The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It spends more time explaining the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence than in presenting a clear narrative.
  2. Which makes you realise that this is a fast-moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.


The book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time periods from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently, early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself then turned out to need to be broken down into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a big challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.


When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America quite obviously links the United States and South America. But it’s not quite the simple north-south corridor you casually think of. When you really come to consider the area in detail you realise it is more of a horseshoe shape, with the Yucatan peninsula forming the second upturn of the shoe. So the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts wasn’t north to south but more along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

The book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatemala and Belize, with most of the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced…

But in fact, alongside what you could call the main historical narrative, runs the story of the discoveries  upon which all our knowledge is based, a sequence of archaeological finds and decodings of lost languages which have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

There’s no point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. The key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the region comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 AD when the conquistadors arrived, but with a continual flux of peoples, tribes or nations in each region, marked by the rise and fall of cities and entire cultures.

The geography of Mesoamerica is surprisingly diverse, encompassing humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many cultural traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • clothes which were elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

The key peoples or cultures are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec).

But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example, Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan (see below) but explains that we don’t know, to this day, the name of the people who built it!



The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region over this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described rather than collections of letters. These images went on to have multiple meanings, and are also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors (at bottom right) while a third man looks on (far right). A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. There’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days. It is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala today for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to have played a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle because they could tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures.

The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually. But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscripts written in pictogram style – and almost all of these display a bewildering visual complexity. Clutter. Their images are immensely busy.

This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and the space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

In this and scores of other examples, it takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller is describing. For example I would only know that a death god is descending in the Ball park frieze [above] because Miller tells me so.

In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscure them. 

So I was struck that, for most of the peoples of the region, their public art was so complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence.

There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In three-dimensional sculpture the addiction of interlocking curlicues works, but in almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable.

Can you make out a human figure in the complex concatenation of interlocking shapes on this stela? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445


  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centres, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centres of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map, with pictures

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows the area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is well captured in this American documentary.

Related links

Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.


The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.


From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.


He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.


Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.


But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.


This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.

Related links

Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst (1996)

This is one of those large-format art books (30 cm x 21.8 cm) which doesn’t have many pages (128) but is packed with good quality colour reproductions which you can spend all day gazing at, and also contains a surprising amount of text when you actually start to read it.

Art criticism is difficult, much harder than literary criticism (though not as impossibly difficult as music criticism). A writer can fairly easily weigh up how another writer uses words, it’s not that technically complicated. But describing a painting in technical terms i.e. the precise use of oil or acrylic or gouache or watercolour and how the artist deploys them or overcomes specific technical problems relating to them, this is not only a complex subject – potentially required for a critique of each individual work – but modern artists i.e. 20th century artists, tended to work across a broad range of media and channels, often deliberately transgressing traditional techniques, making the technical knowledge required to really assess their aims and achievements very complicated.

Therefore it is always easier to fall back on the notion that the Great Creator was obsessed by a number of ideas or ‘themes’ and to relate them both to his or her times, and to their personal biography, particularly – yawn – their sex lives.

So it is that you hear infinitely more about Picasso’s love life than you do about his innovations in print, lithography, or oil painting. It is easier to tell stories than to analyse. We like stories. We especially like stories about sex. Sex sells. Thus on page one of his text Swinglehurst explains that Dalí’s subjects were ‘sex and the subconscious’ (p.4) and his text goes on to bear this out with repeated analyses of the paintings in terms of their (often pretty obvious) sexual imagery or titles, underplaying Dalí’s phenomenal technique and inventive composition.

Dalí and Eliot

Now although there are some paintings with titles like ‘The Great Masturbator’, although Dalí (apparently) had an obsession with masturbating and feeling guilty about it, and although he had a consequent haunting fear of being castrated – all in the approved Freudian fashion – in actual fact, when you look at the 100 or so Dalí paintings gathered here, I don’t really think that summary – ‘sex and the subconscious’ – is true. Or not adequate.

There is generally a lot going on, visually, in any individual Dalí painting, and a review of these 100 works suggests that, although bare breasts are often present, there isn’t in fact a lot of sexual symbolism.

