Solomon’s Seal by Hammond Innes (1980)

He turned then, facing me reluctantly, his features crumpled by the intensity of the emotions that gripped him. He mumbled something, gripping hold of my arm, but the sound of his voice was lost in the crash of a wave. (p.140)

Roy Slingsby is a typical Innes protagonist, a decent, averagely honest man plunged into a bizarre adventure in a colourful foreign land. The book is carefully divided into five parts, but the following are my own divisions, based on the imaginative settings or backdrops which dominate.

Part one – East Anglia

Roy is 40, he’s knocked about a bit, skippered landing craft as part of his National Service, keeps a run-down sailing boat on the Suffolk coast and makes a so-so living as a contents valuer for an estate agent. A chance call leads him to a routine valuation of the now-empty home in Aldeburgh of one Tim Holland, a man about his own age who became seriously ill while working in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, came home to recuperate but is so poorly he’s been placed in a nursing home.

Roy is shown round by his sister, Perenna Holland, who had been looking after Tim. She is not only attractive but peculiar, showing an unusual interest in the grotesque and frightening native artifacts around the house and then revealing that her brother is suffering from a curse cast by a witch doctor among the islands. If only she could find the man who did it, she would… she would… Roy is startled by her belief in primitive magic and by her anger. Turns out there is one other sibling, Jona, who owns and runs an ex-army landing craft which he uses to trade around the islands.

Roy drives away from this innocuous-looking farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside, his mind fired by images of foreign lands, savage customs, the hot sun, the tang of the ocean.

In another plot strand Roy had been advising one of the firm’s clients about a farm in far away Australia. The client now wants to sell up, would Roy – a trusted agent for the firm in their English business – fly out and handle the sale, all expenses paid? In almost the same breath Roy’s employers make it plain he will never be made a partner of their firm and he has a stand-up row with the boss before walking out. Yes, he rings the client to say, yes, he’ll take the Australia job: please arrange the flights, tickets, hotels, tell the agent, the man on the ground who’s been running the farm, that he’ll be coming.

This first section is dominated by the mystery of a pair of old stamp albums Roy noted among the Suffolk house’s contents and which, being a bit of a collector himself, he knew who to pass onto for an assessment. To his surprise the expert says it contains the die for some rare stamps and the whole thing looks like a collection assembled by someone designing new stamps for a colony in the south seas. (The expert is himself a sailor; the scene where they meet aboard the expert’s boat are described with typical Innes gusto for the drift and smell and bob of the water.) The expert arranges a provisional sale and forwards the money to Perenna.

But here there is more complication, for it appears she has left the house – Roy drives there to find it stripped bare and a bonfire of most of its contents, old letters and photos – and some worryingly bizarre artifacts, arrows and barbed knives, carved from wood and painted blood colour – in the garden. Perenna left a message with her solicitor that she has taken a job on a cruise liner, all monies to be sent to the address of her Southampton bank. (Innes’ novels are always studded with the precise details of work, the practical details of everyday life.)

Part two – Australia

Roy flies to Australia, familiarises himself with Sydney before flying to Brisbane and then is driven by the agent out to the farm he’s charged with selling, with the absurd name of Munnobungle (p.85), a dried-up wreck of a place. This only happens for a few pages but Innes packs into it the familiarity with the Australian terrain, and with no-nonsense outback Aussies, which characterised his great book set there, Golden Soak. Just reading about the red soil and the dusty shack and the flaking eucalyptus trees, was pure pleasure.

Roy concludes the deal quickly and returns to Sydney where he spends time tracking down the landing craft of Perenna’s brother, among the huge throng of ships in the harbour. Eventually he finds it, goes aboard to discover the brother, the captain, Jona, pretty drunk, the first mate unconscious in his cabin, the boat crewed by various surly blacks, natives of the Solomon Islands, a typically fraught, tense, male environment.

On the spot Jona offers him a job as crew member who will, when they get out to sea, be promoted to first officer, and Roy, having come all this way, accepts it. What is he doing? Well, he has no ties back in England, his return flight is open-ended, ever since meeting that lonely woman in an empty farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside he has been fired by her stories of strange seas and exotic lands. Why not? The next journey is to take some Haulpaks to Bougainville island, 500 miles north-east of Australia, sandwiched between the Solomon islands to the south and Papua New Guinea, of which it is formally part, to the north-west.

Part three – At sea

Once they set sail from Sydney, Roy is a new man, confidently taking his place at the helm and his watch among those of Jona and the first mate, Luke, confidently ordering the sullen black crew about their tasks, worried by the neglect and dirt he finds everywhere, standing up to the alcoholic first officer, Mac. Innes is at sea and his prose shows his total familiarity and spirited enjoyment of the situation.

Roy learns that the ship is scheduled to land at a beach along the coastline, to lower its ramp and let a couple of vehicles drive on board. He is suspicious of this little detour, of the crew’s behaviour, of Jona’s evasiveness. Something crooked is obviously going on, but how crooked? He bullies the Indian radio officer into sending a message to Perenna’s ship, for her attention, due to be docking about now. The rendezvous on the beach isn’t for a few days: can Perenna fly to Australia, then on to this location and join the boat? It will infuriate Jona; but it will fulfil Perenna’s dream of being reunited with her brother and of going back to the islands to find the man who cursed her brother and getting him to repeal the curse.

They reach the rendezvous on the coast of Queensland, beach the landing craft, lower the ramp and the two lorries are driven on board by their surly drivers, who go back down the ramp and into a waiting car and are driven off, the ramp is raised and the landing craft steams backwards and out to sea. When, at the end of his shift, Roy stumbles down the steep metal steps to his cramped cabin, he is amazed to find Perenna in his bed: she got his message, took the first flights and a car out to the meeting place, and paid the first driver to smuggle her aboard in one of the trucks.

She stays in Roy’s cabin for the first day and they find themselves having sex, but it is an uneasy relationship. Eventually she presents herself to Jona who is angry but can live with the situation. Roy and Perenna grow more suspicious about the contents of the crates which came aboard in the trucks. In a tense scene, in the middle of the night, eluding the watchful Buka native sailors, they break one open and discover it is full of guns and ammunition.

Somewhere along the line it is revealed that, when they were living in the islands, there was an outbreak of Cargo fever (related to the religion of Cargoism) and a force of Buka men, worked up into a frenzy, broke into Perenna’s house, hacked her mother to death in front of her and began to attack her, but she fought back with a kitchen cleaver, herself killing one native and driving the others off. Not without suffering a severe cut to the neck. a) Whenever Roy sees the scar he is reminded of this terrible incident b) it explains Perenna’s obsession with native beliefs and fear of violence.

I barely caught Perenna’s words as she said, ‘Are we all going to die – violently?’ Her eyes were wide and staring, full of fear – a fear that was inside her, part of her being. ‘Did he say anything about the curse?’ she said. (p.278)

Part four – the coup

They dock at Anewa Bay to unload the Haulpaks and trucks, and there is some classic Innes research as they are met by an engineer who shows them the extraordinary amount of development which has taken place in the past decade, with the construction of a power station by the Japanese which fuels a vast copper and silver mine up in the mountain as well as power for the new towns which have grown up around it.

Driving round that night, Roy and Perenna see a lorryful of Baku natives go into the District Governor’s office with machine guns. They drive to the nearest houses to call the police but all the phone lines are down. They drive to the huge mine to find the manager is on leave, but are witnesses as the rebels blow a key bridge in the road. Ditching the car, Perenna and Roy make it by foot down the mountainside to the port and to the landing craft, seeking safety from the coup, only to be captured at the last minute.

The coup president is a native named Sapuru but most of the practical details are being organised by Hans Holland, the red-haired cousin of Jona and Perenna, one of the tangled Holland clan. Apparently his father was killed, in his own house, by being surrounded by Colonel Holland, Perenna’s father, and a band of natives who fired flaming arrows into it, causing it to burn to the ground. This was during the war when all elements of Bougainville society were caught in the fighting between Japanese and the Allies: Hans’s father sided with the Japs and that was the reason given out for years why Colonel Holland killed him.

But throughout the book Roy has been learning there may be other reasons, that the twisted history of the Holland clan lies behind many mysteries.

Part five – the haunted house

Hans shows Roy that the landing craft is now full of captured police and local officials under armed guard of the gloating Baku natives, armed with the machine guns Jona smuggled in. Jona has drunk himself incoherent, therefore can Roy captain the ship up the coast of Bougainville to the smaller island of Buka, to drop them with the Buka Co-operative, the organisation of natives which is behind the coup. There they will be safe and can be held as hostages while Suparu negotiates independence with the Papua New Guinea authorities.

So there is some fine Innes writing describing sailing by night around a south Pacific island, marred for Roy, of course, by the extreme anxiety of the situation. Ever since he joined the landing craft relations have been rocky with its 60-year-old first officer, the alcoholic McAvoy, who is kept on by Jona because he served under Jona and Perenna’s father. Now Mac comes into his own as he hexes the Buka insurgent stationed on the bridge with a machine gun to guard Roy. Mac starts using the Buka language, babbling and gesticulating, hypnotising the guard just long enough to step forward and stab him in the guts with a long knife. Taking his machine gun he gets the horrified Roy to call the leader of the Buka men, the swaggering cocky Tualeg, up to the bridge where, with no preamble, Mac riddles his body with bullets.

Invoking the native beliefs in power and magic, Mac tells Roy to display Tualeg’s dead body on the bridge wing to the armed insurgents below. This he does with the result that the four or so insurgents simply drop their weapons, seeing their omnipowerful leader dead, and the hundred or so police and officials swarm up out of the hold and commandeer the ship. They tell Roy to continue steering it up towards the north coast, near to the airport. This they successfully storm and call for planes carrying troops from Papua New Guinea. This is the beginning of the end of the coup.

Meanwhile, Perenna, Mac and Roy, with a newly sober Jona, are recovering for this stressful adventure in the channel between Bougainville and Baku, close to the tiny island Madehas, home of the old Holland clan, location of the house built by Perenna’s grandfather and where her mother was slaughtered before her eyes. Old Mac takes Roy up there in the pouring rain, to enter the big, Gothic house, with its baronial fireplace and grand staircases, all fallen into rack and ruin now, old Mac speculating about the motives and purposes of the legendary figures, Red Holland, Black Holland, Colonel Holland, muddling them up with his adventures during the war, fighting against the Japs.

Mac shows him the house safe under the stairs, opens it and reveals whole sheets of Solomon seal stamps – the stamps whose die Roy discovered in the Suffolk house so long ago, as well as ‘the letter’, the one which drove the old Colonel into such a fury. He repeats the story that the Colonel was so fired up by it that he took his native troops and surrounded the log cabin of Red Holland, setting it aflame. He adds the detail that as the other natives fled, there was a single shot from the flaming house. Red shooting himself.

After returning to the landing craft, chewing things over with Perenna and Jona, and falling asleep, Roy is rudely awoken by the surprise appearance of Hans Holland. He is angry that old Mac stabbed his troops and released the police, but he thinks he can still make the coup work by driving trucks across the nearby airport, keeping the main plotters down in Anewa safe. But while they’re discussing it they hear the drone of planes flying overhead to land government (ie Papua New Guinea government) troops there. The cynical Australian who had been acting as Hans’s help and fixer says, ‘Well that’s that, then’. The coup will fail, Hans’s dreams of running a big shipping empire on behalf of the independent Bougainville organisation are in tatters.

Hans pulls a gun on Roy and insists he accompany him in a dinghy to the shore and then up the familiar path to the haunted house. Here – like many a doomed Innes character – Hans slumps in a chair and mutters fragments of the past, fragments the narrator (and the reader) struggles to put together. He is insistent on the letter, where is the letter? Has Roy shown the letter to Perenna? Again they discuss the complex fates of the Holland family but this time Roy tells him what Mac told him, about old Red shooting himself in the on-fire house.

Hans’ passion subsides and he tells Roy to get out, get out I tell you! Roy goes back down the path, catches the dinghy back to the landing craft and is wondering with Perenna what Hans will do now, how soon before police arrive to arrest him, whether he’ll get a life sentence etc, when one of the crew yells and points up the hill. The house is on fire, yes, flames are leaping up. And then they hear a single shot! History has repeated itself: Hans Holland has killed himself amid his own funeral pyre, just as his father did.

Jona, Perenna, Mac and Roy go up to the now burnt out house to find nothing but a pile of ashes and embers. Jona takes some, puts them in a tin and later carries out a formal burial at sea. Perenna and Roy wonder if Hans really was that depressed, or was it a ruse: has he faked his death and slipped away…?

Part six – savage customs

Jona receives radio orders from the police to sail back south to Anewa bay. Here there is an extraordinary scene, for Sapuru and the other failed coup men have barricaded themselves into one of the offices near the power station. They are surrounded by the armed police and NPG troops but themselves holding a number of white hostages. Standoff. They had been asking, demanding, the presence of Perenna, something to do with her father’s memory, with her influence.

