is a short novel about him). But it is the messy, modern story of the widow Anna Cooper which sticks in my memory.


Related links

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)

‘Sade-138 will be the most distant collapsar men have gone to. It isn’t even in the galaxy proper, but rather is part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, some 150,000 light years distant. Our voyage will require four collapsar jumps and will last some four months, subjective. Manoeuvring into collapsar insertion will put us about three hundred years behind Stargate’s calendar by the time we reach Sade-138.’
(The Forever War p.174)

This may be the only novel I’ve read by a soldier who won the Purple Heart, awarded in the name of the President to those wounded or killed while serving in the US armed forces. Haldeman was a Physics major when he was drafted into the US Army and went to fight in Vietnam, where he was badly wounded, before receiving his honour.

The Forever War intertwines the reality of contemporary conflict, 1970s-style, with social prophecy and a detailed and believable grasp of advanced physics, to make a plausible and powerful narrative which is also an Orwellian fable.

The plot

It is the 1990s and Earth science has discovered collapsars, a type of black hole, which allow space ships instantaneous travel to other collapsars, thus giving humans the ability to travel astronomical distances in short periods.

Barely have we Terrans (earthlings – in practice, Americans) begun to settle the new solar systems and planets reachable via this miraculous device, than we are attacked, ships blown up, colonies wiped out by violent alien forces. Since the first attack happens in a star system near Taurus, the enemy are named Taurians.

The novel consists of four sections following the first-person account of William Mandella, one of the first elite conscripts called up to be trained in the new star-jumping, alien-fighting technology.

Crucial to the narrative is the idea that, although the astronauts jumping through collapsars experience the passage of just weeks or months, because they are travelling at near light speed and so time (for them) has slowed right down — for everyone else, including their loved ones left back on Earth, time continues at the speed we’re familiar with. So that when they return after a mission lasting what is for them only a few months, decades have passed back on Earth.

Private Mandella We are given a detailed account of his training, of the complex space suits required, how him and his team build the first habitations on the planetoid named Stargate, before being subjected to artificial enemy ‘attacks’.

Amusing details of future Army life, including that the official group response to officers is, ‘Fuck you, Sir!’ and promiscuous sex is encouraged between men and women who are treated completely equally as regards training and combat.

When they finally emerge from collapsar travel and hit the surface of a planetoid known to harbour a Taurian base, the enemy turn out to be skinny monsters enveloped in bubble of their own atmosphere who ride a kind of broomstick. The one and only attack made on their compound is surprisingly easy to beat off, with the Taurians virtually lining up to be killed, although an enormous flower-shaped machine burps bubbles of acid which float at head height and you have to duck (in between avoiding laser weapon fire) if you don’t want to be decapitated.

Sergeant Mandella 2007-2024 Mandella sets off on another tour of duty in a more advanced space ship but, realistically enough, this one is attacked before it even gets near the destination planet, coming out of the collapsar to be immediately hit, so that Mandella comes out of cryogenic suspension to find blood everywhere and half the crew dead, and the woman he’s become closest to in the previous episodes, Marygay, with half her guts hanging out (due to futuristic medicine, she survives). The ship limps back to the nearest collapsar, on to Stargate, and Mandella prepares to go ‘home’, back to Earth.

But, of course, in the meantime decades have passed. His mother has aged 40 years, his father is dead. This is the fullest description in the book of how earth has changed while he was away i.e. Haldeman’s own predictions for what will happen in the 40 or so years from the mid-1990s.

He predicts a huge population explosion, with the number of people on earth ballooning to over 9 billion, which leads to food shortages and the so-called ‘Ration Wars’. When Mandella returns it is to find that his mother living in a huge high-rise; that everyone needs a bodyguard; that you have to bribe agents to get even a basic job; that food is strictly rationed; and that his mother has taken a lesbian lover.

Mandella seeks escape from the violent city by going to visit the family of his lover, Marygay, who live on a farm/commune. He discovers that the farms are subject to raids and attacks and has barely settled in before, having taken Marygay to a dance, they return to discover a full-scale raid taking place at her parents’ farm. Rather inevitably, the parents are killed and he and Marygay, disillusioned with this violent Earth, decide to re-enlist.

Lieutenant Mandella 2024-2389 Mandella arrives back in space to discover the technology has moved on hugely since his first tour: the Starbase he helped build in pat one is now a small city with 10,000 inhabitants – the number of collapsars discovered is now into the hundreds.

The camp new officers inform him that homosexuality is now the predominant gender on Earth where heterosexuality is frowned on. Don’t worry, though, most people think heterosexuality can be cured, so he should be just fine!

Mandella’s squad have only barely reached the target planet and deployed before the vehicle he’s in is blown up, falling on his leg and crushing it. But the space suits are now very advanced, with built-in guillotines which amputate damaged limbs, hermetically seal the suit and inject the patient with morphine. You sleep till rescued or till you die in your sleep. Mandella is rescued and undergoes new treatment for regrowing limbs, which is explained in some detail.

Major Mandella 2458 – 3143 By this time William is one of the few people who have lived through the entire war. He learns that Earth’s population has now stabilised at a billion homosexuals, bred in test tubes, pushed out of artificial vaginas, raised in clinics. None of that parenting nonsense. Like Brave New World (1932). He is now in command of 120 of these brave new humanoids in a mission to the furthest collapsar yet discovered. Their mission is to erect a base on a planetoid in the system and await the inevitable attack. He knows they’re probably all doomed.

This final section gives a persuasive and powerful sense of the burden of command over an essentially alien race, a detailed description of the new fighting technology, including a stasis bubble, in which no electrical pulses can travel. When the predicted Taurian attack comes, Haldeman powerfully describes its successive phases: first the rival ships out in space fighting each other at nearly the speed of light; then the computer-operated lasers located around the periphery zapping everything which moves, including all the alien drones; then ‘tachyon’ bombs raising the temperature so high that the lasers can no longer operate; and then wave after wave of invader ships disgorging ranks of Taurians who relentlessly attack, until the last survivors are forced back into the stasis bubble, where…

Well, you’ll have to read the exciting climax yourself.

Fighting

I assume that Haldeman’s descriptions of the army, training, military discipline and hierarchy, are closely based on his own experiences in the U.S. Army and in Vietnam, a factor which anchors the often ludicrous plotline in powerful and persuasive descriptions of combat.

The events may be fantastic, but the cynical soldier’s reactions to them seem lived-in and real. As in other military memoirs I’ve read, the most important factor of Army life appears to be the infinitesimally small amount of time spent actually fighting, with 99% of the time being spent in boring training, building camps, keeping fit, carrying out fatigues and so on, or rotating back to the world for R&R.

Social commentary

Population explosion Halderman is writing in a period when the greatest threat facing humanity was meant to be the ‘population explosion’ (see the classic 1973 movie, Soylent Green). In the novel, the advent of a population of 9 billion begins a process of calamitous change, starting with wars over food.

When he wrote, the world population was about 3.5 billion, today it is double that, 7.5 billion. Maybe surprisingly, this hasn’t led to global social collapse and certainly not in the highest-populated countries – China, India, the USA, which have both absorbed the tremendous growth and managed to significantly raise the standard of living for hundreds of millions.

Space travel I feel I have lived through the Space Age. The fact that both J.G. Ballard and Gerard DeGroot thought it was over by 1972 (the last moon landing) confirms my feeling that the Space Shuttle era (1981-2011) was a long, expensive anti-climax. Obviously, new satellites are launched all the time and the International Space Station continues to be occupied and carry out its experiments. But we’ll never go back to the moon, and the notion of manned flights to Mars is crackers. During my lifetime humanity discovered that space travel is too expensive and too risky and brings little or no return.

All space-based science fiction therefore has a wistful, nostalgic feel. It is a technologically optimistic past’s vision of a future which is not, now, going to happen.

The unconscious American basis of science fiction A few centuries in the future Haldeman sees the entire population being hatched out of test tubes and engineered to be homosexual or neuter. This, like all notions of space travel and lots of other classic sci-fi predictions, relies on the premise that the whole world can be brought up to American levels of affluence and technological prowess. I.e. it doesn’t understand the uniqueness of the American achievement.

Old-school Marxists say this is because America spent the 20th century erecting a vast military-industrial apparatus designed to exploit the rest of the world’s commodities and raw materials. With around 5% of the world population, it consumes about 25% of the world’s resources (Scientific American, 14 September 2012)

By contrast, free marketeers say that America’s ongoing economic and technological success is based on its high level of education, its competitive capitalist culture, and its flexible working practices.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that all science fiction which premises its narratives on the notion of the continuous economic and technological improvement of all humanity, enabling us all to reach the same luxury lifestyle – and then expand that lifestyle out into space – is profoundly flawed.

Fewer than one in ten of the world population enjoy anything like the lifestyle, the affluence and the technological gewgaws everyone reading this blog takes for granted. And the entire trend of our time is towards the attributes of middle-class life contracting, all across the industrialised world, as wealth is redistributed away from the squeezed middle upwards to the super-rich. (Middle-Class Squeeze Wikipedia article)

‘Hard’ science fiction is the name given to sci-fi based on a realistic understanding of science – here, the laws of physics and relativity, among other technically plausible details.

But I find it almost unreadable because it requires such a tremendous suspension of disbelief in the realities of the world we live in.

In the world we live in there will be no space travel. There will be no planetary government. There will be no attainment of luxurious lifestyles for the entire global population.

These ideas are as faded and dated as Victorian theology. The technological and economic optimism which gave birth to them died in the 1970s and was replaced by our current ideology of gross inequality and cultural pessimism.

The forever war The one prediction which does ring true is the idea that the attacks of an ill-defined but real enemy will create an atmosphere of paranoia and lead to the placing of society on a permanent war footing.

Left-wing writers call it the Shock Doctrine or Disaster Capitalism, but anyone who reads the newspapers can follow how the world has developed since 9/11 – how the highfalutin’ notion that a united government of earth will come together to fund idealistic expeditions to found new settlements on inhabitable planets across the universe seem like childish dreams compared to the permanent instability we have created here on earth, and the eternal and much-publicised ‘terrorist threat’ which justifies enhanced levels of spying, monitoring and control over all the populations of the economically advanced countries for the foreseeable future.

In this, the most cynical and satirical prediction of this powerful novel, Haldeman was bitingly accurate.

Number one

In 1999 Millennium Publishing began republishing the best science fiction novels of all time, eventually producing a list of 50 all-time classics (each one numbered). The Forever War was number one in the series and, when the top ten were reprinted in hardcover editions, The Forever War was also included. The experts consider it that important.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (1974)

What can I tell him? Jason Taverner asked himself as he sat mutely facing the police general. The total reality as I know it? That is hard to do, he realised, because I really do not comprehend it myself. (p.119)

It is 1988 and Jason Taverner is the host of the immensely successful Jason Taverner Show which attracts 30 million viewers to its regular Tuesday evening slot. On this particular evening he’s featured guest star gorgeous, red-haired Heather Hart with whom he just happens to be having an affair, sharing his jet-set lifestyle, although she is impatient for him to actually marry her so they can settle down, have kids etc.

Part of their success is down to the fact that they are sixes. It is not explained, more hinted at in stray references, that sixes were genetically imprinted with superior genetic qualities, and that his happened at his birth, back in the 1940s (rather implausibly).

Jason and Heather complete another chart-topping show and are on board their Rolls Royce jet rocket (!) shooting up over Los Angeles when he gets a call from an ex, Marilyn Mason, a little flit of a thing who begged for help getting into show business, who he wangled a few auditions, and who he slept with him rather a lot before tiring of her. Heather is furious at the call, but Marilyn screeches down the phone that she’ll kill herself if he doesn’t visit her NOW, so Jason says we better go and check she’s OK.

Jason has barely got down into her flat before Marilyn, furious at having been dumped and ignored for six months, throws a bag at him containing ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’.

There’s no explanation of what this thing is or where it comes from, simply that the feeding tubes swiftly enter the human body and kill if not counter-acted. Jason has the presence of mind to grab a nearby bottle of alcohol and pour it onto the creature which falls off him, onto the floor, dead. But it leaves its feeding tubes inside him, and he passes out. He regains consciousness on a hospital gurney being rushed to an operating theatre with Heather peering over him, weeping, and then he blacks out.

The alternative world

All this happens in just the first chapter. In chapter two Jason wakes up and the world has changed. He awakens in a seedy motel room to discover that nobody knows who he is. In this world there is no Jason Taverner Show on TV, the motel manager has never heard of him, nobody has heard of him. When he phones his agent, then his producer, both say they’ve never heard of him and put the phone down.

He also has no ID cards and now, for the first time, we begin to learn about the world of 1988, namely it is some sort of military dictatorship. All across America identity checkpoints run by the national guard or the police pop up at random to check people’s ID cards. If you don’t have one or have a forged one, you are sent off to a Forced Labour Camp (FLC).