Indeed, you could argue the sex is the least interesting part of any of his compositions and of his oeuvre as a whole. Take Soft construction with boiled beans: premonition of civil war (1936).

Sure there’s a sort of female body and a soft female breast being squeezed by a craggy old man’s hand. Sure Dalí liked to brag that he ‘foresaw’ the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (in July 1936) in this and a few other paintings from earlier that year.

But, to put it politely, isn’t there a hell of a lot more to the painting than these overt and obvious meanings? The bodies make no anatomical sense. Why does smooth white flesh keep turning into gnarled old wrinkly hands and feet? Why is the body balanced on a chest of drawers? Who is the totally realistic figure of a man walking behind the hand at bottom left? Why are there perfectly conventional village buildings visible in the far distance? Why is there a sprinkling of beans on in the foreground and in the title?

It’s 80 years since the great Modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote an essay on poetry in which he suggested that:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. (The use of poetry and the use of criticism)

Eliot thought that poetry was in the music of words: the ‘meaning’ is just there to distract the higher, restless, journalistic parts of the mind, to keep your attention long enough so that the music can do its subtler work at a deeper, rhythmic, unconscious level.

Something similar can be applied to Dalí. The sexual images and all the other wildly improbable melting metamorphosing imagery he concocted is the stuff thrown at the busybody journalistic mind to hold its attention – while the real work of the painting is going on at a deeper level. I would argue that this real work, the real impact of Dalí’s paintings, comes from their tremendous technical facility, their finish and their completeness.

Dalí studied the Old Masters assiduously, not for their subject matter but for their technical mastery of painting with oil. He venerated the European tradition. He made a list of great artists which was topped by Vermeer, the Dutch master of exquisite finish and detail.

Certainly, a biographer and critic has to deal with the ‘sex and subconscious’ stuff, with the way some personal phobias seem to run through many of the works, and with Dalí’s overt references to Freud – in the works themselves, but also in the many essays, comments, catalogues and interviews he gave.

But, having assimilated all that, you could put it all to one side and argue that Dalí’s main achievement was continuing the Old Master tradition of classical painting well into the second half of the 20th century, well after almost all other major artists had long dropped it.

Surely it’s this – his technical mastery, the sense of astonishing, overwhelming perfection given by so many of his pictures, the complete command of the medium, the dizzying use of traditional perspective, the minutely realistic details – that is the real secret of his enduring success.

This book includes plenty of examples but I was really electrified by the glasses on the table in Sun table (1936).

In one of his few comments on Dalí’s technique Swinglehurst says he used specially prepared canvases and a watchmaker’s eyeglass to paint in the finest of fine details. The tiles, the table and the three glasses are quite stunning, justifying the word the adjective super-real, not just surreal.

Similarly, although a naked woman is always distracting, for me the best bit of Leda Atomica is the beautifully depicted set square and its shadows, at the bottom right.

Gala and the 30s

Dalí’s life was transformed when in 1929 he met Gala (born Elena Ivanovna Diakonova) who was at the time married to poet Paul Éluard. She became his lover, muse, mistress, erotic subject, and – on the practical front – his business manager, home-maker, press and PR agent.

In the same year he officially joined the Surrealist movement and, from 1930 to the outbreak of the Second World War (the thirties, basically) was by far Dalí’s most creative and innovative period (i.e. from age 26 to 36).

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 coincided with a highpoint of paranoia, anxiety and inspiration. These were the years when his commanding technique and weird visions of melting forms set on immaculately painted, clearly lit perspectival plains, established Surrealist visual style, all accompanied by sundry publicity stunts which got him into the public eye (like giving a lecture at the Surrealist Exhibition in London dressed in a diving suit – that would get your photo in the London papers even today).

America loved reactionary technique

Dalí and Gala fled to America at the outbreak of the second World War, basing themselves in California with frequent trips to New York. He ended up staying in the States for eight years, crystallising and congealing ‘Part Two’ of his life & career, creating the Salvador Dalí that I grew up knowing about in the 1970s, the millionaire showman and professional eccentric.

