Marc by Susanna Partsch (1991)

Another of Taschen’s coolly laid out, large format, coffee-table-sized but light and handy paperback introductions to key artists and movements, this one devoted to Franz Marc.

Generally described as an Expressionist, Marc (b.1880) is most associated with the ‘Blue Rider’ art movement in Munich 1911 to 1913, before being killed, tragically young, in the Great War, in 1916.

Marc and animals

Marc is best known for his animal paintings. Partsch devotes a chapter to analysing their origins and development. Basically, he preferred animals to humans, who he found repellent. As he wrote to his wife, Maria Franck, during the war:

I think a lot about my own art. My instincts have so far guided me not too badly on the whole, even though my works have been flawed. Above all I mean the instinct which has led me away from people to a feeling of animality, for ‘pure beasts’. The ungodly people around me (particularly the men) did not arouse my true feelings, whereas the undefiled vitality of animals called forth everything good in me… I found people ‘ugly’ very early on; animals seemed to me more beautiful, more pure. (quoted page 39)

He not only theorised about animals, he loved them in real life. He was brought up with dogs and when he did a year’s military service in 1899, he spent it in the cavalry where he acquired a lifelong love of horses. By the time he was settled with a place of his own, in the 1910s, Marc owned a dog, two cats and – his pride and joy – two pet deer which he named Schlick and Hanni!

Note how schematic the animal forms are. And how stylised the background of zoomorphic snow, highlighted by blue and green shadows. From the same period comes a loving portrait of his pet dog, Russi.

The sense of depth and shape is created by shading which is (when you look closely) quite angular, and yet the overall feel is sensuous and lush.

Some thoughts

1. Brilliant draughtsman

Marc was a brilliant draughtsman right from the start, with a tremendous gift for depicting the natural world in oil paint even in his earliest works. Here he is aged 21 demonstrating the academic style he was being taught at Munich art school, delicately painting every leaf onto each of the trees in this landscape.

Just a few years later he was painting in a far more free and expressive manner, but the draughtsmanship is still awesome – note the fluff of feathers at the dead bird’s throat.

Not only is his figuration a joy to see, but the palette of browns contributes to the picture’s unity. In some other artists the early pictures are things you skim over to get to the mature works, but all of the early works shown here are marvellous.

The confidence of his broad brush-strokes is exhilarating, the light and shade on the right-hand woman’s dress, or the decorative squiggles on the left-hand dress – how cool and confident!

2. Marc’s short career allows in-depth analysis

Marc’s friend and mentor Wassily Kandinsky lived to the age of 78 and so the 90-page book I’ve just read about him had to pace itself and skim over various periods.

The exact opposite is true of this account of Marc. Because he really flourished for just four intense years the book can go into much more detail about this period, following the month-by-month changes in his art and ideas, quoting extensively from his letters, diaries and published writings, and from his friends’ and wife’s accounts, in order to drill deep down into these precious years.

For example, there is space to devote several pages to explaining Marc’s use of a prism to ascertain the purity of colour he used in the portrait of his dog in the snow (above), and to relate this to his evolving theories of colour. (Briefly, Marc believed that blue was the colour of masculine dominance and spirituality, yellow was the colour of feminine comfort, gentle and sensuous, red was the colour of brutal earth, and so on.)

Like so many of the rest of the avant-garde right across Europe (from his friend Kandinsky to Matisse) he was thinking and theorising about colour and its role in painting in a completely new way.

For Marc, as for many artists of his generation, the subject of a painting was becoming almost irrelevant – colour itself was to be the subject and most important element in a painting.

That said, and interesting to read though this kind of thing is, you can’t help noticing the number of times he ignored his own ‘theories’ and painted what looked best. Seen in this pragmatic light, it’s possible to think of the writings as more like transient offshoots of whatever look and style he was experimenting with during his brief, intense heyday, rather than cast iron rule.

Thus his schematic colour scheme doesn’t seem to apply at all to:

where the blue mane, red horse, and yellow field are quite obviously painted to achieve a vibrant dynamic affect rather than for any symbolic purpose.

3. The animal paintings

His animal style probably peaked in the depictions of blue horses around 1911, and it’s certainly this period of work which became hugely popular after the Great War and carried on being a bestseller in poster form (a picture of horses in a field fetched £12 million at Sothebys in 1908 – God knows what they’d fetch in today’s over-inflated market).

In her chapter on the animal paintings, Partsch quotes at length Marc’s views on how we need to stop painting animals from the outside, from a strictly instrumental human perspective, but imagine the world from the animal’s point of view.

How does a horse see the world, how does an eagle, a deer or a dog? How impoverished and soulless is our convention of placing animals in a landscape familiar to our own eyes rather than transporting ourselves into the soul of an animal in order to divine its visual world. (quoted page 38)

There’s much more like this. His friend and mentor, Kandinsky, was deeply immersed in the esoteric and spiritualist teachings of his age, becoming a Theosophist and studying Joachim of Fiore but to the modern reader, Marc comes over as by far the deeper and more instinctive visionary – the experience of reading the book right the way through is to experience the almost hallucinatory intensity of his intuition.

The Kandinsky book is interesting and delightful, but this book on Marc is genuinely powerful.

What does the deer have in common with the world we see? Does it make any reasonable or even artistic sense to paint the deer as it appears on our retina, or in the manner of the Cubists because we feel the world should be cubistic? Who says the deer feels the world to be cubistic? It feels as a deer, and thus the landscape must also be deer. (quoted page 39)


And we feel the world to be deer with him.

And it wasn’t just deer: the book includes fabulous colour reproductions of paintings of horses, cats, dogs, bulls, cows, donkeys, foxes, monkeys, tigers, birds, mandrills, wild pigs and many more. Animal planet.

4. Prismatic – cubist – futurist

Many fans and buyers stop at Marc’s colourful animal phase in 1911, the poster-popular period.

But the really interesting thing about Marc is that he didn’t stop developing, in fact he sped up. the final chapter shows him developing an increasingly intense cubo-futurist style and actually making the breakthrough into utterly abstract works when — the Great War breaks out.

Thus only a few months after some of the prettiest animal pictures, he is creating paintings which suddenly take on board the full impact of the Futurists’ characteristic diagonal ‘lines of force’.

Not only animals but people are present in these paintings but in a completely new visual style, dominated by the fragmentation of the object.

Many critics then and now claimed this was due to the influence of Cubism, still a stunning new way of seeing in 1912. Maybe so. But as I flicked through these final paintings I couldn’t help remembering his reference to the prism, and I thought of those toys you buy children, circles of clear plastic (or glass, in the expensive version) which have been shaped to have multiple facets across the surface, like big diamonds which have been cut with as many faces as possible. The idea is to hold the prism close to the eye and see the world divided up into a bewildering variety of facets; to rotate it, move it up and down, whatever takes your fancy, in order to see ‘reality’ as a jagged mosaic of ever-changing angular facets.

Suddenly, in 1913, that’s what all Marc’s paintings look like, all shards and fragments:

Compare and contrast with the extreme simplicity and clarity of the dog or deer in the snow from only two years before! We are in a different, and much more complex, visual world, one which is more dynamic, fractured along strong striating lines, intensely scissored and segmented.

My favourite of these last works is Deer in the woods II, in essence an almost child-like portrait of a family of deer, but fractured by strong lines into cubes, squares, circles.

And it is these lines – rather than the actual anatomy of the deer, their ‘real’ appearance – which determines the colour scheme so that colours spill across the bodies of the deer rather than being contained by them.

5. The break through into abstraction

Right at the end of 1913 Marc began painting the first of a series of small compositions which were utterly abstract in form, with no subject.

Over the next eight months he painted more of these small compositions as well as a series titled Happy forms, Playing forms, Fighting forms and Broken forms.

In some of these works animals might just about be discerned, and he continued creating some dense Futurist animal paintings at the same time. But it is absolutely clear that in the other works he had stepped over a line into pure abstraction, just a few years after his friend and mentor Kandinsky.

Marc was working on these abstracts, as well as making plans to edit a second Blue Rider almanac, as well as painting a series of murals and writing more essays about colour and form – when the Great War broke out on 1 August 1914 and he was called up. What would have happened next?

He continued to sketch and sent copious letters to his wife in which he continued to develop his ideas about colour and form, but there was no time to paint in the army. On 4 March 1916 Franz Marc was killed by shellfire while carrying out a reconnaissance mission in a French village.

What a beautiful body of work. What an intense and fascinating trajectory he travelled in those four brief years. What a terrible, terrible waste.

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Fauvism by Sarah Whitfield (1991)

‘What characterised Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colours and that with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’ (Matisse, quoted on page 62)


Fauvism was an art movement in the first decade of the twentieth century. ‘Fauve’ is French for wild animal, wild beast. When the Parisian art critic Louis Vauxcelles attended the 1905 Salon d’Automne he came across the room hung with strikingly colourful and crudely finished paintings by Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet, in the middle of which were some more traditional works of sculpture. Struck by the contrast, he wrote:

The artlessness of these busts comes as a surprise in the midst of the orgy of pure colours; Donatello at home among the wild beasts [les fauves]. (quoted p.82)

The artists concerned adopted this insult with pride, called themselves ‘les fauves’, and for a few years claimed to be carrying forward a movement called ‘Fauvism’.

But, as Whitfield shows in this excellent introduction and overview, Fauvism was more a restless search for a new style than a movement. As early as 1907 the leading figures were developing in their own ways and by 1909 Fauvism was over – making it, as Whitfield comments, possibly the shortest-lived art movement of the 20th century.

Matisse and Derain

At its heart Fauvism amounted to the works and attitudes of its leader Henri Matisse (b.1869) and his close companion in the decisive summer of 1905, André Derain (b.1880).

That summer the pair had worked side by side in the south of France painting works characterised by:

  • extremely bright colours, sometimes taken straight from the tube onto the palette with no mixing or moderating
  • deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour – green for the sea, blue for grass, red for shadow and so on
  • very broad dabs of colour – taking the Impressionist use of stroke and dabs to an extreme with really big strokes of paint often sitting in isolation

The effect of this third aspect in particular was to make the colours – no longer part of a smooth continuum of painted surface – instead stand out as isolated units. This created a tremendous vibrancy and shimmer – precisely the visual attack which Vauxcelles had responded to.

The final element in the style was the radical simplification of the subject or motif so that, sometimes, it is quite hard to make out what is depicted. Even when it is ‘readable’, the old idea that a painting was a window on a world which had a clear unified perspective, a depth, a sense of recession into the distance, is deliberately overthrown.

Fauvist art is designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the blunt fact that a picture is the deployment of paint on a two dimensional surface. The Fauves set art free from its requirement to paint ‘pictures’, it liberated art to become the free play of colours, patterns, shapes and designs.

In the two works above it’s not only the bright colour, it’s the gaps between the strokes or dabs, the way each stroke is isolated in space so that it rings and vibrates all the more powerfully.

Other members

Matisse had attended Gustave Moreau’s art class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he met Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet and Charles Camoin.

After Moreau’s death in 1898, Matisse began attending classes at the Académie Carrière where he met Jean Puy and the young André Derain.

Derain formed a close friendship with the Flemish painter Maurice Vlaminck, who he met in the summer of 1900.

The year after the 1905 exhibition, this loose group was joined by three painters from Le Havre – Emile-Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque.

Loosely associated with the Fauves were Georges Rouault, also a one-time student of Moreau, and Kees van Dongen from Holland.

Contemporary movements

Fauvism can be seen as an extreme extension of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat.

1. In 1904 Matisse went to stay with Paul Signac, heir to the neo-Impressionist innovations of Georges Seurat (who died in 1891) proponent of the theory of ‘dots’, of pointillism. Matisse produced a batch of works in this style before he realised that the isolated and detached bit of colour used to create a pointillist painting needn’t be dots – they could be isolated and detached strokes. – Luxe, Calme et Volupté is considered a pivotal moment in this history of art, as neo-impressionism gives birth to Fauvism.

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

2. Fauvism can also be seen as a form of expressionism in its use of brilliant colours and spontaneous brushwork. It is the French (and therefore stylish and joie de vivre) equivalent of the (tortured, angst-ridden) Expressionism which emerged in Germany a few years later, itself in its way another development of post-Impressionist discoveries, but given a characteristic Teutonic flavour.

Woman in a hat strikes me as being on the Expressionist end of the spectrum, eschewing the isolated strokes of the paintings done at Collioure or the thick impasto of the Open window in favour of the pure play of colour. Note the green and yellow nose or the sudden stroke of green across the forehead.

The contemporary critic Roger Marx described paintings like this as ‘lab experiments’ and you can see why. You can feel Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck – in particular – trying things out, suddenly liberated to use any colour in creating a portrait, setting about a wild profusion of experiments and tests.

It also explains why, although there is a common theme of super-bright primary colours in the 1905 paintings by Derain and Matisse, you can see why the movement was always pretty unstable. Even the core members were painting works which depart from the official ‘look’. It is more like a period of rapid experimentation focusing on experiments with brightly coloured isolated brush-strokes, creating form and shape with coloured rather than black outlines, thick impastos of paint then then – boom! – it was over.

After Fauvism

Some of the minor names mentioned above (Puy, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet) rejected the label Fauve even at the time, generally believing that more remained to be done in the avenues opened up by the Impressionists. Whitfield shows works which emphasise the way they stopped well this side of full ‘wild beastliness’.

Even for the most adventurous of the others, Fauvism was a very temporary phase, a stepping stone towards their more mature and individual styles.

In fact it is striking how many of them went on, by 1908 or so, to fall under the influence of Cézanne, with his much more muted palette and the artfully analytical approach he took to painting landscapes, people and objects.

Thus Braque, after a series of muscular landscapes shown and described by Whitfield, went on to develop cubism along with Pablo Picasso.

Derain rowed back from his garish experiments to adopt a more muted, grey and brown palette and a much more neo-classical, figurative approach as early as 1911.

Dufy was initially dazzled by the Fauvist outburst, but also moderated his palette by 1909, flirted with cubism and, after the war, developed an entirely new look based on clear draughtsmanship and light washes of colour depicting bright outdoors subjects, especially on the fun-loving Riviera of the 1920s.

Vlaminck was a grumpy outsider to the group, who pioneered the use of a thick impasto of vivid colours creating an expressionist swirl – the landscapes shown by Whitfield make me want to see more of  his work – but he, too, by 1909 had subdued his palette under the influence of Cézanne, and retreated to a more sombre figuratism.

Rouault’s style was always harsh and satirical, never really Fauvist, and he went on in later years to develop a highly stylised primitive style. – The Old King (1936) by Georges Rouault

Only Matisse continued his explorations of colour and design, always happy to remember and discuss his Fauvist roots, and evolving into one of the great master painters of the 20th century. In a late interview he summarised Fauvism as being

a revolt against the subtleties of Impressionism, it is a revolt against ‘mere charm’, against accidental aspects of illumination; a return to simplicity, directness, pure colours and decorative qualities. (quoted page 192)

I find that phrase ‘a revolt against charm’ very revealing, very indicative.

Later chapters

Later chapters of the book deal with landscape and the nude – I was particularly struck by Derain’s paintings of London, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament (three of these can be seen at the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain). Vlaminck emerges as a painter of great forcefulness and crude power; and Dufy is laying claim to the seaside idylls which were to become his forte.

There’s a really interesting chapter on the evolution of the art market, with the rise of a new cohort of upper-middle class professional collectors, and of new, entrepreneurial gallery owners and dealers willing to cater to them. Ambroise Vollard is probably the most famous of these, and forged close working relationships with Matisse in particular. Vollard is a pivotal figure: in 1895 he bought up almost all of Cézanne’s output, some 150 canvases, to create his first exhibition in 1895. This was followed by three other influential exhibitions devoted to Manet, Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Vollard mounted the first ever exhibitions devoted to Picasso (1901) and Matisse (1904). You can see Cézanne’s sombre, proto-cubist portrait of Vollard at the current Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the national Portrait Gallery.

By 1900 these one-artist shows had become established as a good way for critics to assess the scene, other artists to catch up with new developments, and collectors to invest in the hot new thing. It was exhibitions marking Cézanne’s death in 1906, displaying his later, more ‘analytical’ works for the first time, which account for the influence he suddenly cast over so many painters in 1908 and 1909.

The final chapter traces the way all the main players reacted against their Fauvist phase. By 1907 they were expressing doubts about flaring colour, by 1908 they were copying Cézanne’s more muted palette and analytical approach – the search for the geometric in the object rather than the play of bright colour – and in 1908 Georges Braque painted the first cubist works – Houses and trees. The Fauvist moment was over.

In Whitfield’s summary, Fauvism was a kind of midwife to twentieth century art, fulfilling the legacy of post-Impressionism, and completing the mission to move Western art all the way from an art of representation to an art of abstraction.

Whitfield’s prose style

Writing about art – really describing what you see, conveying what the eye sees and processes so quickly, into slow-moving and clumsy words – is very difficult. Ways of not writing well about art include:

  1. giving yourself airs and graces – the very old-school way of declaring such a work ‘fine’ and ‘superb’ and a ‘wonderful example of the so-and-so school’ etc, an approach which turns art criticism into wine-tasting and mainly serves to convey how superior andsrefined the critic is
  2. giving in to a biographical approach i.e. telling us all about the artist’s life and loves, his mistresses and sex life, but conveying precious little about the actual look of their works
  3. giving in to generalised prose poetry about ‘vibrant’ use of colour and ‘bold’ design – phrases which could refer to anyone from Botticelli to Francis Bacon
  4. giving into art critical theory and interpreting works as ‘subverting traditional narratives’ or ‘engaging’ with ‘issues’ – all too often the same old ‘issues’ of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘identity’

Whitfield is a rarity in my experience, someone who can really express in words the specificity of particular works and the feel of a style.