And indeed Perenna consults with the leader of the Chimbu people who are surrounding the office. These native people are local to this place, the south of the island, unrelated to the Buka men from across the strait, and unhappy that their new-found prosperity, working up at the mine, is threatened.

Now they have stripped off their western clothes and painted their bodies with paint, lipstick, cosmetics, oil, whatever they can find, and similarly armed themselves with any weapons to hand, some have even made bows and arrows out of saplings.

Perenna counsels them to make a traditional show of strength outside the blockhouse and this is what they do, advancing and retreating and shouting their haka-like warrior chants. Finally the leader, Tagup, advances forward of his men and shouts for the coup leader, Sapuru, to come out and face him. And he does. Watched by police, army and the painted warriors the two men confer. And then Sapuru gives in and orders his men out, to lay down their arms, to release the hostages. The spirit has left him; he has no power. The coup is over. And later that evening Sapuru lays down and dies, all his strength, power and sorcery gone. It is at this moment, Perenna later finds out, that her brother Tim, back in England, long languishing under the curse of the sorcerer, at a stroke begins to show energy and life again.

Now, the whole coup, all the sailing about and adventures, gun running, shooting and midnight escapes are definitively, finally over, and Roy has a long shower and then sleeps for 12 hours in the lovely clean bed of a motel which the authorities find for him.

Part six – epilogue

Even the epilogue is complex.

The Holland shipping line Jona is arrested by the authorities but let off a gaol sentence for gun running because he pleaded ignorance, but more because of the key role played by his sister, Perenna, in the peaceful end of the coup. Nonetheless, his company turns out to be technically bankrupt. Roy flies to Australia and a) settles the sale of the Munnobungle ranch b) puts in time in Sydney drumming up custom for the last ship in the Holland line.

The Holland curse All the way through the book, on almost every page, running in parallel with the story of the gun running and the coup, has been the much deeper narrative concerning the Holland family and all the stories and rumours involving murder, incest, miscegenation and so on. While in the outback Roy travels to Cooktown to find the aborigine he’d heard about who is famous for killing one of the Hollands. He buys him a few drinks and wangles the story out of him, sort of, it’s still not totally clear.

In the late 1800s two adventurers tramping through the Australian outback came across a gold mine, which they named, because of their exhaustion, Dog Weary mine. One of them, Holland, took all the food and water and slipped away in the night to register the claim, leaving the other, Lewis, to die in the desert but Lewis didn’t die, he was found by aborigines who took him walkabout eventually returning him to ‘civilisation’. Here he discovered that Holland had used the money from the mine to set up a successful shipping line, the Holland line, with fine schooners and black and white photos of men in panama hats which were to find their way into Perenna’s house and the Madehas safe. Lewis, consumed with revenge, concocted a bomb and installed it on one of the line’s biggest ships but old man Holland discovered the plan, had Lewis killed and his body put in the captain’s cabin, then paddled away from the ship, clutching, among other things, his albums of stamps, until the ship exploded and went down with all hands. This man – Red Holland – was one and the same as the Carlos Holland who we’ve heard about throughout the novel, and he fled to Madehas island. And Hans Holland was his son. And the letter which obsessed Hans so much, reveals Carlos/Red’s identity and confirms that he is a callous mass murderer. It was this letter and this revelation which made Mac’s friend, Colonel Lawrence Holland, shake with anger and sent him along with a gang of natives to besiege and burn Carlos’s house. It was the knowledge that he’d murdered his own brother, which, years later, prompted the Colonel to get in his canoe and paddle off into the sea to die, seen by only a few servants whose garbled accounts have added to the legends. And it has been living with the knowledge that his father was a murderer which led to Hans becoming a wrong ‘un.

He was suddenly leaning forward, the red hair blazing in the slanting sunlight, his eyes staring into mine. ‘You marry Perenna, you marry the Holland Line.’ He came towards me, smiling. ‘You do that and you marry a curse. It was built on hate and fear and disaster and it’s done for every one of us – every man that has tried to make his fortune out of it. My father started it and he died an unnatural death. So did the old Colonel and Perenna’s mother, now Tim’s dying, he’s given up and he’ll die hating me, hating his sister, hating everyone, the whole world.’ He pointed his finger at me. ‘You too. You try and succeed where I failed and you’ll never know a minute’s peace. I’ll haunt you, Slingsby. Even as my father has haunted me. I’ll haunt you.’ (p.274)

The Solomon seal Here my understanding gave out and I admit I couldn’t follow why the old seal and the sheet of stamps Roy took from the safe in Madehas house were so important. The last ten pages are filled with astonishing detail around the history and manufacture of stamps and appear – from the author’s note at the end of the book – to be a complex fictional explanation of a historical fact which is that the reputable firm of note and stamp printers, Perkins Bacon, admitted in the mid 1850s to having a thief in their midst.

Precisely how this is related to the Solomon dies I didn’t understand: maybe they are a rare example of the thief in action, the die was stolen, and so the stamps are a very rare example of illegally printed stamps fro the Perkins Bacon stable.

The practical upshot is that Roy and Perenna fly back to England to oversee the sale at auction of the stamps and albums and, because of this unique (but to me incomprehensible) history, they fetch an astonishing £30,000. This is enough to get Jona’s ship out of hock and with some left over to invest in the business. The Holland line is reborn. And brother Tim is well on the way to recovery.

Roy asks Perenna to marry him and she laughingly says yes. After all the byzantine complexity of the plot, and the bewildering detail of much of the background information, it all ends, as do so many Innes’ novels, on what you feel is a psychologically balanced and happy ending.

Maybe this happiness, this joy in life and physical activities like sailing, swimming or skiiing, combined with the baroque complexities of his plots (which generally boil down to ancestral curses and Gothic family tragedies) prevent Innes being given much due or scholarly attention. But it is a gift to entertain, thrill and then leave your readers uplifted and inspired.

The night after the stamp auction, knowing their futures are assured, Perenna and Roy walk around his old farmhouse in Suffolk, and then start fooling.

I was kissing her as I carried her over the threshold. ‘Tomorrow I’ll think about making an honest woman of you.’ We were both of us laughing as we went up to bed. The moon was very bright that night and there were owls hooting – Bougainville and the Pacific seemed a million miles away, and so did reality. What fun life is! What a glorious everlasting struggle to survive and to build something worthwhile! And as I fell asleep I was thinking of that indomitable old man, her grandfather, sailing out in his canoe towards the horizon and infinity. (p.318)

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

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

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

Ancestral Vices by Tom Sharpe (1980)

Insanity could, with the help of modern medicine, be cured but dead dwarves were beyond any form of aid
(Ancestral Vices, p.137)

This is the first Sharpe novel I’ve read which I didn’t find funny. Grotesque, yes, but it lacked the compelling (il-)logic of the previous novels.

Plot summary

Lord Petrefact is a wicked old capitalist mill owner, confined to a wheelchair, and whose main pleasure in life is abusing his personal assistant Croxley. He hates his family and (for no very compelling reason that I could see) decides to commission a priggish, unimaginative, left-wing academic historian to write a warts-and-all history of the family’s long achievements of exploitation and abuse, venomously hoping it will drag in and humiliate as many of his relatives as possible.

And so we are (rather randomly) introduced to the University of Kloone, with the brand new computer Lord Petrefact has gifted to it (nicknamed ‘Doris’), and the impenetrably jargon-ridden and high-minded Marxist academic, Walden Yapp, the wholly unsuitable economic historian to whom Lord Petrefact offers a fortune to write the scandalous family story.

Fiasco at Fawcett Hall

Petrefact invites Yapp to his country seat, Fawcett Hall, where he insists on serving an eight-course dinner to revolt the puritanical socialist. There is a lot of fuss about his request for a sucking (or suckling ie very young) pig, traditionally cooked whole and presented with an apple in its mouth. When the local butcher can only get hold of a mature boar, Croxley and the Italian chef conspire to cut away most of the body and serve the head and rear end (grotesquely) sewed together.

At the end of the meal Yapp is shown to an ancient bedroom (where the wicked colonialist King Leopold of Belgium once stayed – to provoke the left-wing academic). But when Yapp tries out the very old shower / bath it goes mad, spraying water in every direction, rocking, shaking and eventually smashing its way through the floor – causing lumps of plaster to fall onto Lord Petrefact’s electric wheelchair in the bedroom below, which promptly goes haywire, charging around the room, smashing priceless vases etc before tangling up in Lord P’s pyjama cords and dragging him out into the hall and down the stairs, screaming for help.

The petrified housekeeper calls the police and we have a familiar-feeling scene of a perplexed copper being shown round the wrecked bedroom, bathroom and bloodstained hallway, jumping to all the wrong conclusions – reminiscent of the idiotic coppers in Sharpe’s first two South African novels and the exasperated Inspector Flint who appears in the Wilt novels. There is a running gag about the sucking pig, with the Italian chef giving the dim copper the impression Lord P used it for sexual perversions, as its name rudely suggests.

This all seemed to me very laboured, without the fresh, outrageous verve and the demented logic of the earlier books.

In the midst of this mayhem Yapp signs an amazingly generous contract with Lord P to produce a full economic history of the family and is sent off to the small town of Buscott in the Midlands, there to start work researching the cotton mill where the family fortunes all began. Lord P rubs his hands with glee at the thought that Yapp will discomfort and hopefully humiliate his son, Frederick, and his spinster sister, Emmelia, who both live in Buscott.


In Buscott Yapp finds himself advised to board with a certain Mr and Mrs Coppett. She is a simple-minded, buxom woman who has been told by an idiotic marriage guidance counsellor to get a bit of extra sex. Which explains why she crudely tries to seduce Yapp who rejects her obviously imbecile initial advances but then finds himself, when alone, or alone with her, reluctantly aroused by her. Her husband is Willy Coppett (presumably a joke name – ‘will he cop it?’ ie die), a dwarf who works in the local abattoir and carries a wicked-looking ten-inch blade everywhere with him.

Yapp has come to research the history of the Petrefact mill in the town, expecting to find it cruelly exploiting a down-trodden workforce, but is disconcerted to find the town prosperous and the inhabitants all very happy. This is rather crude satire on the fatuousness of left-wing academics’ stereotyped expectations. The reason for the workforce’s contentment is that Lord P’s wayward son, Frederick, has turned the factory into a very successful manufacturer of sex toys and erotic lingerie, which makes good profits and pays its employees well.

(There is a sequence where rather sheltered spinster Miss Emmelia Petrefact, insisting on seeing her nephew, ends up blundering through the factory floor witnessing all kinds of sex aids being assembled, including the lifelike veins being painted onto plastic penises: somehow this doesn’t feel as transgressive, shocking or outrageous as the same kind of thing did in earlier novels. Maybe this reader has become a bit too blasé.)

Frederick pays Willy the dwarf to tail Yapp as Yapp tours the pubs of Buscott trying to find the alienated and radical proletariat his left-wing textbooks tell him about, but instead finding a pretty contented and well-paid workforce. Presumably this is satire on the shallow ignorance of left-wingers.

After giving Mrs Coppett a lift home one evening and receiving a thank you kiss, Yapp has to go out for another spin because he has had a spontaneous ’emission’ brought about by her proximity. He parks on the hard shoulder of a main road and slips through bushes into a nearby wood to take his semen-stained pants off. Meanwhile, Willy the dwarf has got drunk tailing Yapp round the town’s pubs and, on the way home, slips and drops his precious knife into the road. Clambering into the road to reclaim it he is promptly squashed flat by a tractor being driven without lights by a drunken farmer. Oops.

Terrified at killing the town’s favourite dwarf, the farmer picks up the mangled corpse, tiptoes back to an abandoned car he saw parked a bit further up the road, and slips the corpse, wrapped in farm cloth, into the boot. It is Yapp’s car.

The trial of Walden Yapp

The truth about the dead dwarf; the truth about the porn factory; Mrs Coppett’s lust, Yapp’s shame, the dim police, Lord Petrefact’s revenge – the scene is set for another hundred pages of farcical revelations and tangled imbroglios and it should all have been very funny – I certainly found loads of passages in Sharpe’s previous novels howlingly funny. But not this one.

Instead I was surprised that the comic potential of the porn factory and opportunities to satirise Yapp’s trendy lefty views were all pushed to one side as the narrative (in an eerie copy of Wilt) instead turns to focus on the arrest and lengthy interrogation of Yapp for the murder of Coppett. We know it was not murder and that Yapp didn’t commit it, but all the circumstances conspire to make him look guilty of (just as circumstances conspire to convince the police of Wilt’s guilt) and the novel now sets itself to submit him to the full indignities and absurdities of the British legal system.

Even Lord Petrefact’s plan for a candid history about the family – the starter motor for the whole novel – is more or less forgotten as the narrative zeroes in on Yapp’s trial, overseen by a crusty old judge who is a relative of the Petrefacts’ so that the whole thing becomes a predictably farcical fiasco.