So, while he is still reeling from the fact that nobody recognises him, Jason is all-too-aware that down here, in the world of the ‘ordinary’ people, he needs ID cards fast. Luckily, he’s wearing the same clothes he had on when Marilyn attacked him which, conveniently enough, contained a big wad of cash. Now he bribes the desk clerk, Ed Pricem, to recommend a forger. The clerk (who, in a casual aside, mentions that he is a telepath – putting us in mind of the universe of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Ed the desk clerk takes Jason through darkened streets into Watts which was, when Dick was writing, a slum. In a darkened garage Ed introduces Jason to a very young woman, Kathy Nelson, maybe only 17 or 18 (she eventually tells us she’s 19), who takes him to her workshop and turns out to be a master forger.

Here commences the troubled relationship which last for the next third or so of the book, for Kathy has impressive mental problems. Initially the conversation is fairly rational and, while she’s making him the forged IDs (he needs half a dozen in this police state) they recap a bit of future history, namely how there was some kind of Insurrection led by sixes like Jason, but it was repressed and most of the sixes were rounded up and shot and the government became even more repressive.

(In what I presume is a humorous / paranoid reference to the student unrest of the time the book was written, the early 70s, the narrative informs us that all universities have prison walls round them. Any students or lecturers caught escaping are sent to forced labour camps. Later we are told that up to 10,000! students at Stanford were massacred in one particular police action back during the Insurrection.)

(In another throwaway reference, we learn that Congress passed a bill led by someone called Tidman to solve ‘the race problem’ by restricting black couples to only one child. Over the generations this will or has hugely reduced their numbers. So much so that black people are now endangered and it is a crime to hurt them, p.29.)

But Kathy is odd, very odd. She’s convinced that her husband, Jack, is in a forced labour camp but approves of her sleeping with other men, something they discuss at length. She confesses that she was placed in a mental hospital for eight weeks. She is convinced she met a number of famous celebrities there, and slept with them.

Then she reveals that she is a great forger but embeds electronic tagging devices into her forged documents and tips off the police about the customers. Why? Because the police have promised her that if she helps them catch enough criminals, they’ll release her husband, Jack. (Later, when we meet her police controller, McNulty, he tells Jason that all this is a delusion: Kathy’s husband is in fact dead, died in a car crash, but she hasn’t got over it.)

Kathy insists that Jason – tall, handsome, confident – sleeps with her, which he is initially cheerfully in favour of until he begins to grasp how nuts she is. This is forcibly demonstrated when he takes her to a (terrible) restaurant of her choosing and when she doesn’t get her way, falls off her chair onto the floor screaming at the top of her voice. Till the waiters throw them out.

Walking back to Kathy’s flat, Jason manages to give her the slip. He phones his partner back in ‘the real world’, Heather Hart, on her personal vidphone but of course she’s never heard of him. He pesters her with several calls despite her repeatedly hanging up, and freaks her out with his intimate knowledge of her anatomy (she has a false tooth she calls Andy, p.58) and all her phone numbers. But he has clearly erupted into a parallel universe in which he was never born, never existed. Nobody knows him.

Puzzling this over Jason almost immediately walks into a pop-up police checkpoint. Paranoia and fear while they check the papers Kathy just made him. But they pass. Grudgingly the ‘pols’ let him go. But the checkpoint has given Kathy time to catch up and find him and once again he finds himself, immensely reluctantly, walking back to her flat. Here is horrified to find Kathy’s ‘control’, Inspector McNulty waiting for both of them. McNulty, in the way of scary totalitarian cops in this kind of fiction, now becomes politely but firmly interested in Jason and asks him along to the station.

There he makes him wait while the cops search the (global) database for him. By mistake the machine spits out the details of a ‘Jason Taverner’ born about the same year, but in the mid-West to farmers, a very ugly redneck. Thinking on his feet, Jason claims to be the same guy and makes up a story about him running away from the farm and using his grandfather’s inheritance to get comprehensive plastic surgery.

Yeeeees, McNulty says, staring at him, not really believing it. After several false releases – being let go then called back for ‘a few more questions’, which ratchet up the pressure – Jason finally gets to walk away. He had to hand all of his ID papers over to  McNulty to be triple-checked, but the cops handed him a week-long total pass (a ‘pol-pass’) in exchange. So he has a week to figure out what the hell is going on, which gives the novel a sense of urgency and a clear timeframe.

Recap

So the first hundred pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are set in an America of the future which has become a police state (what Jason calls ‘a betrayal state, p.58) in which a genetically engineered man has made himself a successful career as a rich and famous TV star. But, after a near-fatal experience, he wakes up in a parallel universe where he appears never to have existed, is thrown down among the plebs, the ‘ordinaries’, stripped of his wealth and fame, and experiences life on the run.

Part two

Part two introduces new characters, namely McNulty’s boss, Police General Felix Buckman. He scares and intimidates McNulty, who tells him about this Tavern guy they just picked up. By this stage McNulty has discovered that the mid-West story is a fake. What puzzles him is that ‘Taverner’ has no records of any kind.

‘Jason Taverner doesn’t exist.’ (p.82)

Buckman is intrigued but has to cope with his no-good, drug addict, bondage addict sister, Alys who has, yet again, got past the guards and into his office where he finds her sleeping off another dose of something.

He wakes he up and gives her a sound telling off for being an addict.We learn that she paid for the removal of the ‘responsibility’ parts of her brain, leaving her just the pleasure centres, which she stimulates by ‘diddling’ (presumably masturbating) all day long.

Jason, with a week to find out what the hell is going on, takes an air taxi to Las Vegas hoping to find a woman whose pad he can crash in, maybe a woman he knew in the other life. Sure enough he has barely settled himself at the bar of ‘the Nellie Melba room of the Drake’s Arms’ in Las Vegas (p.85) than he spies an old flame of his, Ruth Rae. Knowing her sex addiction, he finds it easy enough to chat her up and soon they head back to her place, first for championship sex, and then for a long discussion about love and, unexpectedly, the power of grief.

But then the police burst in, having detected Jason via the microtransmitter the slipped into his clothes.

He is transported in a police ‘quibble’ (Dick’s humorous word for car or transport) back to LA, to the 469th Precinct Police Station, where he is ushered into the rather luxurious room of General Buckman. Buckman is one of only a handful of police generals in the country. Clever, he proceeds to bluff Jason that he is a seven (Jason didn’t even know sevens existed, but Buckman knows enough about the head of the research programme which developed the sixes to bluff him), trying to get him to spill the beans about the plot or conspiracy which he is convinced Jason must be involved in.

Eventually Buckman comes to believe that Jason really doesn’t know what he’s doing in this dimension. He decides to let him go, but to tag and trail him. Next morning Jason walks free into the LA sunlight (and the thick traffic pollution).

Someone calls his name. It is Alys Buckman, six foot, dressed in leathers with a metal chain. Where’s the whip, Jason thinks. Clearly she is visually meant to look like a bondage dominatrix. Alys explains she’s Buckman’s twin sister. She hates him. She tells him he has a microtransmitter and – surreally – a minute nuclear bomb – embedded on his person. She removes both with a kit she has. She flies him in her quibble (these ascend vertically and, apparently, have rotor blades) to the general’s luxury mansion which she shares with him. On the way she says she knows who he is! She is a big fan! She has two of his long playing records in the back of the quibble!

My God! Maybe she knows how to get back to his own world.

But, immensely frustratingly, Alys refuses to answer any of his questions, instead politely offering him some mescaline (‘Harvey’s yellow Number One, imported from Switzerland’, p.134) and, as he begins to trip out, fills the time with what appears to be a series of inconsequential chatter. She shows him her brother’s rare and precious stamps, his collection of snuff boxes.

As Jason’s trip reaches extremes Alys realises he’s too far in and offers to go get some thorazine to counter the mescaline. Jason staggers to the record player and, through his hallucinations, manages to get one of his records out of its sleeve and turn on the record player and drop the needle with a bump onto the play-in groove, but…. there’s just static. There’s nothing on the records. They’re blank! (p.144)

Part three

Jason staggers upstairs, looking for Alys and then, to his horror, opens a bedroom and finds… her leather clothes and stilettoes on the floor and inside them, wearing them, a long, long-dead shrivelled corpse! Horrified, he blunders, half falls down the steps, across the lawn of the mansion and to the guard by the gate. His drugged slurred speech alerts the guard who runs inside – he hears a shout – and the guard comes running back after him, letting off a few shots from his laser gun, obviously thinking Jason murdered his employer, before running back inside.

This gives time for Jason to escape from the grounds and blunder into a young woman just getting into her ‘flipflap’. Yes, flipflap. Like Kurt Vonnegut, you have the strong feeling that Dick, by now, in the early 70s, has taken enough drugs, written enough fantasy sci-fi books, to realise that he can make up anything, say anything, the more ludicrous the better – and people just as stoned as him will lap it up!

So he begs for a lift in this young lady’s flipflap and, although reluctant, she (name: Mary Anne Dominic) lets him fly her downtown (so she can post the ceramic pots she makes for a living) then they go to a coffee shop.

Jason is trying to make sense of Alys’s fate. For a start how come she knew who he was, the only person in this world to do so? But then again, how come the records were blank?

While he’s thinking out loud the young woman he’s sort of kidnapped picks up on the fact that he thinks he’s a famous TV star and singer and says, ‘Shall I go see if they’ve got any of your songs on the jukebox?’

To his amazement they have, and she puts a coin in the machine to play it. What? And the people in the café start to recognise him, applaud when the song ends, and some shy kids come up asking for an autograph. It’s all coming back, the ‘normal’ world he lives in, bit by bit, faster and faster.

Jason says goodbye to Mary Anne (after she has insisted on giving him one of her most beautiful deep blue pots, carefully wrapped) and sets off to see Heather.

On the way he speculates darkly: maybe the reality is that he’s an unknown pauper living in a crappy motel and it’s the drug which Alys gave him which takes him out of that world and into the world of fame. Maybe the world of fame is the drug-induced fantasy, which he needs Alys to regularly supply him the drugs to experience?

Meanwhile we cut back to the cops back at the death scene of Alys. The LA police forensic scientist says Alys died from an experimental new drug. There follows a long pseudo-scientific explanation that the drug suspends the brain’s ability to distinguish between fixed blocs of time and space i.e. the ability to compartmentalise events into before and after, and to compartmentalise space into separate, well, spaces. In a bit of a leap, they claim the drug allows more than one reality to exist at once, and in a further leap, that this leads to multiple universes existing at the same time. Alys’s use of the drug created an alternative universe into which Jason was pulled.

I.e it was all her fault. Jason’s entire experience of being pulled into this alternative universe in which he was never born – is solely the result of Alys’s trip on a new experimental drug.

I admit to being disappointed. I thought it was going to be something to do with toxins release by ‘the Callisto cuddle sponge’. Remember that, back at the start?

Now a newly confident Jason phones up Heather and – she recognises him! Darling where have you been, I’ve been so worried etc. But when he flies to her flat to meet her neither of them refer to the incident with Marilyn Mason. What? Last thing we saw in that universe, he was being rushed into surgery with Heather crying her eyes out? Did it not happen? Or has Dick now got bored of it and not bothered to link it to how his narrative has ended up?

To me the complete lack of follow-up to the Caliisto sponge scene doesn’t say anything about Dick’s clever manipulation of reality, it says everything about how he and his tripped-out readers don’t really care about logic or consequences or coherence,as long as the narrative contains loads of gee whizz references to drugs and the police state.

In a nutshell Alys took an entirely new, made-up drug, and this had the entirely made-up effect of dragging Jason (and Buckminster and everyone else around her) into her fantasy in which Jason had never existed. Until she died – at which point the ‘real’ world started flooding back. I still don’t understand this. Why him, why Jason? What is the meaning of the records which won’t play?

Anyway, now a completely new plotline kicks off. Backat police headquarters Buckman’s Machiavellian adviser points out that Alys’s suicide will make the gutter press snoop around, and that Buckman’s incestuous relationship with her is bound to come out, and that this will give his enemies and rivals among the four or so other Police Generals the opportunity to get him demoted or sacked.

Instead, Buckman had better get his retaliation in first, by concocting a scandalous story which somehow implicates them – the other generals. What they need to do is present Alys’s death as a murder resulting from some great conspiracy into which he can drag his rivals, ideally involving some high level, public figure who will divert attention away from the incest.

And it is at just this moment that the latest file on Jason Taverner is placed on Buckman’s desk. The perfect fall guy! They’ll say Taverner was driven mad with jealousy when he discovered that Alys had been having a lesbian love affair with his own long-term partner, Heather Hart, went round and murdered her. The security cop saw him at the scene. The police coroner can be ordered to change the evidence to do whatever it takes to incriminate Taverner.

