Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Crusades’ from A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson (1976)

The crusades were not missionary ventures but wars of conquest and primitive experiments in colonisation; and the only specific Christian institutions they produced, the three knightly orders, were military. (p.241)

Paul Johnson’s magisterial History of Christianity is divided into eight parts.

  • Part One describes the life of Jesus and, following his execution, the development of a ‘Christian’ theology and the spread of Christianity during the years of repression by the Roman Empire.
  • Part Two ‘From Martyrs to Inquisitors’ (250-450) describes the changing fortunes of the faith, as it morphs from a banned underground movement into the officially sanctioned state religion of the Roman Empire. By 400 it is firmly enough established to begin to ban and persecute pagans and non-believers in its own right.
  • Part Three ‘Mitred Lords and Crowned Ikons (450-1054)’ covers the Dark Ages, focusing on the achievement of Charlemagne in establishing order across a wide expanse of northern Europe, wholeheartedly accepting Christianity and becoming an active evangelist for it.

Part Four, ‘The Total Society and its Enemies (1054 – 1500)’

This section covers a myriad historical developments but grouped under one Big Idea: From the later 11th century through to around 1500 the papacy set out to systematically aggregate religious and secular power to itself.

Charlemagne (king of the Franks from 768 to 814) had expected his bishops, and even the pope himself, to obey his commands. He found a subordinate Church an invaluable aid in establishing law and order in 9th century Europe.

But around the time of the Norman Conquest the papacy began to flex its muscles, and successive popes tried to seize the upper hand against secular rulers, not least by asserting the Church’s control over every aspect of secular life. The body of church law expanded exponentially. The types of monastic order and mendicant friars burgeoned: Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and so on. Clerics asserted a dizzying array of taxes, especially the hated ‘mortuary’ tax i.e. they wouldn’t bury you unless your family handed over a percentage of your valuables to the church.

Something similar happened with the concept of ‘indulgences’, which were first issued for pilgrims who attended a one-off jubilee in Rome in 1300. You bought them and – if you attended certain ceremonies, pilgrimages, feasts etc, they got you out of purgatory early. The 1300 Jubilee brought in so much money for the Church that the next pope declared there’d be another jubilee in 1350. Soon they were being declared every ten years. Eventually you could pay someone to do the pilgrimage for you, just like you could pay people to do your penances and pay clerics to sing masses for you after you were dead. Johnson calls it the growth of ‘mechanical’ Christianity.

Johnson gives countless examples of the invasive growth of church administration: For example, in the 10th century the Pope had had only a hazy idea where Britain even was; but by the 13th century we find the Pope intervening between two bishops in East Anglia squabbling about who benefits from the tithes of a local parish church.

But as the Total Church pushed its tentacles into every aspect of society, it planted the seeds of opposition. Johnson records various early appearances of anti-clerical complaints and these grew into a crescendo when the papacy as an institution left Rome altogether to relocate to Avignon in 1309.

To all intelligent observers it became clear the church was ceasing to be a spiritual body and becoming a well-run multinational corporation. The second half of the chapter details the ways the Church’s aspiration to ‘Total Control of Western Society’ generated increasing criticism and opposition. He examines the various movements for reform, including the intellectual ‘Humanist’ movement. This was just beginning to suggest the possibility of sophisticated reform within the established Church, when its subtle suggestions and ecumenical spirit were swept away in the tsunami of Martin Luther’s rhodomontades and the immense upheaval of the Reformation (started 1517).

The Crusades

It is in this overarching context that Johnson devotes a dozen or so pages to the Crusades. His main points are:

Early Christians viewed all violence as abhorrent, preferring death and martyrdom to armed resistance. Here, as in so many other issues, it was St Augustine who gave Christianity its baleful turn. He reasoned that men fight anyway, so a complete and realistic theology must take account of this fact, give in to human nature, and define under what circumstances violence, fighting and war are justified. Augustine’s writings gave birth to the long tradition of theologising about the ‘Just War’. These arguments became elaborated, along with the rest of ‘mechanical’ medieval theology, as successive popes developed more and more casuistical arguments: for example claiming that anyone dying in battle in defence of the faith would go to heaven; then would be defined as a ‘martyr’; and then would have all their sins forgiven. And obviously, the most just of just wars would be not against other Christian kings, but against either heretics and blasphemers (as defined, of course, by the pope), or against the joint enemy, the infidel hordes who had swept across the Mediterranean in the 7th and 8th centuries.

As to this Muslim world, Johnson shows in convincing detail how Islam had succeeded in sweeping through the Middle East and the North African coast largely because of the hopeless divisions among innumerable forms of North African Christianity – there were Nestorians and Pelagians and Arians who all accused each other of being ‘heretics’ with such bitterness that some openly greeted the new Muslim rulers, preferring to be ruled by infidels than by ‘heretics’.

Islam’s success was because, as a theology, it is simple and easy to grasp: there is one God and Mohammed is his Prophet. That’s it. Compare and contrast with the scores of fiendishly subtle and complex heresies which early Christianity threw up in droves, particularly around the two sore points of the exact nature of Christ’s manhood and godhood – and the precise relationship of the three elements of the ‘Trinity’. Christian heresy lost Africa to Islam.

Origins of the Crusades

Those in the region who didn’t convert were treated well. Islam proved tolerant and permissive of other beliefs. But by the 1000s a storm was brewing in the West. Johnson identifies three factors:

  1. Small-scale wars against Muslims were being pioneered in Spain, half of which was, of course, in the control of Muslim kings during this period. In 1063 King Ramiro I of Aragon was murdered by a Muslim and Pope Alexander II offered an indulgence (i.e. forgiveness of all sins; go direct to heaven) to anyone taking arms to revenge this crime. (N.B. It was the same Pope Alexander II who gave his blessing to William the Bastard’s conquest of England a few years later.) In 1073 his successor Pope Gregory VII helped to organise an army to fight against the Muslims in Spain, promising any Christian soldier that he could keep any ‘infidel’ land that he could seize.
  2. A Frankish tradition dating back to Charlemagne’s times had it that the Carolingian monarchs had a special duty to protect the Holy Places in Palestine and keep pilgrimage routes across Europe to them safe and secure. There were three well-marked land routes as well as the more expensive sea routes to the Holy Land. Many Holy orders maintained hospices along the route. Sometimes huge numbers of pilgrims did the journey and, by and large, the Muslim authorities treated them peaceably. (For example, in 1064-6 some 7,000 Germans, some heavily armed, travelled to Jerusalem and back unhindered.)
  3. What prompted the synthesis of the above two notions – the idea of taking military action against the infidel along with the idea of seizing control of the Holy Land – was the population explosion of the 11th century. By the 1000s, after centuries of chaos, most of Europe was settled and under the legalised control of strong rulers, themselves backed by the authority of a resurgent Catholic Church. Agricultural land across the continent began to be exploited to the maximum of the available technology. The Crusades can thus be interpreted as a bid for Lebensraum for a booming population. This explains why, along with the knightly enterprises we mostly read about, went various less romantic movements by the poor: like the 20,000 peasants led by Peter the Hermit, or the Peasants Crusade, or the Children’s Crusade and so on. Many of the nobles who flourished on Crusade – like Godfrey de Bouillon, who emerged as leader of the First Crusade (1096-99) – were junior members of the aristocracy, often left landless by elder brothers. To these ambitious younger sons the crusades offered huge opportunities to create and run their own fiefdoms, kingdoms, empires.

In a sweeping statement typical of his confident handling of large perspectives, Johnson says the Crusades, seen as a mass movement of people, stand mid-way between the Germanic migrations of the 4th and 5th centuries which brought the Angles and Saxons to this country, and the great transatlantic migrations of the European poor to America in the 19th century.

Seen from this lofty height, all of History can be summarised in terms of major migrations.

The appalling violence of the Crusades

Like Terry Jones in his book Crusades, Johnson emphasises that the crusades were bad news for Europe’s Jews, sparking waves of anti-Semitic violence, pogroms, murders and massacres.