Fauvism was the first movement to insist in explicit terms that a painting is the canvas and the pigments. The idea that a picture is the sum of the marks made on the canvas rather than a mirror held up to life, or to nature, or to literature accounts for the chief characteristics of the first true Fauve paintings being composed of briskly applied strokes, patches and dabs of brilliant colour. (p.9)

Describing Matisse’s very early work La Desserte she writes that it is ‘modern’ by virtue of

adopting the range of separately applied brush strokes with which the Impressionists invigorated the picture surface; the vibration of colour in their paintings was in total opposition to the smooth, ‘licked’ surfaces advocated by their teachers. (p.16)

The ‘smooth licked surfaces’ of the Salon painters is good, but I found the idea of the separately applied brush strokes invigorating the surface of a painting a really useful description of how many Impressionist paintings work. Here she is explaining the importance of Cézanne:

Matisse understood the manner in which Cézanne had unshackled painting from its representational role by making the paint itself the subject of the picture: the way in which every form in a Cézanne canvas is invested with equal weight regardless of its size came as a revelation to him. (p.23)

‘Equal weight’ is a great phrase, bringing out exactly the way a Cézanne painting is made of patches of colour constantly pressing towards a flat two-dimensionality. Late on she describes

The delicately crafted way in which Cézanne built up his paint, hingeing one brush-stroke onto the next… (p.200)

Reviewers of the book on Amazon all point out that only 24 of the 174 illustrations in the book are in colour, the rest in drab black and white, which is especially ironic considering the Fauves were all about colour, really strong, dazzling colour.

But so be it. The book is still well worth reading not just as a handy primer about the chronology, the artists and works which made up the movement – but for the continual flow of insights Whitfield gives into the working of specific paintings, her excellent ability to verbalise and articulate the hard-to-pin-down visual effects of oil paintings. That’s a rare gift.

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Tintin: Hergé and his creation by Harry Thompson (1991)

Slow evolution and complete revamping

The important things to grasp about Tintin are:

a) how old he is – he first appeared in the 1920s!
b) how long it took for his inventor – Georges Remi, who created a pen name by reversing his initials from GR to RG, hence Hergé – to evolve the finished, clear-line look of his mature bandes dessinées or ‘drawn strips’
c) how the early black and white strips were cut down, re-edited and coloured before being republished in the 62-page book format we’re all used to
d) and that mid-way through his career – in the 1940s – the Tintin Studio revisited the first half dozen of the books and comprehensively redesigned, redrew and often even rewrote them to bring them into conformity with the mature style

Thus any attempt to discuss the evolution of the Tintin drawing style is challenged from the start because it’s almost impossible to access the original versions of the first six or seven books in order to make a considered assessment.

Publishing history

From 1929 to 1939 the stories were published in Le Petit Vingtième, a youth supplement to the right-wing Catholic Belgian newspaper, Le Vingtième Siècle.

In 1940 the Germans invaded France and Belgium. Le Petit Vingtième was closed down, but Belgium’s leading newspaper, Le Soir, continued to publish and Hergé became editor of its youth supplement. As such he was well-placed to commission new Tintin adventures.

After the war, there was another hiatus, not least because Hergé was investigated for alleged collaboration with the Nazi regime i.e. working on a Nazi-approved newspaper. When he was finally exonerated, the leading publisher, Casterman, approached Hergé with the idea of creating a weekly journal devoted solely to his creation – Le journal de Tintin. It was in this journal that the ten last stories were published, through to Hergé’s death in 1983.

Early stories

The first Tintin story was published in 1929. The early design is stiff and awkward and the ‘storylines’ of the first few books – Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America – don’t amount to much more than a ramshackle sequence of slapstick adventures. The ‘hero’ is very obviously based on a boy scout and childishly immune to danger and assault. Most of the other characters are stereotypes of the popular culture of the day – evil Russian Bolsheviks, stupid lazy Africans, and gangsters, cowboys, and Indians in America.

Nonetheless, Tintin was popular from the start. Thompson makes clear just how popular by telling us that Le Petit Vingtième‘s editor hired an actor to play Tintin and invited a crowd, and a load of other journalists, to meet ‘Tintin’ at Brussels’ main train station, each time one of the stories came to an end. It worked – each time the actor (and his white terrier) was mobbed by excited fans!

Capitalising on this popularity, the newspaper strips were republished as best-selling books.

However, it was only in 1942 that these books were routinely colourised (and the resulting strips edited and shortened to fit each book’s 62-page format). The newspaper strips themselves remained in black and white until 1946.

It was also only in the 1940s that Hergé, by now running a dedicated Tintin studio, had the resources to go back and get his team to redesign and redraw the best of the early adventures, bringing them into line with the claire ligne style which he had by then evolved. This explains why the first seven or so books exist in two versions (though the original black-and-white versions are hard to find).

A striking example of this revisionism is The Black Island, which went through three versions. The first was serialised weekly from April to November 1937. It was published in book form in 1938. As part of the Tintin Studio’s overhaul of the earlier tales in the 1940s, they produced a new, second, colourised version of the story in 1943, reducing the number of pages from 124 to 60.

But the story is set in the UK and when Hergé’s British publishers, Methuen, began to prepare an English translation, they were upset by numerous inaccurate representations of British life. Methuen made a list of 131 errors of detail which they asked to be set right. And this led the Tintin studios to rework the book completely, resulting in the completely updated and redrawn 1966 version, the only version you can now buy. Because this third version was done at the mature peak of the studio’s style, it is sometimes thought to be the best-drawn story of all.


– Tintin was virtually the first cartoon series in Europe to use speech balloons. This innovation came as a revelation to contemporaries and was hugely influential.

– Just as novel was its invention of ‘bande dessinée‘, literally ‘drawn strips’ or just ‘strips’ – i.e. a strip or sequence of pictures which tell a story. The sustained use of this format, over a course of weeks and months, to tell a coherent narrative using the same characters, was a radical innovation.

– It took Hergé some years to perfect his style of ligne-claire or clear line drawing. This is characterised by clear, strong lines of the same width outlining the people and objects in the story, with little or no cross-hatching or shading. Shadow isn’t suggested by shades of black or grey, but darker versions of the unshadowed colour. The total effect is of a wonderful brightness and clarity.

– Thompson points out how, in Hergé’s mature style, only the faces are comic – the rest of the body, the positioning of all the bodies in architectural space, the cars and gadgets and features of the outside scenery or interior furnishing, are all depicted in brilliantly economical and precise line drawing. It is hard to put into words why this is so immensely, even thrillingly, satisfying.

– Photographic realism From The Blue Lotus onwards Hergé and his growing team of assistants carried out thorough research – of the cultural and political backgrounds to the stories, but also scouting out, photographing and sketching real locations to use as settings for the story.

The hyper-accuracy of the later strips can be seen in the dazzling, almost technical drawing of countless artefacts:

The technical accuracy of these drawings of cars, boats, planes etc, the fine detail and finish in the depictions of wonderfully-engineered machines, gave the Tintin books the same thrilling beauty that I found in Dinky cars and Airfix models when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old.

I think the simple technical accuracy of the  machines is an under-appreciated aspect of the Tintin books. It is present on almost every page and quite routinely outshines the human figures and even the sometimes silly plots.

– The fundamental element in Tintin’s character is the ever-optimistic boy scout. Hergé had been an enthusiastic boy scout as a teenage, and had drawn cartoons for the Belgian boy scout magazine. Tintin never loses his innocence and morality.

– Left to right Along with the obvious features of the bande dessinee and ligne claire is another recurrent element: in the mature strips Tintin always progresses from left to right; danger always comes from the right; if Tintin is pictured moving left, it is in retreat or a setback.

– If the first few, naive adventures are open to accusations of patronising racism, quite quickly Tintin becomes the egregious defender of native people, especially children. Think of the classic scene in Prisoners of the Sun (1946) where Tintin defends a young Quechua boy named Zorrino from Spanish bullies. Maybe the first instance comes early in The Blue Lotus (1934) when Tintin defends a hapless rickshaw puller from the odiously racist American businessman, Gibson. Later in the same book he saves a Chinese boy, Chang Chon-chen, from drowning in a flooded river.

– Zhang Chongren At the end of the newspaper run of Cigars of the Pharaoh, Hergé mentioned that Tintin’s next adventure would be set to China. This prompted a Belgian Catholic, chaplain to the Chinese students at the University of Leuven, to write to Hergé asking him to be sensitive about what he wrote about China.

Hergé agreed and in the spring of 1934 the chaplain introduced him to one of the Chinese students, the young Zhang Chongren. Zhang and Hergé were the same age, both born in 1907, and from this chance introduction sprang a deep and lifelong friendship.

Zhang introduced Hergé to Chinese history, culture, and the techniques of Chinese art including the delicate art of calligraphy. As a direct result Hergé for the first time:

  • tried in The Blue Lotus to be meticulously accurate in depicting the places Tintin visited
  • to give a real sense of the mature and complex politics of the contemporary world – The Blue Lotus is startling in its depiction of the violent arrogant Japanese and the revolting racism and/or corruption of the westerners in Shanghai’s International Settlement
  • shows the influence of Chinese art in its greater clarity and stylisation
  • actually includes the Chinese characters for Zhang’s name in a couple of key places (shop fronts and dock warehouses)

In the story Tintin befriends a young Chinese boy with the not-very-disguised name of Chang Chong-Chen and there is a striking scene where Tintin explains to ‘Chang’ how Europeans think of Chinese in terms of cartoon stereotypes. Chang bursts out laughing at westerners’ ignorance and prejudice. It was really a very bold stance for a children’s cartoon to take in 1934, and it drew criticism from pro-Japanese businesses and politicians and even from the Japanese ambassador to Brussels himself.

– Tintin’s alternative geography Whereas he had been blunt and insulting about the USSR, America, Africa and Japan in the first few books, the occupation of Belgium by the Nazis made it dangerous for Hergé to depict real countries. But Hergé had in any case begun to develop the notion of fictional countries, closely related to real ones but simplified and exaggerated. For me the most memorable are the ruritanian East European countries of Syldavia – home of King Ottakar – and its aggressive neighbour Borduria, which reappears as the setting of the masterpiece The Calculus Affair. Here it is depicted as half-Eastern Bloc and half-fascist country complete with its own secret police, ZEP, led by Colonel Sponsz, and a fascist military dictator, Marshal Kûrvi-Tasch.

The process had begun with the fictional South American dictatorships of San Theodoros and Nuevo Rico depicted in The Broken Ear (1938), and continued right to the end, with ‘Sondonesia’ bearing a striking resemblance to Indonesia, and ‘Khemed’ to Jordan, in Flight 714 (1968).

The original names

Tintin remains Tintin but almost all the other characters were given new names by the translators (Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper) when they turned the stories into English:

  • Milou is translated as Snowy (the name needed to be five letters long to fit the often small speech bubbles)
  • Archibald Haddock / le capitaine Haddock remains Captain Haddock
  • Le Professeur Tryphon Tournesol becomes Professor Cuthbert Calculus
  • Detectives Dupont et Dupond become Thompson and Thomson

List of works

1929–1930 Tintin in the Land of the Soviets
1930–1931 Tintin in the Congo (2nd version 1946)
1931–1932 Tintin in America (2nd version 1945)
1932–1934 Cigars of the Pharaoh (2nd version 1955)
1934–1935 The Blue Lotus (2nd version 1945)
1935–1937 The Broken Ear (2nd version 1943)
1937–1938 The Black Island (2nd version 1943, 3rd version 1966)
1938–1939 King Ottokar’s Sceptre (2nd version 1947)

With the Nazi takeover of Belgium in 1940, Tintin’s character as a journalist fighting crime was quietly dropped. As Thompson points out, at this point Tintin changes from being a fearless journalist to being a fearless explorer. An unintended consequence was that – forced to drop the cheap satirical and topical gags of the early books – Hergé had to concentrate more on strong plots and deeper characterisation.

1940–1941 The Crab with the Golden Claws
1941–1942 The Shooting Star
1942–1943 The Secret of the Unicorn
1943 Red Rackham’s Treasure
1943–1946 The Seven Crystal Balls

With the end of the war, new Tintin stories began to be published in a new journal devoted just to him, Le Journal de Tintin.

1946–1948 Prisoners of the Sun
1948–1950 Land of Black Gold
1950–1952 Destination Moon
1952–1953 Explorers on the Moon
1954–1956 The Calculus Affair
1956–1958 The Red Sea Sharks
1958–1959 Tintin in Tibet
1961–1962 The Castafiore Emerald

Final works

For me the canonical Tintins stop at this point – the last two completed stories, Flight 714 and Picaros never had the same place in my heart.

By contrast, The Castafiore Emerald still has a strong 1950s vibe in all kinds of details, like the beatnik beard of one of the journalists or the tweedy formality of Madame Castafiore and her maid. That late 1940s/1950s atmosphere still lingered on in my own childhood, in the clothes and attitudes and essential decency of my parents and their friends, when I was small.

Whereas these last two bandes dessinées were a) produced after a notable break b) are visually more part of that late 1960s/1970s environment in which I turned teenage – less suits and ties, more windcheaters and machine guns; less remote and childlike baddies of the moon books or the Bordurian dictatorship of Kûrvi-Tasch of The Calculus Affair – more hijackings and the PLO,

1966–1967 Flight 714 to Sydney
1975–1976 Tintin and the Picaros

1986 Tintin and Alph-Art – radically unfinished at Hergé’s death in 1983.

Related links

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it: in a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. (p.67)

Alan Furst’s second novel covers similar territory as the first, territory he has subsequently made his own in a series of 14 novels about espionage in 1930s Europe. This one felt even more complicated than its epic predecessor, Night Soldiers, because although it features one protagonist, André Szara, foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, both he and the reader are kept permanently confused by the bewildering hall of mirrors, the complex overlay of conflicting intelligence agencies and missions, in which he finds himself.

1. Silence in Prague

Part one finds Szara sent on journeys to Ostend, Prague and Berlin to write propaganda pieces for Pravda. But his experience is a confusion of secret meetings and instructions; in one set he is despatched to Berlin to meet an industrialist, Baumann and during a formal dinner with Herr and Frau Baumann (and a young Fräulein invited along to make up the numbers) Herr B very subtly makes it clear that, as Jew, he is against the regime. When Szara goes to visit him at his factory the next day, he realises it doesn’t just make steel, it makes high-tensile steel used as control rods in airplanes. Herr B shares with him production figures, which Sazara’s NKVD masters will use to calculate the German war effort.

The shy young woman is Marta Haecht. Szara is attracted to her, offers to walk her home, instead she comes to his hotel room and to his surprise they have championship sex. He is in love, a poet masquerading as a hack.

But parallel to this, Szara had been approached by a Russian on the Ostend ferry who asked him to keep an eye on another Soviet operative, one van Doorn, real name Grigory Khelidze. A day later he sends a message to his approacher, telling him which hotel Khelidze is staying in. The next morning he gets, along with his morning coffee and roll, a shred of paper naming a cafe. He goes there and is approached by a woman calling herself Renata Braun, who takes him to Khelidze’s hotel room, where they find the man horribly murdered and sprayed with acid. While Szara is sick, Braun searches the dead man’s belongings and finds tucked away a folded-up piece of paper which turns out to be the chit to a left luggage deposit box in a Czech railway station. Is it a trap?

Feeling like he is in way over his head, Szara sets off to Prague and, paranoid that his every step is being watched, finds the station, the box and the ancient suitcase inside. Back at his hotel room he rips open the concealed bottom to find a cache of documents going back to Tsarist times which seem to be records of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, in their dealings with a Bolshevik activist – known only as DUBOK – who was in fact a double agent, one of their informants. Sweat breaks out all over Szara’s body as he realises the dates and other references can only be to Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Stalin!

2. Rue Delesseux

It is spring 1938. Back in Moscow his ‘debriefer’, another Jew, Abramov, listens in horror to Szara’s experiences, then fills him in on the background to these puzzling events. There are different factions in the NKVD, arranged in khvosts or ‘gangs’ – a southern or Georgian one, an intellectual Jewish one, probably others, all of which operate abroad and conspire against each other; and there’s the Comintern, which has its own agenda abroad, and which Khelidze worked for – and the status of all of them is permanently unclear as the entire apparat is subject to wave after wave of purges. The Red Army has been decimated by Stalin’s purges; he, Abramov, suspects there is an anti-Jewish pogrom going on which might affect them both. The only protection he can offer Szara is to go officially on the payroll of the NKVD.

And so Szara undergoes spy training and then is sent to Paris to run the OPAL network, as well as manage ‘product’ from Herr Baumann and his German military secrets.

And so this 70-page section is about the nuts and bolts and personnel of the network of agents Szara runs in Paris, with a side responsibility for messages from Baumann in Berlin. One of the most interesting elements is that his control, based in Belgium, is the same Ilia Goldman who played such a large part in the first novel, Night Soldiers, here shown as an epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

The focal point of the section is a big stake-out he and operatives carry out after a tip-off from an agent who has taken a lover who works in a German liaison office. They arrange a meeting place for a VIP German visiting Paris, then stake it out and take photos. To Sazara’s amazement the man meeting the Nazi turns out to be a senior NKVD officer, Derzhani. What? Why?

After the VIPs have their meeting, our guys wrap up the surveillance and think they are getting away safely, when a slick car draws alongside driven by the security men who’d accompanied the Nazi. There is a car chase through the streets of Paris – for a moment they think they’ve lost the Germans and Szara alights at a remote Métro station, but moments later the car he was in is rammed by the pursuing Nazis and his agent, Sénéschal, killed. Back at the office he develops the 11 precious prints of the meeting, which Sénéschal died for. What the devil does it mean? Who is the Nazi, obviously a big wig? And what is a senior NKVD director doing in Paris without him or Goldman being told, and why is he meeting a Nazi? Szara hides the prints and tells no-one.

In the previous section, after he hid the Okhrana files, Szara was unnerved to hear an acquaintance at a cocktail party in Paris jokingly refer to the story – that Stalin was a Tsarist agent – in front of an American magazine editor, Herbert Hull. A continent away, months and many other incidents, later, Hull is invited from New York out for a country party with the kind of liberal intellectuals he knows, the Mays. After a day’s healthy activities, they have a lovely diner, then chat about politics and literature in front of a nice log fire, and Hull casually mentions the story about Stalin being a spy – ‘oh, that old one’, his host replies – but Hull goes on that he met someone in Europe who had some kind of evidence to back it up, and so he’s drafted an article on the subject. Days later his magazine offices are burned down, all proofs, all the furniture, files and records burned to ashes, and the gallon drum which fuelled it placed in the middle of the floor. Hull gets the message, his little magazine folds, and he soon gets a job with one of the New York glossies and forgets about the Okhrana story.