They agree this plan and make a public announcement they’re seeking Taverner on a warrant for murder. Taverner has just arrived at Heather’s empty apartment feeling mighty happy to have his old life back when Heather storms in waving the newspaper with its front page headline about her and Alys (they did in fact have a lesbian affair) and the cops wanting to arrest them both. Jason and Heather argue and have tantrums and then realise there’s nothing to be done but hand themselves in.

Passivity

Having read four Dick novels in a row, one of the subtler threads or similarities between them is how passive his protagonists are. Frank Frink just accepts it when he’s arrested. Juliana shrugs when she finds out she’s living in a parallel universe. Rick Deckard undergoes mad experiences including inexplicable hallucinations, but ends up chatting sensibly with his wife. Joe Chin has moments of panic in Ubik but by and large functions efficiently and logically, despite finding out he has died and is being kept in cryogenic storage.

Similarly, at every moment when the cops confront him Jason Taverner… just gives up and goes meekly. There’s something very underpowered about Dick’s protagonists. They passively submit to weird hallucinations, mad revelations and terrifying time travel parallel universes.

Maybe the central protagonist has to remain calm and rational, in order to allow the weirdness to really come out.

Coda

I’ve also noticed that Dick’s books tend to get to what is definitely the end of the story… and then have an extra bit tacked on afterwards.

On paper (and in the movie) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? should end when Deckard ‘retires’ the last of the six androids he has been tasking with killing. Sure enough he goes home to see his wife. But then there is an extra and completely unnecessary chapter where he flies north into the radioactive wilderness and finds himself climbing the hill and somehow changing into Wilbur Mercer. And then a further extra bit, when Deckard finds the live toad and takes it home to his wife.

Same here. Having made the reasonably rational decision to frame Taverner for his sister’s death, Buckman then flies home. Job done, game over, right? But in the event he finds himself crying, torn by an impulse to go back and rescind the arrest warrant for Taverner.

Instead he pull up (i.e. descends to) an automated gas station in the middle of nowhere. One other quibble is there, its owner a smartly dressed black guy, pacing up and down as he waits for his quibble to be topped up with gas. On impulse Buckman takes a piece of police notepaper and draws a heart with an arrow through it and gives it to the black man. The black man looks at it, looks at Buckman, looks at the paper again, then lets it drop and blow away. Buckman gets back into his quibble and flies off.

OK, so far so far out, man. There’s still ten or so pages of text left so you’d expect to return to the plot, right?

But no. Buckman cries more tears, veers his quibble round and goes back to the gas station. Black guy is still there. This time they talk, and the black guy turns out to be remarkably perceptive, realising Buckman is in a weird emotional state, sympathises, gives him his card, says ‘Call me sometime’. Buckman gets back in his quibble and this time does fly back to his fine home.

What was that about? Is Dick playing with the format of the novel by consistently adding these overspill sections (rather as he plays with various conventions in this novel by dropping characters and forgetting loose ends – e.g. ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’)? Is he screwing with our heads, man?

Drugs

The four novels of Dick’s I’ve read all feature drugs as a common-or-garden, accepted element in the societies he describes.

Even in The Man in the High Castle, supposedly set in a parallel 1962, not only do some of the the characters (Frank Frink) smoke marijuana cigarettes, but these are commercially available i.e. not illegal.

In Ubik the owner of the half-life moratorium casually offers Runciter amphetamines when he looks like he needs pepping up, not as some illicit substance but as a perfectly ordinary element of polite society.

In this novel the cops not only smoke weed but offer Jason a joint after they arrest him. McNulty’s boss mentions that he should take some amphetamine.

And then there’s Dick’s prolonged portrayal of a mescaline trip at the police general’s mansion.

At the time (the late 1960s, man) I think this familiarity with drugs, drug paraphernalia and experiences and risks, gained Dick a vast audience among students and dropouts, and a reputation as a prophet of the alternative culture. So cool, man.

45 years later America is hooked on opioids which result in 122,000 deaths in 2015, not to mention the massive worldwide organised crime associated with heroin and cocaine trafficking. Only the relatively young and naive can any more think that any form of drugs is cool.

Sex

Sex doesn’t have the centrality in Dick’s work that it does in many other writers. It comes across as more of a plot device than an end in itself, designed to amplify the more important ideas around it such as fractured identity, altered mental states, parallel universes, and the general unreliability of ‘reality’ – whatever that is.

What’s interesting is the way the sexual element becomes more overt as you track these novels from the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s.

Following the trend, sex plays a bigger role in this story than all previous ones. The fact that he’s had sex with so many different women marks Jason as a product of the Hugh Hefner Playboy era. The introduction of Alys in particular, the leather-clad bondage girl, reminds me of all the leatherclad cartoon women from the 1950s.

But Dick piles on the perversion by having Alys and Buckman (whose name, if you replace the B with an F, would become more counter-cultural and, like, subversive,man) be not only twins but incestuous. really incestuous. So incestuous that they have had a son, Barney, who they’s packed off to boarding school in Florida. Weird enough for you, man?

And it is Alys who introduces Jason to the idea that there is a matrix or ‘grid’ of people who all go online to make mass phone calls at the same time, during which they live out their sexual fantasies. Alys explains that this can quickly become an addiction and that you can tell the people who are addicted to it by the way they look aged and drained. Nowadays, of course, we call this the internet.

Although the story is meant to be about a parallel world brought about by someone’s fantasies, it would not be hard to do an entry-level feminist critique of the narrative to bring out the way it is a picaresque story in which a tall, handsome rich man encounters a whole succession of women who represent different female stereotypes:

  • mature girlfriend Heather who wants to marry and have his babies
  • psychotic 19-year-old Kathy, with her undeveloped body (she laments her lack of bust) and paranoid possessiveness
  • Alys the six-foot, bondage lesbian
  • Mary Anne Domenico, the plain, sensitive, ‘artistic’ virgin

When Jason gets to Heather’s flat at the end, after what we can all agree has been a very trying two days, she’s out and he finds her faithful maid, Susie, at work. So he sidles up, slips his arm around her and grips ‘her firm right boob’ (p.178), behaviour which would see him arrested and sent to prison these days.

Dick fans may see Flow My Tears as a highly artful exploration of themes of identity, reality and mental illness. #metoo activists might not be wrong to see Jason Taverner as a forerunner of Harvey Weinstein.

Swearing

In the same way as sex becomes a more dominant theme, over these four novels I’ve noticed the way Dick’s characters swear more and more.  I’m not sure anyone swears in The Man in the High Castle (1962), whereas only 12 years later pretty much everyone is saying ‘fuck’.

  • ‘Do you think I’m a CF, a celebrity fucker?’ (Kathy, p.55)
  • ‘Don’t use that “I don’t give a fuck” tone with me.’ (Jason, p.58)
  • ‘Fuck off,’ said Ruth Rae (p.101)
  • ‘In what fucking way?’ he said, harshly. (Jason, p.104)
  • Isn’t it possible they’ll fuck up all down the line? (Jason thinking about the cops, p.107)
  • Her face glowed hotly and she said, ‘That motherfucker!’ (Alys, p.135)
  • ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’ (Jason’s most recent hit, p.155)
  • ‘We’ll kill you in the end, you miserable murdering motherfucker.’ (General Buckman, p.188)

Not just ‘fuck’, but a lot of the character use the cool groovy slang of the late 60s, early 70s.

  • ‘Can you lay a joint on this brother?’ (a Jesus-freak cop, p. 114)
  • a freak thing (Ruth Rae p.103)
  • ‘If you dig what I mean’ (Ruth Rae p.104)
  • ‘If you split now…’ (Ruth Rae p.106)
  • ‘Can’t you hold your hit, man?’ (Alys, p.140)
  • ‘Please don’t freak, I won’t hurt you.’ (Jason, p.152)
  • ‘You’re really far out,’ Mary Anne said enthusiastically.’ (p.156)
  • ‘Let’s get it on’, he said. (p.178)
  • ‘It’s OK. I can dig it.’ (the unnamed black guy, p.197)

Yeah baby, lay some skin on me, let’s stick it the Man, tell it like it is, right on sister.

It’s tricky to know whether Dick thought he was just updating his prose style and dialogue to reflect the way people were speaking in 1973 – or whether he was satirising the way people were speaking in 1973.

He’s certainly satirising the shallowness of TV and and the mind-boggling inanity of pop music – like the pretty crude joke that Jason’s most recent hit song, the one which Mary Anne puts on in the café as ‘his’ reality starts to flood back, is titled ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’. But then, what modern writer doesn’t satirise TV for its inanity? It’s a cliché of 20th century post-war fiction.

Either way, whatever the motivation, it’s another of the attitudes which – along with the glamorising of drugs and the hero’s casual expectation that he can sleep with any woman he wants to – make the novel seem such a period piece.

This sense – that a lot of the plot and comment is dated late-60s, early-70s satire – was hugely confirmed for me when, in a minor scene, the cops go to Ruth Rae’s apartment building to arrest Jason but break into the wrong room. Before they discover this they tiptoe across a wall-to-wall carpet depicting Richard M. Nixon’s ascent into heaven as God’s Second Begotten Son (p.108)

Over-excited satire of Richard Nixon belongs to a specific time and place which most people alive do not now remember or understand (he resigned the presidency in August 1974, presumably a little after this novel was published, and a long, long 45 years ago.) This really gross satire reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s obsession with Nixon in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and the way Thompson devoted an entire book to Nixon’s re-election campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

This detail made me realise how much Dick was writing for a very specific audience, addressing the pressing social, cultural and political issues of his day which seemed to be caught up in a really seismic crisis – and therefore how, at least on the level of his attitudes to politics, sex and drugs, his books are not prescient and prophetic but rather backward-looking and dated. Can you dig it, man?


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns Japanese officials the Germans are planning a surprise attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) n 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into a galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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Ending Up by Kingsley Amis (1974)

Another mistaken forecast of his had been that, knowing what he knew, he would come to prize the things outside himself, like the scene before him; yet another, that he would have been able to look back on his life and – not find a meaning in it, which he had never hoped for, but see it as a whole. That might have been some compensation for having had to be Bernard Bastaple, for having had to live. (p.164)

This is the first of Amis’s novels I felt to be deliberately and calculatingly offensive to the reader. Mercifully short (176 pages), powerfully imagined and well-written – in Amis’s eccentric, rather clotted manner – it has some funny bits in the middle but then rattles on to a bleak and heartless conclusion.

Mise en scène

In an isolated, mock eighteenth-century, timber-framed, cold, damp, cramped cottage named Tuppenny-hapenny, seven miles from Newbury, live five elderly people, none with very much money, lumped together and forced to put up with each other’s company.

Adela, never married, has devoted her life to others and loves being the main organiser, shopper, bills-payer. Her brother, Bernard Bastaple, is bad-tempered, sometimes mean, verging on cruel. 40 years earlier he was kicked out of the Army, in which he was an officer, when it was discovered he was having a gay affair with his batman, one Derrick Shortell, now living in the cottage under the monicker ‘Shorty’, still acting the batman and servant, given to doing funny voices, drunk by lunchtime, dead drunk by teatime.

The fourth inhabitant is the superior and posh Marigold Pyke, formerly an actress, given to lofty pronouncements and the habit of making nouns into girlish diminutives (eg ‘drinky-winky’) which drives the others nuts. Fifth is a former European historian, George Zeyer, who has suffered a major stroke, paralysing his right side and also giving him nominal aphasia, preventing his brain deploying common nouns, making his speech long, periphrastic and confusing. He’s the brother of Vera, the woman Bernard married as a respectable front to conceal his homosexuality who, when the affair was revealed and Bernard cashiered, left him. Bernard continued on friendly terms with George and when the latter had his disastrous stroke, well, it seemed the charitable thing… And so here they all are, packed into a damp uncomfortable little cottage, getting on each other’s nerves.

Stuff happens

As in most Amis novels, it’s misleading to talk of a plot, there is more a string of events or developments. We learn more about the characters as they argue and bicker and deteriorate. Bernard graduates from making unpleasant remarks to planning unpleasant practical jokes. He lets off a stink bomb whose odour he tries to waft under the loo door, to persuade Marigold her guts are rotting. He buys and practices in the woods with a water pistol in order to spray her cat when nobody’s looking. Once when Shorty gets dead drunk, Bernard pees in a can and pours it over Shorty’s groin to persuade him he’s becoming incontinent.