But then they were bad news for lots of others, not just Muslims, as the crusaders repeatedly massacred everyone they found in foreign towns and cities. Peter the Hermit’s crusade slaughtered everyone they found in the villages around Nicea within the Byzantine Empire. When Jerusalem fell in 1187, the conquering Christians went on a horrifying rampage, murdering everyone they saw, raping women, even nuns, looting everything they could carry, burning everything they couldn’t. In 1101 when the crusaders took Caesarea they rounded up all the Muslims into the Grand Mosque and massacred them all. Same in Beirut. In 1109 Tripoli fell to Genoese sailors who burned down the Banu Ammar library, the largest in the Muslim world. The Frankish crusade to Egypt in 1168 was characterised by massacres wherever these rampaging barbarians went.

As Jones points out, the crusaders hated the Greek Christians of the Byzantine Empire almost as much as the Muslims. When, frustrated and unpaid, the angry crusaders rampaged through Constantinople in 1204 they massacred so many citizens and destroyed so much infrastructure that the city never recovered. What Johnson calls the last of the international crusades in 1365, led by Peter I of Cyprus, resulted in the sacking of the Christian city of Alexandria, when these ‘holy warriors’ killed as many Christians as Muslims or Jews. Once they’d finished slaughtering the inhabitants, the crusaders expelled all Greek clerics from their positions, replacing them with Latin-born bishops, priests etc. Orthodox priests were routinely tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasure, plate or relics. Cultural imperialism has rarely come more naked. The Orthodox empire, from the emperor to the lowest peasant, learned to hate and fear the Latins, the Franks, the Catholics, as devils.

The failure of the Crusades

Johnson brings out a point mostly implicit in Jones’s narrative: that a key reason for the failure of the crusaders was that there just weren’t enough of them. In their cultural imperialism the Pope and clerics forbade the crusaders to intermarry even with the Greeks, let alone the local Muslims or Jews. Therefore the population was dependent on rates of childbirth among the small colonies of pure Wester Christians – which appear to have been pitifully low – or on replenishment from Europe which, despite occasional spurts of enthusiasm, was never continuous enough to supply a stable population.

If it had wanted the Crusader kingdoms to succeed, the Church should have funded mass emigration. It should have set up missionising orders to convert Muslims to the faith and create a native population sympathetic to the colonists. But, as Johnson summarises, in the kind of magisterial judgement which makes his History so stimulating and entertaining to read:

The whole crusading movement was dogged by intellectual bankruptcy. (p.248)

Not enough people, not enough money, not enough knights, not enough soldiers – it’s surprising the crusader kingdom staggered on for as long as it did. By the 13th century there was no longer the same population surplus in Europe which had driven the first crusades -excess peasants tended to drift to the growing and commercially successful towns. Meanwhile, the north German knights were applying crusading techniques more effectively and with much more promise of land and titles against the pagan slavs in Poland, Lithuania etc. And then along came the Black Death in the 1340s, after which there was definitely not a problem of over-population.

The events surrounding the last century of the crusader kingdoms are complex, and involve the complicated interventions of different groups of enemies – the Seljuks, the Mongols, the Mamelukes – but the enterprise was by then bankrupt in every sense.

Conclusions

The Crusades left a sense of loss and nostalgia in the West given to sentimental self-deceit; but led directly to the creation of an embittered and less tolerant Islam, some of whose adherents are still smarting from its humiliations, 800 years later.

The Crusades set a pattern for the blood-thirsty anti-Semitism which was to disfigure parts of ‘Christian’ Europe for centuries to come.

And they established many of the mental, cultural and economic patterns which were to be invoked when the great European colonisations began in the 16th century and which we are still recovering from today.

Related links

More about the crusades

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Wilt is probably Tom Sharpe’s best-known novel. Its opening sentence is:

Whenever Henry Wilt took the dog for a walk, or, to be more accurate, when the dog took him, or, to be exact, when Mrs Wilt told them both to go and take themselves out of the house so that she could do her yoga exercises, he always took the same route…

It’s all here: the pedantic comic style; the stereotype of the henpecked, resentful husband; the wife in thrall to the latest fad (hard to imagine, but there was a time when yoga was new and widely ridiculed).

Setting Henry Wilt is a feeble failure of a lecturer at a shabby Fenland community college, trying to teach The Mill On The Floss to classes of apprentice gasfitters and plumbers, amusingly grouped as Meat One (butchers), firemen, mechanics etc. He is 35 and married to fat bitch Eva (as he refers to her), a misogynist stereotype who becomes brainlessly addicted to every passing fad in the faddish 1970s, and who Henry fantasises about murdering.

Campus novels of the 1970s Insofar as it is set in a college and deals with politics among the faculty and staff, Wilt sits alongside other campus novels such as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (published in 1975; Bradbury adapted Sharpe’s novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue for TV) and David Lodge’s great Changing Places, also published in 1975.

Plot Wilt’s wife falls in with some trendy Californians who epitomise the shallow hedonism Wilt despises. At a swinging party Wilt refuses to have sex with the let-it-all-hang-out-wife (Sally Pringsheim), in evading her clutches slips and bangs his head, and awakens to find she has wedged his penis inside a blow-up sex doll. As he is trying to extract himself the partygoers burst in to the bathroom to discover and humiliate him, his wife included.

The next day the Californians maliciously post him the doll and, drunk, he decides to try out how easy it would be to murder his wife by breaking into the building site next to his college and throwing the doll down a hole. Unfortunately, the doll gets stuck half way down and the tipsy Wilt drops loads of handwritten notes about his lectures around the building site and is seen in the act by the college caretaker. The next morning the builders have just lined up a concrete mixer to fill the hole and it has begun pouring when the foreman and a builder spot the body far down waving feebly up at them.

The police are called and several witnesses come forward to wildly misinterpret what they saw as Wilt throwing a body down the hole and – because his wife has taken an unscheduled break with the Californian couple on a boat in the Broads and is nowhere to be found – the police arrest Wilt on suspicion of murder.

This leads to a farcically prolonged police interview in which the bloody-minded and over-educated Wilt is able to run rings round his police interlocutors, especially Inspector Flint who is driven to his wits’ end. The interrogation is intercut with the much darker farce of his wife’s adventures with the unscrupulous Californian couple on the boat which has run aground in the Norfolk Broads. Slowly the facade of the trendy Americans is peeled away to reveal that he is a plastic fetishist and Sally, far from the enlightened sex therapist she claims to be, is an ex-prostitute who agreed to accommodate his weird lusts in exchange for money and security.

The enmity between the couple descends to open violence when Sally tied up her husband in what promises to be a bondage sex session but in which she genuinely intends to drown him, only interrupted by the unwise intrusion of the local (alcoholic) vicar who saw their distress signals. Witnessing the bizarre sex set-up, he immediately flees back to his rowing boat and to his quiet bachelor vicarage only to find the bedraggled, big and quite naked Eva dripping in his living room. Eventually the police arrive, Eva’s identity is confirmed and Wilt – much to Inspector Flint’s chagrin – is released.

The 1970s The time of right-on Marxists (like Bradbury’s Howard Kirk), burn-your-bra women’s libbers, sexual liberation (all clitoral stimulation and vibrators), and the strong feeling among middle-aged white men that  the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Just as in Lodge’s Changing Places the story needs an injection of hyper-Californian trendy characters to set the plot rolling – here the loathesome Pringsheimers, there the über-academic Morris Zapp – in order to make England look the tired provincial backwater the author feels it is and yet which he loves.

The ignorance, the naivety: neither Wilt nor his one male confidant/friend know what a blow job is. Eva doesn’t know that a dyke is a lesbian. Wilt earns £3,500 a year. They reference holidays on the newly-fashionable Costa del Sol. Wilt despises parties where trendy lecturers smoke pot and talk about Hegelian dialectics (just as they do in The History Man). At the Pringsheimer’s party a group are sitting round listening to the Watergate Tapes on the novelty of a stereo tape machine.

40-something men The 1970s might have been the era of the rangy Howard Kirk and overconfident Morris Zapp, but were also the decade of Rigsby (Rising Damp, first broadcast 1974), Basil Fawlty (first broadcast 1975), Reginald Perrin (first published 1975) – of a cadre of frustrated, middle-aged men living by the ‘old standards’, who are affronted by the liberties of the younger generation, the sexual and linguistic permissiveness they associate with ghastly Americans and – often – the sympathy shown for all this by their shrewish wives (Sybil Fawlty, Eva Wilt).