This anecdote is hugely thought-provoking, making the reader realise that the viper’s nest of espionage which the competing powers created in Europe extended far beyond its shores. Will this incident contribute somehow to the overall narrative or will it, like so many in Night Soldiers, simply add to the atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and to the sense of panorama – the fearful sense that similar incidents, spying, betrayals and deceits are happening all across the world…

3. The Iron Exchange

Szara meets Sergei Abramov on a deserted beach in Denmark, shows him the photos of the stakeout. Abramov says they can be interpreted in a score of ways; more importantly, he fills him in on latest developments in Moscow, namely Yezhov has been overthrown as head of the NKVD, replaced by Beria, one of the Georgian khvost. Along with Yezhov went his wife and any intellectuals or writers close to him, for example Isaac Babel. They speculate on how much of an anti-semitic pogrom it is – but then non-Jews disappear too, all the time.

Abramov tells Szara his stock is not high, to recover respect he must go in person to Berlin and tell Baumann to give more information, compromising information, about all the other board members and managers of his steel mill (because the apparat clearly expects Baumann to be done away with like all the other German Jews and wants to identify his successor).

So Szara goes to Berlin. He stays at the Hotel Adlon but is very keen to meet up again with Marta Haecht the young woman he slept with on his last visit. When he gets in touch, amazingly – in this world of dead and disappearing people – she is still alive and they meet up and they resume their relationship exactly as before, with her posing in silk underwear, whispering naughty words in his ear and play acting sex frolics. Ie they create a super-sensual world of their own in the disused apartment of an artist in the old Iron Exchange, a half derelict building in Berlin.

On a first meeting Baumann, in his home, refuses to tell more information about his firm, so Szara gets permission for a second go, which is a more elaborate rendezvous at a synagogue after hours in a Berlin suburb. They’ve barely begun negotiating when they hear a mob chanting and singing, which turns out to be Nazis who attack, ransack and set the synagogue on fire. Terrified, Baumann and Szara only just manage to escape undetected onto the roof of a nearby shed, wait till the crowd marches drunkenly off, then make their way back to the NKVD driver who’d waited for them.

What we have just witnessed is part of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the infamous night when the Nazis organised gangs to ransack and attack synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany, supposedly in ‘revenge’ for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jew. Szara drops Baumann back at his house and returns to his lovers’ apartment at the Iron Exchange deeply shaken.

There are numerous other plot strands and events, in this and each of the sections, but this is by far the most dramatic of  this part. This novel, more so than Night Soldiers, feels deeply involved with history, in fact several of the sections are divided into sub-sections marked with specific dates and explanations of key incidents in the countdown to war, so that we – like the characters – are hurtled along by the terrifying pace of events.

During this trip he briefly meets Nadia Tscherova, heavy drinking actress in Berlin, code name RAVEN head of a sub-network for OPAL, who turns out to be the sister of Colonel Alexander Vonets aka Sascha, who played such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers (though obviously Szara doesn’t know that).

Having failed to get more information out of Baumann, in fact having to doubt whether the information he is giving is actually correct, having reunited with Marta but realised she is not as innocent as he first thought, having worked with a sarcastic fellow journalist Vainshtok to file some innocuous cover stories, and having witnessed terrible scenes of Jews being humiliated all across Germany, Szara finally concludes his mission and takes the train back to Paris.

Here he is debriefed by his control, Goldman, a presence throughout the text, receives messages from other agents and resumes the running of the OPAL network, in among which he receives an invitation to a very up-market Parisian club, the Renaissance Club. The opulence of serious wealth, unobtrusive waiters, leather chairs. In a private room he is greeted by Joseph de Montfried, from one of the wealthiest families in France.

Their conversation brings the bubbling issue of the Jews to the fore in the novel. We’ve known from the start that Szara is a Jew from Poland, who has had a continuous trickle of memories from his brutal youth (the pogroms, beatings and murders of Jews there – in the synagogue he remembers details of ceremonies including the ceremony for cleansing a raped woman – a common occurrence). Goldman his control, is a Jew. General Bloch who interviews him on a train in the first section, is a Jew. And the man who debriefed him in the old days when he was just a journalist, who suggested he enrol as a full-time agent, and who still meets him from time to time, Abramov, is a Jew. The whole novel is set against the unfolding nightmare of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, while back in Moscow Stalin’s purges continue to gobble up huge numbers of people, many of whom are Jews so that Abramov and Szara speculate whether one element of the purges is a covert pogrom.

It is in this atmosphere that de Montfried launches on a long passage of historical exposition, an encyclopedia-style explanation of the background to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the ongoing issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Briefly, the British have limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to a tiny quota based on official emigration certificates; de Montfried wonders, in a polite and lofty way, whether Szara can obtain any. Szara’s NKVD straitjacket is chafing. He is sickened by events around him. He promises to do what he can.

Out of the blue Abramov orders Szara to meet him in Switzerland and bring an unusual amount of money. At the office appears Maltsaev, a slick unpleasant operative from Moscow, who is to accompany him and the money. We know that Maltsaev is the angel of death – in Night Soldiers he brought word to Kulic in the mountains that he had to execute some of his own partisan group. And so it is here – after a hair-raising drive to the village where Abramov is holding out, the latter bolts at the sight of Maltsaev, making it half way across a snowy meadow before he is gunned down.

Szara conceals all emotion, even as they bury the body, but his mind is racing. He speculates that Abramov must have shown people the photos taken in the garden in Paris of the secret meeting, maybe in some kind of power play that failed and rebounded on him. Hence the flight and execution. Maltsaev cordially tells Szara that he thinks he, too, should have met Abramov’s fate, but orders from high up were to preserve him. Shaken, Szara returns to Paris.

4. The Renaissance Club

Szara has become an habitué of the Bar Heininger. This is just one in a whole series of jolts of recognition to the reader who has read Night Soldiers, because a surprising number of characters, incidents and locations from the first book crop up throughout this one. The first time it happened was childishly exciting, the second time exciting – this is the 6th or 7th strong overlap, following hot on the heels of Maltsaev and complementing the persistent presence of Goldman as Szara’s immediate boss, the same Goldman who played such a pivotal role in Night Soldiers.

These aren’t coincidences, the two texts interpenetrate at multiple levels in numerous places via quite a few characters and this slowly changes your perception. These are the same sort of people, in the same profession, living through the same historical period; it comes to seem inevitable that there will be a lot of overlap.

So the reader of Night Soldiers remembers that the Bar Heininger was where Khristo hid out after fleeing from Civil War Spain, and where three hoodlums arrived one night with machine guns to shoot the place up and assassinate the head waiter, Omaraeff, because of his involvement in a hit on a Soviet diplomat. As a cynic predicted at the time, this bit of underworld violence has made the place more fashionable than ever and now – two years later in 1939 – Szara routinely hangs out there to play up his ‘cover’ role of high-visibility Pravda journalist.

Among the innumerable exiles and counts and princesses and poets and playwrights to be found in the Bar every night is the posh, promiscuous Lady Angela Hope. She invites Szara to a private dinner at Fouquet’s, for which he makes a big effort to press his suit and buy a new shirt. After some brief flirting, there is a knock at the door and they are joined by Roger Fitzware (who is an agent of British Intelligence; he appeared in Night Soldiers where he tried to recruit Khristo and, angry at being rebuffed, suggested to French intelligence that they lock him up).

Now Fitzware tries to recruit Szara and Szara lets him, but at a price. He offers information about German steel wire production (the ‘product’ from Baumann in Berlin), but to be paid for with emigration certificates to Palestine. They haggle and settle on 500 certificates per batch of Baumann information. Szara is sickened, but cold; this is the world he lives in.

Much else happens. One of the OPAL operatives, a prostitute, passes on the briefcase of a German officer which is full of Polish phrasebooks for fellow Wehrmacht officers. Goldman appals Szara by giving him advance warning that Stalin is about to make a pact with Hitler. In May 1939 Molotov replaces Litvinov as Soviet Foreign Minister, a signal to the alert that Soviet foreign policy will be conciliatory to Germany (and Litvinov was a Jew, difficult for the Nazis to respect).

Szara is sent on an official assignment for Pravda to Poland just days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced 23 August 1939. Thus he is on a sleepy provincial train trundling towards Lvov when it is dive-bombed by a Stuka, the first he or any of the passengers know that Germany has invaded. Recovering from blast injuries in hospital he is called to the office of a Polish officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Vyborg (p.278) who from that point keeps Szara at his side as they set off on the journey to Lvov and find themselves caught up in the German advance, witnessing the Germans fording the river River Dunajec under Polish artillery fire from close up, and on into a gruelling eye-witness account of the Polish Army’s defeat and retreat over the next 30 pages, so packed with incident, vignettes, walk-on characters and vivid scenes, they could almost be the basis of a novel by themselves.

5. Poste Restante

The final eighty pages are among the most exciting and dazzling I’ve ever read. Szara is recovering in a spa hotel near Lvov which has been taken over by diplomatic personnel from all countries fleeing the fighting when NKVD arrive and start processing everyone. This includes the angel of death, Maltsaev who, in a gripping moment, after interviewing Szara in one of the pools in the basement casually asks him to go ahead of him up the spiral staircase. There is a cinematic moment as Szara refuses and says, No, after you to Maltsaev who also refuses. there is a standoff for a few long seconds then Szara pulls his gun and shoots Maltsaev once, then again, drags his body to a cubicle and hides it. He has burned his bridges. He is now a fugitive.

He clutches the briefcase which contains  his false documents and walks calmly down the steps and into one of the parked cars of the NKVD officers, starts the engine and drives off before anyone can stop him. There follow three paranoid, intense days north through Poland to Lithuania, avoiding the invading German army to the West and Russian army to the East. He in fact makes it safely to Kovno where he finds tens of thousands of refugees ahead of him and no places available on any of the boats leaving the port for months.

After days selling the car then other valuables to feed himself, and after scary encounters with possible NKVD agents or plain thugs, he takes another approach when he hears the Germans are evacuating ethnic Germans back to the Fatherland. He pays a lot of money to a Lithuanian criminal to get the passport of a German man dying in a local hospital and have his photo pasted into it, and then undertakes the terrifying experience of being processed onto one of the Volkdeutsch repatriation boats at Riga. The journey gives him the chance to see the Germans up close, their inferiority complex coming out as anger. They are poisoned with themselves, he thinks, these monsters at the heart of Europe.

But his plan to slip away once the boat arrives in Hamburg underestimate German efficiency, as all the Volkdeutsch are corralled off the boat and onto a train taking them to Berlin for a triumphant rally. At the station Szara does, finally, manage to give officials the slip and rings the only person he trusts in Berlin, the agent Nadia Tscherova. Something clicked the first time they met and now there is an extraordinary interlude, for he finds her the mistress of a German general (away in Poland) set up in an astonishingly opulent mansion. Here she gives him a good bath, a good shave, a good meal and then there is some characteristically Furstian championship sex, deep and sensuous, with role playing and hard words before they collapse exhausted in bed. In the middle of a continent gone mad, there is time for pleasure, for the life of the senses, for poetry, for delight.

After several days he must move on, clean shaven and well dressed but in fact is picked up by the Gestapo an hour after leaving Nadia’s house, as he tries to board a train and finds an alert is out for his stolen passport. There are tense scenes in Columbia House, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and a lot of very intelligent insight into the psychology of interrogation, in light of which Szara comes clean about his full identity to the officer interrogating him, who is now worried to have such a high profile Russian prisoner on his hands at such a fraught political moment.

Thus it is that footsteps come clanking down the cold corridor to his cell and he is yanked out of his room and dragged to another room where we are fully expecting him to be beaten to death, but instead is presented with a wobbly character wearing a uniform over his pyjama trousers, released into his custody, ushered into his car and driven for hours into the remote hills where they pull up at an inn. Inside is Herbert van Polanyi who now gets a long speech of exposition.

Turns out von Polanyi is a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, still largely run by the kind of landed aristocrats Hitler and his gang despise. He was ‘running’ Baumann all along, deliberately getting him to feed Szara the steel production figures. the reason why leads to a long explanation of the political relationship between Russia and Germany, of their co-operation throughout the 1920s, the setback of Hitler’s election, but then the way both dictators came to understand each other. It is a long and fascinating and intelligent analysis. I haven’t brought out how intelligent the continual presence of Furst’s analyses of situations, of geopolitics for the micro to the macro scale, are, throughout these books.

Von Polanyi recognises Szara as a professional who has now become rootless, he is a man without a country. He is going to set him free on the understanding that he may be able to do them all a service and prevent Europe falling to a Hitler-Stalin tyranny. They shake on it and his man drives Szara to the Swiss border.

There then follows an intensely described section where Szara goes seriously underground, into the criminal underworld of Budapest, Athens, Smyrna. He begs, he is beaten up, he thieves, he loses weight, grows a moustache, gains a permanent scar, changes the man he is, ending up washing pots for a woman restaurant owner in Turkey, finding peace or oblivion on a straw mattress on an old door in a filthy cellar, where, in his little spare time, he writes out a full account of everything that happened to him and tries to piece together how the conspiracies he was involved in played their part in the collapse of civilisation.

When, in May 1940, he reads that the Germans have invaded France, he shakes the Turkish woman by the hand, shaves and presents himself at the docks as a patriotic Frenchman ready to do his duty, and as such is welcomed aboard a steamer setting off for Marseilles, and welcomed there as a hero. He makes his way across southern France and back to Switzerland for where he contacts his super-rich contact in Paris, de Montfried. He is cabled money which allows him to rent an apartment and begin planning. He makes wide contacts and does background research until he thinks he has identified an NKVD network. Then he contacts von Polyani, saying he is ready to go to work.

The funny little man who liberated him from Columbia House meets him in Zurich and hands him an envelope. Within are half a dozen nuggets of information suggesting Germany is planning to invade the Soviet Union, up to an including the operation codename, Barbarossa. The new thin, moustachioed, scarred Szara will feed this information to the NKVD network. He will use the skills he has acquired for good; he will alert the Russians to the coming invasion, he will prevent the triumph of evil.

The final act in the book is the fruition of his love affair with Nadia Tscherova. The little man took back to Berlin a message for her and a few weeks later, Szara is waiting at the Swiss border as a plush Mercedes crosses it with no questions asked. Half a kilometer down the road it stops as agreed. He rushes to open the door and into his arms comes his love, Nadia’s drive to freedom paralleling her brother Sascha’s escape to freedom at the end of Night Soldiers and the image of lovers embracing after long separation also ending both books.

Overlapping characters

  • Ilya Goldman trains at the NKVD academy in Arbat Street along with Khristo in Night Soldiers, and plays a key role in the narrative, saving Khristo’s life and freeing his kidnapped lover.
  • We learn (to our shock) that it was Goldman who organised the abduction of Khristo’s lover, Aleksandra, in Night Soldiers.
  • General Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa or the Lizard, subjects Szara to an intimidating interview on a train in the first section. He is the same General that Khristo found himself begging for his life to in NS.
  • Nadia Tscherova in a big coincidence is sister to Colonel Vonets aka Sascha, who plays such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers.
  • Maltsaev is a bringer of orders to execute in Night Soldiers and here. We are glad to see him shot dead.
  • Roger Fitzware, MI6 man, plays a small but key role in both books, suggesting Khristo’s arrest and imprisonment in Night Soldiers and recruiting Szara for MI6 in Dark Star, so that Baumann’s information is shared with British Intelligence.

1. Overlapping characters like this give a sense, not exactly of verisimilitude – surely the world isn’t this small – but of a graspable fictional universe. There is something gleefully childish about recognising this character from that scene and discovering, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to them.’

2. It occurs to me that another aspect of having so many recurrent figures is a dramatic irony, that we readers often know the past or future of a character which everyone in the fiction doesn’t. a) That’s standard dramatic irony, but b) it also reinforces the atmosphere of endless smoke and mirrors in the bewildering world of espionage, the sense of multiple levels, in fact a never-ending maze of levels, of secrecy, of characters never knowing what becomes of each other.


In among the densely described and densely analysed historical background and the complex mesh of conspiracies, are islands of tremendous sensuality. In Ostend Szara visits a nightclub where the showgirls came prancing out wearing zebra masks and nothing else, whinnying and shaking their bums at the male customers. Szara takes one of them back to his hotel room. Later he has a one-night-stand with the shy young Fräulein he meets at the dinner at Herr Baumann’s, and then is haunted by the memroy until he can see her again months later. These encounters are described with great lyricism and sensuality.

When I read The Polish Officer years ago, I thought Furst’s sensuality was a little over-ripe. Now I see it as a congruent part of the fantasy of these novels. All the historical accuracy in the world, all the paragraphs explaining the NKVD and Comintern and Red Army purges, can’t conceal the poetic power of the prose, which is permanently striving for lyrical description. The sensuous sex scenes are just a fragment of the larger lyrical sensibility, a poet’s sensibility seared by the brutalities of the 20th century.

It snowed on the night of the sixth, and by the time Szara and Maltsaev left the Gare de Lyon on the seventh of February the fields and villages of France were still and white. The nineteenth century, Szara thought with longing: a pair of frost-coated dray horses pulling a cart along a road, a girl in a stocking cap skating on a pond near Melun. The sky was dense and swollen; sometimes a flight of crows circled over the snow-covered fields. (p.223)

Note that it is not a poetic use of language – Martin Cruz Smith is my prose poet of the moment, a man who can bring off unexpected and miraculous turns of phrase. Furst’s language is plainer, Furst’s is a poetry of perception: the poetry is in the selection of detail which gives his prose the power of a certain kind of realist painting. On almost every page there is finely perceived detailing which brings to life the scores of minor characters which bristle throughout the narrative.