The main events come towards the end when Marigold’s married grandchildren and their small children come for a big Christmas lunch. There is lots of shopping and pottering and bickering among the gang before the big day. And on this bleakly ‘festive’ occasion, lots more happens (Shorty and Marigold’s antagonism reaches the extent of actual physical slapping; the incident mentioned above where Bernard pours his own pee over Shorty’s trousers etc). But a central thread is the two adult sons’ comments in quiet moments or in the loo together, about what an appalling household it is and how they can’t wait to escape – a chorus or commentary confirming for the reader that the cottage really is a hell-hole. One of them rigs up a game of Call My Bluff which is described for five or six pages.

In other threads, George, brought downstairs by Shorty and one of the visitors and propped up in a chair, finds himself so perked up by this change from his bed that he recovers the ability to find and utter nouns, a great relief, which gives rise to the comic idea that he won’t stop spouting nouns, the names of things, of everything related to whatever he’s talking about, and from that moment on has to be routinely talked across to shut him up. Dr Mainwaring, a regular visitor to the household, is pleased by this improvement but tells him he mustn’t overdo it.

Marigold realises she’s reading a letter she knows she’s read before, as if it’s all completely new. She notices she’s written full-length replies to some of her letters twice, unaware the second time that she’s already written one. When the young ones come for Christmas, a chance remark from her grandson makes her see she’s forgotten large chunks of her married life. For a while she thinks she will have to leave the cottage, go to some home, because – in her dignity – she doesn’t want the others to witness her losing her mind, so she starts taking greater and greater offence at Bernard’s japes and comments as a cover story, as the overt excuse, for her planned departure.

Meanwhile, Shorty, continuing drunk and chirpy as ever, is, in truth, having greater and greater problems with loose bowels combined with uncomfortable piles, his trips to the lavatory becoming ever more painful.

Denouement

In the last few pages we learn the reason for Bernard’s trip to Newbury a few months earlier, why he said he was allowed to drink again after fifteen years on the wagon, and why – for a few days at least – he was sweetness and light to everyone. The specialist in Newbury gave him three months to live. Bleakly, anti-romantically, this does not lead to a transformation in his character and an improvement in life at Tuppenny-Hapenny Cottage, the reverse: he glumly realises that only being hard and bitchy helps alleviate his despair, as well as cooking up malicious schemes and pranks. Oh. This really isn’t a feel-good novel about nice old people. The opposite.

Inspired by someone reading out a news item in the paper about vandals and hooligans, Bernard suddenly conceives his grandest plan yet, which is to trash the entire cottage and blame it on tearaways. In a separate development, Marigold has spotted her dog’s chewed-up tennis ball on the stairs, but decides to leave it there to teach Shorty or Bernard a lesson. And Shorty had asked Bernard if he has any medicine to force constipation, as his guts are playing up again. Bernard tells him about the the two bottles by his bed, the white liquid is the blocker, the clear is the laxative, so the former, old boy.

The climax of the novel draws all these strands together into an orgy of slapstick, as done by Samuel Beckett. I have always felt a level of unhappiness, sometimes despair, running under Amis’s narratives, and in this book it emerges into the light of day.

It is later in the afternoon and Adela has left in the car to go shopping in Newbury. As a preliminary to his trashing-the-cottage plan, Bernard leans a rickety ladder against the wall, climbs up and cuts the phone wire, does a little wriggle of delight, falls off the ladder and, when he comes round, realises something major is broken and there is lots of blood. Marigold climbing the stairs hears something and is distracted for the moment it takes to tread on the slippery old tennis ball which she’s forgotten all about, to slip and tumble down the stairs, banging her head hard on the brass-lined log basket in the hall. Shorty, drunk as ever, confusing Bernard’s potions, takes the clear laxative, takes a double helping to be on the safe side, and is in the outside toilet having a genuine medical emergency.

Hearing the bump of Marigold’s fall, bed-ridden George shouts, and shouts again, to no reply, so drags himself out of bed, sprawling onto the floor, where everything suddenly goes black. When he is conscious again, he cannot move at all, only his eyes can swivel. Presumably he has had another stroke leading to complete paralysis. A few hours later, Adela arrives back at the cottage (narrowly missing Bernard’s cooling corpse lying in the drive), discovers Shorty dead in a pool of bloody and liquid excrement in the outside loo, goes inside to see Marigold lying at a funny angle at the foot of the stairs, and then a great weight bursts in her chest and the world goes black. She has had a fatal heart attack.

Three days later, unexpected guests arrive at a long-silent cottage, Bernard and Vera’s son who (we were told earlier) long ago emigrated to Canada, but who has tracked the old man down and arrived with his wife and kids for a nice surprise. He certainly is going to have a surprise.

The uncertainty effect

Leaving aside all questions of morality and taste, what continues to interest me about Amis’s fictions is the prevailing air of uncertainty and anxiety among the protagonists:

1. Characters are routinely described as acting parts, or deliberately are acting a part, or find themselves to their surprise acting a part, or strongly suspect others are acting, all often in the same scene, or even in the same densely-described moment.

2. Linked to this is the dominating sense that everything can be interpreted in numerous ways, that nothing just is, that the protagonist or the narrator can immediately think of two or three reasons why something is like it is, or behaving like it is, in which case he has to generate two or three counter-strategies or behaviours to manage it, them. Thus large parts of the narrative are made up of an eventually exhausting array of multiple interpretations and tactics.

In the earlier novels this feature of Amis’s consciousness or worldview was played for laughs, but I’ve argued in my posts that I think it always indicated a deeper bewilderment or confusion with being alive, with being human, with being overwhelmed by the human condition, which both narrator and protagonist attempt to limit and ridicule in a number of ways.

3. One frequent tactic is by assuming – and making characters assume – schoolboy, B-movie and comic strip postures and voices – attempts which are often funny or at least bring a smile to the lips, but don’t conceal the fundamental unease which, in this novel (as in the bitter climax of its predecessor Girl, 20) sink to a depth of real despair.

Examples of uncertainty, multiple interpretation and role playing

It is a central strategy of Amis’s style never to leave something human, some attribute or behaviour, as it is, but always to add an additional interpretation. Sometimes the ‘real world’ concurs and supports this lack of certainty. Or lack of concern. Or whatever. Of George’s nominal aphasia:

Doctors, including Dr Mainwaring, had stated that the defect might clear up altogether in time, or might diminish to a greater or lesser extent in time, or might stay as it was, and that there was nothing to be done about it. (p.23)

So much for doctors, eh. Even one person, doing one thing, can be multiply interpreted, not least by the person themselves:

[Bernard] decided that, for one morning, he had put up with enough urging of what he was, or gave an appearance of being, already prepared to grant. (p.31)

Bernard did not answer at once. He looked, or pretended to look, more directly out of the window. (p.101)

In both these examples the narrator is drawing attention to the way first impressions are misleading. Or might be misleading. It is enough to undermine our opinion without replacing it with anything more certain. It creates an uncertainty effect which resonates throughout Amis’s fiction.

If they sometimes are playing roles to themselves, characters are also very aware of how they appear to others and so go to lengths to reinforce (or undercut) expectations:

Without much wanting to, simply, as always, anxious not to appear sullen or bored, he said… (p.105)

The above are examples of dual interpretations of one person doing one fairly simple thing. The more people you have together, the more complicated the possible permutations.

Before the doctor had finished, Shorty came in with coffee and biscuits on a bent silver tray. He stayed a little longer that was altogether necessary, constantly glancing at Marigold in a way the doctor saw as indicating concern and Marigold herself as pretended concern hiding utter indifference, but in fact amounted to pretended concern hiding hostile curiosity. (p.79)

The narrator enjoys stirring the pot, compounding the character’s interpretations with his, definitive, one. Or is it?

That was three people meshed in a matrix of interpretation. When you have a really large number of people, anything could be going on. The oldsters turn on the radio at the climax of New Year’s Eve, presumably tuning into a live BBC broadcast of a big party, maybe Trafalgar Square, who can say?

They heard sounds as of an immense assemblage that might have been a football crowd, an undisciplined but good-natured political congress, a drinks party or some other thing… (p.166)

You never can tell, can you?

Characters are always caught with multiple feelings, impulses or thoughts which it is an effort to manage, with the result that a lot of thought has to go into even the simplest gestures. Possibly this habit of Amis’s mind and style does capture the complexity of human reflection, but it makes the books, and even the simplest scenes, a surprisingly dense and tiring read. After Marigold is unusually candid with him,

Dr Mainwaring recognised his patient’s departure from her habitual style, but was just as good at hiding the pity the departure made him feel as he was at hiding the irritation the habitual style made him feel. (p.78)

Multiple feelings, concealed by play-acting.

In a comparable moment, one of the visiting grown-up sons, visiting on Christmas Day and fully alert to the depths of Bernard’s malice and bile, watches him unwrap his presents, so aware of the play-acting as to positively enjoy it:

Keith watched carefully what Bernard gave, half expecting a chestnut-coloured wig destined for Adela, or a lavishly-illustrated book on karate for George, but was disappointed, though he savoured Bernard’s impersonation of a man going all out to hide his despondency as he took the wrappings off present after useless, insultingly cheap, no doubt intended to be facetious, present. (p.134)

Related to this lack of authenticity, but off at a tangent, as it were, is the proclivity for making comic-strip comparisons. These control the multifarious realities the narrator and characters struggle with, reducing them to reassuring schoolboy stereotypes and, in their unexpected naivety, are often amusing.

Bernard knocks on Marigold’s door. Knowing who it is, Marigold’s tone is lofty and distant:

‘Yes, who is it?’ said a voice that might conceivably have come from a dedicated scientist in mid-experiment, or at least from such a character as shown in an old-fashioned film. (p.114)

Is that Bernard’s interpretation or the narrator’s? They are too close to call. A central strand of Shorty’s character, and connected to his being overtly the most lower-class character of the five, is his readiness to do silly voices and expressions, break into song, veer from one funny accent to another, almost continuously. He is the Lucky Jim principle, embodied:

After calling for silence in the manner first of someone imitating a sergeant-major quite well, and then of someone imitating an Oberstürmbannführer almost as well, Shorty introduced the idea of carols in a pan-American accent. (p.131)

Even when he’s not conscious, Shorty evokes in the narrator this tendency to ‘comic-book’ his characters:

Behind the screen in the bedroom, Shorty was asleep with such extravagant soundness as to suggest a drunken gaoler in a farce impersonated by someone given to play-acting much more than to acting: Shorty himself, for instance. (p.149)

Dr Mainwaring is particularly afflicted with the sense of acting a part. Or is described so:

He delivered a warning against over-exertion, trying to sound serious and yet not too sepulchral, trying conscientiously too to make it appear that he had never uttered any such warning in his life before, then took his leave… (p.161)

‘Goodbye, Mr Bastaple.’ Then, because it was every cinematic doctor’s exit line, the doctor added, ‘I’ll see myself out’ (p.163)

All of these features come together in this passage, where one of the visiting grandsons, upon hearing about George trapped in his bed, immediately volunteers to help Shorty carry him down to the living room where he can join the company.

At the foot of the stairs, Bernard stood and watched the descent of the trio [Trevor – the grandson – and Shorty, carrying the paralysed George]. He was there from a mixture of motives. First was the hope that Shorty might be drunk enough to drop George or even bring the three of them pitching down the stairs. That would go some way to compensate for his own failure just now to block the operation underway; it was no comfort to protest to himself that he had never had a fair chance, that George’s two helpers had reached their joint decision in a flash and gone to execute it with the speed of promotion-hungry firemen. Secondly, to watch so closely and obviously would embarrass George and might also, thirdly, be mistaken by Adela for sympathetic concern. But what of that? What if she saw her brother’s interest as it was? Habit must be at work, the habit of wanting to be mistaken for a man of ordinary decent human feeling. (p.48)

  • There is the trademark comic-book simile (‘promotion-hungry firemen’) but you can see how, in this context, it is drained of humour, or too disabled to raise a real laugh.
  • There are the usual multiple motives, as listed in the passage, and which bring out the sheer malice of Bernard’s baleful personality.
  • And then there is the awareness that he is being observed, and must play-act a role, demonstrating ‘sympathetic concern’.
  • And then there is his own interrogation of his motives: why does he want Adela to think he’s showing ‘sympathetic concern’? Not, alas from any consideration for her or her feelings, no, in his tired, nihilistic mind, he attributes it in a throwaway sentence to mere habit, to (it is implied) a pathetically doomed habit of wanting to appear ‘a man of ordinary decent human feeling’ – the strong implication being that he is, in fact, the opposite.

TV series

Ending Up was made into a TV series by Thames TV starring Dame Wendy Hiller, Lionel Jeffries, Googie Withers, Sir John Mills and Sir Michael Hordern. Must have been uncomfortable viewing.


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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.