It is the Comedy of Resentment.

Crude There is a lot of swearing. All the characters swear a lot, but particularly the police interrogating Wilt. The humour is broad, the farce absurd and extreme, the bitterness against the modern world savage.

Sergeant Yates leant across the table: ‘Let me tell you something. When we get Mrs Wilt out of there, don’t imagine she’ll be unrecognisable.’ He stopped and stared intently at Wilt. ‘Not unless you’ve disfigured her.’
‘Disfigured her?’ said Wilt with a hollow laugh. ‘She didn’t need disfiguring the last time I saw her. She was looking bloody awful. She had on these lemon pyjamas and her face was all covered with…’ he hesitated. There was a curious expression on the sergeant’s face.
‘Blood?’ he suggested. ‘Were you going to say blood?’
‘No’, said Wilt, ‘I most certainly wasn’t. I was going to say powder. White powder and scarlet lipstick. I told her she looked fucking awful.’
‘You must have had a very happy relationship with her,’ said the sergeant. ‘I don’t make a habit of telling my wife she looks fucking awful.’
‘You probably don’t have a fucking awful-looking wife,’ said Wilt, making an attempt to conciliate the man. (Page 115)

Crude? Yes.
Vulgar? Yes.
And very funny.

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (1974)

Sharpe attended Pembroke College, Cambridge. His time there is liberally plundered to create this violent and crude farce about a hidebound institution caught between dusty tradition and pointless change, which is often very, very funny.

Plot Unpopular politician Sir Godber Evans is squeezed out of the Cabinet and rewarded with the position of Master at the hidebound Porterhouse College, Cambridge. Here he sets about trying to modernise things, coming into conflict with the crusty old dons and, in particular, the long-serving Head Porter, Skullion. Evans wants women undergraduates, a condom machine in the toilets, caterers brought in to do the cooking, and so on. There is a hilarious sub-plot about a sorry post-graduate student, Lionel Zipser, who for no very good reason has conceived a crush on his enormously fat bedder, Mrs Biggs and, in a sustained comic passage, goes for haircuts at a succession of barbers in order to buy the condoms he’ll need for their Big Encounter…

The book ends darkly: not only does Zipser’s comic sub-plot come to a premature conclusion when he and Mrs Biggs are killed in a gas explosion, but Skullion, a touching as well as a comic character, suffers a stroke and is paralysed. These aren’t really funny incidents. Sort of, but not really. They give the book a mean, nasty flavour.

The 1970s A haircut costs 30p. You can only get condoms at a barber’s. They moan about the Common Market.

Stereotypes Comedy relies on stereotypes, but it’s interesting to see which ones are used when and why. Again we have the henpecked feeble man (Wilt, Zipser), the voracious, man-threatening Big Woman (Eva Wilt, Mrs Biggs), the painfully earnest female do-gooder (Lady Mary Evans, Eva Wilt), the ludicrously self-serving committee members of both colleges.

Cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

Pan paperback cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976)

Counterfactual history

This is a startling surprise in Amis’s oeuvre, a counterfactual fantasy set in a meticulously-worked-out alternative England, an England in which Prince Arthur didn’t die and so Henry VIII never gained the throne, there was no Reformation, no Protestant tradition and no Industrial Revolution. Instead England in 1976 is dominated by the Catholic Church and its slightly sinister officials, from the great cathedral in Coverley (pronounced Cowley) outside Oxford to the various palaces of the Papal Curia in London. The streets are filled with horses and carts and serfs dressed in rough clothes who placidly accept their lowly status, while among them the princes of the church and the rich travel in luxury coaches. London has expanded nearly as far as Finsbury and there is distressing talk of new ‘manufactories’ being set up on the outskirts.

Counterfactual history jokes

This counter-history allows for all sorts of jokes, large and small. In this reality Martin Luther didn’t spark the Reformation but went on to become an eminent Pope, albeit a rather puritanical one: he put an end to the luxurious trimmings planned for St Peter’s basilica, driving one Buonarroti (ie Michelangelo) to suicide. Mozart didn’t die young and went on to develop a late style, unlike a younger colleague, one Beethoven, who amounted to nothing. The great cathedral in Coverley, the longest in Christendom, a Catholic masterpiece, was built by one Sir Christopher Wren. The unhappy Abbott puts aside the latest book De Existentiae Natura by Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre. The airship which travels between England and New England is named the Edgar Allen Poe after the famous general who died leading his troops to victory against the Mexicans. And so very japefully on.

A totally Catholic world

Behind it all is the rather bigger point that, without the European civil wars – which is what the Reformation and Wars of Religion amounted to – the power of the Catholic church is never stemmed, there is no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era where the causes of freedom, democracy, liberalism triumphed over Christian repression. No Bolshevik revolution, no 20th century of holocausts and genocides.

Instead, Roman Catholicism rules supreme and unquestioned. There has been peace in a monoglot Europe for centuries, peace characterised by, on the one hand, the systematic repression of ‘scientists’, schismatics and deviants by a powerful Church backed up by a repressive Secular Arm; on the other hand, a continuous war with the Turks, with the muslim Ottoman Empire which continues to push at the borders established in the 16th century ie the Danube.

A different New England

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New World was colonised but not by Protestant countries (as these never came into existence) so the colonisation was carried out by Catholic countries who divided up the continent piecemeal and, as there was no English tradition of Protestant democracy, the New Worlders have a rough and rude manner about them, with greater freedom of expression and behaviour (due to the rough culture of their log cabins hewn out of the vast untamed continent), but nothing like the economic and military might of our Americans.

There was never a slave trade. So the ambassador from the New World to England who we meet is attended not by blacks but by native American Indians. Nonetheless, no matter how free and easy their manners, the New Englanders devoutly believe the Indians are a different and inferior race, their brains smaller, not to be taught much because not capable of real intelligence.

Mise-en-scène

The novel opens at the high State Funeral for the dead King Stephen III, at which we meet various church figures who go on to discuss the fate of one particular ten-year-old boy, Hubert Anvil, a highly esteemed boy soprano in the choir at the service. So highly esteemed that the church and music school functionaries we are introduced to, go on to discuss in some detail the appropriateness of having him castrated so that he may continue to hymn the glory of God as a castrato.

Characters

A lot of time and effort is spent examining the responses, feelings and actions of everyone involved in this decision, in this alteration of just one boy. It is a plot device to explore this strange alternative world Amis has conjured and to meet a cross-section of its inhabitants:

  • the honest Abbott of the singing school Hubert attends, plus his composition teachers, who are upset that the boy will be steered towards singing and not composing
  • the three boys who share the dormitory with him: the oldest and most cynical, Decuman; the devout and timid Mark; the bystander, Thomas
  • Hubert’s father, Master Tobias, a well-off merchant in London, devout and worldly wise, his older, clever son Anthony, and rather cowed mother, Margaret
  • the rakish family priest (they are wealthy enough to have their own priest) who is swapping the glad eye with Margaret and will soon embark on a passionate physical affair with her
  • two eminent castrati who have traveled from Rome to ascertain Hubert’s skill

For the first hundred pages or so, very slowly, we are introduced to all these characters and it is Amis’s immense skill to imagine all their thoughts and emotions, their flickers of doubt, their sly smiles, their calculating each others’ motives, entirely within the framework of this imaginary world.

For example, when his father tries to explain to Hubert what an honour it is to be castrated for the glory of God, his mother cannot help hinting at the joys of physical love. It is only much later that Hubert realises she is channeling the physical ecstasy she is enjoying with the family priest-turned-fornicator.

Plot

After 120 or 130 pages or so of his predicament being considered from all angles by all characters – including a flying visit to Rome where they are shown round his apartments by the (Yorkshire-born) Pope himself, and Hubert is invited to have the operation performed in Rome and spend the rest of his life there; after all this build-up Hubert runs away. Helped by Decuman who finds a local pony and has saved money and food, they sneak out of the singing school dormitory and Hubert rides into Oxford and knocks at the door of the New England ambassador who he met on the day of King Stephen’s funeral. But the ambassador is in London.