The owner was a Hungarian, a no-nonsense craftsman in a smock, his hands hard and knotted from years of cutting and stitching leather. (p.255)

He leaned out the window and peered down to find the old woman looking up at him from the yard. She stood, with the aid of a stick, like a small, sturdy pyramid, wearing sweaters and jackets on top, broad skirts below. Her dogs, a big brown one and a little black and white one, stood by her side and stared up at him as well. (p.269)

Vyborg’s driver was a big sergeant with close-cropped hair, a lion-tamer’s moustache, and a veinous, lumpy nose that was almost purple. He swore under his breath without pause, swinging the big car around obstacles, bouncing through the fields when necessary, hewing a path through the wheatfields. (p.281)

No special words or magical phrasing. It is the density of fully imagined detail, and the wealth of fully imagined people, places, scenes and events which fill the narrative to overflowing, which give this book its breath-taking and epic quality.


Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in Franceen

Isvik by Hammond Innes (1991)

It was a strange wild world, the long ribbon of water stretching out ahead, leaden under the lowering overcast. The great mass of the Darwin Cordillera was behind us now and though heavy banks of cloud obscured the towering peak of Sarmiento I could feel the menace of it in the sudden wind shifts, the violence of the gusts. It made me very conscious that I was now at the bottom of the world. Cape Horn ahead and the Screaming Fifties; after that the frozen wastes of the pack, the icebergs, the whole mass  of Antarctica with its blizzards. (p.223)


Peter Kettil has a mundane job as a wood specialist, assessing damp and rot and worms in the ageing buildings of his native East Anglia, spending the weekends on his sailing boat moored in Blakeney harbour. Without any warning he is made redundant when the traditional firm he works for is sold to a larger modern conglomerate. He is, in other words, the classic Innes’ protagonist, the ordinary bloke suddenly at a loose end and ready for an adventure. Scouting round for work he is invited to a meeting at the National Maritime Museum.


Here he is introduced to the mystery which dominates the novel. Besides the Director of the NMM he is introduced to one Iain Ward, a broad Glaswegian chancer and possible criminal who claims to have won the pools and wants to fulfil a lifelong dream of going on an ‘adventure’. The adventure is offered by the sexy Iris Sunderby, wife of an English glaciologist, whose plane crashed in the Antarctic but on whose body, when recovered, was found Sunderby’s diary in which he’d described seeing a perfectly preserved three-masted frigate trapped in the Antarctic ice of the Wadell Sea. And this is where the NMM comes in, since this is just the kind of antique ship they would love to get their hands on. So. They need an expert in wood preservation who can sail: does Peter want to join the expedition? Hesitantly, he says yes.

Mystery and intrigue are present from the start for, as Iris gives him a lift back to central London, they find themselves tailed by the flashy young man Peter had noticed hanging round the museum and eyeing Iris up. Now she reveals he’s Carlos, working for a Latino man, Mario Ángel Gómez, who she hates, and mentions something about her brother, Eduardo, one of the Desaparecidos, the ‘Disappeareds’ ie the people kidnapped and killed by the Argentine military dictatorship whose bodies were never found. What? This is a whole extra and complex layer of narrative…

Stunned at the sudden prospect of packing off to the Antarctic for months, and deeply concerned by the murky background to Iris’s South American connections, Peter returns to Norfolk to think it over, only – in another unexpected surprise – to be called back to London a few weeks later to identify Iris’ badly mangled body. Seems she fell, or was pushed, into one of the docks in the newly developed Docklands where she lives, and her body mangled by the propeller of one of the various pleasure boats. It’s her clothes and her handbag all right, and Peter leaves the mortuary dazed and upset. Like everyone who met her he had been dazzled by her vitality and determination and sexiness.

So he’s even more puzzled when the Scotsman, Ward, phones him a few days later and not only tells him the expedition is still on, but that they are leaving the next day! What! He must pack his things, come down to London to collect his and Ward’s passport with all the correct visas from an East End lawyer, then meet Ward at Heathrow. Despite all his misgivings, Peter does this and then sets about interrogating Ward: Why the hurry? Who’s paying for the expedition? Where is the diary and information about the ship?

On the plane

On the plane he is stunned to learn that Iris is still alive and flying out ahead of them: Ward goes on to explain her tangled family background, her mother a Latin American prostitute, her father connected to the Naples mafia, her half-brother tangled up in all sorts of crime. And then Ward tells a long cock and bull story about his own upbringing in Glasgow slums, hiking down to London as a boy and getting attached to an East End barrow boy who makes good but then dies, prescribing in his will that Ward is sent to prep school and then to Eton! Really! Kettil doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Is the man mad? Can this farrago possibly be true?

By now they’re through passport control and onto the plane to Mexico City and, in the first 100 pages, Innes has set up the complicated strands of another one of his Gothic thrillers. All the ingredients are here: an ordinary bloke (Peter); an exotic location (Antarctica); an obscure quest (for the alleged frozen clipper); and very dubious company (Sunderby and Ward).

In South America

The main action in this section is Ward persuading the narrator that they don’t fly straight down to Puntas Arenas where the boat is docked, but instead drive 600 kilometers to visit Mario Ángel Gómez, the baddy, at his place, the Hacienda Lucina, high in the Cordelliras mountains. They do so in a monsoon downpour caused by El Niño, encountering sections of the road which have been washed away by floods. At one point Ward drives the 4-wheel drive Toyota onto the rail line and along the line through a tunnel and across a bridge because the road has been washed away.

Then there is a dramatic scene where, driving around hairpin bends high in the mountains, above the noise of the torrential downpour they hear a bang and the first few rocks bouncing down and realise a rockslide has been triggered to bury them. Kettil accelerates like mad and just escapes the rocks while Ward jumps out and goes legging up the mountainside. Minutes later Kettil sees a frightened Latino descending a path chased by Ward who pursues him to the edge of the road and beats and hits him till he falls over the cliff screaming. Ward returns to the car streaming wet, carrying the detonator which the Latino used to set off the avalanche. Someone is trying to kill them but who? Kettil realises Ward is mad and that he is in way over his head.

They arrive at the Hacienda Lucinda high in the mountains, as the rain ceases and the sun comes out, and meet the devilishly handsome Ángel, urbane and smooth-talking like all thriller baddies. They also discover Iris Sunderby has been there for some time. It is difficult to understand why Ward has insisted in driving all this way, and at such great risk, just to see this guy: it’s something to do with establishing that Ángel is an ex-Argentine air force pilot who has himself seen the ice-bound frigate on one of his test flights or reconnaissance flights. Thus he is important to Iris because he confirms her husband’s sighting, and he knows its precise whereabouts.

But there is an extra layer of meaning and mystery which the narrator (and therefore we) don’t fully understand, in fact two levels, because Ward seems determined to find out whether Ángel was somehow involved in the fate of the ‘Disappeareds’, and therefore of Iris’s brother: is he, in other words, a baddy from the old military regime? And, in yet another of the incestuous Gothic family sagas which characterise Innes’ fictions, Ward is determined to find out whether Ángel is in fact related to Iris, is in fact her half-brother by the same father! Why he or we should care is never explained, it’s just part of the air of forced, compulsive obsession which is always a key element in an Innes thriller.

So Ward and Ángel go off arguing about these various issues while Kettil falls asleep in a chair in the garden wondering what the hell it’s all about. In a bizarre scene, he awakens to find Iris kissing him and stroking his manhood, giving him a hearty erection. But she has a dazed, glazed look on her face and is staring at the hacienda as if only doing it to provoke someone. As Ward and Ángel reappear she pulls Kettil out of his chair and onto the ground on top of her. Ward picks her up and diagnoses that she is high as a kite on cocaine, angrily yelling at Ángel that he’s been keeping her drugged.

Over the succeeding pages, it leaks out that she did it as part of the weird psycho-sexual games she plays with Ángel, because she is in fact infatuated with him. Kettil, an ordinary Englishman, is bewildered by these multiple levels of bizarreness. As he packs Iris’s stuff for her to leave with them, she admits that she has been with Ángel at the hacienda and, apparently, letting him use her in all kinds of sexual ways. It seems she did this from tangled motives, partly to extract from him the location of the iced-up ship in order to vindicate her dead husband’s sighting of the ship.

Because, as in all Innes’ thrillers, it is clearly way more than that, there is an out of control, Gothic, sexually obsessive side to the whole plot. Innes had always been candid about the sexual side of his characters: his male narrators have given frank assessments of the sexual appeal of women in the stories right from the earliest novels in the 1930s. Here he appears to be reacting to the hugely more ‘liberated’ culture of the 1980s, to describe head-on the peculiar sexual obsession of this gorgeous Latin American woman who is prepared to prostitute herself to a man who may be her half-brother, in order to vindicate her dead husband.

While the reader tries to puzzle out what the devil is going on and what the strange, twisted motivations are of Ward, Iris or Ángel, there is a completely separate thread in the book, which is that Ward, the larger-than-life, crippled Glaswegian street urchin, is very well read and insists on visiting key Aztec and Inca historic sites along the way. Thus, in between meeting disreputable contacts in Mexico City to dig up dirt about Ángel Gómez, he insists on driving Kettil out to the ancient site of Teotihuacan. And after they’ve collected Iris, on their hair-raising, mountain-path-washed-away-or-blown-up-by-assassins drive up to Gomez’s hideaway – he insists that they go out of their way to visit the vast ruined city of Chamchán, the old Chimú capital city. Here Kettil has what amounts to a religious experience, about life and destiny and history, which colours his perception of everything which follows.

If all this sounds weird for a ‘thriller’, it is, it really is.

If Innes’ novels don’t sell much any more it’s because they’re such an idiosyncratic mix of traditional thriller – innocent man gets caught up in some scam which leads to violence and intrigue – with these other, peculiar elements – one or more characters’ obtuse, impenetrably obsessive pursuit of some quixotic quest (after all, why are they all going on this cock-and-bull expedition to find an old ship in the ice, anyway?) – twisted, vengeful, doomed families (mad fathers, vengeful siblings) – along with heavy dollops of would-be profundity about human beings, nature, history etc (how man is exterminating wildlife in The Big Footprints or polluting the world in The Black Tide). The result is odd, uncanny, irrational and weirdly compelling.

The boat Isvik

After the peculiar mountain top scenes with coked-up Iris and mysterious Ángel and the ominous ruined cities, it is a relief when they fly and drive and fly again to arrive at the southernmost tip of South America, at the port of Puntas Arenas, where they check into the boarding house of a grizzled old sailor, ‘Captain Freddie’, and finally clap eyes on the famed Isvik. This is the boat which will take them south to the Antarctic. It was built for an American millionaire who lost interest, bought by an Antarctic prospecting company which went bankrupt, and which Ward’s money has now bought them for the madcap expedition. (Innes gives a full technical description on page 173.)

Here there is a month or more of hard work to get the ship into shape, with Innes displaying his in-depth knowledge of boats and sailing to dazzle us with precise detail of all the aspects of keel and sail and rigging and motors which have to be renovated, fixed, repaired or replaced before the ship is seaworthy.

Still no real explanation of why they’re doing it all, though – it’s not for money. But a new element enters along with the strange psycho-sexual ones: for the grizzled old sea-dog they’re staying with happens to have been shown round the old frigate when she docked here. In case I haven’t made this clear, the antique clipper ship they’re seeking hasn’t been lost in the ice for hundreds of years. The reverse. It sailed down the Argentine coast just a few years before and the grizzled old landlord had been able to go ashore and look around. He found her not only very seaworthy, but could see that various aerials and electric equipment had been attached to the masts and, presumably, linked to radios and who-knows-what electronic kit in the cabins.

Was all this something to do with the Falklands War (April 2, 1982 – June 14, 1982)? The war has already been mentioned in connection with Gomez, who we know flew fighters during it but, like all Innes characters, refuses to answer questions about it. Was the ship some part of that war, rigged up with secret equipment which could sneak past British radar because the ship was made of wood not metal?

The characters speculate about all this and the reader is left even more confused than before as to what this novel is really about. Is it a spy thriller? A Falklands War tale? A lurid psycho-sexual exploration? Is it about hidden treasure? Or the tragic impact of the Disappeared on their families? Or a Gothic fantasy about Ward and Iris’s different but equally intense obsessions with the ship? Or a psychological tragedy about Iris and Ángel Gómez’s incestuous, half-brother and sister, sexual madness? Or all of the above?

The voyage south

Finally they set sail, having recruited some more crew members starting with Nils, a standard-issue big bluff Scandinavian sailor. But after that it gets weird again: Carlos, the sleek good looking young man who had tailed Iris back in London turns up and begs to be taken along. Because now, Ward tells Kettil, they are to collect Ángel from the far south of South America, in fact he is vital as the only one who knows the ship’s location. And two Australians had answered the advert to crew for them but when they turn up, one turns out to be an Aborigenal woman, Go-Go, married to the white Aussie Andy. As the voyage progresses Kettil observes that she is obsessed with her husband, refusing to let him out of her sight and appears to be ‘sexually voracious’. This results in Andy’s shattered appearance in the mornings and his attempts to escape from her and into the safety of slipping on his headphones and communicating with local radio hams and guides.

It is a long difficult fraught voyage east towards the Falklands and then south towards Antarctica, all described with Innes’ trademark vivid detail and an impressive wealth of information about currents, winds, wave sizes and the thousand details of sailing in these unforgiving seas. There’s such a stark contrast between the cleanness and clarity of the sailing information and the peculiar, twisted psycho-sexual strands which inform the plot, for Kettil is still powerfully attracted to Iris, Iris is still attracted to Ángel, but it turns out young Carlos is Ángel’s gay lover – Kettil finds them in bed together. And there’s the smouldering tension between the bickering Australian couple. No wonder Kettil likes the company of straightforward, heterosexual and not at all incestuous Nils.

On the ice

They navigate the Isvik slowly into the ice pack, going as far south as they can before mooring, planning to set off the next morning. Next morning Ward isn’t at all surprised to wake and find Ángel and Carlos have stolen the snow scooter and set off early. Ward orders Kettil to have a hearty breakfast and then the pair of them set off, pulling their sledges with equipment, food, tents etc behind them, following the tracks in the snow. Many pages follow describing the extreme physical hardship of the three day journey that follows – the hail, the snow, the melting ice, the cracked ice, the jumbled up ice, the fierce sun at noon, the midnight storms.

Eventually they sight the ship in the ice and things speed up. After 300 pages of build-up the climax of the novel is played out in thirty intense, breathless pages. They find Carlos lying mortally wounded beneath the ice-bound bows of the ship. He’s been shot in the back and pushed over the bows to the hard ice below. Carlos has time to whisper,’I wouldn’t have told’ and then expires. In very tense and atmospheric scenes Ward and Kettil climb aboard the ship and explore it. Someone has lived here for the past two and a half years. There is a living quarter, food hung in strips, still some tins of food, coffee jars etc. Suddenly they hear a sound from a distant part of the ship: is it Ángel who we now know has murdered his boyfriend, Carlos? But why? What secret didn’t he want Carlos to reveal? And then as in the corniest thriller, the door to the cabin they’re in slowly creaks open…

The death ship

It is Eduardo, Iris’s half-brother, the one she thought was dead. He was one of the Disappeareds kept prisoner in the abandoned labour camp Ward took Kettil to see in an eerie scene, just before they collected Ángel from the tip of South America. He is in a terrible state, stinking of fish and faeces, filthy dirty, unshaved, hair and beard matted and stinking. At first barely able to speak, he slowly unburdens himself of his terrible story.

The political prisoners kept on the camp were rounded up and driven on board the sailing ship, along with a cargo of sheep. Almost everything metal had been removed from it. Eduardo knew how to sail and so he was chosen to be a ‘trusty’, allowed out of the stinking hold to perform various tasks around the ship as it set sail. And it was here that he was let in on its terrible secret. The Argentine authorities, having lost the Falklands War, planned to spray the prisoners and sheep in the hold with anthrax spores, reach the Falkland Islands undetected by radar, and then release the infected humans and sheep to mingle with the native population. Sheep and people would be utterly decimated and the islands become uninhabitable forever.

Eduardo took part in the opening of the hold and spraying the whimpering men and bleating animals. Then the crew, appalled at their own actions, got drunk. Eduardo, an educated man (hence imprisoned in the first place for his left wing views) had spotted amobarbital in the first aid supplies and took the opportunity to spike the crew’s drinks to knock them out. When they awoke he had tied most of them up and had them covered with a machine gun. He forced them to abandon ship into a little dinghy and set them adrift in the south Atlantic; none of them survived.

But then the weather turned stormy and Eduardo was completely unable to control such a massive ship on his own, and she was tossed in storms, her sails and masts ripped off, turned by the elements completely away from her course towards the Falklands and driven hundreds of miles south while Eduardo lay helpless in his bunk listening to the screams of the dying victims in the hold. Eventually she beached on the ice, on the buried shoreline beneath the ice and there she had stayed for the past two years, slowly drifting with the drift of the ice eastwards, while he lived on tinned supplies, on the occasional seal and fish.

Ward and Kettil listen to this appalling story in silence. Ward establishes that Ángel had come all this way with stocks of semtex on a mission to blow up the ship and destroy the evidence; but while Kettil and he were investigating one end of the ship, Eduardo successfully lured Ángel towards a trapdoor into the hold and the noise they heard earlier was the sleek, sexy Ángel tumbling to his doom in the hold full of half-rotted anthrax victims.

They bundle Eduardo in warmer clothes and secure him to the sledges and return to the Isvik, a nightmare three-day journey through terrible blizzard conditions across melting ice. Once there, despite persistent questioning, neither of them can bring themselves to tell the full story of what they’ve seen: the others have themselves been through a hard week of foul weather and the psychological stresses of being cooped up together. Iris is overwhelmed to see her brother and help him recover but when she asks about Carlos or Ángel, Kettil, like every other Hammond Innes characters, buttons up, goes silent, hesitates, shrugs and generally avoids spitting it out. It is too terrible to repeat. She eventually sinks into a sullen silence of her own as Nils turns the Isvik and sails her north through more terrible weather.