And then the book develops in a wholly unexpected way as the hitherto fairly minor character of the elderly Emmelia Petrefact has a supposedly life-changing realisation. Attending a family gathering where they all agree the best thing is for Yapp to be locked away before he can write anything incriminating, and then watching Yapp being railroaded at his trial, Miss Emmelia comes to realise that she is a smug, rich, protected old lady, that Yapp is innocent, and that she ought to do something about it.

For the first time she glimpsed a world beyond the pale of wealth and privilege where people were poor and innocent for no good reason and others rich and evil for even worse… (p.198)

Simultaneously Yapp in prison, buggered and abused by his tough cell-mates for being a dwarf-molester, realises his whole life has been an intellectual lie: if there is no Historical Inevitability about the coming Communist Revolution, if Capitalist Society isn’t one great Conspiracy run by the Ruling Classes with the Police and others as their Parasites – then maybe the world just is meaninglessly chaotic and unpredictable.

Without a conspiracy to sustain him there was no rhyme or reason for his predicament, no certain social progress or historical force in whose service he was now suffering. Instead he was the victim of a random and chaotic set of circumstances beyond his powers of explanation. For the first time in his life Yapp felt himself to be alone in a menacing universe. (p.195)

This universal theme and the development of these two characters are almost serious; Sharpe is in danger of almost treating them as proper human beings – a significant and odd break from Sharpe’s glorious universe of freaks, grotesques and wild improbabilities…

True, Emmelia’s solution to Yapp’s dilemma is to put on a disguise and kidnap other dwarves in a bid to show that the dwarf-killer who topped Coppett is still at large and therefore can’t be Yapp – a strategy which results in a further concatenation of farcical consequences… But it feels forced: the real power comes from this odd eruption of real feeling into the narrative and lingers after you’ve finished the book.

In the end Yapp is released, a much changed man, widowed Mrs Coppett goes to live contentedly with Emmelia, and the narrative winds up in a happy, if rather disconcerting, ending.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover 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.

The cover above shows the priggish figure of Walden Yapp, with the vengeful wheelchair-bound Lord Petrefact receiving the sewn-together sucking pig on the left, a cameo of Yapp struggling with the shower at Fawcett Hall in the top left window, the Buscott Mill producing its sex shop accessories in centre top, the alluring figure of the retarded Mrs Coppett and, by Yapp’s right foot, the tiny figure of the dwarf, Willy Coppett, red with blood from the abattoir and carrying his little dagger.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

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.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene (1980)

They all drank. I could tell they were more than a little intoxicated – it was only I who seemed hopelessly condemned to the sadness of sobriety however much I drank. I left my glass empty. I was determined to drink no more before I was at home alone and I could drink myself to death if I chose. (p.123)

A novella (140 pages) from Greene’s old age (he was 76 when it was published) showing he was just as miserable and suicidal in his seventies as in his teens.

The plot

A first-person narrative by Alfred Jones, fifty-something clerk and translator who works for a chocolate company in Geneva and who, despite having only one hand (having lost his left one as an air raid warden in London during the Blitz) falls in love with beautiful, young, high-spirited Anna-Luise Fischer. She is the daughter of the notorious Dr Fischer, a self-made millionaire whose fortune is based on a phenomenally successful toothpaste (Dentophil Bouquet).

A miserly misanthrope Dr F domineered over his wife, ridiculing her love of music and, when he discovered she was spending time with a lowly clerk who shared her love of classical music, he got the clerk sacked and his wife went into a decline. Anna-Luise tells Alfred how her mother told her all this, emphasising what a swine her father is. No love lost.

Compelled by good manners, Jones reluctantly goes along to tell Dr F that he’s marrying his daughter, experiencing the millionaire’s big house by the lake, his rude and surly butler, and encountering one of his regular guests in the waiting room. Dr F himself is abrupt and rude and not remotely interested in his daughter’s marriage, grateful to have her off his hands.

Shopping for records in a record store, Alfred and Anna-Luise encounter her mother’s confidente, the one who got into trouble and was sacked for playing classical music with her at their secret trysts, a sad man named Steiner. In fact Steiner faints at the sight of Anna-Luise so much does she look like her mother. They see him restored to health, at which point he fills in a bit more detail about what a swine Fischer is…

Back in their love nest, Anna-Luise explains to Alfred that Dr F has gathered round him a motley crew of sycophants and toadies. In her imperfect English she calls them the Toads. Funny thing is they’re not poor, they’re rich. But Dr F believes it’s only the rich who are truly greedy, and so he invites them to parties to ritually humiliate them before handing out (luxurious) presents.

The Toads

When a card arrives inviting Alfred to one of these parties he and Anna-Luise argue about it, she warning him off, he saying he’s curious. In the event he witnesses Dr Fischer’s guests more or less grovelling in order to earn their luxury gifts, on this occasion being forced to eat cold porridge while the Doctor enjoys fine caviar. Alfred alone refuses to eat and is not to be bought, unlike the other Toads: wealthy blue-rinse Mrs Montgomery, alcoholic movie star Richard Deane, the Divisionnaire – a retired Swiss military officer – Belmont a lugubrious tax accountant, and Mr Kips, a wizened old man bent almost double.

Anna-Luisa recounts how her father humiliated Kips by commissioning a children’s story writer to write a story about Mr Kips in Search of A Dollar with plenty of illustrations showing Mr Kips as he actually appears, and which Fischer got placed in every bookshop in Geneva at Christmas. Since he had just made Kips his lawyer on a healthy retainer the deformed old man had to put up with this appalling humiliation.

Anna-Luisa dies

Christmas approaches and Alfred takes Anna-Luisa to one of her favourite skiiing locations for her to have a morning’s exercise while he – too old and never learned to ski – waits in the cafe below. When an ambulance is called and a figure brought down on a stretcher he has a bad feeling and indeed it is Anna-Luise who swerved to avoid a boy on the piste and went head-first into a tree. Ambulance to hospital. Kindly doctors. Emergency operation. She dies under anaesthetic. Alfred goes back to their flat numbed.

Jones’s suicide attempts

Greene, the patron saint of suicides, lets rip. Alfred mixes all the aspirin he owns into half a bottle of whiskey and drinks it all. Wakes 18 hours later with a hangover. Goes to work and considers jumping off the top of his building. Driving his car off the road. Throwing himself into Lake Leman, letting the freezing water numb him till he drowns. Gas from the cooker. Fumes from the car. Starvation? Yes, he will set out to starve himself to death.

Dr Fischer

Fischer invites Alfred to visit him and tells him he despises humanity and he enjoys humiliating the Toads. Alfred asks why he didn’t come to his own daughter’s funeral and tells him he hates him. ‘But you must come to my final party,’ says Dr F. It will be a very special party with very valuable gifts for those who endure and submit. Disgusted with himself, but with nothing to live for, a few days later Alfred posts an RSVP saying ‘Yes, he’ll come’.

The bomb party

Dr Fischer gives his grotesque parties names. Alfred (and we) witness the Porridge Party. (We hear about the Lobster Party and the Grouse Party). When the Toads and Alfred are assembled for the final party, to be held outside in the snow by the light of flares at a luxuriously appointed table, waited on by the butler, Dr F tells us it is to be a bomb party. In the tombola barrel are six little crackers. Five contain cheques for 2 million francs; one contains a small explosive, big enough to kill.

In the following few pages the various guests at first think he is joking then rush and push others out of the way to get at the barrel. Mrs Montgomery opens her first with no explosion: the very drunk actor Deane opens his ditto; Kips walks away refusing to play; Belmont swiftly opens his. At last it comes down to the military man who has picked his sachet but is standing paralysed with fear. Impatiently Alfred seizes and rips open his, the final, sachet – but there is no explosion, there was no bomb. They’ve all been fooled and humiliated. Again.

Dr Fischer commits suicide

Alfred walks down to the lakeside in a daze of disappointment and has only been there a few moments when Steiner comes sidling along the waterfront. He must have broken into the grounds somehow. He reaffirms his hatred of Fischer and there are some Greene-ish maxims and quotable thoughts about hate and spite and so on.

‘You hate him and I suppose I hate him too. But hate – it isn’t important. Hate isn’t contagious. It doesn’t spread. One can hate one man and leave it there. But when you begin to despise like Doctor Fischer, you end by despising the whole world.’ (p.141)

Steiner says he has come because he wants to spit in Fischer’s face for causing the death of the beautiful wife. Almost immediately this becomes possible as Dr Fischer walks down the pitch-black night-time lawn to join them at the lakeside. He complains to Alfred that he really has spoiled the party; he particularly wanted to see the cowardly Divisionnaire pull his own cracker. Oh well. ‘And you, Steiner, I shouldn’t have got you sacked, I should have got you a pay rise and left you and Anna to play all the Mozart records you wanted to.’ To the last casually toying with people’s lives… Oh well, ‘Time to sleep’, he says and strolls off along the lakeside. A minute later there is a loud report. Fischer has shot himself in the head.

That’s it.


This is a way to spend 3 hours or so as long as you suspend everything you know about human nature or behaviour and as long as you enjoy a simplified mental world full of extreme abstractions like Love, Hate, Guilt, Despair, Suicide, Nothingness and so on.

Like all Greene’s entertainments it seems to me cranky and wilful. Supposedly a satire on the Euro-rich it is in fact far too tame and simplistic. One suspects the Euro-rich are much more clever, complex and corrupt than this fairy story portrays. And the suicidal thoughts which follow the death of his lover and which also, it turns out, plague Dr F, are the same suicidal thoughts which followed Greene throughout his life and recur in the minds of so many, too many, of his protagonists.

If one were feeling harsh, one could describe it as melodramatic twaddle.

The movie

In 1985 the novel was made into a TV film, Dr. Fischer of Geneva, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring James Mason (in his last role) as Dr. Fischer, Alan Bates as Alfred Jones, and Greta Scacchi as Anna-Luise. Doesn’t look like it’s available on DVD. A glance at this crude trailer, cut from the VHS version, suggests why.

Related links

Greene’s books

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

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was a phenomenally successful author of international thrillers, publishing some 24 novels plus the three Bourne novels, and lending his name to another dozen or so books either co-written with, or entirely written by, other writers. Thus, after Ludlum’s death, with the full permission of his estate, the splendidly named Eric Van Lustbader has produced a further ten Bourne novels.

Like most modern American thrillers this is a long book, at 566 pages. If you see a few of the Bourne paperbacks side by side you get the feeling that, like so much else in American culture, American authors and publishers in this genre measure by size – and this text is as big and unsubtle as a Texas steak, packed with protein, big in size, scope and ambition, raw and bloody.

However, The Bourne Ultimatum is the only one of this large brood I’m likely to read because the price of being so productive, of churning out so many very long texts, is a concomitant thinness of fabric and style and a curious metallic emptiness of character. In fact this is one of the very rare books which I eventually found so insulting to my intelligence and taste that I abandoned it around page 300. I was hoping it would be gripping and intelligent and found it the opposite. Ludlum makes Frederick Forsyth look like Tolstoy.

The plot

There are a lot of facts to digest, but the basic idea is that Jason Bourne’s body is found floating at sea by fishermen who bring him aboard and hand him over to a portside doctor who nurses him back to health. He is fit and intelligent but has lost his memory. Stitched into his body is a microfilm with the address of a bank in Zurich, so the doctor gives him some money to travel to Switzerland where the novel becomes very violent. At the Swiss bank he runs foul of its strict security measures and is attacked on the way out by men with guns; he manages to fight his way free and get back to his hotel where he is again surrounded by a number of armed men so he grabs a hostage, a woman lecturer named Marie attending the economics conference being held at the hotel.

Jason drags Marie out the back of a packed auditorium using her body as a shield against the bad guys, shoves her into a car and forces her to drive around town, while she has hysterics, tries to escape, panics, cries, pleads to be released etc. They go to the house of a legless old concentration camp survivor – Chernak – whose name Jason had been given as a contact, but when Jason turns his back the old man pulls out a gun and is about to shoot him, when Jason shoots first.

Back on the street they are caught by three goons. The boss despatches goon 1 with Marie, saying take her to the river, shoot her and dump her in it. After some interrogation Jason manages to shoot or disable his interrogators and escapes, going down to the river to rescue Marie who he finds being raped in the back of a car by goon one, prior to being shot dead.

Jason rescues Marie, though the baddy gets away in the confusion of gunshots. Marie drives Jason to a village outside Geneva where they rest and recuperate. They review the evidence – that Jason is known and feared wherever he goes, whichever contact he talks to is petrified of being seen with him. They all refer to him as Cain. Meanwhile, the men seeking to kill him appear to work for a figure called Carlos, head of some kind of gang or cartel. (We are shown Carlos, bizarrely, working out of a confessional box in a Catholic church, where he receives a succession of old, ancient men who form a network of agents and messengers. A touch of the deliberately grotesque.)