The two native American servants take pity on him and one loads him, heavily disguised, onto an Express to London. Here Hubert catches a taxi but the taxi driver takes him into a warren of slum streets, then chloroforms him.

Hubert wakes up in the bare room of a Jew named Jacob who reveals his star, explains the persecution his people experience under Church rule, and then reluctantly explains that they plan to contact his parents and demand a ransom. He is a hostage. Hubert, more resourceful than he thought himself, pushes Jacob’s face towards the fire at the same second he throws brandy into it, causing the surge of flames to burn Jacob’s face, as Hubert runs out the room and out the house.

Some time later he taps at the window of his beloved older brother Anthony in Edgware Road, explains he’s run away, and Anthony helps disguise him and they walk together to the New England embassy where Anthony bluffs their way in. He is welcomed by the unconventional ambassador and his wife who are kindness and courtesy personified. Hubert sleeps, wakes, bathes, eats and then joins in the planning for his escape: they will smuggle him aboard the next airship bound across the Atlantic.

There is quite a lot of tense getting past security guards using forged papers involved in allthis, but finally Hubert is safely aboard the transatlantic vessel when – he is convulsed with pain and falls to the floor, screaming and clasping his groin.

Pessimism

The onboard doctor diagnoses Hubert with a twisted testicle; the blood supply to one has been cut off and it is swelling and will die unless operated on immediately. Hubert is taken off the ship and to the nearest hospital. Here he recovers consciousness to discover that, after all that effort, all that help and support from friends and those opposed to the totalitarian Church – fate (or is it God Himself) – has intervened in the most bitterly ironic way possible: the doctors had to remove both testicles. He has undergone the alteration willy-nilly.

Anti-Catholic

I am anti-Catholic for the same reason Amis was. a) There is quite obviously no God, so you judge these ideologies by their practical outcomes. b) Catholic countries have tended to be markedly unequal and repressive societies, lurching in the 20th century, from violent extreme to extreme of fascist junta or Marxist guerrillas. c) All the liberal freedoms we take for granted are Protestant in origin, deriving from the never-ending process of Protestant schism into countless non-conformist sects which eventually forced the authorities to accept that they had to concede their populations the right to freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and so on. This tradition flourished in the Protestant non-conforming Anglophone countries America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand; not so much in the homogenously Catholic and Fascist countries, Italy, Portugal and Spain and all the latter’s colonies.

The accusation against Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and all the other English Catholic writers of the 20th century is that they went on about the superiority of the Roman Catholic religion, while enjoying all the trappings of the peaceful, prosperous Protestant country they lived in. To put their money where their mouth was they should have moved to unambiguously Catholic countries and enjoyed the unquestioningly Catholic zeal of General Franco or Salazar.

Conclusions

Part of what makes this novel so brilliant is not just that Amis has imagined a complete alternative reality, but that he has done what so many science fiction writers fail to do, not seen it as a monolithic whole, but has imagined it so deeply as to grasp the various ways all the different characters respond to the heavy, sometimes violent, grasp of the Catholic hierarchy over their society. So drenched are all the characters in the Latin and terminology and prayers and iconography of their Catholic world, that it comes as a real shock when one of the characters admits he no longer believes in God. Others resent the oppressive control of every aspect of their lives by the Catholic Authorities. The boys in Hubert’s dorm present a little pre-teen cross-section, Hubert himself a wavering believer, Decuman the older cynic, Mark the zealot shocked at  his friend’s blasphemy.

It is a mark of the completeness of this imagining that Amis doesn’t present the New Englanders who rescue Hubert as perfect: the kindly priest who smuggles Hubert aboard the airship also very kindly takes it upon himself to explain that God made the Indians stupider than us so we have to treat them like children; one of the Indians explains that back in New England they don’t castrate just fancy singers, they castrate anybody found guilty of fornication, of broadly defined sex crimes. It makes this alternative reality all the more plausible to learn that man’s inhumanity to man crops up all over it, as it does in ours, even in the dwellings of our closest friends.

The Blemish

Of Amis’s forays into genre fiction, this is by far the best, the most complete and convincing. Only at the end is it let down by a crudely satirical chapter in which we witness the Yorkshire Pope and his closest advisers discussing His Holiness’s plans to control Europe’s runaway population explosion, and by really evil means. They review an experiment to put contraceptive chemicals in the drinking water which, alas, resulted in too many deformed babies being born – too noticeable. They then review recent experiments to introduce plague, carried out in Cornwall and the south of France. Alas, the victims died too quickly, before they could infect others, and so both outbreaks fizzled out.

No, His Holiness irritatedly dismisses the technical adviser who had developed both approaches (Cardinal Maserati) and is left moaning to his closest adviser that, oh well, looks like it’ll have to be another massive war with the Turks, then…

Up to this point, the oppressive and manipulative nature of the Church which dominates this alternative world had been implicit in the story, only revealed in the comments or behaviour of characters and their occasional, limited but threatening, brushes with authority. With this stand-alone chapter Amis rather spoils the integrity of the text by stepping out from behind the scenery and saying, ‘Look, the rulers of this Church are diabolically evil’. It is forceful satire – and maybe, for a teenager who isn’t familiar with the notion that rulers can be disgustingly Machiavellian, the pulling away of the mask right at the end of the novel to reveal the full scale of the Church’s wickedness in this parallel world might work as a powerful shock – but I found it rather blunt and crude after the carefully imagined subtlety of (most of) what had gone before. If I’d been his editor I’d have cut it.

Summary

This is certainly Amis’s best genre or experimental novel, his most astonishingly detailed, thorough and convincingly imagined work of fantasy, and deserves to rank with the top three or four of his novels as a whole.


Related links

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.

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (1976)

Liebermann said, ‘Ninety-four Hitlers,’ and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No. It’s not possible.’ (p.181)

Backstory

It is 1974. Former evil Nazi scientist Dr Mengele, is masterminding from his base on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, the climax of a thirty year-long project. Before the end of the war he took blood and skin samples from the Führer and went on to clone the DNA into scores of embryos. These he impregnated into simple native women and supervised them until they gave birth to identical black-haired blue-eyed baby boys.

Then he set up adoption agencies in a number of Western countries, via which he handed out the babies to couples desperate to adopt, but subject to very specific conditions: the father must be 30 years older than his bride and a domineering bully in a petty civil service job. In other words, replicating the household in which Adolf Hitler grew up.

Now, as the boys approach their thirteenth birthdays, and the fathers approach 65, they must be killed in order to replicate Hitler’s family experience of losing his father at precisely that age. This is the starting point of the novel.

In media res

It opens in a restaurant in South America in which Mengele greets six SS killers laid on by the Comrades Association and begins to brief them about their mission to murder a set of 94 middle aged men in a variety of Western countries. But, it turns out the meeting has been taped by a waitress bribed by a keen young Jewish sleuth, Barry Koehler, who paid her to place a tape recorder under the table.

Although Koehler had used a fake name and makes off to his hotel room, Dr M and his associates discover the taping and set out with Teutonic efficiency to search all the cheap hotels in town. Koehler gets on the phone to Vienna, to the famous Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann (widely seen as a portrait of famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal) and is half way through explaining the dinner, the briefing and the plan for the murders when his door bursts open and the Nazi killers charge in and stab him to death.

For a tense, spooky, voodoo moment, Dr Mengele holds the telephone receiver in his hand listening to the voice of his arch enemy Liebermann asking for Barry… while he, Liebermann, becomes aware of evil, pure evil, breathing down the phone…

And this is just the first 30 pages. See how focused it is. It has a real story to tell and tells it with terrific pace, economy of words, the maximum of tension and excitement.

Focused

What is it that makes The Boys From Brazil so vastly more effective as entertainment than anything by Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley? Why – unlike Innes or Bagley – does it have grip and excitement right from the start?

Because it is so much more focused in terms of plot and style. In fact, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, there is really just one idea and one technique: the idea is to have a big horror Secret (Devil impregnates women; all women in Stepford are androids; the Nazis have cloned Hitler) and the narrative technique is that the protagonist (with the reader looking over his or her shoulder) slowly uncovers it, piecing the clues together, till it stands revealed in all its science fiction, Gothic horror.