North Star by Hammond Innes (1974)

I went slowly out on deck, pausing a moment to see his heavy figure climbing the long iron stairway at the base of the derrick that led from pipe deck to derrick floor, climbing with a sort of punchy swagger. He flung open the corrugated iron door and stood there for a moment surveying the scene, a lone figure standing right above the pipe skid, the noise of the draw-works blasting out and the men inside dancing a strange ballet around the kelly, the tongs in their hand and the winches screaming. (p.166)

Another in Hammond Innes’ long sequence of first-person narratives in which the hero is on the run from the police, has a troubled relationship with his father, has detailed technical knowledge of the sea and ships, but finds himself drawn by forces beyond his control into disaster.

The hero as suspect

Michael Randall was brought up in America by his mother and rich step-father but came to England to study at the LSE under a Marxist tutor. After getting his degree he went north to Hull to sign on as a trawlerman to see the practical side of politics and class war. It is the late 1960s and he gets involved in left-wing activism and organising strikes. One night, after outside agitators whip up a union meeting, he realises they are going to target the foreman’s house and goes there beforehand (typically, for an Innes hero, with no plan, just on a hunch), only to witness two agitators throw a petrol bomb through the window. Unfortunately, a little girl is in the house and Michael breaks in to save her, handing her over to the neighbours who’ve come rushing out.

Flustered, stressed, partly implicated insofar as he was at the original political meeting, Michael doesn’t stick around to talk to the police but makes for his trawler which departs before dawn.

When the trawler puts back into port after its fishing trip is complete, worried about the incident, Michael finds himself ‘drawn’ – like so many other Innes heroes – mysteriously drawn to a remote land, in this case to the Shetland Islands where he’s never been before, but where he knows his father once lived.

Here he discovers a) the remote church where his father is buried (touchingly, vividly described) b) that a trawler recently ran aground nearby in a storm, the old skipper dying of a heart attack. On an obscure impulse (the same unfathomable motivation of so many other Innes heroes) he borrows the money and sets out to repair the trawler, The Duchess of Norfolk. In doing so he finds himself attracted to the young widow of the old skipper, now the trawler’s owner. And then the two are brought together in business deal when the opportunity arises for The Duchess to become a supply ship to a new oil rig, North Star, which is being set up to drill in the dangerous deep water west of the Shetlands.

Complications

Slowly these disparate threads are wound together into a recipe for disaster.

Michael’s father is not dead. Michael discovers from old-timers on the islands that his father was rescued from Norway back in 1942, badly injured by shell fragments. He is profoundly shocked to discover him staying in a remote house, aloof, unfriendly, harshly disfigured. In an even bigger psychological blow, Michael discovers his rival to buy the wrecked trawler, a local man who’s lived in Shetland all his life, is also his father’s son, by a local Shetland woman – and so is his half-brother!

And his father is part of a terrorist conspiracy. He may or may not have been – or still be – a Russian spy (conversations about this, as about most other subjects in Innes’ texts, are circular, blocked, stymied, broken off, left unconcluded…). But he is certainly now mixed up with a gang of saboteurs, themselves linked to the IRA. (The ‘Troubles’ began around 1969 and by 1972-3, when Innes was writing, were in full swing.)

The IRA contingent are helping Marxist saboteurs who want to strike a blow at capitalism: specifically, they want to create an oil rig disaster, humiliating the gung-ho venture capital owner of the rig – Villiers – discrediting the new ‘oil rush’ in the North Sea, and causing an environmental catastrophe in the important Hebridean fisheries which will tarnish the whole oil industry.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael finds himself pushed onto the wrong side of the law by obscure and tangled forces, sometimes of his own making. In the centre of the book, he is called on to testify against the men who threw the petrol bomb and, in a terrifyingly believable courtroom scene, we watch him get out-manoeuvred by his opponents who have bribed witnesses whose testimony persuades the judge and jury that the men on trial are innocent and that Michael did it. The fact that he didn’t stick around to talk to the police deepens suspicion against him.

When the case against the accused (and guilty men) collapses, Michael is himself arrested, cautioned and, eventually, released – for the time being – but now he has hanging over his head a) the threat of being rearrested, charged and tried at any moment b) the threat of revenge by the two men and their shadowy ‘revolutionary’ organisation, which he had the bravery/foolhardiness to confront.

Hence Michael’s wish to escape to sea, to be in international waters if the police come calling. He returns to Shetland, to take over the captaincy of The Duchess of Norfolk, to his ambivalent relationship with its owner – Gertrude – and to a typically uncertain and uneasy relationship with the buccaneering owner of the oil rig – Villiers – and the tough Texan oil-man who manages the rig. These guys already knew a little about his reputation as a union organiser but when news of the court case arrives, and the fact that he has been arrested and is only out on bail, then they fire him from the job of servicing the rig.

Like so many Innes heroes, Michael just can’t seem to break free from the squid-like tentacles of the past which block his efforts at every turn.

His deputy takes over captaincy of the Duchess and Michael finds work on the other ships in the area owned by his rival and half-brother, Sanderson.

Love life

There’s a lot more to it than this summary suggests: the text is a densely-printed 260 pages long, maybe that would amount to 400 pages of a modern, larger-print paperback. There are numerous scenes elaborating Michael’s troubled relationships with his father, with his employer and with the police.

And there is a powerful thread about his love life, about his troubled relationships with his attractive but superficial (and drug addict) wife, Fiona (an echo of the beautiful, bitchy wife who appeared in this novel’s predecessor, Golden Soak) representing his troubled political Past – and with the stocky, plain but appealing Scandinavian woman, Gertrude, who owns the damaged trawler (similar to the plain, chunky but honest female lead in Golden Soak), representing the Future.

I was staring at her, seeing her large-mouthed competent face, thinking how comfortable and practical she was in comparison with Fiona. (p.226)

They argue. They make up. She bosses him around. There’s an almost romantic moment, which is interrupted by a phone call, misunderstandings. Later, after the trial, Michael makes a pilgrimage to Gertrude’s house but she’s not there. On a later occasion Fortune favours them and, after an evening of food and wine and candlelight in her remote Shetland cottage, they finally make love. But then the newspapers of his trial arrive, spreading the accusation that he is an arsonist and almost-murderer, which makes her doubt him. And then he is sacked from the oil rig job, which brings their professional association to an abrupt end. And so on and so on…

Like most of Innes’ characters’ relationships – and like the narrative itself – his ‘love life’ is made up of hesitancies, delays, misunderstandings, moody silences, shrugs and postponements. It is during a fatal failure to go visit his wife during one of her drug-induced depressions, that she (surprisingly) kills herself with an overdose of barbiturates leaving Michael bitterly blaming himself…

The sea the sea

The sea is Innes’ preferred element and the setting of his greatest novels, The Wreck of the Mary Dear and Maddon’s Rock and The White South among them.

The descriptions of trawlers and tugs, of their heavy complex machinery, of chart reading and sailing, navigating and steering, as well as of the business of running an oil rig, are conveyed with great detail and conviction, owing much to Innes’ own years at sea. In addition there is his trademark thorough research – as with many previous novels, this one has an author’s afterword thanking the many organisations and experts who helped him with factual background.

Even if the motivation of the human characters often seems puzzling, wilfully obscure and not particularly plausible, his descriptions of dawn at sea or the Norwegian mate bringing the trawler round into a headwind or of riggers wrangling rig piping always ring completely true.

I went up to the pipe deck where the engineers and a whole gang of roustabouts were working in the glare of the spotlights to wind the new cable on to No. 4 winch. It would have been better if they could have rigged it on No. 1 winch, which was facing due west now, but as Smit pointed out to me, it had to be a winch within reach of one of the two cranes, since there was no other way of hoisting a 15-ton anchor out over the side. (p.238)

I admire Innes for writing book after book which pay such careful attention to the hard physical labour that generations of men have done, for his skill at conveying the pleasure and joy of expert men doing work they love and understand. There are descriptions of love and even a little sex in the novels; but the real love affair is between big gruff men – bearded Norwegian sailors, Yorkshire trawlermen, Scottish sea dogs, tough Texan riggers – and their all-consuming vocations.

Environmentalism

There had been intermittent prospecting in the North Sea in the 1950s but the scene was transformed in late 1969 and 1970 with the discovery of massive deposits of oil and natural gas. Drilling, mapping, supplying, shipping, refining all converged to create the huge industry which has been active for the past 45 years, and not without impact on the environment.

Early on in the book Innes mentions the famous Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 when an oil tanker broke up, spilling vast amounts of crude oil along the Cornish coast. As an experienced sailor and a man devoted to the beauty of Nature, Innes was an early advocate of environmental issues, and awareness of the environmental impact of the dastardly plot to sabotage the North Star is a thread running through the book.

Politics in the early 1970s

It is difficult now to recapture the desperation of a time which has receded into history. In his author’s note Innes mentions that his plan to start the novel in 1972 and complete it by 1974 was overtaken by events, namely:

  • a severe mining strike in 1972
  • the October 1973 Yom Kippur War which led the OPEC countries to limit oil production and prompt…
  • …the oil crisis of October 1973 to March 1974 when the price of oil quadrupled
  • leading to the imposition of a three-day week in the UK and
  • a political crisis which caused two UK general elections in the same year (1974)

Crisis followed crisis with bewildering speed and political activists on the right and left felt the existing system was collapsing and only needed a few violent nudges to bring about the revolution they hoped for. Such as blowing up an oil rig.

Innes’ novel could hardly be more topical, weaving as it does the themes of industrial action and crippling strikes, of extreme and bitter political polarisation, with the widespread hope that North Sea oil would be a bonanza which would free the UK from dependency on Arab producers.

And stirs in the threatening presence of the Provisional IRA, at their most violent following the catastrophe of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972 (during 1972 alone the IRA killed 100 British soldiers, wounded 500 more and carried out 1,300 bomb attacks). Innes’ protagonist is right to feel very scared when he is ordered to a remote cove to load suspicously unmarked crates from aggressive men with Irish accents.

The climax

The climax of the novel comes when Michael is tasked by his employer and half-brother with collecting these crates and sailing back out towards the North Star. As the ship makes its way towards the rig Michael is stripped of command by the gang and becomes a helpless witness to their plot to blow up the oil rig and cause a major disaster – and, with typical Innes overkill, all the time a major North Sea storm is closing in on the situation…

Do the saboteurs succeed? Is the rig blown up in a terrific fireball explosion at sea? What happens to all the crew aboard it and what happens to Michael?

You’ll have to buy the book, which is worth getting hold of for the gripping final 20 pages alone, worth reading for its descriptions of the Shetland islands and the stormy seas around them, vividly depicted in all weathers and moods, and for the detailed portrayals of men at work in hard physical jobs under extreme conditions.

Less so, perhaps, for its handling of characters who all seem incapable of decisive action or forthright conversations, or for the tone of dazed bewilderment, of obscure motivation and irrational impulses, which drive the perplexed protagonist through a plot which, despite all its naturalistic detail, often seems wilful and contrived rather than plausible or persuasive.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

Fontana paperback edition of North Star

Hammond Innes’ novels

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


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

Spy Story by Len Deighton (1974)

Dawlish collected my empty cup. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Pat! You’re dripping blood all over the carpet.’
‘It won’t show,’ I said. ‘Not in that lovely humming bird pattern.’ (p.193)

Hooray! The anonymous protagonist of Deighton’s Ipcress novels is back! We know (well, suspect) this because the narrator recognises jovial, plump Soviet agent, Colonel Stok who pops up at various key points of the plot, just like he did in Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – and because Dawlish, his boss in the Ipcress novels (head of WOOC(P)), crops up here as the narrator’s ex-boss. And because he has the same cheeky chappy approach to his job, his wife and life. Surely it’s the same guy?

The plot

He appears to have escaped (retired, been pensioned off) from the Secret Service and now, under the name Pat Armstrong, is working at a computerised war games simulation centre in a Gothic revival house in north London. It’s still a bit hush-hush but he is no longer an agent in the field, he has a flat and a nice wife, Marjorie, who is a doctor — even if his and his colleagues’ lives are disturbed a bit by the arrival of brashtalking US Marine Colonel Schlegel, who has been seconded from the States and put in charge of the war games centre.

BUT strange things start to happen after he’s returned from the latest in his routine trips out with nuclear subs under the ice. The car he and his colleague are travelling in is rammed and nearly driven off the road. Then, back in London, when his car breaks down he makes an unscheduled visit to his old flat (for which he happens to still have the key) and is astonished to find it is still full of clothes like his, books like his, photos of him, except looking slightly different – as if in every way someone is impersonating him.

Strangest of all, he uncovers a fake back to the wardrobe which leads into the next door flat, the first room of which has been converted into some kind of medical facility with machines. He goes home and doesn’t mention it to his wife…

A few days later, after his wife has left for work, the door is kicked open and he is attacked by East European goons who are in a fair way to killing him before they are called off the last minute by Colonel Stok, the same stocky, genially thuggish Soviet agent we have met in the Ipcress novels. But they continue to ransack his flat and blow up the old wall safe looking for something, before leaving without any explanation.