All this is skipped across to reach the point where they radio for a helicopter from South Georgia, saying they have a sick man aboard. The chopper hovers over the pitching ship as they load the sick Eduardo into its net but everyone is surprised when the net returns and Ward swiftly climbs aboard with all his gear. A wave of the hand and he is gone. What the…? So was he some kind of government agent tasked with finding out the truth behind the mysterious frigate, with confirming terrible rumours about a ghost ship full of anthrax?

The Falkland Islands

In the closing pages, after a gruelling further eleven days of sailing, the Isvik weights anchor in the lee of the Falkland Islands. Nils packs his bags saying, ‘Never again’. The Aussies take their pay and leave. That night over a coffee laced with rum Iris shows Kettil the package Ward left behind: it leaves her 100% ownership of the Isvik and a small fortune in pre-signed travellers cheques. She owns a fine sailing vessel and quite a lot of money. She puts her hand on Kettil’s: does he really want to go back to flat Norfolk, to a little sailing dinghy, to a Job Centre in Cromer looking for a new career? Or will he stay with her and try their luck together, here at the ends of the earth in this strange, bracing, terrifying environment?

After the bizarre psycho-sexual relationships, the incest and gay murder and the central horror of the anthrax plot, it is a surprising and surprisingly old-fashioned happy ending. As with so many of Innes’ novels I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Isvik by Hammond Innes, published by Chapmans 1991. All references to the 1992 Pan paperback edition.

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.

The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth (1991)

‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said to Dobbs. ‘If one of them moves I’ll just blow his nuts off.’ (p.464)

Intriguingly, this novel which Forsyth published at the end of the Cold War and as the USSR collapsed is, like John le Carré’s novel of the same era, The Secret Pilgrim, not really a novel but a collection of linked but self-contained stories, four in this case. For both writers the linked short story format gives them an opportunity to review the Cold War years through different episodes. Or to use up old plots before they become irrelevant…

The frame story is set in 1990 as senior civil servants in Whitehall set about reforming the intelligence services. Convinced the world will now be a safer place they want to save money by offering older intelligence officers alternative, lower paid positions, or compelling them to retire. They decide to kick off the process with a high-profile example and so offer a selection of accounting or admin jobs to the legendary Sam McCready, the so-called ‘Deceiver’, a rumpled, unclubbable man (shades of George Smiley) who was unexpectedly appointed head of the SIS in 1983 and surprised everyone by running it efficiently for the past seven years.

When McCready turns down the jobs he’s offered, and refuses retirement, it triggers a tribunal into his case. Here his number two, Denis Gaunt, presents evidence of The Deceiver’s sterling work for the nation, and makes the case for keeping him on as a senior intelligence officer, via the four long tales which make up the body of the text.

1. Pride and Extreme Prejudice McCready sends a German agent, Bruno Morenz, over to the East to rendezvous with a Russian General and collect a book containing Russian Army deployments. But Morenz is already unbalanced by a crime of passion – murdering the prostitute he thought loved him, when she taunts him. And so his trip across the border, and then to the arranged rendezvous, is fraught. Serioulsy on edge, Morenze collects the book as arranged, but is in no position to handle the fairly minor road accident which happens ten minutes later. Panicking, he flees the scene by nicking the police car which had come to attend the accident, sparking a giant man-hunt led by East German security. Meanwhile, a scarily efficient and cold-hearted woman KGB Colonel has been tracking the movements of the General who handed over the book, suspecting him of being a traitor and now becomes involved in the hunt for Morenz. Thus it is with multiple enemies that McCready has himself smuggled across the border and sets out to find Morenz. By good investigative skills, he interviews Morenz’s old schoolteacher and so deduces the childhood hideout where he might have gone to ground. Sure enough, he is there but a complete nervous wreck, incapable of moving and so, with the Stasi closing in, McCready is forced to put the distraught agent out of his misery, before returning successfully through the wire with the vital book. Surprisingly entertaining.

2. The Price of the Bride A KGB officer, Colonel Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov, with the usual secrets, does a bunk from a British Army exercise where he and post-Soviet comrades are being shown British troops on manoeuvre. He insists on going straight to the Americans and the next 100 pages develop a very tangled web whereby it is slowly wormed out of him that there is a high-level Russian mole in the CIA. The lead American character, Joe Roth, handles his initial defection, then is tasked with his prolonged debriefing, and then gets caught up in the investigation into Orlov’s accusations. Forsyth has total mastery of the organisational structure and processes, the rivalries and tensions, within MI5, MI6, the CIA, the FBI, and their overlaps into the British Army, police, the Met and Special Branch. He shows us American investigators meticulously gathering the circumstantial evidence which points the finger at senior CIA man, Calvin Bailey. Unfortunately, it is a frame-up, laboriously created over many years by senior KGB officials, to create dissension and demoralise the CIA. We know this because McCready has himself been running a senior KGB mole in the Russian embassy – codename Keepsake – who explains it all to the Brits. Keepsake is himself at high risk of being captured-tortured-shot by his own side, until rescued from Moscow by McCready in a complex, high-stakes heist. But too late to save Bailey, bumped off by his own side. War is hell, kids.

The story is fairly thrilling, and bubbles over with Forsyth’s trademark factual accuracy, the big chunks of journalistic background, about names, the addresses and organisational structures, processes and procedures of the KGB, CIA and SIS. And at moments the story is almost believable – but ends up too pat, too symmetrical, too easily cynical, like one of those War Commando comics.

3. Casualty of War Tom Rowse is a disillusioned SAS man who quit after service in Northern Ireland and publicly criticised the British operation there. He’s got a nice new life, writing thrillers and living in Gloucestershire with his new young wife, who makes rugs. All the bigger surprise when Sam McCready turns up and says MI6 have information about a major arms shipment for the IRA. Involved is one particular IRA man who Tom has reason to hate which is enough to pull him out of retirement and send him on travels to Hamburg, Malta, Libya, then on to Cyprus, as he investigates the connections between the IRA and a major shipment of arms despatched by Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya.

The details of police operations, the world of mercenaries and arms dealing, the atmosphere of Hamburg and Valletta and Tripoli, the co-operation between MI6 and the CIA, the description of airports and remote monasteries and luxury hotels and a fishing boat in the Atlantic, are all fluent and persuasive. Only when Forsyth describes people do the shallow psychology, the paper-thin characters and the trite moralising let down the otherwise ripping yarns.

The exotic locations and the smooth-talking baddies (cold-eyed IRA man Kevin Mahoney and suave, gambling, threatening Head of Libyan Intelligence, Hakim al-Mansour, who both enjoy watching Rowse get beaten up while filing their nails or sipping a brandy), the way the gorgeous blonde, Monica Browne, first tends Rowse’s wounds and then unzips her dress and slips off her bra to have sex with him and then, inevitably, turns out to be a gun-toting member of the gang herself – all this is strongly reminiscent of James Bond.

4. A Little Bit of Sunshine Sunshine is a fictional island in the Bahamas. An American cop is on holiday fishing, when he catches sight of a drugs cartel contract killer he and his buddy interrogated years before. He trails the baddie to his remote villa but, unfortunately, is seen and identified. Afraid, he makes his way to the tiny airfield where he blags a seat aboard a flight out but the killer has a man tailing him who slips a bomb aboard the little charter plane and it blows up high above the Caribbean. In a separate storyline the Foreign Office are compelling the islanders to leave the Commonwealth, become independent and hold an election. Two wealthy candidates return from abroad, each presenting themselves as the island’s saviour. But a sizeable part of the population wants neither independence or election, they want to stay British. They go to petition the British Governor, the lofty Sir Marston Moberley, who refuses their requests and, a few days later, is shot dead in what looks like a professional ‘hit’. The stage is set for the murdered American cop’s partner to fly in from Miami, for British detectives to fly in from London and – guess who was taking a few days’ holiday in the region, after a boring conference in the States? Yes, Sam McCready, the Deceiver himself.

Despite the killings, this story is played for laughs, for example the way old pro Detective Chief Superintendent Desmond Hannah is lumbered with a deputy who’s never been on a murder case before ‘but loves reading about criminology in his spare time’. He is further exasperated by the inexperienced local authorities in Sunshine, and harassed at every turn by the Press who’ve flown in to cover the ‘murder in Paradise’ story. At many places it was laugh-out-loud funny – interesting to see how funny Forsyth can be when he puts his years of experience as a high end journalist to comic ends.

The climax is like an Ealing Comedy when McCready finds an investiture form in the dead governor’s desk and appoints himself Governor for a day, using his power to deputise various locals and – with a helping hand from Forsyth’s beloved SAS – they run the two crooked political candidates out of town.

Facts and fictions

Interwoven into the stories are countless chunks of recent history as Forsyth does his trademark thing of interweaving recent events with fictional characters and plots. Unsurprisingly, the story about the fake Soviet defector is littered with references to other famed double agents including the British Cambridge spies and US double agents from the 1960s onwards. The story makes repeated reference to various Soviet defectors – eg Anatoly Golitsyn who defected in 1960 and fuelled the paranoia of CIA chief James Jesus Angleton for years (p.164). Also stories about defectors who made the catastrophic mistake of returning to the Soviet side – only to be interrogated and executed. And there is the particularly gruesome fate of the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley.

The third story, about Libyan arms bound for the IRA, is dense with references to the IRA’s terrorist campaigns, to its ways of meeting and procedures. I’d forgotten about the Hyde Park Barracks bombing (1982: 11 soldiers dead, 52 soldiers and civilians injured), and the Harrods bombing (1983: three police and three civilians killed). Forsyth actually takes us into the presence of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, and explains his twitchiness and need to move between safe locations, following the US-led air raid on his palace 15 April 1986. It references the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight 181 on 13 October 1977 – a factual event – and spuriously claims that the hero of the story, Tom Rowse, was one of the SAS stormers of the plane.

It is this interweaving of completely true events (the various double agents, spies and defectors, the IRA campaigns or Arab hijackings) and real contemporary figures (Ronald Reagan is name-checked, we are taken into Chequers to observe Mrs Thatcher at close quarters, reading the paper, having lunch and intervening in the Sunshine case) with completely fictional characters and storylines, which gives Forsyth’s fiction its particular factual density and verisimilitude.

The four qualities of a successful terrorist organisation

In a typically factual aside, Forsyth spends several pages early in The Casualties of War section (pp.273-274), describing in brisk, authoritative fashion the four qualities required by a terrorist organisation if it is going to last:

  1. a pool of keen young recruits
  2. safe havens or bolt holes to retreat to
  3. ‘the ruthlessness to stop at no threshold of atrocity’
  4. money

Interesting to apply these criteria to the terrorist organisations currently dominating our headlines some thirty years later.


It is a relief to come from other, more literary authors, to the clarity of Forysth’s brisk, virile, no-nonsense, upper-class tones. Part of the enjoyment is the way he not only details the organisational structures and procedures of the spy organisations, police and army which he appears to know inside out, but also lets us in on their foibles, nicknames, shortcomings and rivalries: the Americans this, the Russians that, MI5 the other.

Forsyth is unreservedly on the side of the authorities – the police, Special Branch, the SAS, can do no wrong – but it is typically Forysthian that in the fourth story, where he details the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the satellite technology the Yanks use to monitor every flight and ship movement in the Caribbean, as well as the satellites which monitor all phone traffic, that in fact one radio ham hearing gossip in the island bar radios it to a pal in Washington so that

About a billion dollars’ worth of technology worked it out three hours after a radio ham with a home-made set in a shack on the side of Spyglass Hill had told a pal in Chevy Chase. (p.387)

In fact he makes this point in several places: technology is no replacement for men on the ground, for human contacts. Which is why – as le Carré has Smiley emphasise in The Secret Pilgrim – spying will always be with us.

But apart from Forsyth’s usual sardonic attitude, it was a surprise in this book to come across some uncharacteristically vulgar language. On page 254 McCready describes the number two in SIS who pompously claims that the fall of the USSR will be followed by a new era of peace and harmony, as a ‘dick brain’. On page 272 McCready describes the same man, Timothy Edwards, as an ‘arsehole’ for his sneaky, conniving ways. And on page 358:

You really are a prize arsehole, Timothy, he thought.

I had already been surprised when Forsyth tells us on page 153 that MI5 sometimes refer to MI6 as TSAR, standing for ‘Those Shits Across the River’, but I wasn’t prepared for the Author’s Message on the ante-penultimate page. Gaunt realises McCready is resigned to resigning, and so asks him why he bothered going through the farce of the tribunal:

‘Because I care about this fucking service and they’re getting it wrong. Because there’s a bloody dangerous world out there and it’s not getting less dangerous but more so. And because dick-heads like Edwards are going to be left looking after the security of the old country, which I happen to love, and that frightens the shit out of me.’ (p.475)

The characters’ swearing presumably reflects Forsyth’s own genuine concerns about misconceptions surrounding the end of the Cold War (concerns which are exactly the same as Smiley’s in The Secret Pilgrim). But, on the level of language, it’s also connected to the greater humour in these stories, as if Forsyth feels more relaxed not having to create one 500-page blockbusting thriller and is happier, shoutier, swearier in the shorter format. It feels like these stories were more enjoyable to write and they are certainly more enjoyable to read, than his last couple of novels.


The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press in 1991. All quotes from the 1992 paperback Corgi edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

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

MAMista by Len Deighton (1991)

In The Night Manager we saw how John le Carré reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – the subjects which had provided his fictional bread and butter for nearly thirty years. He reacted by moving the same organisation – British Intelligence – and the same kind of plot motifs – the traitor within – seamlessly into the world of international arms smuggling.

The Samson novels

From 1983 Len Deighton had been engaged on an epic series of novels, the Samson series, which were based around the Cold War conflict, specifically the espionage war against the communist regime and agents of East Germany.

With one bound this, his first post-Berlin Wall novel, flies completely free of that entire world. It is set a hemisphere away, in the fictional South American country of Spanish Guiana. This is ruled by the moderately repressive regime of General Benz, but is plagued by the usual social problems e.g. poverty and squalor, and the discrepancy between the small, urban, middle class and the large number of illiterate peasants who work the land. The political landscape is filled with liberal politicians, communist intellectuals and Marxist guerrillas.

In the opening chapters we meet three central characters.

Angel Paz is a twenty-year-old explosives expert, a Latino based in America, sent to a good college and recommended by his father to a job with his mobster Uncle Arturo. Instead of taking the job, Paz takes his allowance and redirects the plane ticket to Spanish Guiana with a young man’s idealism and fervour to fight for a cause he believes in. Inevitably, he is swiftly disillusioned by the poverty and misery of the country, the ignorance of the peasants, and the squalid nature of the ‘struggle’ he gets involved in.

Coming from a completely different place is middle-aged Australian doctor Ralph Lucas. He left his comfortable farming family to serve in Vietnam as a combat doctor, where he saw bad things, before moving on to London and becoming involved in various charities. We see him in the board meeting of one of these which, among many other good works, is suggesting sending medical supplies to communities affected by the guerrilla fighting in the south of Spanish Guiana i.e. away from the urban centres in the north. Lucas finds himself manoeuvred at the meeting into going to the territory himself to assess the situation, but reassures his sister he’ll only be gone a few weeks.

In an early scene Paz is met off the boat into the Spanish Guiana capital, Tepolo, by Inez Cassidy, the improbably good-looking ‘press officer’ for the MAMista guerrillas. Her presence is tolerated in the capital because it suits the regime to have a conduit to communicate with the guerrillas through, and it demonstrates Benz’s liberal tolerance to foreign officials i.e. from the United States. Inez takes Paz to a safe house kept by a man named Chori, where Paz uses his skills to create a bomb which they then break into the Ministry of Pensions and plant, attached to a timer.

Fictional presidents

To my surprise and dismay these scenes are intercut with scenes set in the West Wing of the White House, where we meet John Curl, National Security Adviser to the President of the USA, described here as a tall, noble, intelligent decisive man.

I wonder if it could be a reliable yardstick that a novel is going to be rubbish if it includes a fictional US President. The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean, featuring the kidnap of a rugged intelligent US President, is one of his worst novels. The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth is completely unbelievable at every level, but especially hindered by the improbably perfect characterisation of the tall, noble, intelligent, decisive US President.

In reality the world has enjoyed the presidenciesof Ronald Reagan 1981 to 1989, George Bush 1989 to 1993, Bill Clinton 1993 to 2001, George W Bush 2001 to 2009, Barack Obama 2009 and counting. The gap between the fictional presidents of thriller writers – tall, rugged, extremely intelligent, tough but sensitive, decisive but caring – and the reality of Reagan, Bush, Clinton et al, is just too wide not to be ludicrous. And so renders any fiction depicting this kind of heroic, noble US President immediately vulnerable to ridicule.

Americans in Spanish Guiana

Anyway, the scenes between Curl and the Prez are to show that there’s a little US geological survey in the south of the Spanish Guiana and they’ve discovered the right conditions for oil. Curl has a plan to use this to sort out several problems: although the Americans aren’t fond of Benz (who they know turns a blind eye to the flourishing cocaine trade) they are equally unwilling to help the MAMista guerrillas.

But Curl may be able to act through a proxy: he arranges to bump into the head of a major oil firm, Steve Steinbeck, at his gym. Here, Curl puts to Steinbeck the possibility of having tax breaks and government help to develop and exploit the oil. In exchange, the oil company can take responsibility for security i.e. buy millions of dollars worth of guns and armaments, trucks and armoured personnel carriers.

Now it just so happens that the opening scenes describe the TV news showing pictures of protests and marches against the closing of large sections of the arms industry in California. Thus the Guiana deal could square several circles by:

  • supporting a US oil company
  • to provide an alternative source of oil to the ever-flaky Middle East
  • with government subsidies
  • which are actually funneled back to arms companies in California
  • new contracts which the President can announce in his upcoming trip to California
  • thus boosting his popularity

Ralph Lucas

Lucas flies into Guiana and is met by Inez Cassidy the day after the bomb went off in the Ministry, apparently injuring passersby. She takes him to the same squalid safe house where Paz is staying and they take an instant dislike to each other, which is a shame because the novel is going to be about how all three are thrown together.