American

The approach is so much more professional. Created in an environment vastly more focused on result, outputs, commercialisation, movie rights, making money. ‘Show me the money. Where’s the beef?’ Fast-moving, streamlined. And this is reflected in a number of high-speed techniques.

Liebermann sat on a bench doing some figuring with his pen and a pocket calculator. The matron, sitting on the other side of his folded coat, said, ‘Do you think he’ll get her off?’
‘I’m not a lawyer,’ he said.
Fassler, nudging his car restlessly against stalled traffic, said, ‘I’m totally mystified…’
(p.154, 2011 Corsair paperback edition)

In these four sentences, Liebermann goes from sitting in the corridor outside the cell of a convicted criminal in a prison and talking to a woman who happens to be sitting nearby – to sitting in the passenger seat of the lawyer Fassler’s car as the latter speaks – by magic, with no explanation, with no intervening description of any of the numerous actions by both men which must have intervened. Scene A. Scene B. And not even jumping between scenes, but jumping between the relevant bits of dialogue of each of the scenes.

All the way through the prose betrays the need for speed. Almost all the sentences drop traditional conjuntions, in order to shunt a sequence of active verbs one after the other. Conveying speed and also a kind of relentlessly factual objective accounting. No colour, adjectives, atmosphere. This, then this, this, this, then this. Got it.

He pushed the phone’s button down, held it, looked at his watch, closed his eyes and stood motionless; opened his eyes, released the button, tapped at it. Got the cashier and told her to get his food-and-phone bill ready. Put the moustache on, the wig. The gun. Jacket, coat, hat; grabbed the portfolio. (p.206)

It must be deliberate because it happens in Rosemary and Stepford that there are more and more conjunction-free sentences, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, as the narrative hurtles to its climax. A deliberate way of getting the reader to feel increasingly airless, trapped, caught in the roller-coaster, to make the reader pick up speed. Longer phrasing slows us down as we need to digest and process. Shorter sentences. Make us. Read. Faster and faster. And speed up our breathing. We react physically / physiologically to the material before us. In this scene Mengele has just shot Wheelock dead and is now nervously waiting for his arch-enemy Liebermann to arrive:

Mengele looked at himself in the coat-stand’s mirror; detached the wig and took it off, peeled the moustache from his upper lip; put moustache and wig into a pocket of his hanging coat, pulled the flap out and over.
Looked at himself again as he palmed his cropped grey hair with both hands. Frowned.
Took his jacket off, hung it on a hook; moved the coat to the same hook, covering the jacket. (p.216)

Until, in the final chapter, it does what Rosemary’s Baby did and turns into poetry. Tense, free, one word verse:

Liebermann and Mengele stared across the room at each other.
The front door opened.
Closed.
They looked at the doorway.
A weight dropped in the hallway. Metal clinked.
Footsteps.
(p.231)

Levin

As in Rosemary and Stepford, Levin continually surprises the reader with nifty phrasing, the unexpected angling of words, new assemblages.

He lit the tip of the branch and put the lighter back behind him; dipped the branch to strengthen the flame, and stepping forward, threw it onto the flame-bursting folders and magazines. Flame sheared up the wall. (p.168)

He saw with a sudden down-press of guilt Yakov Liebermann shambling toward him. (40)

Small white scars darned his face. (p.2)

Yoshiko was nesting together small bowls of drying leftovers. (p.19)

Levin has a consistent ability to express things clearly and effectively but in new ways, non-traditional-English ways, startling eye-opening ways:

The man in white finger-sprang the lockflap of his briefcase. (p.6)

I didn’t know it was called a ‘lockflap’ – that is a very American knowledgeability about practical names for practical objects in the world – but I think he’s invented a new verb, ‘to finger-spring’.

A soccer game tided back and forth on the television. (p.52)

He experiments with phrasal adjectives:

They got up and went from the small room of scavenged furniture, animal posters, paperback books, into an almost-the-same-size kitchen… (p.176)

Neither with the brown wig and moustache nor his own cropped grey hair and newly shaven upper lip did he look much at all, alas, like this handsome sixteen-years-younger himself. (p.185)

He dashed back… to make sure his clothes and suitcase were still in his Do Not Disturb-signed room. (p.205)

‘Go to it. At a not-alarming pace.’ (p.213)

And then phrasal people, which is novel:

‘You don’t know?’ the-Nazi-not-Wheelock asked him. (p.222)

He shook his head at no-not-Mengele. (p.223)

And sometimes creates whole new linguistic-spatial effects:

‘Good morning,’ Fassler said, going forward. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks,’ the matron said. She gave her smile to Lieberman, and covered it with closing door. (p.145)

Hang on. What? ‘She gave her smile to Lieberman’ is unusual but assimilable, but ‘and covered it with closing door’ requires a stop and reread. Making ‘closing door’ into a noun which can be managed by the verb ‘cover’ is doing something very inventive, is shifting normal useage way outside its comfort zone and, in so doing, creating a new feeling in the mind, a new combination, a new way of perceiving.

The simplicity of the vocabulary conceals the linguistic inventiveness. It is a sophisticated effect which comes out of (maybe Jewish) everyday speech. Certainly, it’s very American to create Modernism out of street corner diction.

Wheelcock unzipped his jacket; red shirt was inside it. (p.210)

‘Underneath he was wearing a red shirt.’ ‘To reveal a red shirt underneath’… But ‘red shirt was inside it’ combines two novelties in five words: giving ‘red shirt’ no article (‘the’ or ‘a’) makes it seem like a bad translation, or turns red shirt into an abstract quality (darkness was inside, all hope was lost); and ‘inside’ clothes? No, in English we always say ‘underneath’; ‘inside’ makes clothes sound like a piece of equipment.

Wheelock ducked and stepped down onto a landing of household implements clipped to plank wall. (p.214)

The hands slipped from the rails and Wheelock toppled forward. The front of his head banged floor below. (p.215)

In both case removing the article has a peculiarly disorientating effect, converting a banal object into an abstract quality. Or makes it feel supremely present. No need to refer to floor or plank wall by use of a definite article: omitting it makes the thing super hyper-real.

Jewish

Because the lead protagonist, the Nazi hunter Lieberman is very Jewish, working with other Jews, talking with his Jewish wife and children, Levin gives him Jewish rhythms of speech and thought. I’m not expert enough to be familiar with the linguistic origins or definitions of Jewish-American speech, but I recognise it when I read it and hear it in my head, familiar from its depiction in Woody Allen movies, TV shows, other Jewish American writers (Saul Bellow and Philip Roth spring to mind as two giant examples). Jewish phrasing:

Astounding, such a sameness. Peas in a pod. (p.130)

Max said, ‘What’s not to follow?’ (p.155)

‘Darling,’ Max said to her across the table, ‘don’t say it’s not possible. Yakov saw. His friend from Heidelberg saw.’ (p.156)

‘What does he teach, her professor – political science?’ (p.165)

Jewish deadpan humour:

‘He’s in America!’ Mengele cried.
‘Not unless they moved it to Düsseldorf.’ (p.162)

and straightforward descriptions of Jewish appearance and posture:

Klaus looked beyond Lena; saw Liebermann standing in profile, head bent to an open book, rocking slightly: Jew at prayer. (p.180)

Jewish vocabulary:

A very cool character, this momzah… (p.221) [I can’t find momzer online; mamzer is Yiddish for ‘bastard’]

‘It will draw to them exactly the kind of meshuganahs who’ll make them be Hitlers…’ (p.253) [meshuganah = ‘a strange, eccentric or irresponsible person’]

‘They don’t pay bupkes.’ (p.256) [bupke = bupkis, Yiddish for ‘nothing’]

I like all this. It is wholly appropriate to a plot about Jews combating Nazis, it gives a real granularity to the world of Liebermann, his friends and family and helpers. It adds colour to a novel which is, otherwise, sometimes in danger of moving too fast to have flavour. Sure, the Nazis in the novel say Heil Hitler and Levin takes us into Mengele’s thoughts on race ie the world being drowned in a tide of dark-skinned foreigners, so that the pure Aryan race must be saved etc. Mengele gets equal air-time. But the Nazi scenes are not as warm and rounded as the mealtimes and the discussions and arguments and phraseology and vocabulary which bring to life Liebermann’s Jewish milieu.