In America Dalí discovered that he was famous and popular and set about becoming more famous and more popular. And a key reason for his popularity was the conservativeness of his technique. The Abstract Expressionists and confident arrival of a new American art movement hadn’t happened yet. Instead, rich Americans were still buying up traditional European art. But whereas a lot of the modernism which had been coming out of Paris for thirty years or more was tricky and challenging, to millionaire businessmen from the mid-West, Dalí’s art – even if the subject matter was strange and unnerving – his technique, his polish and finish, spoke of the great European tradition and the valuable Old Masters. In America:

where traditional European art was sought after by the millionaire barons of commerce, Dalí was greeted with enthusiasm. (p.85)

Though their combinations may be outlandish, a lot of Dalí’s objects are themselves clear and accessible – and his pictures contain (mostly) recognisable objects placed in a (and here’s the key thing) recognisable perspective. His paintings are exactly the kind of ‘window on the world’ (albeit a deliberately weird world) which almost all other modern painters had rejected. He did perspective so well and painted the objects so immaculately, that the painted finished feel of them reassured rich Americans.

And then Dalí was a born self-publicist in a country obsessed with publicity and celebrity. Dalí threw himself into it with gusto and Swinglehurst lists an impressive range of activities, designing jewellery, high class shop windows, collaborating on movies (like Hitchcock’s Spellbound), designing sets for operas and ballets, and establishing a lucrative practice painting portraits of the American super-rich.

He stayed in America for eight years, hosting Hollywood parties, churning out works in an increasingly smooth and finished style, selling to naive Yanks who paid top dollar for anything he would produce.

Even before Europe went to war the leader of the Surrealists, André Breton, had expelled Dalí from the group for his divergence from Surrealist doctrine and his refusal to condemn Franco’s right-wing coup in Spain. Now Dalí’s long sojourn in America cut off his roots with European painters, writers, gallery owners, collectors, critics and curators. It is from his period that the divergence sets in between Dalí’s growing public popularity, becoming the king of student posters, appearing on game shows and numerous celebrity interviews – and his rejection by the ‘serious’ academic art world.

He continued painting prolifically into the 1970s and this book shows there were about four types of work:

Over-fluent surrealism

Some of his most famous posters have an almost too-perfect fluency. Swinglehurst uses the expression ‘advertising graphic’ as a term of abuse for these.

Dalí’s involvement with so much commercial work in the United States did little for his imagination and affected the quality of his painting, which sometimes began to look like advertising graphics. Dalí himself referred to his work at the time as hand-made photography. (p.92)

Nazi kitsch

The kind of super-realistic depictions of the human figure which are unsettlingly similar to the hyper-realism demanded by the totalitarian dictatorships of the mid-century, Hitler, Stalin. For some reason many of the later works featuring Gala have this feel of hollow perfection.


The detonation of the atom bomb really traumatised Dalí and from 1945 onwards the problem of physics appears in many paintings, envisaged as the atomisation of reality, the disintegration of reality into atoms or particles. It coincided with a resurgence of his Catholic faith. The two are connected: a world blown apart by new nuclear knowledge also reveals hitherto unknown complexities, mysteries, spaces, in which maybe a subtler form of religious mysticism can take root.

Miscellaneous notes

His father was the town notary of Figueres i.e. the most important man in the town. Presumably this taught the young Dalí the workings of authority, power. His mother was a strict Catholic and brought her children up accordingly.

  • 1904 born
  • 1922 starts studying at Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid
  • 1925 holds his first one-man show
  • 1926 expelled from the academy for fomenting student unrest


Collaborates with friend and fellow-Spaniard Luis Buñuel (born 1900) on the deliberately shocking b&w film Le Chien Andalus.

Meets Gala his wife and muse-to-be.

Paints some of the earliest works with the flat plane extending to the horizon, the plastic completeness:

Swinglehurst points out the figures in the bottom right of invisible man denote Dalí’s lifelong guilt about masturbation and fear of castration (the benefits of a good Catholic upbringing), dealt with in numerous paintings of the time. No doubt. But isn’t the glaringly obvious thing about this picture not some aspect of his personal mythology, the staggeringly fluent use of trompe l’oeil optical illusion, which would become a massive part of his style?