This odd trio are invited to a reception at the American embassy, which is unexpectedly raided by Benz’s Federalista cops. Everyone is thrown into prison but because Lucas had wisely gone along with the arrest, he gets a blanket overnight in the cell with a straw mattress. Because Paz resists, like the young firebrand he is, he is beaten up, has his scalp shaved and thrown into a concrete cell with no bed blanket, bucket or anything. The next morning they are hauled up to be interrogated by chief of police, Cisnero, who eventually lets them go.

With the guerrillas

Inez, Paz and Lucas fly south in a dodgy propeller plane to a ‘secret’ airfield. Here they are met by dishevelled remnants of the MAMistas. Along the way we’ve learned that one of the key political figures in Guiana is Dr Guizot, capable of rallying the urban middle class behind the Revolution. A large number – several hundred – MAMistas took part in an attack on a convoy transporting Guizot between prisons. Unfortunately, the Army had been tipped off and massacred the guerrillas – of the several hundred, only thirty or so escaped – and it is these battle-worn troops who now arrive at the shack by the airstrip where Inez, Paz and Lucas are hiding out, led by their middle-aged peasant ‘general’, Ramón. Oh, and Dr Guizot was killed in the raid, so it was all for nothing and they have lost one of their main political allies.

Through Paz, Inez and Lucas we are now introduced to the MAMista guerillas, getting to know the wily Ramón, seeing them in their true poverty, beginning to get a feel for the implacable jungle, its heat and humidity, the insects and leeches. From now to the end of the novel scenes in the jungle with the bickering guerrillas are interspersed with scenes in the White House, contrasting events on the ground with the way they are reported to – and manipulated by – Curl and the American administration.

Bungled raid

The next thing that happens is the guerrillas raid the US geographical station: the guerrillas want its vehicles and fuel. Lucas finds himself dragged into a combat role when he is chosen to drive a decoy jeep into the compound – which is heavily defended from watchtowers with guards. Lucas drives in OK and walks to the main office where he meets the white paleographer, Charrington, and his sidekick, a big black guy named Singer. Things start to go wrong when we watch Inez use a rifle with scope to take out the two Indians in the watchtowers. Immediately two or three vehicles full of armed guerrillas screech through the open gates and the guerrillas deploy throughout the camp. Lucas realises Ramón lied to him when he said they’d rely on Lucas’s negotiating skills. In reality it’s an armed raid and Ramón’s deputy puts a gun to Charrington’s head. The latter sensibly hands over the keys to vehicles but Ramón decides they must take Charrington and Singer hostage.

A terrible accident happens as they’re leaving: Charrington yells at his wife that he’ll be OK and be back in a few days, but she insists on running down towards the departing vehicles and past the generator building, which is a bad idea, because Paz has primed the generator with lots of explosive and, just as she runs past, it explodes, throwing her wrecked, instantly dead body fifty yards against the perimeter fence. Which Charrington sees and so does his little boy who has been running after her.


The guerrillas drive for a day or so to the nearest settlement, the typically slummy impoverished town of Rosario where the different characters respond in different ways to the US geographical survey raid debacle. Paz is angry and defensive; Inez is upset; Lucas seems to be entirely emotionless: I think the idea is that he was completely emotionally cauterised in Vietnam and has never recovered an emotional life. He is eating when news is brought that Charrington has tried to commit suicide by smashing up his glasses and eating the broken glass. We watch Lucas tend to him in his last agonies: what a terrible way to go.

The novel is written in deadpan sentences which are extremely effective at conveying atmosphere. Thus a day or two later I still remember details of the description of Rosario, especially the townspeople’s surly dislike of the guerrillas. Nervously they put on a feast for them, bringing out their best food and wine simply to avoid the guerrillas stealing it anyway. Reluctantly they let the MAMistas put up revolutionary posters around the town. Next day, as their trucks drive off we see the townspeople systematically taking them down, worried what the opposing Federalistas will do when they arrive.

Winter camp

Finally the convoy of trucks with Ramón, Paz, Inez and Lucas arrives at the so-called winter camp. The idea was this was to be the launching point for an attack on the more urbanised north, which never in fact came. The violencia has been going on at least five years, but seems completely bogged down and Lucas now discovers why. Thousands of guerrillas are living in this makeshift camp, partly based around an abandoned matchworks by the vast river, a tributary of the Amazon. Here hundreds of the men, volunteers from the soft north, are falling ill to all sorts of jungle ailments, fungus, bronchitis and throat diseases, cuts and scratches becoming infected and gangrenous. Lucas sets about a wholesale reform of healthcare, burning down the old ‘hospital’, building a new one from scratch, reviewing all the men and recommending a healthier diet, administering what antibiotics he has and painkillers and overseeing at least one death a day. He even reforms the diet, cancelling the tinned rations and insisting on fresh stew made from whatever ingredients can be caught or picked in the jungle, plus fresh vegetables.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the guerrillas are being defeated by illness, disease, bad health, by the jungle: they will never make any ‘revolution’.


It is in this context that Ramón travels to a safe house in the north (in fact one of the houses of the Minister of Agriculture) who has loaned it in a deal guaranteeing the safety of his own lands to the south from guerrilla attack. Here he meets the leaders of the other left leaning forces in the country: Big Jorge, who has risen to represent the coffee growers, a large rural constituency, and Dr Marti, a bespectacled intellectual who represents the urban intellectuals, the students and bourgeois communists.

It is an interesting meeting as Deighton explains each side’s constituencies, who they represent and what they are bargaining for. Ramón tells them all the key figure of Dr Guizot is alive and has sent him with instructions (despite the fact we saw him burying Guizot’s bullet-riddled body in the jungle earlier). Ramón is hoping to persuade the other two to launch attacks of their own, in order to present a united front against Benz’s regime but, we slowly realise, neither is willing to do that. Big Jorge’s coffee farmers have, in recent years, taken to cocaine farming and are now making big money which relies on the current regime being in power and giving them large bribes. I.e. they have less and less interest in overthrowing anything; all they want is to field a militia force to defend their areas, against either MAMistas or Federalistas. Dr Marti for his part, is a comfortable old man: his students may stage sit-ins and protests but aren’t enough by themselves to overturn the majority in the urban centres which are prosperous under the Benz regime.

There is a gruesome moment: the rough old revolutionary, Chori, whose stinking boarding house our heroes assembled in at the start, was never released from his prison cells, unlike the foreigners Lucas and Paz. He – and then his father – were beaten and tortured until he reveals the location of this secret high-level summit. His torturers fly north until they are circling the minister’s house where the assembled guerrillas and leaders are alarmed but remain concealed. Convinced he has lied to them, the Benz regime torturers throw Chori’s body out of the circling plane. It falls a long way and is not a pretty sight when it lands.

There are a lot of not pretty sights in the novel. It is not a book for the squeamish. Deighton has a very disconcerting way of describing devastating injuries, murders, explosions, shootings, dismemberments in flat factual prose, leaving the reader reeling. This shock tactic was at the heart of Bomber, his upsetting epic novel about a bombing raid on Germany during World War II. Countless people die in all sorts of brutal, horrifying ways. This novel has a similarly cold-hearted and brutal impact.

Trek through the jungle

Ramón returns to the winter camp, thoroughly disillusioned and makes a decision. He has discovered that Singer, the black guy they took hostage at the US base, is in fact a CIA agent. He tells Paz and Lucas and his closest associates the CIA have a million dollar reward for Singer’s return and they must take him north, smuggle him into the city, get the money. It is a long long way north across trackless, pathless, roadless jungle. Even to me it seems like a hopeless futile task.

Thus begins the last third of the novel which is a long agonising description of the degeneration of the mission into collapse and failure. To summarise 100 pages or so: the thirty or so men who set off, led by the totally inexperienced Paz, attended by Lucas, accompanied by Inez, carrying Singer the valuable hostage, encounter the full range of jungle obstacles, having to hack their way through bamboo, wade through streams, fall into swamps, all the time being bitten by mosquitoes and clamped onto by leeches, all beneath almost non-stop torrential rain. Within days the pace has slowed right down and men are falling ill, dysentery appears along with other ailments.

The first really big challenge is crossing a massive river they come to which blocks their way to the mountains in the north. There is a horrible scene where a keen but weak young soldier volunteers and has nylon rope tied to his body so he can swim across and establish a line. He’s two thirds of the way across and in a fair way to drowning when a patrol boat appears out of nowhere and reduces his body to bloody hunks of meat with a rapid fire machine gun. Did I mention the book is bloody and violent? The guerrillas reply by chucking grenades into the boat, which eviscerate and cook its inhabitants. Another patrol boat was approaching from the south and, when the firing from the first one began, Lucas is able to open up with a rifle and shoot dead all four men in it. They use this boat to ferry men and supplies across the river.

The mountains

After the river come the mountains. They are staggering up the slopes, hacking through jungle or burned and sunstroked by the blistering sun, when Singer and Lucas realise they are being followed. A lot of these hundred pages are devoted to the shifting relationships between Paz the cocky leader who is slowly worn down, Lucas who is solid and dependable as doctor but has hardly any medicines and is cold-hearted, and Singer the black CIA agent who sings old Negro spirituals and generally mocks the revolutionaries’ stupid aspirations and uselessness at fieldcraft. But all three realise they’re being followed. And then that there are signs the trail has been used before: maybe there’s a force in front of them?

Down the other side of the mountains they go, in a state of high alert and into a wide swampy area. Here there is a sudden and unexpected firefight which draws the novel to a close. In one of the West Wing scenes, Curl had got the President to approve sending a warship to the coast of Guiana to extract the missing CIA agent. Unbeknown to Paz, Lucas and Inez, Ramón had been doing a deal with Singer and, via him, the Administration: having despaired of support from Jorge or Marti, and realising his army is dying, Ramón has agreed to a deal to allow US oil drilling to go ahead and take a cut of the profits in order to ensure safe transport of the oil from the south to the coast.

Deighton does a convincing job of describing the geopolitics or political machinations of the various players. Cutting the guerrillas in on the deal effectively puts them on the US payroll and draws their teeth. Eventually, on another level of complexity, it is revealed that Curl is planning to use the oil company to defoliate the cocaine growing areas on a big scale and arm or support the Marxist guerrillas in moving in on Big Jorge’s drug growers. The by-now-tamed MAMistas would be subsidised to grow coffee. So Curl gets: a new oil source for the US; Marxist guerrillas tamed; a major source of cocaine neutralised. Singer explains all this to Lucas, as well as the fall-back plan: if Ramón reneges on the deal the oil company can turn the large amount of arms, ammunition, trucks and APCs over to General Benz’s army to take on and destroy the guerrillas. All the angles have been smoothly calculated.

Firefight and farce

Suddenly shooting breaks out. Deighton gives a description of the fighting from both points of view. One minute the guerrillas are hacking through jungle the next machine guns and grenades are going off. The attackers are the group of American troops led by a West Point CIA graduate who had been helicoptered in to snatch Singer. Deighton has written a number of highly praised histories of World War Two, and has a deep knowledge of battles. This firefight is complete confusion. Both sides think they are being ambushed when in fact they have simply blundered into each other. The result is bloody brutal chaos. Half a dozen guerrillas are horribly killed, skulls split open, vaporised brains spraying their neighbours, arms shot off, guts spewing everywhere. Both sides break off, running into the jungle, and soon are not only not in contact but couldn’t even find their ways back to the battlefield if they wanted to.

Lucas stays with several men who die horribly in agony. Inez has been wounded by some small piece of shrapnel which has entered her body doing Lucas can’t tell how much damage. Santos, Paz’s number two, has his arm shot off and dies in stages. Once clear of the fight they regroup in the jungle but Paz volunteers to go back and fetch some of the panniers full of medical supplies. He never returns. He never returns because he blunders into the area where the American forces are recovering. They knock him out, but not before hearing him speaking in fluent American. The head of the CIA snatch squad is therefore convinced that this healthy looking young dude, speaking American, wearing a baseball cap and shades, must be the CIA agent he was sent to recover. He and his men carry the unconscious Paz to a clearing where they are recovered by their helicopter which flies them out of the forest to the coast and out to the waiting US warship.

The guerrillas continue struggling through the jungle, now with wounded men who slowly die, the rest decimated by disease. Singer is incapacitated with dysentery and is tied to a pole and carried. Lucas realises Inez is dying. On a desperate last stage, Lucas tells Singer to carry on without them, they’ll catch him up. An hour later Singer hears two shots and knows Lucas has shot dead Inez and killed himself. Some days later the last surviving guerrillas come across tracks and then a half-skinned dear. They collapse. Shyly the local pygmies who they’d disturbed return and lead them along more tracks to their village where they are greeted by a ravaged white man. In the latest in what is beginning to feel like an endless line of images of futility, he turns out to be an Austrian missionary who came to the area decades earlier, lost his faith but stayed on. He was hoping the new arrivals might be Europeans he could talk to. But the handful of surviving guerrillas are all too sick to go any further and the black man they’ve been carrying on a pole has been dead for days.

Last twists of the knife

Paz wakes up in hospital in Los Angeles. He is keeping silent through the medical treatment which is restoring his health, knowing that any minute the powers that be will realise he is not the real Singer. But he needn’t worry. At the start of the novel we saw Paz taking money and a plane ticket from his mobster uncle Arturo. Now Arturo visits him in hospital and, with an accomplice, performs a mafia-style execution, injecting Paz with poison.

Now all the main characters have died horribly and futilely, the final scene is the arrival of the US President in California to announce the big new arms contracts which will save the industry in California and revive his popularity levels, all as Curl had planned. To be honest, I couldn’t work out whether the death of Singer, the CIA man, was meant to undercut this final scene, by suggesting the deal with the guerrillas would now fall through and everything he’s about to announce to the press will fail to happen. (I don’t think so because, although Singer might be dead, it would be easy enough to send another envoy to Ramón and reconfirm the deal i.e. a cut of the oil profits to suspend the ‘revolution’.) Or whether it is schoolboy irony that the President’s shiny announcements to the press ignore and belie the terrible tragedies we’ve seen happening ‘on the ground’ i.e. everyone dying.

Either way, like Bomber, the entire novel, by the end, feels as if it has been a vast exercise in deeply depressed and depressing futility.


Deighton’s earliest novels are notable for their witty tricksiness which extended to including spy information packs and handy spy equipment in the hardback editions of the first spy novels. This fondness for game-playing extended to the playful titles of the Bernard Samson – Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match.

In this novel, thirty years into his writing career, it feels as if Deighton has completely jettisoned all attempts at humour and playfulness. The story is told in straightforward linear fashion: one damn thing happens after another. In The Night Manager le Carré used flashbacks to attempt to create character, albeit in a rather obvious way. Deighton by contrast is tight-lipped. Things happen. And when he does go beyond description and plot you can maybe see why…

For although he can create a gripping scenario and storyline, Deighton is clearly uncomfortable investigating the human or psychological side of it. When the narrator does comment on his characters, his remarks are surprisingly superficial, disconcertingly so. It’s as if a mature man wrote the story and then got his 12-year-old son to interpret it. Here are some examples:

Ramon was the mystery man that chaos and revolution always attracted. (p.198)

When the violencia came Big Jorge solved his problems in the way that so many other men had solved their problems before him: he marched off to war. (p.198)

[Lucas] considered [Ramón] a patient, and extended to him that paternalistic superiority that is a part of the physician’s role. (p.216)

The activities the characters engage in, the gruelling, crucifying torment of the jungle trek which Paz, Lucas, Inez and Singer undergo, are mercilessly described with clarity and vigour. But when they are thinking about each other, when the narrator describes their feelings or motivation, the results are surprisingly simple-minded, almost like a fairy story or children’s story, an effect emphasised by the very simplicity of sentence structure which, in the descriptive passages, is Deighton’s strength.

Within Paz, there had built up an enormous anger. As he saw it, he’d tried to befriend Lucas and Singer but his overtures had been rebuffed. He resolved to be avenged on them at the first chance he had. But from now on he would try to conceal his feelings; he would be as deceitful as they were. (p.280)

It was Angel Paz who began to sing. Where he found the energy was hard to say but he took the responsibility of command very seriously. He recognised that morale needed help. (p.285)

Hundreds of passages like this expose the ‘underdevelopment’, shall we call it, of the psychological aspects of Deighton’s novels and make it clear why genre fiction like this, well written and entertaining though it may be, doesn’t make the grade as ‘literature’, a key element of which is a sophisticated or  convincing depiction of human psychology. The psychology on display here is as elementary as necessary to keep the brutal plot rolling along.

Complicated, cruel, cold-hearted, violent and political plotlines – Yes.

Psychology, characterisation, much sign of warmth or humanity – No.

Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis (1991)

This is a very short novella, barely 80 pages long, written in a simple style and marketed as Puffin Teenage Fiction. I doubt it would appeal to many teenagers in 2015 and wonder how many read it in 1991. Despite its naturalistic setting, I think this is more a ‘novel of ideas’, a fictionalised pamphlet, a newspaper article with characters, because its main aim is to make a polemical point about contemporary society and culture and morality. First – the plot.

The set-up

Clive Rayner is a bored, white working class lad without a job or direction. He lives in an end-of-terrace house next to the approach road to a western motorway (maybe the Westway) with his mum and step-father, an angry man named Don MacIntyre. He hangs round with his mate Terry and two young trollopes, Marilyn and Paula who, despite their post-punk leather jackets and purple haircuts are not particularly sexually available, as he discovers when he gropes makes a pass at Paula and she smacks him in the mouth. He hangs round the house all day watching horror videos then spends the evenings at a cheap curry house with the gang. Once, hanging round the grass verge of the motorway, a police car stops and an intimidating plain clothes copper checks him over…

Clive nicks a tenner from his mum’s purse. When his step-dad gets home he gives Clive a bollocking, though his mum relents and tries to calm him down. That evening at the curry house Clive is wound up with anger and, having despatched the girls on their night bus, he suggests to Terry they break into a nearby warehouse belonging to Butterfield Brothers.