I’d just got to the scene where Jason has abducted another woman, the owner of a high-class boutique in Paris who is some kind of contact for Carlos. She explains

  • that Cain/Bourne came from a network of assassins and killers groomed during the Vietnam War for illegal operations in one ‘Operation Medusa’
  • that out of that environment came a number of killers who set up international hitman organisations
  • that Carlos has been top-dog in Europe for some time and that Cain/Bourne had carried on being ultra-cruel, ultra-effective killer in the Far East
  • but that some disruption has forced Cain/Bourne to come West and set up in direct competition with Carlos

So that’s why Carlos, via his hitmen, is out to kill him; and also explains the shadowy links to someone or something in the States, maybe the original controllers of the ‘Medusa’ set-up…

After three or four days together, the woman Jason has kidnapped, slapped and hurt and threatened with death and whose actions led directly to her being raped – has fallen in love with Jason. They have sex, and Marie begins to use her in-depth knowledge of international economics, and specifically banking practices, to figure out how to help Jason find out who he is and to counter his enemies…

Rape then love

My son, like me, gave up reading at the point where the woman who has been kidnapped and violated falls in love with Jason. This seems so unlikely as to be unpleasant and repellent. It simply defies belief and breaks the credibility of the story. I suspect any person who’s undergone such a trauma doesn’t particularly want to have sex with anyone for a while. Especially not with a man who kidnapped her and indirectly caused it all.

From this point on the novel treats both characters as if they are sincerely and deeply in love, with many paragraphs devoted to their concern for each others’ feelings etc. These struck me as unreadable, sentimental, fantasist hogwash and were the biggest reason for me abandoning reading the book.

The problem is acknowledged in the film version where Bourne abducts Marie but there is no rape scene and, after they go through some hair-raising chases and shootouts together, their slow rapprochement to becoming lovers is therefore a bit more believable. Or less preposterous than in the novel.

Suspense (lack of)

A thriller is meant to thrill. A key element in this is ongoing suspense about what’s going to happen next. The Bourne Identity suffers for the simple reason that the reader knows there are 12 or so sequels and a whole box set of movies about the guy – and the sheer fact of their existence indicates that Jason Bourne sticks around. Coming to the text with all this baggage means there is no mystery or suspense about the hero’s survival. He survives and thrives, by the look of it.

And if we know these fundamental outcomes – he survives, he will ultimately find out who he is – then the reader’s focus turns more onto the style, the page-by-page experience of reading the text. Does that grip and hold and please us?


Once you stop believing in the story, you are left with the style, which is deliberately clipped, abrupt, telegraphic.

Four slaps in rapid succession, flesh against flesh, blows maniacally administered, received with muted screams of terror. Cries terminated, gasps permitted, thrashing movements part of it all. Inside the car! (2004 Orion paperback edition p.128)

Ludlum uses italics to emphasise things, particularly when a character is thinking or several characters are talking  ‘My God, what shall I do next?’ It becomes very distracting: is it meant to make the prose seem more immediate, or does it reflect a failure to make the words exciting by themselves without having to add extra shouty italics? And in case you didn’t realise that the italics are being used in urgent and exciting moments, there are lots of exclamation marks at the ends of sentences to help!

Here is Marie learning that the colleague she contacted back in Canada to help her track down some of the bad guys’ bank payments has himself been murdered:

‘They killed him. They killed him! My God, what did I doPeter.’
‘You didn’t do it! If anyone did it, I did it. Not you. Get that through your head.’
‘Jason, I’m frightened. He was half a world away… and they killed him!’ (p.198)

She’s scared, you see. You can tell by the italics. And the exclamation marks!! — The odd thing about this epidemic of italics is they often read, to me, to be in the wrong place, giving an odd emphasis to the sentences:

‘Why is it so important?’
‘It… just is.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Yes… No, I’m not sure. Don’t ask me now.’
‘If not now, when? When can I ask you? When will it pass? Or will it ever?!’
‘Stop it!’ he suddenly roared, slamming the glass down on the wooden tray. ‘I can’t run! I won’t! I’ve got to stay here! I’ve got to know!’ (p.209)

Characters like robots

Harder to demonstrate with quotes because it only emerges over lengthy sections, is the way the dialogue, the supporting text, the access to characters’ thoughts, all make them seem like robots. There is no doubt or hesitation. Bourne – none of the characters – really make mistakes or fluff things. They are relentless calculating machines, working the odds and angles, a predatory ruthless attitude which finds its fulfilment in the regular action-packed shootouts. All the accounts of actual combat I’ve read indicate how confusing and bewildering it is, involving a great deal of chaos and accident. In this text there is certainly wild firing which doesn’t hit its target, but it is always extremely clear who is where, who is good, who is bad, what are the angles. It is a fantasy of violence. A video game world with no real risk.

This mechanical, robotic, computer game element lends itself perfectly to the films which set a new standard for incredibly fast, precise, robot-like fights and shoot-outs, with Jason and his opponents converted into terminator level killing machines. As a man, it is thrilling and totally absorbing to watch these techno-fights; your body tenses and flexes as you watch, feeling yourself one of the participants.

But the ‘novel’, as developed by Defoe and Richardson and Austen as a device for the minute calibration of characters’ thoughts and feelings, for the subtle exploration of human consciousness, delicacy of feeling and sentiment, doesn’t feel the right medium for this story. To put it another way, this shallow, overblown, confusing and patronising text doesn’t feel like it belongs to the same tradition or same world at all.

The franchise

Like McDonalds or Krispey Kreme, the Bourne brand has become a franchise. The original three novels by Ludlum – known as the Bourne trilogy – have been joined by nine further Bourne books (with one in the pipeline), written by noted thriller author Eric Van Lustbader. As and when Lustbader desists there’s no reason the franchise couldn’t be taken up by another author(s) and continue forever.

It is tempting to say that Bourne franchise is as globally successful – and as tasteful and as good for you – as McDonalds and Krispy Kreme, and for the same kind of reasons: it delivers a concentrated burst of flavours/sensations/predator memes ruthlessly targeted at the most obvious taste buds/brain receptors which prompt instant and overwhelming nervous system/lower brain gratification but which, if consumed without any variety of over any length of time begin to make you really very ill, and which, even at the moment of consumption, makes you aware that what your body really wants is healthy, nutritious, more subtle, more soulful sustenance.

The movie

The three Ludlum-written Bourne novels were made into box office smash movies – The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Their success is down to the fact that they ditched a lot of the plot and paraphernalia of the novels, replacing Bourne’s rivalry with fellow international assassin Carlos, with a completely different emphasis on the idea that he is a CIA-trained superassassin and his worst enemy is actually his own people who are trying to track him down and kill him before he blows their (illegal) assassin-training operation.

The movies are so brilliant because the scripts so comprehensively dump much of the novel, keeping only the central idea of the super-assassin who’s lost his memory, because they are extremely well directed (Doug Liman the first one, Paul Greengrass for the second two), and because Matt Damon inhabits the role with total, blinding conviction. But also because the concept and sequences themselves belong in the flashy, fast-moving medium of film, not in the slower, more thoughtful world of prose.

Related links

Bahama Crisis by Desmond Bagley (1980)

I turned at a metallic noise at the door. The first man to enter had a shotgun pointed at my belly. He was dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt open almost to the waist, and had a lined grim face. He took one pace inside the room and then stepped sideways, keeping the gun on me. ‘On the bed.’ The barrel of the gun jerked fractionally. I backed away and sidled sideways like a crab to the bed. The muzzle of that gun looked like an army cannon. (p.146)

First-person action adventure yarn which Bahamian businessman Tom Mangan kicks off with a brief history of the Bahamas, situating himself as the successful scion of one of the oldest families of the islands’ white settlers, married to a beautiful wife with two lovely daughters, the owner of a couple of successful tourist hotels, planning ahead for the anticipated expansion of air tourism to the islands. Indeed, he has everything a forty-something man could desire – when tragedy strikes.

One fine day he waves his wife and one of his daughters off in the family motorboat driven by the trusty Peter which will take them 120 miles across peaceful seas to Miami on a trip to visit relatives – except the boat never arrives and three days later his daughter’s badly decomposed body is recovered 200 miles in the wrong direction.

Local police speculate it’s cocaine smugglers who have a recognised modus operandi – steal a domestic boat, repaint it, use it for one drug run from south to north America, then scuttle it. More rarely, they hijack a boat in use, as appears to have happened here. ‘Was there anyone else aboard?’ the police ask. Yes, a hand Peter had hired for the journey. ‘Did he know this hand, had he ever met him, did he see him?’ Er, no. ‘Aha. That was probably your hijacker. Sorry Mr Mangan.’

The disappearance occured as Mangan was in the middle of high-level business talks: an American acquaintance from business school, Billy Cunningham, represents the extended Cunningham clan which owns lots of interests in Texas and wants to expand into the Caribbean. After initial discussions, then due diligence by lawyers and auditors, Tom and Billy sign a deal which gives our man 10% of shares in, and makes him President of, the new Theta Corporation, which will combine his local know-how and contacts with the huge resources of the Cunninghams for investment and expansion.

During the socialising surrounding Billy’s visits Mangan meets Billy’s beautiful spoilt cousin, Debbie, 25 years old and on the rebound from a dashed love affair. —Hmm. A gorgeous young lady on the rebound, a recently bereaved wealthy businessman in need of comfort, what could possibly happen?… In the short term he suggests she throws herself into charitable work: why not bring poor black kids from the slums of Texas out to the Caribbean and teach them to swim and surf and sail? Off she goes inspired.

Meanwhile, one slender clue emerges from the boat-napping. When the boat left the quay Tom’s daughter forgot her camera which she’d been running round taking snaps on in the last minutes before departure. Debbie has the film developed and one or two pics show the face of the mystery hired hand. He’s white, a well-known Californian yacht bum named Kayles, who was in the islands in the weeks running up to the disappearance; now he’s nowhere to be found.

Tom passes what he knows on to the local police, headed by Deputy-Commissioner Perigord. But then things move on to a longer-term description of Tom’s adept handling of business. The deal is signed with the Cunningham Clan; Tom moves immediately to create a new boat hire division, starts the building of new hotels in underdeveloped islands, sets up a school devoted to training locals to become top hotel staff and so on. Debbie, along with some young teacher friends, sets up her charity to bring deprived city kids out to the islands for the holiday of a lifetime. After a year of being close to each other, Tom does the inevitable and proposes and she accepts. He has not only gone into business with Cunningham money, he’s married into it too.


After the stratospherically high-level politics of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Devil’s Alternative – published in the same year – with its conversations about nuclear war set in the Politburo and West Wing, with its quick cross-cuts from the Kremlin to a dockyard in Japan to the SAS training barracks in Devon – this Bagley novel feels small and personal, almost cosy. One man’s account of how he got mixed up in some nasty but essentially local crime activities, almost a police procedural about how he uncovers the conspiracy behind the immediate crime. Although, in the event, the perspective does expand a little…

More plot

Things go badly for the Bahamas tourist trade. There’s a severe outbreak of legionella disease which kills nearly fifty tourists; a vast funfair on one of the islands burns down; and there’s a sudden riot in the capital Nassau in which three locals are killed. It’s as if the islands are cursed!

By far the biggest incident for Mangan, though, is when an employee sights the boat belonging to Kayles in a distant cay. Tom flies with Sam, his leading boatman, to the nearest small airport then hires the boat of a local fisherman to putter for 6 hours to the isolated cay where the boat was seen, and discovers it’s still there. They confirm it’s manned by Kayles, jump him and tie him up. Search the boat and find charts, log of journeys all over the Caribbean, and suspicious ampoules in his first aid box, containing a yellow liquid. Aha. Liquid cocaine? Heroine?

But while they’re topside searching the deck Kayles escapes and emerges firing a gun, both Tom and Sam leap overboard. When they resurface Kayles has killed Bayliss, stolen his boat and made his getaway. When Tom and Sam finally repair Kayles’s boat and make it back to civilisation, Mangan informs Commissioner Perigord of everything that happened and the latter is understandably furious he went it alone instead of letting the police handle it.

Then a small plane flown by his best pilot and carrying four VIP Yanks goes missing presumed crashed, just after Mangan cancelled his involvement in the flight at the last moment. When he gets back from these numerous entanglements he finds his wife, Debbie, has stormed out, fed up that he spends all his time on the corporation, the hotels, the business, and these other wild goose chases and none with her, leaving a note saying she’s flown back to the family in Houston.

Part two – the American chapters

This inaugurates part two of the narrative, set largely in the States: for a few days later the angry Cunningham clan phone up to say Debbie’s never arrived and they want Tom at company HQ in Houston asap. He flies into the middle of a rancorous family and boardroom argument among the bickering clan of outsize Texan personalities which make up the Cunninghams and I was once again reminded of the TV series Dallas (started 1978 – the feuding Ewing clan) and Dynasty (1981 – the feuding Carringtons). There’s an old patriarch Cunningham, two powerful sons (including Billy One, Billy’s dad), and their grandsons (including angry Frank who hates Mangan). A significant handful of them never wanted Debbie marrying Tom in the first place, and now look what’s happened!