Elements of Dalí’s vision

Trompe l’oeil

Dalí early on developed a taste for clever and beautifully worked-out optical illusions in his paintings, cunningly constructed images which can be interpreted in either of two ways. He wrote that the use of optical illusion revealed the hidden meaning latent (to use Freud’s technical term) behind everyday images, or just the dual nature of the human mind, divided – in Freud’s theory – into conscious rational perception and unconscious, hidden desires. Examples include:


Nowhere in this book does it suggest what the crutches mean but they appear in loads of his 1930s paintings as a fundamental design element.

Lions heads



Ants are a symbol of bodily decay and physical corruption.

Woman with desk drawers

Technical perfection

But above all the superlative, breath-taking technical achievement and finish of his oil painting at its stunning best.


After reviewing all hundred paintings I realise that brown is the dominant colour in his palette, especially in the post-war period. Consider the two religious paintings, above, and his masterpiece:


Salvador Dalí: Exploring the irrational by Edmund Swinglehurst was published by Tiger Books in 1996.

Other Surrealism reviews

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.


He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.


Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).


Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.

God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

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

The World at Night by Alan Furst (1996)

In a dark corner, the piano player was hard at work: ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Body and Soul’, ‘Time On My Hands’. Cocktail hour in Paris – heavy drapes drawn over the windows so the world outside didn’t exist. The bar filled up, the hum of conversation getting louder as the drinks arrived. The expensive whore at the next table was joined by a well-dressed man, Casson had seen him around Passy for years, who wore the gold seal ring that meant nobility. He was just out of the barber’s chair, Casson could smell the talcum powder. The woman was stunning in a grey Chanel suit. (p.115)

This is the fourth of Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels. It’s shorter than the others, at 303 pages in the paperback edition, and divided into more sections than previously, making them feel a bit more like conventional chapters.

The World At Night covers the period from the day the Germans invaded France – 10 May 1940 – until 25 June 1941. It closely follows the experiences of one man, French film producer Jean Casson as he finds himself abruptly called up to fight, then acquiescing in the German victory over France and then very slowly drawn into the underground Resistance to the German occupation.

The 16th Arrondissement

Jean’s day starts in the bed he shares with a lissom Italian girl, progressing through a day in the office, calls from America, a set designer borrowing money to flee the Germans, an apéritif in a cafe with his Jewish screenwriter Fischfang, then a classy dinner in the evening, at which a childhood friend, Bibi, makes it clear she wants to come back to his apartment and have 69-style sex. The extreme opposite of the inarticulate peasant opening in rural Bulgaria of Night Soldiers or the claustrophobic Stalin-purge atmosphere of Dark Star.

A Country At War

Casson is called up, appointed corporal in a propaganda film unit accompanying an armoured division, shuffles forward with them to Sedan where he watches the start of the Wehrmacht assault across the river, with Frenchmen abandoning their posts, in small groups and then droves. His truck and film equipment is destroyed by a Stuka so he’s decommissioned and makes his way back to Paris.

The Jade Pagoda

20 August 1940. The novel is strongly diarised, most sections starting with a precise date. He is back in a Paris abandoned by its population, has to surrender his nice sports car, is running out of money and wondering what to do. Fortunately he has lots of sex. In a café he is propositioned by a whore (always ‘whores’ in these novels, the very word ‘whore’ makes you feel grown up, like a man of the world). Then buys beans off a young woman in the market who comes back to his place to show him how to cook them and then, oops, her dress falls off and they are having sex. Although of rough peasant stock, she wants to learn ‘all those fancy tricks’ and is a quick learner. Lucky Jean. Later there is a woman who walks into a café and crosses her legs in a certain way, so she ends up in his bed as they cuddle through the freezing nights. His eyes meet those of a woman on the street, a 16 year-old, and another woman in a cafe. Maybe Paris is like this, middle-aged men can have sex with an unending stream of strangers. Or maybe it really was like this in 1940. Or maybe it is just the kind of novel in which a male hero beds a succession of nubile young women, with no complications or questions asked.

A German producer phones him, takes him for a gourmand meal in the country and asks him to work with the German production company on some ‘safe’ subjects. Well, you have to live. He signs up.