Terry is sceptical, all that’s in there is toasters and bulky electrical goods, but he goes along with it. They smash a window and clamber in, discovering a railed gantry or walkway which runs the length of the building, so they’re up and walking across that when the alarm goes off and an angry middle-aged man emerges from an office and runs towards them. He grabs Clive by the collar and they wrestle rather than fight, Clive pushing him away just where the gantry railing happens to be broken and the man falls to the warehouse floor with a sickening thud.

The scene cuts to Clive and Terry in custody. They ran into the police almost directly outside the warehouse, didn’t struggle and admitted everything. The warehouse security man, a Mr Harris, is now in hospital with a badly hurt back, possibly crippled for life.

The message

Clive now finds himself dealing with a series of adults and their various reactions to his crime or accident:

His step-dad is furious, as might have been expected.

Sergeant Parnell, the copper who checked him over from a passing police car, is the officer in charge of the case. There is a really powerful scene where he explains what will probably happen to Clive ie let off with a caution, but goes on to say, if he had his way, Clive and Terry would be sent down for five years, very hard labour. He delivers the central speech, from everything we know of crusty old Kingsley, presumably the author’s message:

‘I’d just like you to know that there are one or two people around who don’t feel sorry for you and do want to punish you and understand you already, from top to bottom. You’re scum, the pair of you, and you’ll never hear about it, except from me. I’m going to do everything in my power to see that you have a bad time. I don’t expect to succeed because this whole place, the whole system, the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists and what-not who’ve forgotten two little words – right and wrong.’ (p.37)

Parnell’s prediction comes true when Clive is allotted a social worker, a Miss (inevitably) Adams. She arrives with a whole set of preconceptions and interviews Clive in such a way as to get him to agree to her agenda, that he is the product of a broken home, his step-father is ‘abusive’, his school let him down. Eventually Clive realises how she is manipulating him to fit her stereotype of the ‘victim’, and begins to rebel. ‘I done it’, he shouts, no-one else, it was me, if I hadn’t broken in the old man would still be able to walk. But she is too well educated and too drilled in her fixed world view to listen to the boy she is ‘helping’, and goes on to make the counter-argument, the one we can be confident Amis is satirising:

‘In any meaningful sense… you, Clive Rayner, are not guilty of anything at all. Anything relevant, anything that really matters. It’s society that’s guilty, the system and the people who live off it and in it and around it. We all made it happen. We are all guilty.’ (p.60)

Confused, Clive is packed off by his mother to the local church, where he expects to take a further pasting. Here he discovers a bunch of hairy people setting up amps and speakers for a rock concert and then meets the trendy vicar, ‘call me Robin’ Foster. Robin takes Clive aside and explains that God doesn’t want him to feel full of shame and guilt, God wants human beings to be full of light and happiness, God wants him to overcome his guilt and forgive himself.

Before his case comes to court, Clive is again menaced by Sergeant Parnell who explains that the wife of the crippled night watchman will make a tearful witness to the terrible thing the boys have done. They’ll get five years if they’re lucky. In the event and to his amazement, the wife doesn’t appear, the social worker makes a good case for Clive’s ‘deprived’ background and he is let off with a year’s probation and £100 fine which, looking round, he sees Robin the vicar who signals that he’ll pay that (p.71). His family and friends mill around outside the court room, clapping and cheering and shaking hands as if it’s a great victory. Only Clive himself is distraught. He knows he did it. He knows he is guilty. Why can’t he get anyone to acknowledge it.

He sneaks off and goes to the hospital to visit the caretaker, Mr Harris (previously he had been forbidden, on legal advice). The old man stricken in bed is philosophical, says the accident won’t change him. And it turns out their solicitor warned the couple that emphasising Clive’s culpability would jeopardise the case they’re bringing against his employer for negligent maintenance of the gantry railing. Clive is appalled that even the man he crippled is pressurised by ‘the system’ to downplay his, Clive’s, guilt. And then Harris’s tearful wife, at his bed-side, starts crying and saying God would want her to forgive him, God ‘wants us to forgive people their sins. It’s our sacred duty.’ (p.83)

Sickened at the way everybody is falling over themselves to forgive him, Clive spends a sleepless night before getting up early and going back to the church. Here Robin the vicar repeats the message that God forgives him no matter what, and the book ends with Chris walking beside the roaring traffic, until a wall converges with the busy road and he finds himself pressing his face and hands against it, confused and distraught. For a moment I thought he would throw himself under a lorry in his despair, but another police car draws up and a copper, not Sergeant Parnell, asks if he’s alright, sonny. The policeman is genuinely concerned that he’s OK which, in a way, makes it all worse. Yes, yes, I’m fine Clive replies. The car pulls off. Clive turns and starts walking home. The End.

The need for punishment

Some of the characterisation was a bit weak, even for a fable: Clive’s parents aren’t very strong presences and the type of the social worker with a pre-determined agenda and the trendy vicar could be dismissed as Daily Mail clichés: except I recognised the do-gooding, naive social worker and her milieu from when I went out with a trainee social worker, and was sharing a house with three women psychologists, in the early 1990s when this book was published. And I recognised the trendy vicar from the several I met and got to know when I took my children to church kindergartens and creches in the 2000s.

Whether or not ‘the whole country’s rotten with so-called experts and social workers and psychiatrists and psychologists’ I have no idea, and am not sure how you could actually find out. It sounds like the kind of thing you read in the right-wing press with which Amis agreed (and who he often wrote for) but which might not stand up to a morning in an actual juvenile court.

But leaving aside the accuracy or inaccuracy of the social ‘analysis’ and editorialising, looking at it just as a piece of fiction, I found the character of Sergeant Parnell tremendously powerful, his speech about Clive and Terry being scum, as well as his other remarks and comments throughout, to be wonderfully virile and menacing.

Similarly, although the lead character of Clive is not a terribly persuasive teenager (no drugs, no drunkenness, no sex, not much about music or fashion, instead he routinely refers to people as ‘fellows’ ie uses Amis’s 1950s lingo), nonetheless his predicament is powerfully conveyed, as powerful and simple as Gregor Samsa waking up and finding he’s been turned into an insect.

The book makes a short sharp case that teenagers, all humans, just as much as children, need boundaries and rules, and to know they will be punished if they step over them. Without rules we can do anything, and if we can do anything our actions become weightless, meaningless. Complete freedom can itself be oppressive.

‘Why did you lie to me outside the courtroom, before the case,’ Clive asks Parnell, ‘why did you lead me on that the weeping wife’s testimony would get me five years?’ Because, replies Parnell:

‘I wanted to punish you. One, because criminals deserve to be punished. Two, for my own personal satisfaction. And three, because punishment’s good for the soul.’ (p.74)

Is punishment good for the soul? Who knows whether this is ‘true’? Or true at least for some people? But this slender novella, if you accept its conventions and its teenage audience, does a surprisingly powerful job of making you believe it, at least while you’re reading it. And what else is fiction for?


We Are All Guilty by Kingsley Amis was published by Reinhardt Books in association with Viking in 1991. All quotes are from the 1993 Puffin teenage fiction paperback edition.

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.

Paradise News by David Lodge (1991)

The classic Lodge novel features an academic, often a bit fusty and behind-the-times (who at various points will give us potted and very readable summaries of his or her intellectual work) – taken out of their comfort zone (generally spirited abroad) – where their horizons are widened and their beliefs put to the test, where their lives are somehow transformed (like the characters in E.M. Foster’s Italian novels.)

Paradise News is a variation on these familiar themes: Modern, agnostic Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Walsh comes from a large Irish Catholic family and teaches at a theological college but no longer really believes in God. One day out of the blue he receives a phone call from his auntie Ursula who is dying of cancer in distant Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to fly out to see her and bring his father – her brother – John Walsh, with him.

The novel is divided into three parts but is, in practice, a story of two halves: the first two-thirds of the 360-page novel is rather downbeat and depressing; the last 80 pages or so transform it into something rich and deep and moving.

Paradise promised

Parts one and three are told in the third person by a detached narrator. He takes us into the mind of Bernard, a typical Lodge character, highly educated and articulate, with a very low ability to make decisions or live. Bernard was the gifted son of Irish working class parents who showed especial religious sense from the first and was given the best of everything. Bernard passed easily from seminary school into the priesthood and from there into theological teaching. But when he was eventually given the opportunity of being a parish priest he slowly realised his faith had evaporated. For a while he thought he was in love with one of his parishioners who made a pass at him, and this made his exit from the Church unnecessarily messy, attracting bad publicity from the press and breaking his parents’ hearts.

When we meet him he is working as a part-time lecturer in theology, earning a pittance and living with the heavy sense of failure: failure in religious belief, failure in career terms, a failure to create a loving relationship with a woman, most of all a terrific failure to his family, themes rammed home with repeated small turns of phrase sprinkled throughout the text:

‘The baggage of guilt and failure he had brought with him to Hawaii (97)… His sense of his own inadequacy (102)… he was left with a residue of guilt to add to the heap he had already accumulated (142)… Failed again (157)… Feeling pretty dismal and depressed myself (160)… Why do I so often have the feeling of being a ghost these days? (165)…  ‘

Bernard journeys from Rummidge (the fictional version of Birmingham which has featured in Lodge’s previous four novels, the city where Lodge spent his entire academic career) to the run-down suburb in south-east London where his ageing Dad lives (Lodge was born and raised in south-east London) to collect his reluctant Dad and both catch a flight to Hawaii.

This introduction takes up the first 100 or so pages and allows Lodge:

  • to paint in the background to Bernard’s rather woebegone life, his loss of nerve when he was offered a woman’s love, his sense he has let his orthodox family down by ending up a mere part-time lecturer, detail of the decline of his faith via various modernising theologians
  • to comment in that oh-so-English, so middle-aged way, about the ghastliness of modern life – the horrible canned music, the sentimental movies, the crowds, the noise, the pollution
  • and to begin to depict ten or so other, essentially comic, characters at the check-ins and departure lounges of the various airports and on the flights and at the hotels, who we are to meet again and again through the narrative

A gallery of minor characters

The inclusion of a cross-section of his fellow travellers to Hawaii is a repeat of the technique perfected in How Far Can You Go? and Small World, of cross-cutting at speed between short, half-page vignettes featuring the generally comical mishaps of secondary characters. It adds texture to these minor figures, depth and variety to the fictional world of the novel, and directly or indirectly fleshes out the book’s themes:

  • the Best family, constantly squabbling among themselves, headed by irritable Mr Best who is routinely threatening to write to the authorities about whatever latest rip-off or holiday disappointment they are subject to
  • Russ Harvey, a bumptious trader at an investment bank, who’s come on honeymoon with his new wife, Cecily; unfortunately, Cecily discovered at the wedding that Russ had slept with a colleague from work and is thus in an epic sulk from the moment we meet her till the very end of the book
  • Sidney and Lilian Brooks who’ve flown all this way to meet their son Terry, whose career as a photographer is thriving in Hawaii
  • Terry Brooks and his boyfriend, Tony – it comes as a devastating blow to his father to discover half-way through the novel that Terry is gay
  • Brian and Beryl Everthorpe (we met Brian in Lodge’s previous novel, Nice Work, where he is the scheming number two to the protagonist, Vic Cox, and leaves Vic’s company, Pringle and Son, to set up a sunbed rental firm)
  • Sue Butterworth and Dee Ripley, two girls on tour who are out for a good time

Towards the end of the middle section of the novel Lodge deploys an entertaining passage made up entirely of postcards and letters from each of these characters, snapshots of their different styles and mentalities, humorously revealing their everyday concerns. It is very well done, like the excellent letters section of Changing Places, showing how effective and completely domesticated what were once considered avant-garde experiments can be in the hands of a contemporary and essentially comic novelist.

Chief among these secondary characters is another academic and – in a familiar pattern – a far more go-ahead and successful one than the main character (compare Changing Places where the gung-ho American critic Morris Zapp contrasts with the pallid, ineffectual Brit, Philip Swallow). The alpha prof in this novel is Rupert Sheldrake, an anthropologist studying ‘the holiday’ as a social and historical phenomenon. In a rather glib analogy he compares the modern package holiday to aspects of medieval religion: the pilgrimage to distant lands, collecting souvenirs/relics, the compulsory visits to notable sights/shrines. It is no accident, Sheldrake points out, that the package tour took off just as organised religion went into decline.

I had a sense of déjà vu about this character and his insights about the modern holiday. A decade earlier, in How Far Can You Go?, the character Ruth had similar thoughts upon visiting Disneyland:

It struck Ruth that Disneyland was indeed a place of pilgrimage. The customers had an air about them of believers who had finally made it to Mecca, to the Holy Places. They had come to celebrate their own myths of origin and salvation – the plantation, the frontier, the technological utopia – and pay homage to their heroes, gods and fairies: Buffalo Bill, Davey Crockett, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. (How Far Can You Go? 1981 Penguin paperback edition, page 178)

And the entire premise of Small World is that the world of academic conferences is like the world of medieval romance, full of knights (academics) on pilgrimages to foreign places. A sense of a theme being recycled…

Nonetheless, when he pops up the reader raises a cheer: Sheldrake knows how to work the system, his research topics are carefully calculated to secure funding from the tourism industry, he flies everywhere first class for free, is put up at the best hotels and – when we see vignettes of him interspersed among the other characters – is always sipping champagne, eating at the finest restaurants or furiously jotting down notes. He is, at least to begin with, the Morris Zapp of this novel, the winner, the man who – in contrast to the grumpy, failed, self-accusing Bernard – always flourishes; whose intellectual discourse is flashy and superficial and therefore perfectly suited to these vulgar, gaudy, greedy times. He is, to begin with, the principle of energy in what is otherwise a rather downbeat story.

Paradise lost

The novel offers, in a typically Lodgean programmatic kind of way, a number of deconstructions of the notion of ‘paradise’:

  • The academic Sheldrake, whenever we meet him, is actively gathering material for an academic paper showing how the notion of ‘paradise’ doesn’t exist; it is a garish fiction created and marketed to the gullible masses.
  • Yolanda Miller, a long-time resident of Waikiki, tells Bernard that ‘paradise’, when you actually live there, is boring. Not least because its original history and culture have been obliterated by American consumerism.

‘Paradise lost?’
‘Paradise stolen. Paradise raped. Paradise infected. Paradise owned, developed, packaged, Paradise sold.’ (p.177)

  • Bernard sees for himself the grim underside of ‘paradise’ when he takes a tour of care homes trying to choose one to move his dying aunt into – shabby, urine-smelling places populated by senile, demented, drooling, incontinent old-timers.
  • And lastly and most devastatingly, Bernard spends the middle part of the book writing a long diary or journal trying to explain to himself how his own career as an outstanding seminarian, pupil and then teacher at a leading Catholic college, fizzled out – trying to fathom how and when he lost his faith, how he stopped believing in the gospel, the good news, the paradise news (p.190).

From all directions, then, the paradise news is – there is no paradise.

Grumpy old man

Lodge was 56 when this novel was published, and his protagonist is meant to be only 44, but both character and author seem taken aback by lots of aspects of modern life: Bernard has never heard of or seen a stretch limo before; he’s never heard the word ‘paramedic’; he’s never heard of a champagne cocktail or sushi; he is surprised that a hotel clerk fills out a form instead of filling it in; when a waitress outs down the food and says, ‘There you go!’ he asks where? Admittedly, Bernard has lived the sheltered life of a seminarian, but nonetheless, it gives Lodge the author ample opportunity to register the relentless disappointments of modern life.

The roads are always packed; whether in London or Honolulu you get caught in traffic jams; flights are delayed; taxi drivers charge a fortune; American medicine is prohibitively expensive; Hawaii is buried under high-rise hotels; all the tourist attractions are cheap and tacky; the whole place is pervaded by pounding rock music.

Everything is too big in this country: the steaks, the salads, the ices. You weary of them before you can finish them. (p.162) There was always that sense of unspecified lack or longing in the warm humid air of Waikiki. (p.264)

In conclusion – For the first two-thirds, this is quite a depressing book. Lodge’s world-view, the rhythm of the sentences and paragraphs, feel as tired and dispirited as his depressed protagonist. Gone is the exuberance and comic invention of Changing Places or Small World. Now it is a big world and it is all too much.

But in the last third of the novel the story takes a dramatic turn, a descent into more serious terrain which leads, unexpectedly, to a kind of secular resurrection.

Sexual healing

Bernard falls in love (Lodge’s heroes always do). Hopelessly head-over-heels in love with an experienced American divorcée, Yolande Miller. And she is a therapist, a counsellor.

It turns out that the middle section of the novel, the journal or diary Bernard has been keeping – which includes details of his several dinners with Yolande and his feelings for her interspersed with raw autobiography detailing his progression through seminary school, his loss of faith and his abortive relationship with a fat, infatuated parishioner – it turns out that this text is destined to become a forlorn love letter to Yolande.

Late one night, a bit tipsy, before he can change his mind, Bernard drives round and posts it through her letterbox. Next day she meets him and, instead of flinging it in his face and laughing, says she understands. And promises to heal him. Heal him sexually and psychologically. It is an amazing break for Bernard, for the story, and for the reader, a break or rupture in the seamless discourse of depression and disappointment which had dogged the story.

And so over a course of days in his darkened hotel room, Yolande takes him carefully, tenderly, lovingly, through the process of becoming comfortable with kissing, then stroking, then caressing, then petting, then arousing and then making love to a woman. All things this repressed celibate priest had never imagined possible. (pp.266-78) This sequence is genuinely moving, tender and compassionate.

Paradise regained

But what of dying aunt Ursula? Well, once he’s arrived in Hawaii, a lot of the novel is concerned with Bernard slowly getting to know and respect his aunt. He helps her leave the dingy care home she was trapped in, takes over her finances and arranges for her to stay somewhere much nicer. And in the course of their long conversations, once she is sure she can trust him, she tells him she was abused as a girl, aged 7. It made her incapable of sex, incapable of being close to a man, destroyed her marriage and ruined her life.