They reveal to a shocked Mangan that Debbie has been kidnapped – they show him the ransom note – and the ransom the kidnappers are demanding is – Mangan himself! As the clan discuss and bicker, a further demand arrives, a complicated 10-step hostage handover process complete with photos of locations and detailed notes of procedures to be followed. The clan are pondering this when Tom steps down to the foyer to buy a packet of fags and is stabbed in the thigh with an injection of some kind of paralysing poison. Out of the crowd a fake doctor appears and Tom finds himself, paralysed but conscious, being whisked away in a fake ambulance. The elaborate document delivered to the Cunninghams was a delaying tactic. They were waiting for him to expose himself. And now…

Taken hostage

Tom awakens in a primitive cell somewhere rural. The Baddy arrives preceded by ‘Leroy’, a psychopath with a shotgun. The Bad Man calls himself ‘Robinson’ with a smirk and explains that, yes, they do have Debbie. ‘Robinson’ explains he is Kayles’ employer, Kayles is a fool, he was told to get from the Bahamas to Miami quickly and, since his own boat had an engine fault, heard about the need for a spare hand on Tom’s wife’s boat journey to Miami, applied, was hired, then killed all aboard – the loyal Peter, Tom’s wife and daughter.

Mangan is sickened to hear all this so casually explained. But why is he here? Because when Sam and Tom shanghaied Kayles a few weeks later, tied him up and searched the cabin – Kayles claims he overheard Tom explaining Robinson’s whole plan to Sam. Now the Bad Man needs to know what Mangan knows: ‘Tell me what you know, Mangan; tell me what you’ve told Commissioner Perigord. Or your wife gets it.’ And he leaves Tom to think it over but our man is completely puzzled. He has no idea what Robinson’s game is. He had gone along with the cops’ theory that the boat-jacking was down to cocaine smuggling and has no recollection of explaining ‘the whole plan’ to Sam. He has no idea what ‘the whole plan’ could be.

Meanwhile, being a practical type, Tom realises the potential in the full water pitcher they’ve left him in his cell to drink and/or wash with. He perches it in the thatched roof above the doorway, suspended by a thin twig, and creates a string out an old rag leading from twig to his bed – and waits…

Some hours later there come shouts from outside as of a maddened crowd, and then screams which he recognises as his wife’s. Moments later shotgun man enters the room and stands in the obvious security spot, Tom pulls the string and leaps to one side, the thugs fires and blasts half the wall out but the big jug hits him directly overhead, cracking his skull. As the number two – not Robinson, but this is no moment to hesitate – rushes in, Tom half tackles him, ripping upwards with the sharpest fragment of the porcelain bowl they had left him and which he had shattered into shards, tearing open the baddy’s stomach.

Mangan grabs the shotgun and runs out but to his dismay encounters a large crowd, a dozen or so men who all turn towards him and the first shots are fired. Realising he can’t rescue Debbie, Tom legs it into the woods and there begins a classic manhunt with the pursuers splitting into groups and cutting him off in territory they know intimately, while he blunders on blindly, cut by trees and brambles, loses shoes in the stream and is near the end of his tether as he scrambles up higher ground, trips and collapses, the shotgun goes flying – when he feels a hard boot step onto his wrist. Cut to close-up of hero squinting up into the face of a figure standing over him, his face blotted out by the southern sun.

And, just like in the corniest movie, it is not one of the pursuers (who, it transpires, are the no-good, low-down Ainslee family), it is their ornery neighbour, Dade Perkins. We are in the deepest, most backward, South and Dade tells the exhausted Tom to hide because ‘No goddam Ainslee is comin’ onto my land, no matter what you gone and done, mister’. Long story short: Dade faces down the pursuers (along with his beautiful buxom daughter Sherry-Lou, hiding in the bushes and who fires a warning shot over the pursuing posse’s heads when they threaten to ignore Dade’s threat not to go one step further). Cussing and spitting Leroy Ainslee (the main thug) and the others slope off.

Tom gets Dade to phone Billy at Cunningham HQ. Turns out the Cunninghams have harassed the Perkins for several generations, trying to hustle them off their land to seize the hardwood, cut everything back for grazing etc. Tom promises, ‘You’ll never have any more hassle from any more Cunninghams if you help us find Debbie’. Half an hour later six helicopters, Cunningham private ones and police ones, arrive and go on to storm the Ainslee compound but all the menfolk heard them coming and have fled. Tom, Billy, the cops and a doctor find Debbie in an outhouse having been gang-raped (‘and worse’). Doctors, sedation, chopper to hospital.

More disasters

Meetings: Tom meets with the Police and Commissioner Perigord who all the way through has been telling him, in exasperation, to leave it to the police, advice Mangan cheerily ignores and ignores again as the Cunningham clan circle the wagons, despatching a bodyguard of six ex-US Treasury men to protect him and Debbie.

Debbie is finally released from hospital and there are brisk descriptions of her (swift, clean) recovery from the gang-rape ordeal. (The male narrative romps on, leaving this reader with misgivings about the whole gang rape storyline…) Back at his home island, Tom catches up on hotel business and soon discovers that Sam, who accompanied him out to Kayles’ boat, has been badly injured in a suspicious accident. Are ‘they’ pursuing anyone who came into contact with Kayles? Why? Then there’s another catastrophe when the new luggage handling system at the airport goes haywire, ripping open the baggage of an entire flight of American tourists. God why all these misfortunes, is he cursed or something?

And then Legionella breaks out in his hotel and hundreds of guests go ill, the place is quarantined, Mangan has to supervise the organisational mayhem which ensues. Extensive search eventually shows the seals on the water tanks on the roof are broken. And it is here, checking it for himself with the hotels’ water engineers and security men, that Tom stumbles over an ampoule like the one he saw in the medicine box on Kayles’s yacht.

Aha. Suddenly he sees a pattern and understands why ‘Robinson’ was interrogating him. The plan is nothing as small as smuggling cocaine; it is to undermine the entire tourist economy of the Bahamas while fomenting political unrest: ‘Robinson’ is a communist subversive. What Kayles half heard as Mangan outlining the ‘whole plot’ to Sam was simply Mangan reciting a list of the misfortunes which had occurred up to that date, with no idea that they were planned.

Threaded around these events are Mangan spotting Carasco, one of the baddies who was involved in abducting him in Houston, in the hotel itself, though in a thick disguise. Hotel security, the police and the bodyguards are alerted and tail him. Although he gets away some night photos emerge of him disembarking the dinghy of a yacht named Capistrano. Aha.

Final chase

An all points bulletin is put out for this yacht. Once located the troops move in, both official police, the US bodyguards and our hero along with his Yankee pal, Billy, complete with hand gun. There follows a powerboat chase through the maze of canals on the island, reminiscent of Live and Let Die (1973) or Puppet on a Chain (1972). It is a stock ‘exciting climax’ to a certain kind of 1970s made-for-TV level entertainment.

True to form, both boats race, overtake and sweep past each other, the splashed protagonists ducking and weaving and taking pot shots at each other – classically, these things climax in the baddy’s boat exploding in a fire ball, but here the baddy beaches on a low strand, runs towards a house being built, there’s more shoot-out while the bewildered builders look on. Finally, as the official police catch up and join Tom and Billy, the baddy makes a bid for freedom across a street and the up-till-then restrained Commissioner Perigord surprises Tom (and the reader) by throwing the swagger stick he has used up to this point as an ornamental sign of authority, at the fleeing ‘Robinson’. Turns out this decorative stick is tipped with lead and is a powerful weapon: it hits ‘Robinson’ on the head, who drops stunned in the road. However, before we can get hold of the Baddy, interrogate him and get the conspiracy clarified, a London Routemaster bus (common in the islands) swerves round the corner and runs clean over his head. Oh well.


In the Epilogue the Commissioner explains that US records show ‘Robinson’ to have been a Cuban revolutionary and his plan the systematic destruction of the Bahamian tourist economy in order to foment revolution among the impoverished population – hence everything from the legionella outbreaks, burning down of the pleasure attraction, small flight crashing with high profile VIPs abroad, even the sudden riot in Nassau.

Now everything will be alright, the tourism business return to normal, and the text ends with a fully restored Debbie bearing a baby. Restoration of order, natural rhythms, new life.


Like most plots which fuel this kind of thriller, the conspiracy which drives it is better seen in glimpses, as hints of some unstated dastardly plan. The final revelation of the conspiracy is not particularly plausible. It’s a hard moment for thriller writers. The final rationales all-too-often fail to fully justify the mayhem which they allegedly cause. (For example, the giant stakes behind the Forsyth thriller I just read – The Devil’s Alternative – namely the risk of the Russians launching an all-out nuclear war, ends up feeling ludicrous, over-wrought, even, maybe, to the author, so that the ending has a peculiarly comic or romantic feel about it.)

Bahama Crisis boils down to guys with guns chasing each other, being kidnapped and held in Dr No-style cells, or busting out and being chased through mangrove swamps, leading up to the familiar trope of a speedboat chase.

There is just enough characterisation to differentiate the various cardboard characters but the treatment of, for example, the rape and the post-rape impact on Debbie, or the impact on the protagonist of his wife’s abduction and murder, go about an inch deep. They are pretexts or nodes around which cluster plot functions and motivations, not real events. They have little or no psychological depth, and so minimal impact on the reader.

That said, this is tauter and more believable than many of Bagley’s earlier thrillers. As always he has done plenty of factual research which he includes often raw in the text but which sheds interesting light on the Bahamas history, geography and people. And a lot of information about running a tourist hotel, managing a chain of hotels, and the tourism business more generally. Not many novels are set in this milieu or this location and I found both congenial and interesting.

The comparison with Forsyth brings out some of Bagley’s other strengths: whereas Forsyth’s tone is lofty, detached, a journalist reporting on the events he’s describing, always detached enough to give you a full technical run-down of every gun being fired or a detailed explanation of just how the SAS is organised and which sub-section of the organisation the men he’s describing belong to – Bagley is inside the mind of a hot, sweaty, scared guy stumbling through the mangrove swamps pursued by psychos with guns.

Although they’re both thrillers, it feels like Forsyth belongs to the shiny, consumerist, Sunday Times Rich List 1980s which focuses on gadgets and well-run organisations, whereas Bagley belongs to an older tradition of visceral thrills and spills, an everyman thrown into exciting situations of peril and jeopardy, the Eric Ambler-Ian Fleming tradition. Which, on the whole, I think I prefer.

I thought Bagley would go off in his final works but I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a slightly dated but engaging poolside read. It may lack psychological depth but it has a nice warmth towards its characters and setting. It is not deliberately heartless and cynical as the new generation of techno-thriller writers in the 1980s were.

I’m looking forward to reading his last few novels…

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

Fontana paperback edition of Bahama Crisis

Bagley’s books

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

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

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

Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

This is another surprise from an author I’m getting used to being surprised by. Amis has the reputation of writing realistic comic novels about the contemporary world, of skewering contemporary trends and character types, with a speciality in documenting scabrous and often misogynistic ‘problems with girls’ – but of the seven novels before this one, only two fit this description while the others are all experimental in one shade or another – ghost stories, detective stories, science fiction, alternative worlds – and this one, again, is an experimental or genre novel.

Russian Hide and Seek

The novel opens with an obviously Russian character named Alexander Petrovsky riding a horse through extensive grounds to a grand house, meeting his sister and mother, then preparing for a formal dinner, mentioning Tolstoy and Chekhov, and so I thought I was (unexpectedly) in a novel set among Russia’s bored upper classes before the Revolution.

It was disconcerting, then, when, after the formal meal Alexander, the young cavalry officer ‘hero’, goes for a stroll in the garden with Mrs Korotchenko, one of his parents’ guests, and she not only moves rapidly to kiss him, but asks him to help her take her dress off, and then invites him to make love to her on the lawn. Hmmm. Not very 1910. On page 30 there is casual mention of Northampton which is really jarring, making the reader realise this is all set in England. And then there’s an increasing flow of references revealing that we are not only in England, but some time in the 21st century, some 50 years after an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’.

1. So it slowly unfolds that the Russian aristocrats we are following are an occupying power who ignore or put up with the sullen indifference of the ‘native’ English.

2. Just as strikingly, the entire oil-based economy seems to have disappeared – has Amis accepted 1970s predictions that oil will run out? Certainly all the serf English are managing with horses and carts, Alexander uses a horse to get around, only very exceptionally is a petrol car referred to as an extreme luxury, and there’s a brief glimpse of a vast highway with other roads going under and over it, festooned with rusty old blue signs, now empty and abandoned, presumably a disused motorway.