The plot?

You want plot? OK, plot you shall have: for the rest of the novel Mengele and Liebermann circle each other, as Liebermann slowly uncovers the conspiracy, his enquiries prompting Mengele’s Nazi superiors to eventually cancel the schedule of killings and recall the SS men to Argentina. This prompts Mengele, in a fury, to forsake the safety of South America to fly to America and continue his life’s work himself.

Which is where destiny – or the slickly designed plot – brings them together at the house of Doberman dog-breeder Wheelock, next in line to be killed. Here Mengele arrives, gets his confidence then shoots him, and waits for Liebermann – who has by this stage worked out the schedule of assassinations – to arrive. Finally the two old opponents meet and there is a very tense scene as Mengele pretends to be the dead Wheelock and Liebermann slowly realises something is very wrong with his host with the heavy German accent…

Long story short: Mengele doesn’t win and the Dobermans play a large and very bloodthirsty role in his gruesome death. (This is Levin’s wish fulfilment as the real Dr Mengele lived happily in South America until 1979 – I wonder if he read this book? I wonder what he made of his portrayal?)

Liebermann is shot and badly injured by the Doctor, but recovers in hospital; and there is a coda:

The Jewish organisation which has been helping/shadowing Liebermann wants the names of all 94 boys so they can kill them. If there’s even a chance one of them might grow into something like the historic Adolf Hitler, the future will not forgive them for not preventing another Holocaust. But Liebermann burns the one and only list of boys: it is precisely innocent-child killing which they all rail against and are avenging: now they are going in for it themselves? No, not if he can help it.

But this cosy liberal coda is undercut by the very last page of the novel – which depicts one of the boys we haven’t heard about or met, one of the Hitler clones, alone in his den somewhere, with the lights down low, painting in intricate detail a vast futuristic auditorium filled with people all yelling and adulating one central figure who controls their hysteria, and the boy is thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to be that person, to have that much power…!

Reservations

There is a But. Levin’s hyper-effective prose poetry does, in its hurtling pace, sometimes risk sacrificing all flavour, colour, adjectives, mood — human sympathy — just to focus on purely external descriptions of movements, treating human behaviour as if observing animals, mechanical, clinical.
And this rigorous exclusion of the psychological, of insight or feeling or compassion, goes on to become (I think) the house style for lots of American crime and thriller writers from the 1980s onwards. To demonstrate their virility and toughness and grittiness by dispensing with all human touches – in Sara Paretsky or Thomas Harris or George V Higgins or James Patterson – observing horrible murders or the clinical activities of forensics teams, as if it’s all a laboratory experiment.
And the rigorous exclusion of the human in pursuit of a style ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: writers – who might be expected to leaven the world around us with a little insight, warmth or compassion – simply joining the many forces which conspire to drain the world of the humanity which it so desperately needs.

The movie

Quickly snapped up by Sir Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, the book was turned into a movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who’d previously made Planet of the Apes and Papillon), starring an elderly Gregory Peck as Mengele (62), Laurence Olivier as Liebermann (71)  and James Mason (69) all competing to have the hammiest German accent, and released in 1978.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976) Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann uncovers a fiendish plan to clone and breed replicas of Adolf Hitler, masterminded by evil Nazi genius and Liebermann’s personal nemesis, Dr Mengele.
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean (1976)

Carter asked, ‘What’s he like, this Revson of yours?’
‘Ruthless, arrogant, independent, dislikes authority, a loner who consults superior officers only under duress and even then goes his own way.’ (p.90)

A sophisticated gang of criminals hijacks a convoy of coaches carrying the President of the USA, along with sheikhs and princes visiting from the Middle East, as it’s crossing the Golden Gate bridge. They have spent months planning and rehearsing the ‘caper’, have hijacked helicopters, seized local air traffic control and neutralised all the bodyguards, police and soldiers accompanying the convoy… but they hadn’t counted on the presence of special agent Revson, hiding under a fake name in the Press coach, which the kidnappers keep around in order to broadcast their ransom demands.

Yes folks – Only one man can save the president! One resourceful special agent, along with the young doctor in the President’s entourage who he recruits to the cause, and the beautiful young lady journalist they get to help them.

Sad decline

MacLean’s novels from the late 1950s through the late 1960s are among the most viscerally exciting and compelling thrillers ever written – Night Without End (1959) is one of the most nailbitingly intense books I’ve ever read. However, around 1970 his style, already tending towards flippancy and facetiousness, began to be dominated by this often silly tone, expressed in sentences which frequently spiralled out of control – and the plots themselves began to feel less like novels conceived as novels, and more like drafts of screenplays, novelisations of bad 70s disaster films or made-for-TV movies.

It feels like MacLean had stopped caring, and a glance at his biography shows that a) he was by this time the most successful writer in the world, with little more to prove b) was in the grip of an alcohol addiction which became steadily more serious: ‘He also struggled constantly with alcoholism, which eventually brought about his death in Munich in 1987.’ (Wikipedia article)

Made-for-TV characters

The President is elderly and courteous but quick to anger if life is threatened. The baddie, Branson, is cool and calculating, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. His Swedish number two, Van Effen, is ready with a machine gun to shoot anyone who steps out of line (also rather like the blonde number two baddie in Die Hard). The authorities gathered round the radio in San Francisco municipal headquarters are led by the grizzled veteran, Hendrix, who holds tense radio conversations with Branson (‘You’ll never get away with this, you know.’) The dim Vice President pooh-poohs the chances of Revson saving the day – until he starts saving the day, whereupon he concedes with good grace that ‘Maybe your boy knew what he was doing all along’. The doctor who becomes Revson’s accomplice (O’Hare) is unexpectedly good at hiding secret gadgets and lying to the baddies. The beautiful girl journalist, April Wednesday, at first accuses Revson of being a heartless bastard, but then comes to realise he is their only hope, until she is eventually kissing him and telling him not to get hurt.

In other words, the book is a riot of hilarious stereotypes and characters about as deep as a puddle on a hot day.

How many movies have been made which involve hijacking Air Force One or breaking into the White House or otherwise endangering the Prez, or set on, or reaching a tense conclusion on, the Golden Gate bridge? (The Golden Gate bridge in movies) The entire book feels like a pitch to a movie or TV company. There is novelty in some of the details and twists but overall both the plot and the characters feel as predictable as a Roadrunner cartoon. Coyote falls of the cliff. Roadrunner triumphs. Beep beep!

Car crash sentences

Most of the characters say the things they have to say right out (unlike the unbearably evasive conversations of characters in a Hammond Innes novel), and the plot moves briskly forward in its made-for-TV manner, with neat reversals and ingenious gadgets (the aerosol which sprays sleeping gas, the pens which fire poison darts, the radio in the bottom of a camera).

But on almost every page the reader is brought up short by sentences in various states of disarray: some are slight stumbles, others puzzling half-repetitions, or – his most frequent and characteristic fault – trying to express a simple fact by way of a complex, and would-be comic, circumlocution – choosing to go round the houses in an effort to be wry or sardonic and, more often than not, just ending up being puzzling.

Their problem, Revson reflected, was hardly one susceptible to the ready formation of a consensus of opinion. (p.88) [They were finding it hard to agree]

Branson could hardly be expected to be the person who would fail to recognise a cyanide air pistol when he saw it. (p.151) [Branson was unlikely not to notice a cyanide air pistol when he saw one]

By this time quite a number of curious journalists from the coach – activated, almost certainly, by the inbuilt curiosity that motivates all good journalists, were crowded around the unconscious Kowalski. (p.160)

Everyone there was instinctively aware that he was the leader of their kidnappers, the man behind their present troubles, and their reception of him did not even begin to border on the cordial. (p.43)

The five men appeared to be concentrating on two things only: not speaking to one another and not looking at one another. The bottoms of their glasses appeared to hold a singular fascination for them: comparatively, the average funeral parlour could have qualified as an amusement arcade. (p.152)

If this is an attempt at humour it is so heavy handed it has the opposite effect, stalling the onward flow of your reading.

There were, in fact, only seven people in sight. Six of those stood on the steps of the hotel which was that night housing more dollars on the hoof than it ever had remotely had in its long and illustrious career. (p.15) [I get the meaning but why make us work so hard for it?]