A few days later there is a big set-piece dinner party at the enormous house of Armstrong’s very upper-class colleague, Ferdy Foxwell. An MP, a professor, a philosopher, some Lords etc. Over port they discuss current affairs in a right-wing kind of way. Also attending is Armstrong’s old boss, Dawlish, who we know from the Ipcress novels to be head of WOOC(P), a part of British Intelligence. He smoothly invites Armstrong to rejoin the Service. Armstrong bluntly refuses.

But the strange thing is that, later that night, he’s called to the police station to collect one of the guests, a publicity-seeking MP named Ben Toliver, who had hogged the limelight at the dinner party but then been involved in an obscure car crash with East European heavies driving a lorry. Toliver completely denies the acccident took place and is backed up by the young lady who was in the car at the time.

What is going on?

Turns out a renegade group of right-wing Brits led by the egregious MP Ben Toliver has concocted an elaborate plan to smuggle a willing Soviet Navy Admiral into the country and keep him safe for a while in Armstrong’s old flat using his identity. Hence the old clothes, books, possessions and lightly doctored photos which he found there. And hence the medical room containing a dialysis machine, since the Admiral has kidney disease and the clique are luring him to the West with the promise of better medical care and a kidney transplant.

Armstrong’s snooping takes him to a chi-chi French restaurant where he eyes up the sexy young owner and the gawky unwell waiter; she says come back at lunchtime. He picks up his wife Marjorie and takes her there for lunch only to find it completely abandoned. To his wife’s horror, Armstrong breaks in. Every scrap of paper or evidence is gone, along with the girl. Outside he realises the place is under surveillance. His wife catches a cab back to her hospital work, then a Special Branch car pulls up and asks Armstrong to get in. Reluctantly he does and is driven to a heliport, from which a helicopter flies him to an airfield from which a small plane flies him to a tiny island off the Scottish coast.

Here he is greeted by Toliver and his crew, an eccentric circle of huntin’, shootin’, fishin’, right-wing types who are all involved in the conspiracy. Quite honestly, I didn’t understand why they brought Armstrong there. It seemed obvous to me he would betray them and he does. Are they that dim?

After a predictable grand meal with much port and right-wing chat, Armstrong goes up to bed to find a piece of paper slipped under his door indicating a rendezvous in the dilapidated greenhouse. When he goes there he is surprised by none other than the sexy restaurateur who turns out to be the loyalist daughter of one of the conspirators and tries to shoot him with a shot gun, wounding him in the arm and side on her second attempt.

Badly injured and losing blood, Armstrong has a nightmare escape around the precarious clifftops of the island in a howling blizzard, at one point disturbing a vast colony of gulls which attack him like a scene from The Birds. Finally he makes it across the ramshackle derelict footbridge to the mainland and stumbles into the nearest village more dead than alive.

Where, in a scene reminiscent of a 1950s farce, he encounters not only soldiers prepped for action, but his bosses Dawlish and Schlegel in an outlandishly garish holiday camper trailer where they offer him a cup of tea and cake and then complain that he’s bleeding on the carpet (see quote at top).

Unsurprise

This is a distinguishing feature of Deighton’s fiction, the lack of surprise, the understatement, the dry wit, the playing-it-cool. Some pretty strange things happen – your whole life is being replicated in your old flat by complete strangers, you get beaten up by Russian thugs – yet he carries on making coffee in the morning, going to work, arranging to go out with his wife, ho hum.

On the ice

The final 50 or 60 pages are completely different in feel from everything which preceded them, as big Ferdy, the narrator and Schlegel ship out on a nuclear submarine under the Arctic. In a move which makes less sense the more you think about it, the bosses (Dawlish and Schlegel) seem to have quietly accepted that this renegade team led by Toliver can go ahead with their madcap scheme of getting hold of a Soviet Admiral; despite the attempt of one of them to murder the narrator. They make no attempt to cross to the island or capture the gang.

Instead they put the narrator up with a hoary old Scotsman who nurses him back to health over the next few days. Then Schlegel arrives with Ferdy and they all drive along to the nearby nuclear sub base where they are accepted aboard a nuclear sub for the next patrol under the ice.

The journey under the ice is conveyed with Deighton’s trademark technical knowledge and provides the only real stretches of tension in the book, as Schlegel forces the captain to navigate genuinely dangerous routes under the pack ice, before compelling him to surface so that Schlegel can receive a radio call.

It is a pre-arranged signal from the Russian conspirators and prompts Schlegel, Ferdy and the narrator to walk a mile or so across the ice with the corpse. Corpse? Fifty pages back Armstrong’s wife had recounted seeing Toliver at her hospital arguing with the morgue people: presumably he was arguing about getting hold of a corpse which had recently died of kidney disease. The plan is to give the Admiral’s people the corpse, so they can dress it in an Admiral’s uniform and crash the helicopter and burn the corpse or in some other way pretend the Admiral has died. Thereby covering his defection. By this stage I was confused about the extent to which Schlegel and his team are going along with Toliver’s plan. What has happened to Toliver and co?

But in a move which is now becoming quite familiar, Ferdy, Schlegel and the narrator are greeted at the Soviet helicopter on the ice, not by the Admiral’s people but by – guess who? – Colonel Stok. That guy turns up whenever Deighton’s plot has painted itself into a corner.

He is accompanied by the same toughs who beat Armstrong up in his flat and a fight breaks out, before the helicopter takes off with the toughs holding on to Ferdy, and Armstrong foolishly grabbing Ferdy’s legs. Up into the air they fly till Armstrong fires into the cockpit, wounding the tough holding Ferdy who lets go, and he and Armstrong plummet to the ground. Ouch. Some time later Armstrong regains consciousness and begins a gruelling march across the ice to where he hopes the submarine is, supporting the injured and incoherent Ferdy all the way.

Deighton doesn’t really do tragic or intense. He is far too suave and knowing. Colonel Stok’s appearances have an element of pantomime about them and defuse any tension. Poor fat Ferdy ‘dies’ on the long march back to the submarine, but this doesn’t appear to dent anyone’s mood.

Compare & contrast with the intense, totally serious and viscerally thrilling account of surviving on the ice in Alistair MacLean’s riveting novels The Longest Night or Ice Station Zebra to see how essentially lightweight, comic and entertaining Deighton is.

What happened

Armstrong wakes up in a Norwegian hospital bed, having been found by a search team from the sub and brought back under sedation to civilisation. Again, this final scene is played for comedy, with Schlegel explaining what the whole cockamamy mission was about while Dawlish comments archly between slowly eating the grapes he himself brought Armstrong (in a gag I’m sure I’ve seen in countless old movies).

Turns out the Department allowed Toliver’s silly plan to go ahead because they knew it would fail and Stok and his KGB colleagues would foil it – at which point the Admiral would be arrested and sent to Siberia and so would all of his family, and this includes his sister. And his sister was about to head the Soviet delegation to the Reunification of Germany talks which have been mentioned intermittently throughout the novel, glimpsed in newspaper headlines or overheard on the radio.

So everything that happened, the beatings and violence and deaths and deceptions, were all part of a calculated plan to scupper the Germany reunification talks, which would have had a devastating impact on NATO and Western security. Aha.

The novel ends on a belly laugh as, once Armstrong has digested this rather mind-bending scenario – and is swallowing the fact that he’s lost his job, his cover, his girl (she leaves him half way through the book) and nearly his life (twice) — Dawlish tentatively wonders if he would consider helping them out with a little problem they’ve got… small security thing… would he be interested?

Conclusion

My son looked at the book and said, ‘Has he given up on titles, then?’ Surely Len could have thought of something a bit more inventive.

Just like the Ipcress novels, each chapter opens with a themed epigraph – here, they are excerpts from the War Studies book of rules eg

The actions of the civil power will not be included in the TACWARGAME.
RULES. ‘TACWARGAME’. STUDIES CENTRE. LONDON

which have a similarly cool, tangential relationship to the actual plot as in the earlier novels i none that I could discern.

But, in a way that is hard to define, the thrill has gone. The style is a lot more open and readable than the Ipcress novels and, well, more boring. It allows you to follow the plot and spot what seemed (to me, anyway) to be great yawning holes of improbability. These also occurred in the earlier books but were masked by the dazzlingly elliptical presentation.

Ten years into his (prolific) writing career, Deighton’s style has married, settled down, had kids and got a mortgage. Despite flashes of brilliance, and the same highly knowledgable, urbane tone, he’s not the flashy young joker he used to be…

Related links

Paperback cover of Spy Story

Paperback cover of Spy Story

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.

Dr Frigo by Eric Ambler (1974)

The opening is strikingly similar to the opening of The Levanter, with a professional man saying he is going to set down the true account of what really lay behind the so-and-so affair.

This is Michael Howell’s story… He may not be the most persuasive of advocates in his own cause, and, as the central figure in The Green Circle Incident, he is very much the defendant… (The Levanter, p.7)

I shall make what use I can of these two nights to do something I should have done before: that is, put my side of this Villegas business down on paper so that in case of need I can later produce it, signed and dated, as evidence of my good intentions. (Dr Frigo, p.7)

A trope dating back at least to the 1880s, found in the Sherlock Holmes tales or HG Wells’s short stories, of calling a tale ‘The strange case of the ….’, or early on announcing it will reveal the truth behind ‘the well-known … Affair’ or ‘the so-and-so Incident’.

In this case, it is ‘the peculiar incident of the doctor who gets caught up in a coup d’état in a Latin American country’.

Abroad

Ambler plunges the reader straight into a dense and thoroughly imagined situation involving – as always – non-British characters in a foreign setting. Having done Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey before the War, and then the Far East, Turkey, Greece, Africa, Switzerland and Syria in his post-war novels – this one is set, for the first time, in the Americas – in the fictional French Caribbean island of St Paul-Les-Alizés, where the protagonist, in fact all the characters, are non-British, too.

Dr Frigo

Dr Ernesto Reye Castillo is a medical doctor in the hospital in Fort Louis, the ramshackle, overcrowded, squalid main town of the island. He is a calm, rational, calculating man and is therefore known to the hospital staff as ‘Dr Frigo’, where frigo means not only refrigerator but cold or frozen meat.

Ernesto’s father, Clemente Castillo Borja, was assassinated 12 years earlier in the (unnamed) Latin American country where he had risen to become leader of the Democratic Socialist party, and where young Ernesto was born and raised. Ernesto was a 19-year-old student at the time, at medical school in Paris, and not particularly upset (Dr Frigo in the making). He respected his father but also knew him to be an opportunist and a demogogue. After the assassination, Ernesto’s mother sought refuge in Miami along with other political exiles fleeing the ‘Oligarchy’, backed by the military, that took over the country. She tried to encourage Ernesto to follow in his father’s footsteps ie to become a national politician, but he refused, instead concentrating on his medical studies, then on getting the job in St Paul-Les-Alizés – a Spanish-speaking doctor in a French colony.

One day he is called in by French Security and informed that some leaders of his father’s old party, previously in exile in Mexico, have taken residence in a mansion on the island and are in need of a physician and the Security have arranged for the job to be given to Ernesto, because of his special if rather tenuous links with the exiles. They will pay him 500 francs a month and in exchange expect him to spy on his father’s old colleagues and send daily reports.

It soon becomes clear that the leader of the exiled politicos – Manuel Villegas – is being lined up to lead a coup back in his country. Slowly and thoroughly Ambler assembles a supporting cast of colourful characters around him: Doña Julia, his protective wife; Uncle Paco, the would-be foreign minister; El Lobo, the fat psychopath terrorist leader; Father Bartolomé, the drunk priest who controls the slums, and so on.

All this takes place under the complaisant gaze of the local Commissaire of Police on the island, Grillon, and the head of security or SDECE, Delvert, who has flown in from Paris specially to monitor the situation. Ernesto quickly uncovers this European interest is because the whole thing seems to be supported by a shadowy consortium of Western oil companies, since oil has been discovered off the coast, and the new regime will, of course, look favourably on their prospecting and extraction contracts.

Ernesto is approached and propositioned by an Anglo, Rosier, who claims to be Canadian but is a spy, it’s just not clear for who – America? China? Russia? And – in a surprise development – it turns out that the husband of his mistress, Elizabeth (they are separated, he lives back in France) was himself a member of the French security services.

In other words Ernesto find himself completely surrounded by either members of the coup plot or spies. So, like The Levanter, this novel is about an ‘innocent man’ caught up in a potentially dangerous geopolitical situation. The crucial difference is that Ernesto remains free and independent throughout; he retains his agency; he refuses to be suborned by the Canadian spy; he agrees to co-operate with French security, but on his own terms; his first duty remains to his patient. He is a clever, strong-willed professional man.