Plot 1 – Context

The start of the plot is that a commission of the occupying forces has been set up to try and restore the English culture which was so completely obliterated at the time of ‘the Pacification’. Officially sanctioned, this leads to a set of scenes which are oddly comic-satiric-touching in tone. First we witness a concert of English music being staged (including numbers by Duke Ellington, obviously a member of the old English aristocracy). Then some ancient plays (Look Back In Anger has its audience in stitches all the way through, presumably a satirical dig at Amis’s contemporary, John Osborne). However, the next night the audience can’t make head or tail of Romeo and Juliet and get so restive that after much booing and yelling someone actually sets fire to the theatre.

Though comic in details (its mostly illiterate native audience have lost any context for such live performances, don’t know they have to keep quiet, completely misunderstand genres, plotlines and the antique language) this rather harrowing vision of a people completely disenfranchised from their own past, their own culture, is quite moving and eerie. Especially in the third of the three scenes where the Russian authorities encourage locals to renovate an old disused church and put on a ‘service’, led by a doddery old man, a ‘vicar’, who is one of the very few ‘prewars’ still alive i.e. English person who remembers the country before ‘the Pacification’ 50 years earlier.

We are shown the reactions of Alexander and his mistress Kitty and of Kitty’s father Dr Wright to the ‘service’ and then ‘sermon’ delivered by blind old Mr Glover. All of them are perplexed by the antique language and completely misunderstand the language of the hymns and puzzle over the relationship between the three gods referred to in this old pantheon. This amounts to a powerful and slightly haunting vision of what a genuinely post-Christian society would be like, in which Christianity has been completely forgotten and is now a puzzling oddity…

Plot 2 – the Conspiracy

From its opening pages to nearly the end, the novel – told in the third person – follows young, arrogant, unpredictable and self-absorbed cavalry ensign Alexander Petrovsky. We witness relationships among his fellow officers in the 4th Guards, quartered in a former private school in the country outside Northampton. We see him attending a number of formal dinner parties or summer garden parties at local grand mansions, his seduction by Mrs Korotchenko, mentioned above. This deepens into a sort of amusing sado-masochistic relationship in which, every time he visits her, she has thought up kinkier and kinkier scenarios – against the kitchen wall naked, tied and gagged spread-eagled in the bedroom, suspended by ropes in the barn, or joined by her equally naked and depraved 12-year-old daughter. Alexander quickly adapts to her appetites and to her regular demand that, after the actual sex, he tramples over her naked body, preferably wearing his cavalry boots.

About half way through the novel Alexander is sounded out by fellow officer, Theodore Markov, whether he wants to join ‘the Conspiracy’. Turns out there is a Resistance or Underground movement among the Russian occupiers, which plans to overthrow the existing authorities, hand England back to the English, and leave. From the start this plot development seemed unreal and implausible to me. It certainly lacks the psychological depth of something like Winston Smith slowly realising he is an opponent of Big Brother in 1984: Alexander is asked to join and says, Sure, OK. If it was intended to have the grip and excitement of a thriller, it didn’t. I wasn’t gripped, simply curious to see how Amis would play the thing out.

  • Alexander is introduced to fellow conspirators and – since Theodore is in love with his sister, Nina – this includes her and her friend Elizabeth. Everything is set for the revolution the following Sunday.
  • The conspirators become aware that the creepy Director Vanag, head of security, and his secret police may have infiltrated the Conspiracy. It is discovered that Mrs Korotchenko knows a key officer in Vanag’s office and so Alexander is tasked with persuading her to do whatever it takes to persuade the officer to hand over the Top Secret list of spies who’ve infiltrated the Conspiracy. Ie to give in to his requests for sex. This she reluctantly does, but only if Alexander is himself prepared to do what he had up till then refused to, and incorporate her daughter in their sado-masochistic sex sessions, which he shamefully agrees to, though no details are given.
  • A few days later, as soon as Mrs K hands Alexander the list he realises that some of the top leaders of the Conspiracy are in fact double agents. He also understands that his senior officer’s warnings a few days earlier about desisting from keeping dangerous company didn’t, as he thought at the time, refer to Mrs K. He realises the Conspiracy has been thoroughly infiltrated. He goes straight to Theodore and makes the impulsive decision to bring the revolution forward 72 hours. This seems futile and wildly improbable as we have heard that it is a co-ordinated strike, not only across England, but even in Moscow itself. One small cog doesn’t have the authority or contacts to alter a timetable so intricately communicated across such a far-flung network.

Nonetheless, next day Alexander orders his NCO and another soldier to accompany him to the Armoury where they bluff their way past the guard and take possession of the ‘projectile’ weapons which obliterate anything they’re fired at. (Shades of the futuristic weapon, the atom-bullet-firing rifle mentioned in The Anti-Death League). But his men jib at targeting regimental headquarters, as he intends. They point blank refuse to kill their comrades and so Alexander, in a rage which everyone who knows him is all-too-familiar with, rides off on his horse to carry out part two of his mission, followed in hot pursuit by his two mutinous soldiers until he reaches the house of his parents. He storms into the drawing room to confront his father who tells him it is pointless, the Conspiracy is completely infiltrated, every move and aspect of it has been completely anticipated and neutralised. Alexander, not a very likeable person, blusters that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually hope to change anything, by killing his own father he just wants to register  his anger and frustration at the way things are, to show his opposition to the smugness and complacency of the authorities.

As he raises his gun to kill his father – now on his knees begging for his life – one of the two soldiers who had followed him steps through the French windows and shoots Alexander dead. That’s it. That’s the end of the main plot and of the character we’ve been closely following for the past 220 pages. Was I meant to be caught up in the plot, gripped and thrilled and excited? Because if so, it failed. Amis throws in the fact that these final events are set on a hot humid stifling afternoon turning into night, amid an oppressively gathering thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning on the horizon, a melodramatic backdrop to Alexander’s futile actions. But to little or no impact on this reader.


As in his other alternative world story of a few years previously, The Alteration, there is an epilogue which gives the wider context of events and rams home the Author’s Message.

1. Director Vanag gloats to a hall-full of captured conspirators that the entire conspiracy was in fact dreamed up by Moscow purely as a way of flushing out anyone with even slight dissident tendencies. The list Alexander went to such lengths to get hold of was in fact a list of their own genuine leaders who some of the conspirators very usefully proceeded to murder. They were all puppets dancing on a string. They will all now be sent to forced labour camps. Goodbye.

2. Vanag has a one-to-one with Theodore, who had recruited Alexander into the Conspiracy and had been affectionately engaged to Alexander’s young sister, Nina. Both are now under arrest. A living death in the gulag awaits. After mockingly asking Theodore what on earth he expected to achieve, he – in passing – gives a bit more detail about the conquest of Britain, 50 years back.

‘There had been disorders here, runaway inflation, mass unemployment, strikes, strike-breaking, rioting, then much fiercer rioting when a leftist faction seized power. It was our country’s chance to take what she had always wanted most, more than Germany, far more than the Balkans, more even than America. And she took it…’ (p.241)

Author’s message

Is this the point of this odd novel? Is it a warning by an Amis who had swung through the political spectrum from being a sort-of leftish young man in the 1950s to reactionary old fogey by the 1970s? Is the book part of the mind-set and the atmosphere of the late 1970s which thought that under a left-wing Labour party and ravaged by strikes in all sectors of society, Britain was actually collapsing into chaos and economic collapse? The atmosphere of a time in which we know that MI5 bugged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office and there is evidence that some elements actually planned a military coup to overthrow the government? Despite being set in the future, is this strange novel a kind of message from a period of really intense social unrest which most people have forgotten about?


The list of ‘spies’ Alexander gets hold of is dated 2035 and, since it is repeatedly stated that all this is happening 50 years after ‘the Pacification’ that sets the Russian invasion of Britain in 1985 i.e. one year after what was, for many people, still the terrifyingly ominous date 1984, now just a literary footnote.

As in The Alternative the reader is impressed by the fullness with which Amis has imagined and populated this alternative world, fully imagined the psychologies of the occupied English and the occupying forces, imagined the rivalries and small bitternesses and resentments which grease all their exchanges. A distinguishing aspect is the drabness of this world: the Russians have brought their own Soviet shabbiness to bear: everyone’s clothes are badly made and fit badly; the flowers they take pride in are actually undercultivated weeds, the drinks are thin and tasteless, the food is poor, but nobody notices except the narrator because nobody has ever known any better.

On a larger scale the social life depicted in such convincing detail is an oddly diffracted, strangely distorted version of contemporary trends, in that the big parties in the grand houses have a strange 19th century formality, but are shabby and cheap (as mentioned above) and coarse: after a certain hour lots of the guests are fighting drunk, throwing up, crawling around, passed out, or openly fornicating among the bushes.

What makes it such a persuasive fiction is the very mundaneness of this future world with its bad clothes, drunk officers, ersatz drinks, poorly maintained gardens, roads full of potholes, nasty food for the mostly illiterate serf population, a powerful air of provincial humdrum boredom such as you do actually find in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. Amis has successfully transplanted that world to England. It is an extraordinary and disquieting and completely unexpected feat.

However, the book’s strength is its weakness. The heaviness and dullness of the everyday establishes an ambience in which nothing happens so authentically that it is next to impossible to believe the sudden eruption of the Conspiracy. Especially when the psychological motivation of the young men involved is so shallow and casual. A very believable setting; but a disappointingly unbelievable plot.

The title explained

Russian hide and seek turns out to be a stupid game played by the bored officers in Alexander’s troop. They go out into the darkness with loaded revolvers at the end of an evening’s hard drinking, split up, find hiding places, then shout to give away their location and the others take pot shots at them. A sort of variation of Russian roulette. After one terrifying go Alexander realises he is no hero and never plays it again. Towards the end of the book another session is held in which one of the officers, Leo, is badly wounded. He is brought into the barracks screaming with pain and fear where the troops’ commanding major, to my surprise, shoots him in the head like a horse. Is this some kind of satire? A comment on the heartlessness of Russians? Or just a cold sci-fi view of the future? Like a lot of things in this disconcerting novel, it is hard to tell.

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.

How Far Can You Go? by David Lodge (1980)

Ten characters is a lot to take in all at once, and soon there will be more, because we are going to follow their fortunes, in a manner of speaking, up to the present, and obviously they are not going to pair off with each other, that would be too neat, too implausible, so there will be other characters not yet invented, husbands and wives and lovers, not to mention parents and children, so it is important to get these ten straight now… (p.14)

This is a strangely unattractive and unenjoyable book. It has most of Lodge’s virtues (plain prose, social history, well-observed humour, plausible characters) but a fair few of his vices as well. Overall it fails. Why? Because it is more like a report or an essay in social history than a novel. It contains lots of historical generalisations, along with lengthy disquisitions on Catholic theology or literary theory – but relatively few actual scenes featuring specific characters. As a result it doesn’t engage the imagination. It is a bit boring and a bit earnest, as Lodge himself is aware.

This book is not a comic novel, exactly, but I have tried to make it smile as much as possible. (p.74)


Anyone familiar with Lodge’s previous novels will be asking themselves what literary tricks or structural novelties will he be deploying this time? The most obvious ones are:

  1. this is a group biography – we follow, in a very programmatic way, the lives of ten characters, young students when we meet them in 1952, through to the early 1970s ie some 20 years
  2. it is told by a highly intrusive narrator


The novel is swamped by two themes which dominate and overshadow everything else:

  1. Roman Catholicism It is about the revolutionary changes in Catholic belief and practice between 1952 and 1973.
  2. Sex And it is about how sex – the fear of sex, the ban on using contraceptives for sex, the ignorance of sex, the slow discovery of the joys of sex – dominated the lives of Catholics from the 1950s to the 1970s. This involves numerous descriptions of all the characters’ sexual activities told in graphic but strangely clinical detail. More than enough.

Group biography

The simple polarity of Changing Places made it easy to process: bumbling Brit goes to California; high-powered Yank is dumped in the Midlands. Compare and contrast their parallel adventures. Their wives were the moons of these two planets, easy enough to remember and get to know, with a number of lesser characters dangling from them in states of greater or lesser vividness. Easy to visualise, assimilate and follow.

By contrast this, its successor novel, sets out to depict no fewer than ten main characters and, since they marry others, an extra ten or so secondary ones. Despite reading the opening chapter twice, I still found it difficult to remember all their names and characteristics and was forced to make a list to refer to:

  1. Dennis, burly youth in a duffel coat, Chemistry student, in love with…
  2. Angela, attractive blonde, French student, Head Girl at her Merseyside convent school
  3. Adrian, wears glasses
  4. Michael, a dark slab of greasy hair falling forward over a snub-nosed white face, thinks continually of women’s breasts and masturbates compulsively
  5. Polly, posh convent boarding school, touches herself as she falls asleep but would be horrified if you suggested it was ‘masturbation’
  6. Ruth, thickset, bespectacled, flat-chested, plain, converted to Catholicism in adolescence thus horrifying her agnostic parents
  7. Edward, first-year medical student with a rubbery comic countenance
  8. Miles, ex-public schoolboy, a convert, posh, repressed homosexual
  9. Violet, small, dark-haired, pale, eczema, bitten-down fingernails, melodramatic, marries her tutor
  10. Father Austin Brierly, devout priest who is destined to have his eyes opened by the theological revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, leading him eventually to leave the priesthood

We meet them all together in 1952, in a gloomy Catholic church where they habitually assemble for pre-lecture Masses. The narrative then progresses programmatically through the next 20 years or so, observing the characters’ various pairings-off, marriages, children, divorces etc. And their sex lives.