That the rain was now drumming was beyond dispute. It had been increasing steadily ever since the passengers had entered the coach and could now fairly be described as torrential. (p.159)

‘beyond dispute’? ‘could be fairly described’? Who is MacLean talking to in his mind when he writes these sentences? Who is disputing anything?

Repetition

In the Wikipedia article about types of repetition – as defined in Greek rhetoric – I can’t find a term to describe the way MacLean repeats entire sentences. And I can’t decide whether the technique is dramatically effective or a bit lame. It’s certainly a mannerism. It’s often done to link disparate sections, or even chapters – ending one with a sentence, opening the next one with a slightly tweaked repetition.

‘A dollar gets a cent that Branson’s asking some questions.’ —
Branson was indeed asking some questions. (p.166)

‘Two fire engines are there and the fire is under control.’ —
The fire was indeed under control. (p.166)

[End of chapter 10] ‘I wouldn’t worry.’ Hagenbach leaned back comfortably in his chair. ‘Revson will think of something.’ —
[Start of chapter 11] The only thing Revson was thinking about was how very pleasant it would be to have a few hours’ blissful sleep. (pp.179-80)

‘We’ve been having blackouts all over the city tonight. Hold on.’ —
In the Presidential coach, Branson held on. (p.188)

Chrysler said: ‘Those weren’t smoke bombs.’ —
In a few seconds it was clear that they were indeed not smoke bombs. (p.219)

Technical expertise

Where MacLean’s style slips perfectly into gear is where he’s describing gadgets, machines, technology and the swift expert movements of men who know just what they’re doing with them. Of course this is one of the key tropes in the thriller genre, but at these moments MacLean’s writing becomes taut and effective, a reminder of his peak in the 1960s. Here our hero is neutralising the remote bomb detonation mechanism in one of the hijacked helicopters.

With the screwdriver blade of his knife Revson had already removed the four screws that secured the top-plate and the top-plate itself. It was a simple enough device. On the outside of the device was a vertical lever padlocked in position in its top position. When this was depressed it brought a copper arm down between two spring-loaded interior copper arms, so completing the circuit. Twin pieces of flex led from those last two to two crocodile spring-loaded clamps, each secured to the terminals of two nickel-cadmium Nife cells connected up in series. That would produce a total of only three volts, enough… to activate the radio trigger. (p.170)

This technician’s-eye view of machinery and devices is one of MacLean’s great legacies to the thriller writers who came after him.

Hands up!

Another key trope is the knowing dialogue between people in a hold-up situation. There must be thousands of examples in books and movies of what is basically the same scene: baddie interrupts goodie in middle of surreptitiously doing something crucial to the plot (planting bomb, eavesdropping the baddies discussing their evil plans, radioing his contacts etc). Get to your feet. Turn round slowly. No false moves etc etc. When everyone in the cinema knows that Bruce or Harrison will get the better of the guy with the gun.

There’s a good example here, and I think MacLean does it well, it’s an example of where the Conspicuous Repetition I highlighted earlier positively works.

‘Strange hour to go fishing, Revson,’ Van Effen said behind him. For a second, no more, Revson remained immobilised… ‘Turn round, Revson, slow and easy. I’m a nervous character and you know what that can do to trigger fingers.’
Revson turned round, slow and easy, in the manner of a man who knows all about nervous trigger fingers. He already had the [sleeping gas] aerosol inside the bag. He said resignedly: ‘Well, I suppose it was too good to last.’
‘So Branson was right all along.’ Van Effen, moon-shaped face as expressionless as ever, was between five and six feet away. He had his machine-pistol in both hands, held loosely, but with his forefinger indubitably on the trigger. Revson would have been a dead man before he’d covered half the distance between them. But Van Effen was clearly expecting no resistance. ‘Let’s see what you have there. Slow and easy, now. Slow and easy.’
Slowly, easily, Revson withdrew the aerosol. It was so small that it was almost hidden in his hand. He knew that the can was pressurised to three times the normal and that its effective range was ten feet. Or so O’Hare had told him and Revson had a great deal of faith in O’Hare.
Van Effen shifted the gun under his right arm and pointed the barrel straight at Revson. ‘Let me see that.’
‘Slow and easy?’
‘Slow and easy.’
Revson stretched out his arm unhurriedly. Van Effen’s face was no more than three feet away when he pressed the button. He dropped the aerosol and snatched Van Effen’s machine-pistol: he wished to obviate any metallic sounds. He looked down at the crumpled figure at his feet. (p.177)

‘obviate’? Well, it’s good thriller writing and most of his classic novels are like this all the way through: knowing, lightly humorous, but focused and effective. When he’s envisioning tense scenes or men working quickly and deftly with machinery, MacLean’s writing gains precision and power. But far too many times in these 1970s books, it’s when he tries to do character, to portray people in untense, unfocused scenes, with ghastly humour, that his writing comes a cropper.

‘Good. Very good.’ This, from Hagenbach, was the equivalent to the Roman tribute offered a highly successful general after he’d conquered his second or third country in succession. (p.179)

It is an unnecessarily far-fetched comparison to begin with, but might just have come off if it had been conveyed with a light touch – but it’s at precisely these moments, when he’s trying to do humorous insights into his characters, that MacLean’s touch deserts him and he clumps like an elephant.

Branson had very definitely stopped both lounging and relaxing. He was sitting far forward in his chair and for once his feelings were showing: the expression on his face could be described as nothing else other than stunned disbelief. (p.208)

Ugh.

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of the Golden Gate

Fontana paperback edition of The Golden Gate

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.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy by Len Deighton (1976)

I should have obeyed orders. I didn’t, and what happened subsequently was all my fault. I don’t mean that I could have influenced events, it was far too late for that, but I could have protected myself from the horror of it. (p.183)

All Deighton’s narrators wear glasses, presumably a jokey reference to the author’s own trademark specs. The third of his 1970s spy novels, Twinkle features another first-person narrator, unnamed but no relative of the Ipcress narrator, who is working closely with loudmouth American Intelligence officer, Major Mann (a clone of loudmouth American Intelligence officer Colonel Schlegel, from the previous novels).

Be warned: this plot is long and convoluted and deeply confusing.

In the desert of southern Algeria, the pair along with their local guide and old Algeria hand Percy Dempsey, rendezvous with a Russian defector – scientist Professor Andrei Bekuv, an expert in masers (?) and a member of the secretive 1924 Club (supposedly set up to research the possibility of extra-terrestrial life). To remind us we are in a spy novel a Russian helicopter gunship pursues them and blows up the car Bekuv had been driving up until he transferred to the one with the narrator and American, who all escape unscathed. Phew.

Cocktails in New York

They take Bekuv to New York, where the English and the American agent (who are paired for the duration of the novel) chaperone and guard the defector. There is a lengthy cocktail party at Tony Lowak’s in which a room is set aside for serious backgammon playing, and where the narrator meets Red Bancroft, a dazzlingly beautiful brunette and international backgammon champion (‘So pleased to meet you, Mr Bond’). In its relaxed social observation, it’s reminiscent of the long and urbane dinner party scene in Spy Story. Just in case we thought we were in a Kingsley Amis or maybe David Lodge novel, the scene ends in violence as the narrator, Red and Bekuv are held up in the foyer by three armed men. Fortunately, they’re rescued by one of the other party guests with a handy gun, who shoots the muggers. Was it a ‘normal’ crime, or were they KGB assassins waiting for Bekuv?

More interrogating Bekuv – our guys want to find out where security leaks from US science are coming from – but he refuses to talk without his wife, left behind in Russia. The narrator goes to meet the slippery CIA operative Gerry Hart and, during a tricksy conversation, discovers that Bekuv’s wife is already here. After some horsetrading between agencies, they are reunited.

Christmas in the Catskills

Mann decides he must take the Bekuvs, his own wife, the narrator and Red somewhere safe, so they drive to an obscure resort in upstate New York for Christmas. There’s more affable low-key banter for a score of pages until the Russians want to go to the local church for Midnight Mass when, caught in the exiting crowd, they are attacked by someone with a flick knife who badly wounds Bekuv’s wife.