This means that his daily entries in his diary (which is what constitutes the text) are often humorous, detached and ironic. He – and the reader – can see the funny side of the various situations he finds himself. The story, and the diary format, allow Ambler to show his trademark irony and humour. It is, in other words, an extremely enjoyable book to read.

The narrative takes a turn when Ernesto realises that the man at the focal point of all these political machinations – Don Manuel – is in fact seriously ill, with a fast-acting degenerative disease. It is only at  this point that we grasp the reason for the novel being divided into three parts: 1. The Patient 2. Symptoms, Signs and Diagnosis. 3. The Treatment.

The second half of the novel records in great detail Ernesto’s tragi-comic attempts to keep his dignity and his professional pride in place while being swept up in the whirlwind of events that lead to a successful coup, the installation of Villegas as President, and an immediate outbreak of byzantine political manoeuvring among his followers. Ernesto’s diary entries become more telegraphic, more clipped and abbreviated, and more angry and cynical, as the plot hurtles towards its conveniently violent dénouement – the assassination of the new president.

Back soon after nine. Security men in foyer watching television. Crowd not moving from Palace. Still much excitement. Expected that El Presidente will make another balcony appearance. Rumour, originating in Bogota, that the United States has already pledged recognition of new régime. Most unlikely. (p.250)

The shooting of the ruler on the steps of the Palace, is strongly reminiscent of the climax of Ambler’s 1952 novel, Judgement on Deltchev, where one of the sinister ministers of an oppressive East European state is assassinated at the height of the Independence Day parade (and rather like the Jackal’s plans to assassinate President de Gaulle on Independence Day in The Day of The Jackal).

I’m afraid all stories about coups and assassinations in Latin America remind me of Woody Allen’s farce, Bananas (1971).

Elizabeth and the Hapsburgs

There is a very funny recurring trope that enlivens the first half of the novel: Elizabeth, Ernesto’s mistress, owns a boutique which promotes local (rubbish) artists; but more importantly, she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and is besotted with the family history of the Hapsburg dynasty. The comedy comes in the fact that, at any given moment – generally the most irrelevant or tense or inconvenient – she is liable to make far-fetched comparisons with obscure details of the political machinations of her beloved Imperial family which bewilder her listeners, and made this reader laugh out loud a couple of times and smile whenever she comes on the scene.

Once, when she had drunk rather too much rum, she startled an inoffensive Boston art dealer and his wife with a sudden passionate appeal for their understanding of the pitiable plight of Charles the Sixth – gout, stomach trouble and disastrous pregnancies. It transpired, but only after some moments of utter confusion, that the pregnancies were those of his Empress and that what Elizabetrh was justifying was the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. (p.38)

It is a loss to the novel when Ernesto is obliged to fly off with the coup plotters to the unnamed destination, and leave her behind. As in The Levanter, the female voice brings a welcome break and variety to the otherwise intensively male obsession with power and political calculation.

Related links

Fontana paperback cover of Dr Frigo

Fontana paperback cover of Dr Frigo

Eric Ambler’s novels

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

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

The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (1974)

Methodically he began to go over the possibilities he could envisage. (p.322)
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (Oscar Wilde)

The Dogs of War was Frederick Forsyth’s third novel and another doorstopper at 438 pages long, easily twice the length of the average novel by Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley et al.

Plot

The ‘plot’ is relatively simple: Machiavellian industrialist and head of a multinational mining firm, Sir James Manson, learns that a hill in the (fictional) African state of Zangaro contains a fortune in platinum, the third rarest element on earth. Only problem is the despotic ruler of Zangaro is a) a paranoid maniac b) likely to give any mineral concession to the Soviet Union. Therefore Sir James hires mercenaries to overthrow him and instal a friendly alternative. Meanwhile, he plans to buy up an old, worthless company in the UK, with valueless shares. He’ll get the new ruler of Zangaro to assign the mining rights to this company, publicise the fact along with the scale of the platinum discovery, sit back and watch the value of the shares go through the roof. That’s where he and his creepy subordinates will make their fortunes.

There are some complications –

  • the scientist who did the survey leaks the story to a friend, who is a communist, who leaks it to the Soviet Union, who despatch a rival prospecting mission
  • the leader of the mercenaries, Cat Shannon, has a bitter enemy in the underworld who takes out a contract on him
  • Cat himself starts an improbable and scanty affair with Julie, the daughter of the industrialist

But the striking feature of this book is not the plot.

The information

It is the overwhelming deluge of information about every subject even peripherally related to the story which drowns the plot. Large chunks of the book are pure information. Not dialogue, or character exploration or description –  but encyclopedia entries or high-level journalistic articles on the following subjects:

  • how to collect, label and analyse mineral samples
  • the world market for platinum, with the leading producer countries and main firms
  • the history of mercenaries in Africa with a rundown of the leading men in the field and their full CVs
  • the colonial and post-colonial history, geography, economy and ethnic make-up of Zangaro
  • how to get a forged passport
  • a history of the post-WWII arms trade with a full rundown of the leading companies and governments in the sector
  • a detailed explanation of how to search for and then take over a shell company
  • explanations of the private banking sectors of Belgium, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg
  • the intricacies of finding an end-user licence for arms dealing
  • what exact type of boat you need to ship arms through the Mediterranean to Africa
  • a detailed breakdown of the entire kit – clothes, equipment, all armaments and ammunition, radios, flares etc – required to mount a small coup
  • a detailed costing of the above
  • a detailed project plan for the above
  • how to smuggle arms across the Franco-Belgium border
  • how to arrange transit certificates in Spain
  • the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Yugoslavia
  • the role of Freetown in supplying stevedores

and many, many more. The central 200 pages of the book, although they feature ‘characters’ and dialogue, are really a lightly fictionalised project plan for the various tasks and actions the central figures have to undertake, complete with a thorough detailing of all risks and dependencies. To say that the dialogue, or the prose generally, is ruthlessly cut back to the exposition of fact is an understatement.

‘I shall be in Madrid on the 19th and 20th,’ he said. ‘I have another business deal to attend to. I shall be at the Mindanao Hotel. If you want to contact me, you can find me there. If loading is for the 20th, the chances are the convoy and escort from the Spanish Army will run the shipment down to the coast during the night of the 19th to arrive at crack of dawn. If you are going to board the ship at all, I think you should do so before the militay convoy arrives at the docks.’

‘I should be in Madrid on the 19th,’ said Shannon. ‘Then I could check with you that the convoy had indeed left on time. By driving fast to Valencia, I could be there ahead of it, and board the Toscana as the rejoining seaman before the convoy arrives.’ (p.359)

The majority of the content falls into two types: 1. fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of the immensely convoluted comings and goings of Shannon and his team as they fly all over Europe arranging the funding and buying of the equipment for the coup – interspersed with fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of Manson and associates setting up the shell company.

He rang BEA and booked an economy class return on the morning flight to Brussels, returning at 1600 hours, which would get him back to his flat by six. Following that he telephoned four telegrams abroad, one to Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa, one to Ostende, one to Marseilles and one to Munich… Finally he summoned a taxi and had it take him back to Lowndes Hotel. He checked out, paid his bill and left as he had come, anonymously. (p.173)

Or

Simon Endean’s letter sent on Tuesday night arrived at ten on Thursday morning at the Handelsbank in Zürich. According to the instructions in it, they telexed £10,000 to the account of Mr Keith Brown at the Kredietbank in Brugge. By noon Mr Goossens had seen the telex, and wired £5,000 to Mr Brown’s account in the West End of London. Shortly before four that afternoon, Shannon made a check call to his bank and learned the credit was there waiting for him. He asked the manager personally to give him drawing facilities in cash up to £3,500 the following morning. He was told it would be available for collection by eleven-thirty. (p.204)

Or

Shannon spent the evening writing out a full statement of accounts for Endean. He pointed out that the total had eaten up the bulk of the £5,000 transferred from Brugge, and that he would leave the few hundreds left over from the sum as a reserve. Lastly, he pointed out that he had not taken any part of his own £10,000 fee for the job, and proposed either that Endean transfer it straight from Endean’s Swiss bank account into Shannon’s Swiss account, or remit the money to the Belgian bank for credit to Keith Brown. (p.215)

Or

There was still £7,000 in the Keith Brown account, but a debit of £2,000 for the four mercenaries’ salaries was due in nine days. He drew a banker’s cheque in favour of Johann Schlinker and placed it in an envelope containing a letter from him to Schlinker that he had written in is hotel room the previous night. It informed Schlinker that the enclosed cheque for 4,800 dollars was in full payment for the assorted marine and life-saving articles he had ordered a week earlier, and gave the German the name and address of the Toulon shipping agent to whom the entire consignment should be sent in bond for export, for the collection of M Jean-Baptiste Langarotti. Lastly, he informed Schlinker he would be telephoning him the coming week to enquire if the end user certificate for the ordered 9 mm ammunition was in order. (p.281)

There are literally hundreds of pages like that – prose written by a computer describing the activities of robots or automatons.

The second type of subject matter is the article – a 2-, 3- or 4-page-long factual explanation of one of the many aspects of the practical job of funding, organising and mounting a coup.

Belgium has, from the point of view of those wishing to operate a discreet but legal bank account, many advantages that outweigh those offered by the much better publicised Swiss banking system. Not nearly as rich or powerful as Germany, nor neutral like Switzerland, Belgium nonetheless offers the facility of permitting unlimited quantities of money to pass in and out without government control or interference. (p.179)

Or

Under British company law, any person acquiring ten per cent or more of the shares of a public quoted company must identify himself to the directors within fourteen days. The aim of the law is to permit the public to know who owns what, and how much, of any public company. (p.185)

Or

To establish an indigenous arms industry is not difficult, provided it is kept basic. It is relatively simple to manufacture rifles and submachine guns, ammunition for both, along with hand grenades and hand guns. The level of technology, industrial development and the variety of the raw materials is not large, but the smaller countries usually buy their weaponry ready-made from the larger ones, because their internal requirements are too small to justify the necessary industrialisation, and they know their technical level would not put them into the export market with a chance. (p.229)

Or

Metal can be welded to metal, and to get the hardest join, it usually is. But a barrel that has once contained oil or ignitable fuel always retains a residue film on the inner surface of the metal. When heated, as it must be by welding, the film turns to fumes, and can easily explode very dangerously. ‘Sweating’ a piece of tinplate onto another piece does not give the same strength of join, but can be done with steam heat at a lower temperature. (p.311)

Or

There is no great technical difficulty in running an illegal consignment across the Belgian-French border in either direction, and that includes a quantity of black market arms. Between the sea at La Palme and the junction with Luxembourg near Longwy, this border sprawls for miles, and most of it in the south-east corner is through heavily wooded hunting country. Here the border is crossed by scores of side roads and tracks through the forest, and by no means all of them are manned. (p.337)

This is not really what is usually thought of as ‘fiction’. It is an article or encyclopedia entry. As is:

Cargo sent [to the other end of Africa] will be shipped in a bigger vessel. The advantage of a small coaster is that she can often load a cargo at very short notice and deliver it two days later a couple of hundred miles away. Big ships spend longer in port while turning round. But on a long run like that from the Mediterranean to South Africa, a bigger ship makes up in extra speed what she spent in port. For the exporter [the small coaster] has little attraction over 500 miles. (p.307)

There is little or no colour, life, whimsy, imagination, insight, awareness, fancy, wit or humour in the book. It is a relentless list of bank accounts and transactions and flights and travel arrangements and purchases of guns and boats and combat gear and meetings and deals in colourless hotels. By about page 250 I had had enough and reading this book had turned into a real grind.

Characters or cogs?

As in the previous novels there is quite a large cast of characters whose intricate interlockings Forsyth manages with amazing skill and precision. But reading this one made it more obvious than before that the characters play stock roles: the Machiavellian industrialist, his sex-mad daughter, his sleek fixer, the conscience-stricken scientist, the tough prospector, the grizzled mercenary, the brutal African dictator.

Worse, novelists generally tell you the background of their characters but it is characteristic of Forsyth that, every time he introduces a new person, he presents their entire CV in one go. There is absolutely no subtlety.

Alan Baker was an expatriate, a Canadian who had settled in Germany after the war and married a German girl. A former Royal Engineer during the war, he had got himself involved during the early post-war years in a series of border-crossing operations into and out of the Soviet Zone, running nylons, watches and refugees. From there he had drifted into arms running for the scores of tiny nationalist or anti-communist bands of maquis who, left over from the war, still ran their resistance movements in Central and Eastern Europe. (p.241)

A brisk résumé of their life & career replaces the more traditional literary strategy of creating character through accumulated psychological insights. There are no psychological insights. –This is X’s history. Right, now you know all you need to know about X. Right, Shannon met X in this hotel at this time and they made the following decisions about the shipment of guns and arranged the transfer of x amount of money to the y bank in z.