The chapter headings give a clear indication of how schematic the approach is going to be:

  1. How It Was
  2. How they Lost Their Virginities
  3. How Things Began To Change
  4. How They Lost The Fear Of Hell
  5. How They Broke Out, Away, Down, Up, Through, etc.
  6. How They Dealt With Love and Death
  7. How It Is

The Intrusive Narrator

It is well known that one of the central challenges of telling a story is deciding what kind of narrator you’re going to have.

You can have a story narrated by one of the characters – a first-person narrator, very immediate, very powerful, particularly where the narrator is finding something out. A variation on this is the Unreliable Narrator, who, in telling their story, reveals that they don’t know about or understand everything that’s going on. A clever author can make the reader aware of things the unreliable narrator hasn’t spotted or grasped, making for Dramatic Irony between what we know and they don’t know.

Or a story can be recounted by a third person narrator, of which there are several flavours.

The Omniscient Narrator knows everything that is going on and recounts it authoritatively, keeping their own character and opinions rigorously hidden. They recount it as it happens. Most of the thrillers I’ve been reading recently are like this; for example, The Day of The Jackal, with its scrupulously factual, dry, emotionless presentation by an omniscient narrator.

The polar opposite is the Intrusive Narrator, a teller with a character and opinions. Historically, most narrators have in fact been quite intrusive: the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, an early classic of the novel genre (1748), starts each chapter with a little essay about fiction or the story or characters. Similarly inclined to buttonhole the reader with their opinions and interpretations are the narrators in novels by William Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and Tolstoy. In fact, the non-intrusive ‘clinical’ narrator is a relatively modern invention, a creature of the end of the 19th century, and becoming dominant in so-called genre fiction – spy novels, thrillers – where the illusion of scientific accuracy is important.

Lodge the Intrusive Narrator

Continuing his habit of experimenting with narrative forms, Lodge makes the narrator of this novel very intrusive. From the start he is dropping in little explanations of Catholic theology like an overhelpful teacher.

As they murmur their responses (it is a dialogue mass, a recent innovation designed to increase lay participation in the liturgy) … (1981 Penguin paperback edition, p.1)

The priest on the altar turns, with a swish of his red vestments (it is a martyr’s feast day, St Valentine’s) … (p.2)

Attendance at mass on ordinary weekdays is supererogatory (a useful word in theology, meaning more than is necessary for salvation) … (p.3)

But he also wants to give us a similar helping hand to understand the characters he’s created and the world they live in.

Before we go any further it would probably be a good idea to explain the metaphysic or world-picture these young people had acquired from their Catholic upbringing and education. (p.6)

Note the ‘we’. It is like the academic ‘we’. ‘In this paper we will explore the ways Shakespeare demonstrates blah blah blah.’ Sometimes the intrusive narrator uses this ‘we’, but more often – and more intrusively – Lodge intervenes as himself, ‘I’.

Initially, I thought, this could be any ‘I’, a fictional ‘I’ – the ‘I’ telling a story, obviously doesn’t need to be the same as the author. Except that Lodge goes out of his way to identify the ‘I’ of this novel with himself, the real historical David Lodge.

Thus, when one of the characters in the book goes off to do his National Service, the narrator mentions that he has already written a novel about National Service. He is referring, of course, to Lodge’s second novel, Ginger, You’re Barmy (‘I have described it in detail elsewhere’ p.37). And when he describes the young married Catholic couples’ attempts to implement the Church’s Rhythm Method of birth control, he mentions (at length) the fact that he’s also written a novel on this subject (The British Museum Is Falling Down):

They relied upon periodic abstinence as a way of planning their families, a system known as Rhythm or Safe Method, which was in practice neither rhythmical nor safe. I have written about this before, a novel about a penurious young Catholic couple whose attempts to apply the Safe Method have produced three children in as many years, and whose hopes of avoiding a fourth depend precariously on their plotting a day-to-day graph of the wife’s body-temperature to determine the time of her ovulation, and confining their enjoyment of conjugal love to the few days between this putative event and the anxiously awaited onset of her period. It was intended to be a comic novel and most Catholic readers seemed to find it funny, especially priests, who were perhaps pleased to learn that the sex life they had renounced for a higher good wasn’t so marvellous after all. Some of these priests have told me that they lent the book to people dying of terminal diseases and how it cheered them up, which is fine by me – I can’t think of a better reason for writing novels – but possibly these readers, too, found it easier to bid farewell to the pleasures of the flesh when they were depicted as so hemmed about with anxiety. Healthy agnostics and atheists among my acquaintance, however, found the novel rather sad. All that self-denial and sacrifice of libido depressed them. I think it would depress me, too, now, if I didn’t know that my principal characters would have made a sensible decision long ago to avail themselves of contraceptives. (p.74)

The Boring Narrator In, say Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, the intrusive narrator emerges as the most entertaining and amusing character in the text. What’s striking about the long sections in this novel written in Lodge’s own voice is how flat and dull they are: they strike just the same lucid, sober, informative tone he uses in the afterwords to the 1980s reprints of his early novels, where he lucidly and plainly explains what inspired them and the biographical details behind them.

It is engaging enough, in those contexts, as memoir or autobiography. But it is not fiction, it is factual explication. Only in the last sentence in the passage quoted above does the narrator ‘remember’ that he’s writing a novel not an essay. ‘Oh yes. My characters…’ Lots of this book feels like that and is deliberately meant to. He will launch on a five-page explanation of Catholic theology, thinking he can redeem these dry and tendentious passages with a larky phrase or two, but he can’t. I am bored and alienated.

Academic mind-set and style Although the passage quoted above is all about the ‘I’ narrator, in fact the most important word in it is ‘they’. Numerous sections convey the passage of time and the fate of his characters en masse, all grouped together – ‘they this’, ‘they that’. The approach, the mind-set, the tone of voice, is of a magazine essay, an article in History Now, discussing ‘a generation’.

For Dorothy and Adrian, Tessa and Edward, Miriam and Michael, Angela and Dennis, then in the early sixties, it was babies, babies, all the way. Nappies, bottles, colic, broken nights, smells of faeces and ammonia, clothes and furniture stained with dribble and sick. Well, that was all right. They were prepared to put up with all that… (p.74)

Of the four couples, Edward and Tessa probably suffered least under the regime of the Safe Period, for several reasons. They were comparatively well-off, they wanted a large family anyway, and they managed to space their first three children at two-year intervals without much difficulty. (p.77)

If you add the words ‘in this study’ after ‘Of the four couples’ to make ‘Of the four couples in this study…’ it brings out how this flat academic language – and the rational enumeration of reasons which follows – could easily come from some social history or sociology report or paper. It doesn’t live. It’s sort of interesting, in the way a good academic paper is, or his afterwords and essays are. But it’s not dramatised, it’s barely ‘fiction’.

They [the couples in our study] had been indoctrinated since adolescence with the idea, underlined by several Papal pronouncements, that contraception was a grave sin, and a sin that occupied a unique place in the spiritual game of Snakes and Ladders. For unlike other sins of the flesh, it had to be committed continuously and with premeditation if it was to have any point at all. It was not, therefore, something that could be confessed and absolved again and again in good faith, like losing one’s temper, or getting drunk, or, for that matter, fornicating. (A nice question for casuists: was fornication more or less culpable if committed using contraceptives?) It excluded you from the sacraments, therefore; and according to Catholic teaching of the same vintage, if you failed to make your Easter Duty (confession and communion at least once a year, at Easter or thereabouts) you effectively excommunicated yourself. So, either you struggled on as best you could without reliable contraception, or you got out of the Church; these seemed to be the only logical alternatives. Some people, of course, had left precisely because they could no longer believe in the authority of a Church that taught such mischievous nonsense. (p.79)

Historical references The narrator peppers the text with references to contemporary history. Many paragraphs start with a potted summary of a specific year and its key events before going on to tell us what happened to the couples in our study during that year. This is quite an easy-going way to revise your post-war 20th century history…. but not really fiction. They remind me of the school-level background notes, or even the voiceover in some ‘100 Greatest Hits of the 60s’-type, cheap TV show.

England was less boring in 1956 than it had seemed to Polly in the coffee bar with Michael the year before. At Easter there was the first CND march. The Outsider and Look Back In Anger made a great stir and the newspapers were full of articles about Britain’s Angry Young Men. In the autumn there was the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising. (p.48)

In the same year that Masters and Johnson published the results of their sex research, England won the World Cup at football, which millions saw as the bestowal of a special grace on the nation; John Lennon boasted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and, to the disappointment of many, was not struck dead by a thunderbolt. (p.102)

They’re chatty enough, but add to the sense that the text is more full of notes and lectures and historical reminders, than it is of fully-imagined fiction.

All this helps explain why the book feels less like a novel and more like a sequence of episodes calculated to bring out pre-determined themes. But it’s in the many long sections explaining Catholic theology that the narrator crosses a line from being mildly entertaining popular historian into a determined and oppressive lecturer.


All the fancy structuring and self-referential narrator and occasional comic moments can’t really conceal the thumping obviousness of the subject of the novel. Young Catholic students were innocent and miserable back in the 1950s. They married and had children and were poor and slaved away, especially the women, as was expected of them. But then, during the 1960s, they slowly learned to drop their silly life-hampering beliefs and experienced various forms of liberation and freedom.

I don’t know why I didn’t warm to this story, except that I feel I’ve read it so many times before, from so many of the novelists a generation older me, who all experienced the same thing and are all at great pains to tell me all about it.

Since the novel’s dominating theme is the radical changes to Catholic teaching during this period and the impact this had on ‘the couples in our study’, Catholic teaching has to appear in the text and, probably, has to be fairly thoroughly explained in order for us to understand the revolutionary changes it underwent.

But dropping 3-, 4- or 5-page passages of unleavened factual explanation into the text damages any sense that this is fiction, a novel, rather than a series of articles or papers. Along with the Brody’s Notes-level historical references and the programmatic approach to the characters, the long passages of Catholic exposition teach you to read the text in encyclopedia mode, with the factual part of the mind. The net result is that you almost resent the return to the rather silly sections with fictional characters in. Why not go whole hog, and turn it into a personal essay on the subject?

The Lecturing Narrator A good example is his treatment of Humanae Vitae, the long-awaited proclamation on birth control which was finally promulgated in 1968. After all the liberalising tendencies unleashed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Humanae Vitaie cruelly disappointed reformers by not conceding an inch to the new ‘permissive society’, instead robustly affirming the Church’s traditional, stifling and wildly impractical teachings about sexual relations and birth control. Lodge spends three pages (pp.113-115) explaining its contents and the events around its publication, but this turns out to be just the prologue:

Let me explain. (Patience, the story will resume shortly.) (p.115)

There follow another five-and-a-half pages (pp.116-121) of closely-written, completely factual exposition, which could be extracted from a highbrow magazine article or part of an academic textbook, explaining why the Church’s teachings on birth control have central importance to faith, because they imply an entire worldview about the human body and its purpose.

The text – the ‘story’, such as it is – once again simply grinds to a halt. And it seems to me that Lodge using his intrusive narrator to make a joke of it – ‘(Patience, the story will resume shortly)’ – can’t hide or patch over the fact.


In Lodge’s fiction, and that of his hero, Graham Greene, Roman Catholicism is the cause of an enormous amount of pain and suffering, psychological self-torture leading more often than not to suicide (in Greene).

In Lodge’s novels Catholicism is seen as a practice, a set of rules about how to live your life, rules designed to mark you out as special, separate and superior to the non-believing ruck of humanity (there are occasional jokey references to slackening this or that rule ‘will make us no better than Protestants’; but I don’t think these are jokes; half the value of Catholicism is the strictness of its beliefs make you heroic in obeying them; a high level of masochistic smugness is always present).

The result – judging from Greene and Lodge’s novels – is a quite staggeringly narcissistic, navel-gazing obsession with your own obedience of the rules down to the tiniest degree and, here as elsewhere in Lodge, the sharpest, most private and personal conflict occurs where Catholic teaching impacts on the characters’ sex lives. So all the rhetoric about love and charity and what-have-you, again and again – and very dispiritingly – boils down to a terribly narrow obsessiveness about sex, sex, sex, contraception, sex, the rhythm method, sex, the pill, sex and more sex.

As a lapsed Anglican I rather thought Christianity, occasionally, had something to do with love for others, compassion for others, loving your neighbour. Agape. Charity. What makes Lodge’s Catholicism (or the Catholicism dramatised in his fiction) just like the Catholicism in Greene’s fiction, so repellent is its relentless self-obsessed, self-examining selfishness.