Her brother – Bernard’s father – didn’t do it, but knew about it. That was why he was so reluctant to come to Hawaii, suspecting some kind of confrontation was inevitable. And why, after he is knocked over by a car in a minor accident soon after their arrival, his Dad is keen to stay in his hospital room and put off any meeting with his sister.

In a converging plot line, Bernard’s difficult sister, Tessa, who disapproved of the whole trip, suspicious that Bernard is only going to wangle Ursula’s inheritance – goes bananas on the phone when she discovers their father has been in an accident.

Tessa has had lots of children in the Catholic manner, one of whom, Patrick, is severely disabled and she has martyred herself to look after him. She is an angry woman. Bernard is just beginning to blossom from the sexual healing described above when he is horrified to receive a telegram announcing that Tess is on the next flight out. He panics that she will ruin everything, his intimate afternoons with Yolande and the planned reconciliation between John and Ursula Walsh, before it even happens.

But it all works out. Turns out Tess hasn’t come to ruin everything, but because she has discovered her husband, Frank, is having an affair with a pretty receptionist at work. She has just walked out and said, you look after the kids, you look after Patrick, you see what it’s like.

During some tricky conversations between grown-up brother and sister some home truths are uttered. She tells Bernard he was always their parents’ golden boy; the girls had to snatch their knickers down off the clothes horse whenever he was about in order not to give him impure thoughts; he got the best clothes and new shoes when the other siblings had to make do with hand-me-downs; he even got the best cuts of meat off the Sunday roast.

Bernard never knew any of  this and is stricken to realise how much his parents, and his other siblings, stinted themselves so he could progress his career. Only to watch him abandon it all…. The devastation… Brother and sister talk long into the night and come to a better understanding of each other…

Then they jointly stage-manage the meeting of Ursula and John Walsh, trundling their wheelchairs together on a terrace overlooking the sea, then tactfully leaving them to discuss the long-ago abuse which has haunted both of them. It works. Ursula has her say, and John apologises, and Ursula forgives him. Later, as Bernard drives her back to her hospital, Ursula says she could die happy now, could fly right off a cliff as the native Hawaiians said the soul does, her mortal body crashing on the rocks, her spirit rising up to heaven.

The low mechanicals’ party

The penultimate scene is the end-of-package tour party, held in a hotel complex of truly stupendous ostentation and vulgarity, where the plotlines of the lesser characters are all neatly tied up. The whole thing feels very like a Shakespeare comedy in its division into ‘serious’ main characters, and walk-on minor, comic roles. And in the way the entire narrative is comic in structure – all conflicts are reconciled and harmonised – giving a very satisfying sense of completion, even if, page by page, the book is not that funny, far less high-spirited than its predecessors.

Thus Terry’s dad is reconciled to his gay son when Terry and Tony rescue Russ after the latter got knocked unconscious by his own surf board and nearly drowned. Not only that, but the accident had the hitherto-alienated Cecily running up the beach screaming to give her unconscious husband the kiss of life, and they, too, are reconciled. Brian Everthorpe entertains everyone with his awful home movies of the holiday and (almost) everyone drinks and is merry.


In the final scene, Bernard is back at his theological college, where he has now been given a full-time job, and it opens with a couple of pages of his (very thought-provoking) lecture on the modern theology of paradise (many Lodge novels contain papers and lectures of unashamed intellectual content).

He has patiently been taking a weekly call from Yolande in Hawaii as she tries to decide what to do with her life, whether to go ahead with divorcing her unfaithful husband, whether to stay in Hawaii or come to England, and whether she loves Bernard or not.

Finally, he receives a long letter from her and goes to sit in the college garden as the sun comes out and the birds sing. (The setting is very similar to the vision of university life as utopia which is the setting for the happy ending to the previous novel, Nice Work.) Yolande has made her decision. She does love him. She has booked a ticket to fly to Rummidge to be with him this Christmas. Bernard folds up the letter and walks into the Senior Common Room with a broad smile on his face. ‘Good news?’ asks a colleague, indicating the letter in his hand. Yes, replies Bernard. Very good news. Paradise news.


So the novel feels as if it has taken on board all the negative aspects of modern life and the human condition – from traffic jams to environmental degradation, from failed relationships to sexual abuse, from disappointed hopes to aborted ambitions – gathered together and dramatised all the most powerful arguments against the possibility of paradise – and overcome them.

It is still possible to live well. It is still possible to love. It is still possible to overcome ancient pain. It is still possible to be redeemed, here and now, to be among the chosen, to enter paradise in this world.

Reviews of David Lodge novels

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

The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham (1991)

In his short introduction to this long (700 pages) book, Pakenham says the Scramble for Africa bewildered contemporaries as much as it puzzles historians. Well, anyone reading Pakenham’s wonderfully readable and comprehensive chronicle of the shambolic and squalid land grab will be considerably less puzzled as a result.

This is a vast, authoritative, accessible and thrilling book. The story, or multiple interlinking stories, are told in a series of shortish chapters each of which focuses on a particular episode for a key year or so. These pieces interweave to form a mosaic which slowly covers all of Africa, all the key figures and incidents, throughout the period of the Scramble which Pakenham dates 1880-1912. Each chapter tends to start with a vivid scene or tableau depicting a key figure and then set them in their context and their challenge.

Because above all the scramble presented itself as a set of challenges and problems for statesmen, explorers and businessmen alike.

Egypt was a millstone round the British government’s neck from the moment the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. It immediately became the cheapest communication route with India and the East. Therefore any threat to the canal was a threat to the Empire. Therefore Britain must control the Egyptian government, at the risk of alienating her partner in the so-called Dual Power arrangement, France.

The Urabi revolt (1879-82) was a nationalist revolt against European rule and Turkish corruption. After the leader or Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, ran up vast debts, the French and British governments stepped in to protect the bondholders – the banks who had lent lavishly and unwisely – installed Isma’il’s son Tewfik Pasha as puppet leader, and ruled jointly. Quite apart from trying to manage Egyptian nationalist feeling, this made the British permanently worried about French actions in Egypt, a weakness Bismarck was quick to exploit.

In June 1882 unrest flared into anti-European rioting in Alexandria. The British fleet bombarded the city (destroying much of its historic seafront), Parliament voted to intervene and sent an army to the canal zone which was defeated in the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar. On September 13, 1882 the British forces defeated ‘Urabi’s army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. This victory marked the de facto establishment of Egypt as a British colony (although Turkish sensibilities had to be respected) and guaranteed the enmity of the French who spent the next twenty years feeling they’d been cheated and trying to get their own back anywhere in Africa that they could.

Gladstone and the Liberals spent the next twenty years trying to extract us from Egypt while successive Conservative administrations tended to involve us deeper. This ambivalence helps explain why General Gordon, sent to relieve Khartoum and withdraw in the face of the Mahdi’s Islamic uprising, was so poorly supported that he was surrounded, starved and killed before the extremely slapdash expeditionary force could come to his aid.

South Africa was similarly a source of endless of trouble. As with Egypt it was felt the Cape colony was a vital part of the supply line to India and the East. Therefore we had to keep the Boers (the Dutch farmers who farmed the land before the British seized the colony from the Dutch in 1807) under control and this led to two disastrous wars, the small and stupid First Boer War (1880) and the big disastrous Second Boer War (1899-1902) during which we discovered just how badly organised and badly led the British Army was.

  • 1879 First Zulu War started with catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana before the British rallied and took the Zulu capital Ulundi and captured and exiled king Cetshwayo.
  • 1880-1 First Boer War With the defeat of the Zulus the Boers felt emboldened to rebel against the British annexation of the Transvaal which had been imposed in 1877. They rose from nowhere and besieged five small Brit forts. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley gathered a force to relieve the sieges but was defeated at a number of small engagements and then crushed and killed at Majuba Hill 27 February 1881, a national humiliation. Gladstone insisted a peace treaty be agreed to end the war before it escalated. It lasted ten weeks with only three military engagements and only a few thousand participants.

How did we manage an Empire with such a shambles of an army, staggering from one national humiliation to the next?


It is a vast subject which Pakenham covers with wonderful confidence and authority, leading us by the hand from complex diplomatic negotiations in Berlin to explorers undertaking mind-boggling treks through the darkest Congo rainforest. Multiple themes run throughout the history, for example:

  • the mounting competition between the European powers
  • the sudden late entry into the Scramble by Germany
  • the variety and power of various kingdoms and empires within Africa, from the Zulus in the south-east, to the Ethiopian empire in the north across to the realms of Samori and Sultan Ahmadu on the upper Niger
  • and running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. Surrender monkeys indeed.

But if there is one big takehome it emerges in the last hundred pages which drastically change tone. For the first 500 pages or so we are sharing the adventures of the explorers who are penetrating unknown territory all over the continent, the first to name these mountains, this lake, discover this river. We share their boyish enthusiasm, at the same time as we watch the convoluted and often half-baked strategies of the politicians back in Europe. In a sense, this is all innocent enough, as all parties are getting to grips with new situations and challenges and the book is thrilling and entertaining in turn.

The disgusting reality of colonialism

But in the last hundred pages or so the tone darkens considerably as Pakenham shows how the now-discovered, mapped and settled colonies came to be exploited by their European masters. Almost without exception it is a story of the rankest greed enforced by disgusting levels of violence against the native Africans.

I knew about the notorious Belgian Congo where upwards of 8 million Africans were exterminated in vast and systematic forced labour to deliver the area’s rubber back to a greedy Europe.

I didn’t realise the French carried out pretty much the same forced labour-virulent punishment-murder, rape, mass killing and burning and shooting policy in French Congo, a policy exposed by the heart-broken French explorer Brazza (who gives his name to Brazzaville) who had opened up the area for his nation in the heroic 1880s and told the Africans they could trust to the civilisation and justice of the French. How his legacy was defiled.

I’d forgotten about the deliberate policies of extermination carried out by the German Reich in south west and east Africa. As many as 300,000 Africans died in the famine engineered by the Germans to bring them to heel in the east. In the south-west about three quarters of the original 80,000 inhabitants were killed.

And of course, despite what do appear to be generally higher standards and more humane intentions, we British went and ruined our reputation by creating concentration camps during the ruinous Second Boer War, the one in which some 28,000 Boer women and children died from preventable diseases, due entirely to our incompetence and the indifference of the military leadership, namely Kitchener.

Delusory El Dorados

For another theme which runs like a delusory thread of precious metal through the book is the way that, in the early years of exploration (1870s and 80s) explorer after explorer gouged money out of their nations’ exchequers or from commercial companies with visions of great El Dorados in the interior, lands larded with undreamt-of riches in diamonds, gold, copper, or natural resources of rubber and teak, or the richest farmland in the world.

The sorry reality was all too often barren drought-plagued veld, or impenetrable jungle home only to catastrophic diseases – or to natural resources so thinly spread (like the rubber in the Congo) that only systematic forced labour ie production with almost no overheads, could turn a profit. Most of the countries involved made a loss on their colonies. Only enforced slave labour stood a chance of ‘making money’ for a tiny white elite of colonists and their parent companies.

Given that their economic survival depended on keeping the natives in virtual slavery, and their cultural survival depended on enforcing the strongest possible punishments/reprisals against native populations which vastly outnumbered the white settlers, it is no surprise that in colony after colony, all the brave talk about white man’s civilisation and justice and religion turned out to hypocritical garbage.

Greater or lesser Kurtzes emerged everywhere, quick to take advantage of the all the forces which made it possible and even necessary to treat the natives like animals. It is a miracle the European colonies staggered on for the 50 or so years after the Scramble was more or less complete in 1912.

Some of the chaps involved in the Scramble for Africa

1 National leaders

Otto von Bismarck Prussian Chancellor, during the first part of his career he focused on uniting the Germanic states into the new nation of Germany (achieved in 1871) and despised colonial adventures. In 1884 he suddenly reversed his position partly due to changes in public opinion, pressure from merchants, and to undercut anti-colonial liberals allied with the the heir to the throne. Eventually Germany owned Togoland (now Togo and part of Ghana), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and part of Nigeria), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and the mainland part of Tanzania), German South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference (1885) which established rules for the acquisition of African colonies, in particular, protecting free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin. He was suddenly dismissed in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who went on to rule the German Reich with increasingly unpredictably, but who gave fulsome support to his genocidal administrators.

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister 1880-85, 1886, 1892-4, high-minded leader of the Liberal party, a fierce opponent of colonialism and empire who nonetheless kept finding himself dragged into imperial adventures or calamities and thus despised as a highminded hypocrite by his enemies. He ordered the First Boer War to be concluded with a peace treaty conceding the Boers the self-government they wanted, was blamed for failing to rescue Gordon in 1885, oversaw Britain’s exploration of East Africa inland of Zanzibar and West Africa up the Niger river.


Jules Ferry (1832-93) premiere of France 1880-1 and 1883-85. After France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Ferry conceived the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire for economic exploitation. In a speech before the Chamber of Deputies on 28 July 1885, he declared that ‘it is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.’ Ferry supervised the conquest of Tunis in 1881 – a shameful fiasco whereby the native ruler was tricked into acquiescing in his own overthrow – he prepared the treaty of 17 December 1885 for the occupation of Madagascar; directed the exploration of the Congo and of the Niger region; and organized the conquest of Annam and Tonkin in what became Indochina. Algeria. Vietnam. Just two countries whose names testify to France’s excellent colonial skills.

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Lord Salisbury Conservative Prime Minister during the defining era of high imperialism – 1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902. Prime Minister and his own Foreign Secretary, the relatively unknown Salisbury comes over as a cautious, sane and sensible guider of Britain’s destiny during a time of increasing international rivalry and tension who managed to defuse the Fashoda Crisis (1898) but was outflanked by Milner and the South African gold bugs who bear the responsibility for starting the ruinous Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

King Leopold of Belgium king from 1865 to 1909, his name is forever associated with what is now referred to as the genocide in the Belgian Congo where anything between 6 million and 10 million native Africans died in his system of merciless forced labour designed to extract as much rubber ( along with some ivory, teak etc) from a rainforest the size of Europe. All masquerading under a sham pretext of selfless philanthropy and civilisation. Possibly the greatest hypocrite in the entire history of European imperialism.

Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II of Belgium

2 Soldiers and explorers

David Livingstone (1813-73) the Scottish missionary, despite his poor leadership and ultimate failure to estalish Christianity anywhere, through his writings and example of ceaseless exploration of the unknown centre of the continent, Livingstone created a swell of popular opinion against the slave trade in central Africa, and established the premise that slavery could only be abolished by a combination of the three Cs – Christian missionising and Commerce which would lead to Civilisation. He died a generation before it became clear, in the early 1900s, that it led to exactly the opposite.

David Livingstone (1813-73)

David Livingstone (1813-73)

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother who spent most of his youth in workhouses where he was probably abused before making  his way to America where he was adopted by a wealthy trader named Stanley whose name he took, before getting embroiled in the American Civil War and taking to record keeping on a Union Navy ship which led to journalism. He undertook trips to Persia and India, on the basis of which he was retained by the New York Herald whose owner he persuaded to let him undertake an expedition to find the missionary Livingstone who hadn’t been heard of for some years and who he found in Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania in 1871. ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ 

The unlikely pair explored together before Stanley returned to publish articles then a book. On the back of this he was commissioned by the New York Herald in 1874 to solve one of the great geographic mysteries of the age, the route of the river Congo. It took 999 days to follow it from source to sea and he lost 240 bearers and natives along the way. He was employed from 1876 by Leopold of Belgium in building the road and railway and making treaties with natives along the Congo, before a series of further adventures climaxed in the epic and ultimately absurd expedition to rescue the last of Gordon’s emissaries in the Sudan, Emin Pasha. There’s been a recent, comprehensive biography by Tim Jeal: Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley

Major-General Charles George Gordon of Khartoum (1833-85) after service in the Crimean War, Gordon commanded a force of Chinese soldiers which helped to put down the Taipeng rebellion, earning the thanks of the Chinese emperor and the nickname ‘Chinese Gordon’. He entered the service of the Egyptian Khedive in 1873 and later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.

When the Mahdi’s Islamic revolt broke out in the Sudan Gordon was despatched to evacuate the 2,500 Europeans from Khartoum and return. He did the first part but stayed on in Khartoum with local troops, holding out against a sporadic siege for a year, earning fame back in Blighty. Reluctantly the Liberal government sent reinforcements which proceeded with criminal slowness up the Nile and arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen and Gordon been murdered. It was 13 years before a large British army returned under Herbert Kitchener, recaptured Khartoum and laid Gordon’s ghost.

Gordon of Khartoum

Gordon of Khartoum

Sir John Kirk (1832-1922) served as consul to the Sultan of Zanzibar for decades and managed to persuade him to ban slavery in his domains, a major achievement for which he is given much credit in a recent book about him: The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade. While the Belgians and French employed enforced labour on a vast scale in the Congo, and the Germans actively sought ethnic extermination in Namibia and Tanzania, it really does seem that at least some elements of the British regime sought and achieved the liberation of the Africans under their rule.


King Cetshwayo (1826 – 1884) is remembered as the last king of an independent Zulu nation. In 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British Commissioner for South Africa, began to demand reparations for border infractions by traditionally independent Zululand into neighbouring colonial Natal. Cetshwayo kept his calm until Frere demanded the king effectively disband his army. His refusal led to the Zulu War in 1879. After initial victories, including the famous massacre at Isandlwana, the British recovered to defeat the Zulu armies before capturing and burning the Zulu capital of Ulundi 4 July 1879. Cetshwayo was deposed and exiled, first to Cape Town, then to London.

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Emperor Menelik II (1844 – 1913) emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. The history of the Ethiopian empire is complex, involving power struggles with neighbouring tribes and rival kings, as well as the Mahdist forces in the Sudan and the encroaching European powers. In summary – Menelik gathered the forces which annihilated an Italian army at the Battle of Adowa (1 March 1896) and as a result the borders of Abyssinia/Ethiopia were guaranteed and the country continued as an independent state until the Italian invasion under Mussolini in the 1930s.

Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II

 Related links

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