Mr Harold Roberts was a useful man. Born sixty-two years earlier of a British father and a Swiss mother, he had been brought up in Switzerland after the premature death of his father, and retained dual nationality. Entering banking at an early age, he had spent twenty years in the Zürich head office of one of Switzerland’s largest banks, before being sent to their London branch as an assistant manager. That had been just after the war, and over the second twenty-year period of his career he had risen to become the manager of the London branch, retiring at the age of sixty. By then he had decided to take his retirement and his pension in Swiss francs in Britain. (p.289)

The interest isn’t in the characters per se – once created they remain the same with little or none of the development we might expect in a novel. It’s in the way the large cast of characters fit together so intricately – and not even necessarily into a ‘plot’ (none of Forsyth’s plots after the Jackal have anything like the same excitement). It’s the way they fit together into a worldview, a worldview in which worldy wise men transfer funds between secret bank accounts, set up shady holding companies, meet mercenaries in safe hotel rooms, buy illegal weapons, pass each other in the departure lounge of an international airport without realising it.

They’re not characters, they’re the parts in a beautifully-crafted Swiss watch, unchanging, predictable cogs which interlink to make the whole go tick tick tick.

A worldwide web

The trope of two characters in the plot having their paths cross without either knowing it occurs several times in each book – not to further the plot, but to foreground this feeling of the web or network. The classic instance in Day of the Jackal is one evening towards the climax of the novel when the two protagonists, detective Lebel and the Jackal, are both in Paris, and both lean out of their windows one night, and it turns out their windows are only 300 yards apart – but of course, neither knows what the other looks like.

Here, on page 118:

The evening that Cat Shannon was changing planes at Le Bourget to catch the Air Afrique DC-8 to West Africa, Dr Chalmers was having dinner with an old college friend, now also a scientist and working in industrial research.

Or

Martin Thorpe stepped into Sir James Manson’s office about the time Cat Shannon was taking off from Hamburg. (p.245)

These ships-that-pass-in-the-night moments aren’t important for the plot. They are symptoms or epitomes of Forsyth’s worldview, which is all about complex interlinking. When I was a teenager, reading this kind of book, I think these moments added to the thrilling sense that this was the grown-up world, and that everyone behaved like this. The ships moments create a world.


But God, for really long stretches, this book is soooo boring.

Shannon was invited into Mr Stein’s private office, where Mr Lang and a junior partner were already seated. Along one wall were three secretaries, as it turned out the secretaries of the three accountants present. With the required seven stockholders on hand, Mr Stein set up the company within five minutes. Shannon handed over the balance of £500 and the thousand shares were issued. Each person present received one and signed for it, then passed them to Mr Stein who agreed to keep them in the company safe. Shannon received 994 shares in a block constituted by one sheet of paper and signed for them. His own shares he pocketed. The articles and memorandum of association were signed by the chairman and company secretary, and copies of each would later be filed with the Registrar of Companies for the Archduchy of Luxembourg. The three secretaries were then sent back to their duties, the board of three directors met and approved the aims of the company, the minutes were noted on one sheet of paper, read out by the secretary and signed by the chairman. That was it. Tyrone Holdings SA existed in law. (p.276)

Climax

After such an unconscionably long foreplay this reader was hoping for a spectacular climax.

The actual firefight starts on page 413 and is all over by page 423. It is described as coldly, clinically and thoroughly as all the preparations – but because of the subject, and the stakes, it is actually heart-poundingly thrilling. And bloody.

Not often does one see a bazooka the size of the warhead on a Yugoslav RPG-7 hit a man in the small of the back. (p.420)

But the payoff turns out to be not in the brutal ‘battle’ (in reality the wholesale slaughter of scores of more or less defenceless African guards under the steady pounding of the mercenaries’ mortar rockets, bazookas and machine guns), it’s in the final few pages, when there is a massive plot twist and Shannon – wildly improbably – is revealed to have been behaving for the finest humanitarian principles after all.

Why? How? What? You’ll have to buy or borrow The Dogs of War and go on the same gruelling pilgrimage yourself to find out.

Textbook

According to Wikipedia, the book is quoted and praised as ‘a textbook for mercenaries’. I’m not surprised. But textbook is the key word. It is exactly like reading a long, exhaustively thorough textbook. Fine if you’re taking an exam in the subject or toying with mounting your own African coup. Not so great as a work of fiction…

The movie

Took a while for this one to be turned into the movie, which wasn’t released until 1980. It was directed by John Irvin and stars Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger, along with a long tail of British character actors (Colin Blakeley, Jim Broadbent in a minor role, George Harris later famous for BBC TV’s Casualty).

At least part of the interest of the novel is the extensive network of characters and deals done exclusively in Europe, repeating and extending the extraordinary knowledgeability which Forsyth demonstrated in Jackal. But the movie makes the hero and background of most of the characters American. Crucially, it transforms Shannon from a decent, extremely intelligent and methodical European into a New York street punk, swaggering, chewing gum, torturing people, tossing empty beer cans around, shouting a lot. It’s a surprise he can even read, you wouldn’t trust him to throw a party in a bar, it is not credible that such an uptight, angry adolescent could organise something of the byzantine complexity of Forsyth’s coup, and this switch decisively throws away the professional (surprisingly moral) integrity of the novel.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Breakheart Pass by Alistair MacLean (1974)

In a new departure for MacLean, this is a historical novel, set in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. The story is entirely about an ill-fated train journey up into the snow-covered hills. Preliminary scenes in the frontier town of Reese City establish the main characters:

  • Colonel Claremont – in charge of 5o US cavalry
  • Colonel Fairchild – Commandant of Fort Humboldt
  • Governor Fairchild – governor of Nevada
  • Marica Fairchild – the governor’s niece and daughter of Colonel Fairchild
  • Major O’Brien – the governor’s aide
  • Nathan Pearce – US marshall
  • Revd Theodore Peabody – chaplain for Virginia City
  • Dr Molyneux – US Army doctor
  • John Deakin – supposed arsonist and murderer, captured in a bar-room fight and being taken in chains to the fort

The cavalry have been ordered to travel by train along the perilous railway up into the blizzard-obscured mountains to bring aid to the isolated Fort Hauberman, where an outbreak of cholera is ravaging the garrison. However, as the journey progresses there is a litany of mysterious disasters:

  • two key officers never even make it on to the train, missing, presumed dead
  • the doctor who is to provide the medical care, is found dead, expertly murdered with one of his own scalpels
  • in a dramatic scene, the rear three coaches of the train – housing all the cavalry – are decoupled by persons unknown on a steep part of the line, so that they run backwards out of control and plummet to their destruction into a deep ravine. Where was the brakeman at the back of the train? Face down on the floor with a dagger through his heart!!
  • then the preacher, Dr Peabody, goes missing

In other words, the story turns into a ‘closed room’ detective story: one of the survivors in the list above must be the baddie. But what’s the motivation? Why all this mayhem? Well, cutaways to the supposedly ravaged fort reveal that, far from being a hospital for ill soldiers, it has been seized by notorious baddie, Sepp Calhoun, in uneasy cooperation with leader of the savage Paiute tribe, White Hand. And they are talking darkly of the immense profits to be made…

Meanwhile, as the story progresses, Deakin, who they all take to be a savage murderer in response to a Wanted poster listing his crimes of burning down a hotel and blowing up a railway station, killing a lot of people – well, he in fact does what almost every other MacLean protagonist does – operates in secret to identify the real baddies. We see him sneaking round the train finding the bodies of the two missing army officers, discovering that the coffins bound for the Fort are in fact full of guns and ammo, hiding the telegraph equipment (since he suspects the official telegraphists have been corrupted by the gang) and generally uncovering the Truth.

Like previous MacLean protagonists John Talbot, John Bentall, John Carter, Pierre Cavell, John Carpenter, Philip Calvert, Paul Sherman, Neil Bowman and Johnny Harlow, John Deakin feigns ignorance, even pretends to be a criminal himself, but in fact turns out to be a government law enforcement officer, a secret agent, given carte blanche to bring to justice the wicked arms and gold smuggling gang any way he sees fit. In the final scenes it’s just him, pretty Marica, and decent old Colonel Claremont against all the others who are in on the criminal conspiracy.

Style

MacLean’s style went badly off in the early 1970s (though this is a better-written book than its predecessor, The Way To Dusty Death). a) He knows no subtlety. His characters are always in extremis. And b) their extreme emotions or physical states are described in a peculiarly arch and self-consciously baroque style. It is the opposite of slick and cool; it is stilted and clumsy.

    ‘Are you sure?’ It wasn’t so much disbelief in Claremont’s tone as a groping lack of understanding, the wearied bafflement of a man to whom too many incomprehensible things have happened too quickly.
Henry assumed an air of injured patience which sat well on his lugubrious countenance. ‘I do not wish to seem impertinent to the Colonel but I suggest the Colonel goes see for himself.’
Claremont manfully quelled what was clearly an incipient attack of apoplexy. ‘All of you! Search the train!’ (p.94)

Exaggeration There is a tendency for things to be totally w, completely x, very y indeed, or there’s no z whatsoever. Without exception the sentences would be more powerful without these adverbs or adverbial qualifiers. 

Deakin himself registered no emotion whatsoever. (p.26) Colonel Claremont’s temper normally lay very close to the surface indeed. (p.28) She closed the door softly behind her, then sat on her bed for a long time indeed… in a very short time indeed the darkness would be as close to total as it could be (p.56) They moved very quickly indeed (p.76) Carlos… appeared to be gloomily contemplating what must have been his very chilly feet indeed. (p.113) Deakin heard a sound.. and turned around very very slowly indeed. (p.118) Marica looked at him in totally uncomprehending silence, her face registering almost a state of shock. (p.140) He stared at her in total astonishment. (p.153) Pearce was moving very quickly indeed into the shelter of the leading coach. (p.157) The train, rapidly dwindling into the distance, was now going very quickly indeed. (p.178) O’Brien released the brake and opened the throttle very gently indeed. (p.181)

It’s almost like MacLean is having to convince himself.

In this book I noticed another trait – his tendency to use unnecessary adverbs and then to qualify them – thus adding two syntactical layers of redundancy to his sentences.

He had an almost incredibly wrinkled nut-brown face. (p.20)

You don’t need ‘incredibly’ in that sentence – that makes it sound like a comic. And you certainly don’t need ‘almost’ because that just highlights how pointless the ‘incredibly’ is.

  • The lean, dark, bitter face was set in lines of an almost frighteningly implacable cruelty… Deakin turned, the same almost viciously hard expression on his face. (p.99)
  • The impact of his back striking against the coach roof was almost literally stunning. (p.126)
  • None of the bullets, almost unbelievably, ricocheted about the interior of the cab. (p.159)

It is as if he has lost confidence in himself as a writer. Everything is cranked up in case you miss it. Like a drunk telling a good story, the story survives but is almost drowned in unnecessary embellishments and exaggerations.

The expression of shocked and staring incredulity as he realised that the rest of the train was no longer there was so extreme as to be almost a parody of the real thing. (p.135)

But it is the real thing. Henry is amazed. In whose mind is it almost a parody? In the mind of the imaginer, the author, the creator, who no longer really believes in his creation, who devises a stream of breath-taking scenarios but finds himself laughing out loud at their preposterousness.

In the early and mid-1960s MacLean wrote his best novels with first-person narrators who did an attractive line in self-deprecation even as they surmounted innumerable violent obstacles. But by the 1970s the ironic distance has gone and he is half-ridiculing his own plots and scenes – he himself is quick to point out how tired and clichéd they are – and it undermines their credibility.

Marica performed the classic gesture of putting her hand to her mouth, the dark smoky eyes huge in an ashen face. (p.149)

Why write scenes in which your characters act like parodies, sterotypes and clichés – and then point it out – if you haven’t half-begun to despise your success and your fame. MacLean’s later life is a sad affair of alcoholism, and I’m glad that, when I was a kid first reading these books, I didn’t know anything about it.

Still…

All that said – it’s a short 190 pages and it is a clever tale and it is packed with genuinely exciting scenes. If you peer through the horrible style, and if you ignore the author’s lack of confidence in himself, then Breakheart Pass is like a good graphic novel, action-packed, clever, fast-moving and thrilling. It’s a quick, effective poolside read. But if I was going to give someone an Alistair MacLean novel as an introduction, God, it wouldn’t be this one.

The movie

The novel was converted into a movie within a year, directed by Tom Griest and starring Charles Bronson, Ben Johnson, Richard Crenna, and Jill Ireland.

Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

Third person narrator

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

First person narrator – the classic novels

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

Third phase

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

Bad

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

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