It comes as a wonderful relief, then, when the narrator talks about something which isn’t sex and isn’t about navel-gazing self-scrutiny going in permanent fear of the Catholic Church’s myriad punishing rules. When Lodge demonstrates the kind of decent, compassionate, liberal-minded humanism that in fact, despite the Catholic straitjacket, underlies all of his fiction.

It’s a couple of weeks since I read it, but several moments stand out in memory as exemplifying what good fiction can do:

  • Ruth, the plain, chunky girl who didn’t marry or need men, who became a nun, but then went to the States in the late 1960s and experienced the standard Lodgesque mind-opening, visiting various hyper-modern, liberal Catholic convents and prayer groups. There is one very vivid scene when she spends a weekend at a tacky prayer meeting at – of all places – Disneyland, populated with talkative Yanks, where she is initially repelled by the almost Protestant (yuk) sense of gushy open-ness. But in the key moment, she is invited by her small group to say something about herself and, as sometimes happens in these situations, finds herself opening right up about her life and in particular the way she’s been a dutiful nun all her adult life but never experienced real, divine love. And starts crying from the bottom of her heart. And one of the tacky talkative American women says, ‘Would you like us to pray over you, honey?’ And Ruth kneels and the half dozen others link hands over her and pray their banal prayers and suddenly Ruth feels an enormous sense of liberation and bliss, the most intense feeling of her life, thrill through her body (p.179). After all the long, lecturing passages detailing Catholic teaching in such numbing detail, Lodge here has the novelist’s tact not to pass comment, leaving it entirely to the reader to decide whether this was a religious, or a purely personal, psychological, moment, making it all the more mysterious and impactful.
  • At the party to celebrate the birth of Dennis and Angela’s third child, their friend the doctor, Edward, realises the little baby is mute and passive for a reason. It is a Down’s Syndrome baby. He discusses it in a panicky aside from the party with his wife and says he will have to tell the happy parents, then cooks up a pretext to get Dennis off to one side. Shall we go into the garage, you can show me all those new power tools you’re so proud of. Sure, come this way, says Dennis, and Edward follows him ‘feeling like an assassin with a loaded gun in his pocket’ (p.112). Now, we know from Wikipedia that Lodge himself had a Down’s Syndrome child (in fact it was his third, exactly as in this fiction). And in later scenes we learn of the devastating impact on Michael and on Angela and their marriage, less scenes than disquisitions or essays in psychology by the author. What fiction does uniquely – and what Lodge rises to here – as author and as person – is to feel sorry for the doctor – for the person who has the fateful life-changing knowledge and has to decide how and when to utter it. I thought that was a genuinely selfless perception.
  • There is another, relatively minor strand, about the diagnosis with fatal cancer of one of the characters’ fathers. Here again, we see the grown-up children and relatives debating whether to let him know or not (amazing that they were in that position; surely hospitals have to let people know, nowadays), and learn the subtle reasons different characters have for a) revealing b) concealing the diagnosis from the patient. For once a prolonged scene that wasn’t about sex and only peripherally touched on Catholic teaching, but dealt with an all-too-common event in people’s lives and dealt with it imaginatively, showing us the impact on various characters, showing us life.

The book in fact contains quite a few scenes like this, scenes which, if allowed to breathe and connect organically, would have been the core of a much stronger novel.

JRR Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. One of the most interesting things about his epic fantasy The Lord of The Rings is that, when he had finished it, he went back through it, reviewing it carefully (no doubt for the usual authorly reasons) but also to expressly remove every element which could be interpreted as referring to his religion. I was struck by what a wise and tactful thing that was to do.

Lodge’s strategy in How Far Can You Go?, as in The British Museum Is Falling Down, is the precise opposite. To stuff the books to overflowing with expositions of Catholic doctrine and practice which, as you will have gathered, I find hectoring and off-putting.

However, Lodge is a great novelist and so – despite the religious lecturing and the doctrinal pedagogy in this book – there are also moments when a truly humane sympathy for his characters and, by extension, a compassionate attitude towards suffering humanity, manages to emerge.


I’m no prude but I found the obsession with sex in this novel distinctly queasy.

Their sexuality may be a dominating part of people’s lives but there’s a reason most people hide it most of the time. There may be more or less levels of shame or embarrassment involved, but the fundamental reason is that it has a reducing, lowering effect on human dignity to be continually reduced to a sexual cipher.

In the first chapter Lodge tells us that Michael masturbates compulsively and is obsessed with breasts. I found this mildly comic but when he went on to discuss the masturbatory habits of the other characters, and when he began to describe how Polly likes to slip her finger between her pink lips and onto her love bud every night before she goes to sleep, I began to feel a little queasy. A middle-aged, male narrator enjoying describing a very young woman masturbating. Hmm. As this first chapter progresses all the other characters are reviewed on a scale of their masturbation habits. Hmm. Is that the most interesting thing about them? And Michael’s breast fixation gives the narrator license to comment on the breasts of all the female characters for the whole of the rest of the book. Hmm.

Hmm means I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, it’s fine to make comedy out of people’s sexual habits, it’s possibly alright to dwell on your characters’ masturbatory habits… But the hmm begins to turn negative in the next chapter – How they Lost Their Virginities – which describes just that, describes the engagements and weddings of the various couples and then dwells in great detail on the ghastly wedding nights in scene after scene of brutal sexual explicitness.

It turns out that strictly-brought up Roman Catholic young adults in the 1950s were ignorant and clumsy about sex. a) This is a tiresomely familiar theme. b) The subject could have been handled with, let’s say, some delicacy. Instead of which Lodge adopts what I considered to be a clinical and heartless approach.

By the second week, Polly and Rex had reached the stage of petting to climax. (p.36)

The head of the family was a count, a handsome, charming man who deflowered Polly quite quickly and skilfully on what was meant to be her afternoon off. (p.38)

They made love four times that weekend, and on each occasion Violet had an orgasm under digital stimulation, but not during the act itself, when Robin had his. (p.47)

‘Digital stimulation’. It is the same science paper tone as ‘the four couples in our study’. ‘Four times, eh? And 100% orgasm by digital stimulation but not from penetrative sex. Add that to the spreadsheet of results.’

She was a virgin of, course – so much so that when, prior to retiring to bed on their wedding night, he kissed her attired only in a dressing-gown, she inquired what hard object he was concealing in his pocket. Under the bedclothes she snuggled up to him happily enough, but when he tried to enter her she went rigid with fear and then grew hysterical. (p.51)

Adrian lay on top of his bride and butted at her dry crotch while she winced and gasped faintly beneath him. When at last he succeeded in penetrating her, he ejaculated immediately. (p.52)

Desperately he rolled on top of Tessa and, with a fluke thrust at the right place and angle, entered her in a single movement. Tessa uttered a loud cry that, if it was heard in the house, was probably not recognised; and Edward, groaning into the pillow, pumped rivers of semen into her willing womb. (p.57)

There seemed to be no way that Michael could get his penis to go in and stay in… They struggled and heaved and muttered ‘Sorry’ and ‘It’s all right’, but after a while the atmosphere became slightly desperate. Had Miriam grasped Michael’s penis and guided it to its target, there would have been no problem, but it never occurred to her to do so or to him to suggest it. None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage. (p.63)

‘None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage.’ ‘Very interesting results. I think we should add this to the spreadsheet and include in the main presentation.’

The book Dennis had lent her had not prepared her for the physical messiness of the act of love, and the orgasms she had read about in its pages eluded her. On the honeymoon Dennis was ravenous for her, begged her to make love twice, three times a night, he groaned and swore in his rapture, said over and over again, I love you, I love you, but always reached his climax as soon as he entered her, and she felt little except the unpleasant aftertrickle between her legs, staining her new nighties and the hotel sheets. (p.72)

There’s more, much more. Continually, throughout the book, we hear about the characters’ changing attitudes to, and practices of, sex to the exclusion of much else that makes up human life. A few have jobs, briefly referred to. They have children, they move town. But none of them seem to have pets or favourite cars or hobbies or go visit art galleries or make anything. No. Instead Lodge informs us that Michael developed an addiction to German porn movies and the TV producer (there’s always one in these novels about the 1960s), Jeremy, spent a lot of energy trying to persuade his wife to attend swinger parties.

Edward and Tessa… found that the most satisfactory arrangement was for Edward to lie supine and for Tessa to squat on top of him, jigging up and down until she brought them both to climax. (p.153)

If [Robin] was honest, what he enjoyed most was a slow hand-job performed by Violet while he lay back with his eyes closed and listened to Baroque music on a headset. Violet herself was most readily satisfied by lingual stimulation, and gradually this arrangement became customary, both taking it in turns to service the other. (p.155)

Over the years they had composed an almost unvarying ritual of arousal and release which both knew by heart. Their foreplay was a condensed version of their courtship: first Dennis kissed Angela, then he pushed his tongue between her teeth, then he stroked her breasts, then he slid his hand up between her thighs. They usually reached a reasonably satisfying climax, and afterwards fell into a deep sleep. (p.151)

Well, I’m glad it was ‘reasonably satisfying’. The funny thing about all this sex talk is that none of it is arousing. Just as none of the lengthy explanations of Catholic teaching have the slightest shred of spirituality. Both lack that sense of magic or inspiration, of lift and strangeneness. Lodge is never strange. He is always sober and straight-talking and factual and reliable.

That’s why none of the ‘experimentalism’ which he so cannily deploys in his novels actually feels experimental. Not only is he ripping off (copying, pastiching, paying hommage to) experimental techniques pioneered much better 50 years earlier (in Ulysses), but it’s all put to the service of a mind which is relentlessly mundane, earth-bound and practical. It is all reported as if in a clinical paper.

The permutations of sex are as finite as those of narrative. You can (a) do one thing with one partner or (b) do n things with one partner or (c) do one thing with n partners or (d) do n things with n partners. (p.152)

I know in this snippet he’s parodying a scientific paper, or the scientistic approach of contemporary structuralist literary theory. But it also accurately sums up the blank, unemotional, observational style used throughout this novel and which a few chatty interventions by a supposedly intrusive narrator can do nothing to lighten.

The end

The final section embodies these issues, bringing together a number of elements which the Whitbread prize judges evidently liked, but I didn’t. Since the novel amounts to a chronicle of events, without any single ‘plot’, the storyline can’t come to a head and be resolved. The text could, in fact, have continued on indefinitely, to the election of Mrs Thatcher and right up to the present day, chattily telling us what the key events were of each year and then informing us how the couples in our study were doing.

Having to end somehow, Lodge arbitrarily concludes the text by having Jeremy, the smug TV producer (such an easy figure of fun from that era, the epitome of the jumped-up, superficial arriviste) make an observational documentary about his friends and their new, liberated, Catholic beliefs at a trendy ‘Paschal Festival’. And, being Lodge, this final section takes the form of a typescript of the programme (cut to.. zoom in on… wide shot of…). The form is, if not experimental, then confident pastiche, although I found it very boring, very passé. More importantly, it conceals the fact that the characters’ stories are not really resolved. The narrative doesn’t end so much as stop.

In an epilogue, the intrusive if rather boring narrator tells us that while he was writing the final section, Pope Paul died and was replaced by Pope John Paul I – who himself died unexpectedly – to be replaced by Pope John Paul II (in October 1978), the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, an actor and writer – but a theological conservative.

A changing Church acclaims a Pope who evidently thinks that change has gone far enough. What will happen? All bets are void, the future is uncertain, but it will be interesting to watch. (p.242)

The passage captures Lodge’s fundamental niceness along with his enthusiasm and his banality. The end-with-a-TV-transcript felt lame. But in these last paragraphs, it is as if this ‘novel’ has reached the rock bottom of just telling us what the author read in the newspaper this morning. The very last words are a flourish of narratorial intrusiveness, no doubt intended as a light-hearted reference to the end of Jane Eyre.

Reader, farewell!

But it’s too late to redeem this heavy, pedagogic text with a parting gag.


Storytelling, for the most part, relies on some kind of warmth or empathy between the teller and audience. Establishing that basic rapport is vital, for once they ‘have’ the audience, the teller can play with it, tease and please and provoke and entertain. But if the audience isn’t won over in the first few minutes, if that rapport isn’t established, chances are the audience will sit in stony silence for the entire performance and you will ‘die’, as the stand-ups say. This novel’s core components are:

  • an obvious, yet rather minority, theme (young Catholics from the 1950s grow up and come of age)
  • long expositions of theology or history which swamp character and incident
  • a prurient and eventually repellent obsession with sex

For me, the rapport fails. I watch Lodge go about his business with mild interest (the theology and social history), occasional amusement (there are some mildly comic moments), occasional disgust (sex, sex and more sex), occasional compassion (like the Ruth and Downs Syndrome moments I highlighted) – but without ever entering into the spirit of the book. For me, in this text, Lodge ‘dies’.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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