But not before she’s passed on to them that Bekuv’s contact in the 1924 Club was one Henry (Hank) Dean. Turns out, in the kind of coincidence that only happens in fiction, that this Hank was a good friend of Mann’s – they grew up in the same town, Hank had a promising career as a baseball player, cut short, transferred to the military then CIA career. This ended badly in Berlin, after which he turned to drink and retired to a shabby old house in France.

Hank in France

Which is where the narrator and Mann promptly fly to confront him. After drinking and reminiscing with Hank they find him in the middle of the night trying to burn large amounts of foreign currency. He’s arrested by the French police. Either the currency is payment for betraying his country, or someone is framing him to make it look like he’s betraying his country. He disappears from the narrative and we never find out what happens to him.

Without stopping to clarify just what this retired drunk could be selling, our heroes quiz the locals and get a list of registration numbers of the cars which used to come visiting Hank. They trace the most persistent caller to a Frenchman in a slum part of Paris. Surprisingly, it’s Hank’s son, in his twenties. In a completely unconvincing scene, his much older fiancée reveals to the son that Hank’s first wife – ie the son’s mother – called round just yesterday on a trip from America, leaving a number at a Paris hotel. Coincidentally, our pair receive a CIA coded message that this woman and her husband, one Douglas Reid-Kennedy, had been staying in Ireland, near Drogheda, and that this location was the source of the leaks from the 1924 Club. Aha.

Buried in Ireland

The duo fly to Dublin, rendezvous with local police and motor out to the farm, on the face of it owned by a local family but leased out to a consortium of German investors, where Douglas Reid-Kennedy was reported to be based. It has been completely abandoned. The fire is warm where the inhabitants have tried to burn all incriminating papers. But still in it is a wodge of half-melted microfilms containing US scientific secrets. The narrator suddenly realises the dogs howling outside in the rain are howling at the graves of the family who own it. They have been murdered and buried.

Death on the yacht

The duo fly on to Miami, to the luxury home of Mr and Mrs Reid-Kennedy ie Hank’s ex-wife and the man she fell for. In a confusing scene the wife tells a long complex scenario about being married to Hank and lonely in Berlin and ‘comforted’ by Doug who inherited a successful electronics company from his dad, about Hank being kidnapped by the East Germans and held for ransom until Doug promised to spy for them. But Major Mann counters with an anti-account which matches the first one for facts but with a completely different interpretation of who promised to become a spy for the communists.

So where is Doug, anyway? Doug is dead in the luxury yacht in the dock at the bottom of the luxury lawn, his head blown off by a powerful semi-automatic gun. While the narrator checks the crime scene, Mann interrogates Mrs R-K. I think the idea is that she killed him, possibly because she, Mrs R-K, is the Soviet spy; certainly Mann threatens her with life in prison. She incriminates Gerry Hart, the smooth Washington operator we met earlier.

Meet the senator

Cut to the duo in the luxury office of a US Senator who chairs a high-powered Senate Committee on Science. They try to persuade him Gerry Hart is a KGB spy but he throws them out on their asses. News comes through that Bekuv has tried to commit suicide. Mann has been acting without consulting the English narrator because, as he now reveals, the woman he’s fallen head over heels in love with, Red Bancroft, is herself a high-ranking CIA operative.

Mann has separated the Russian couple, Bekuv in a safe house, his wife taken to a separate location and supervised by Red. The narrator promises Mann to forget about Red and fly back to Miami to continue the investigation. He completely disobeys (see quote above) and drives to the safe house containing Red and Mrs Bekuv to find out what the hell is going on.

My lesbian lover

When the narrator arrives at the safe house in the middle of nowhere, guarded by numerous CIA security heavies, and is frisked and goes into the house, he hears cries from upstairs, runs up and discovers – his one true love on her knees pleasuring the naked Mrs Bekuv sprawled across the bed. Hmmm. Didn’t expect that. Not only is his love for Red crushed at source, but the entire investigation is thrown into a new light.

Red follows him downstairs (now wearing a kimono) and explains that all of the duo’s traipsing around Europe and Florida was a red herring, purely to distract from Red and Mrs Bekuva being alone together long enough for Red to seduce her. By doing so she has confirmed that Mrs B is a hard core KGB agent and Gerry Hart is also a KGB agent. Hence his ability to swing it, back before Christmas, for Mrs to come out to join her husband. Hence the way – which everybody noticed – that as soon as she arrived, Mrs B took the whip hand over her husband: the Soviets let her leave and come to his side in order to muzzle and control him.

Shootout at the airport

Suddenly the narrator is called to airport where Hart has taken the senator hostage and is insisting on the Bekuvs joining him on a flight to Algeria. Mann is there supervising the CIA side, as the Bekuvs arrive and are handed over to Hart, who makes his way across the airfield with a gun in the Senator’s side. Of course it all goes wrong, with a rooftop sniper letting off a shot which misses and, in the ensuing chaos a) Mann makes a run for it and is shot in the head b) the narrator fires but misses everything c) Hart fires and shoots the Senator in half d) Mrs Bekuv seizes the gun and shoots Hart. Mrs and Mrs Bekuv scramble up the steps into the plane which takes off overhead. Ooops.

Back to the desert

A patched-up Mann and narrator fly back to Algiers where they hook up with pukka old Brit Percy Dempsey, who we met in the opening chapter. The Air Algeria flight was forced to refuel in London, which has given our guys the time to fly direct to Algiers and be ahead of them. Percy has hired a car and they wait at the airport. The baddies have their own people there, who smuggle them out the back way and into a LandRover which sets off at speed into the desert, pursued by our team.

A high-speed chase through the desert, tricky slippery driving at a hundred miles an hour, leads to the inevitable end of all high-speed chases ie they turn a corner and head straight into a flock of sheep blocking the road, take evasive action, crash against rocks, lose their wheels, hurtle down a precipice, mangled metal, breaking glass, juddering to a halt, moans of pain, sound of petrol gurgling etc.

More chase

The narrator comes round in an Arab hospital where he finds all of them have survived and been patched up. As soon as Mann is conscious he insists on hiring another car and setting off in pursuit. They finally reach the point where the Bekuv team turned off into the desert and follow their tracks till they are intercepted by armed guards just before reaching a vast camp in the middle of nowhere. It’s a former Roman fort which has been reinforced and modified and is bristling with aerials and antennae.

The narrator meets and talks with Bekuv: he realises Bekuv did a deal with the Soviet authorities: he got his money to build a vast centre capable of sending and receiving signals to outer space (in pursuit of Bekuv’s cranky belief that he can contact alien civilisations) and in return Bekuv promised to use the resources created for him to intercept signals from all the West and NATO’s spy satellites. That’s where the leaked science information was leaking from – not a human contact: the entire chase to the south of France, Paris and Miami, all of it with its trail of human wreckage seems irrelevant.

Ends with a bang

The narrator points out that, after the débâcle at Washington airport, the Russians will want to close down the centre, in fact to obliterate Bekuv and all his activities. Bekuv refuses to believe him. In a final rather strained betrayal, Red persuades Mrs Bekuv to pretend to her husband that she, Red, is dead, murdered on his orders. While they’re having a big scene in the main square of the compound the narrator and Red – who now have only sad, non-lover feelings for each other – slip out a back window and catch up with Mann and Percy, who are trudging over the sand back towards the main trans-Sahara Highway.

In the last sentences of the novel they see a flash of light and then hear the bang – as the narrator expected, a Soviet plane has vapourised the tracking centre, taking Professor and Mrs Bekuv along with it.


For once a Deighton novel doesn’t end with a chuckle. Improbable and tangled though the plot has been, the tone has been far more business-like, sober and hard than in the previous books. The appearance of a lesbian sex scene might be interesting to historians of LGBT themes in literature, or novels. But the entire ‘love story’ between Red and the narrator, like almost all the human relationships in the text, are thin as cardboard.

Looking back I don’t understand lots of things which happened and don’t know what became of all kinds of supporting characters, such as Mrs Reid-Kennedy, or Hank or his son in Paris, in the headlong rush to get to the final pages. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But then, why care about any of it?

Related links

Paperback edition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy

Paperback edition of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy

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.

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