Hotel Dorado

Casson visits his ever-reliable scritpwriter, Fischfang, tucked away in a crowded garret, and notices he’s got a gun at hand. He’s been betrayed to the authorities for not registering as a Jew. Casson goes to the same nightclub where naked young women run around in zebra masks, whinnying and shaking their bottoms at customers (now Germans) which featured in The Polish Officer. He’s there to contact the actress and chanteuse Citrine who he wants for the new movie project he’s planning as a co-production with his German colleague. They trudge through the freezing streets and huddle in their freezing apartment. They don’t have sex, although Casson desperately wants to. Not to mind. He’s still sleeping with Albertine the enthusiastic farmer’s daughter.

He’s telephoned by an Englishman he knew before the war, Templeton, who tells him to see Erno Simic the Hungarian moneyman. At a Paris nightclub, surrounded by glittering whores and eating Parisian treats, Simic very forthrightly asks him if he wants to work for British Intelligence. Reluctantly Casson agrees. A day later he receives a message to go to a certain place and pick up a bag which turns out to be full of Spanish pesetas. It is part of a far-fetched plot to overthrow General Franco and replace him with a Spanish monarch who will be sympathetic to the British, in particular securing the safety of Gibraltar, gateway to the Mediterranean. Casson is irritated because he was in the middle of stripping off a nice little blonde number in his bedroom, but luckily she is waiting for him when he gets back to his place, having conveniently removed her skirt and panties.

Later Casson is in bed with Citrine (his main lover, it gets a little hard to keep track) when they hear something and go to the pipes in the kitchen. Via them they can hear the extremely aloof baroness in the apartment below being caned by her Wehrmacht lover, making an impressive squeal after every stroke. Aha. That explains why the heating is back on. Allow the Wehrmacht to cane you; your apartment block gets coal!

By this stage, half way through the novel, the reader has got the message that Casson is a typical (?) Parisian man, drenched in sex and sensuality, with several mistresses on the go, knowledgeable about food and wine and champagne and liqueurs, who very slowly gets pulled into the underworld of espionage where he is completely out of his depth.

A Citizen of the Evening

His instructions are to take the money to Spain. He nervously gets an exit permit from the German authorities in Paris, then catches a train to Madrid. In the ninth sentence in this section he remembers making love to Citrine on a train. Basically, there is  sex, or thinking about sex, or remembering sex, or speculating about sex, or eyeing up women who might be available for sex, on almost every page of this novel.

On the train south he meets a gorgeous red-head, Marie-Noëlle. The novel well conveys the sense of anxiety as Casson along with all the other passengers has to disembark as the train crosses into the Non-Occupied Zone, then later crosses the border into France, then finally steams into Barcelona. There is some farce as he discovers the baggage he cleverly sent under a separate name on the same train has not been unloaded and so he has to chase the train in a taxi back north to its first stop, where it has been unloaded. It contains the 300,000 incriminating pesetas. At his hotel he is contacted and told to go to a cafe; at the cafe is a note telling him to go to a quay in the docks. Here he is guided to an unlit, rusting yacht and finally hands over the briefcase of money to Carabel. Who says it will be passed to a General Arado. He walks away from the yacht a happy and relieved man, having fulfilled his mission.

Back in the hotel he is drifting off to sleep imagining what it would be like to make love to the red-head, imagining precisely what shape her mouth wold make as he entered her, when the phone rings and it is Simic in the lobby, suggesting a meeting. What? He quickly brushes up and goes to the bar but no Simic, then he’s surprised by the appearance of the red-head, Marie-Noëlle. With no further ado she tells him she works for British Intelligence, that Simic is a con-man, that he and Carabel have conned the British out of this money and disappeared and she wants to know whether Casson was in on the scam. Is he a crook? Of course not, he says. Well, that’s what he’d say anyway. Go back to Paris, Mr Casson, and keep your nose out of matters you don’t understand.

New Friends

Casson goes to see a colleague directing a pirate movie. He writes to Citrine at her hotel in Lyons but the letter is returned and then her hotelier comes all the way to Paris to say she accidentally came across Citrine in the bath, weeping, with a razor blade by her side. He must see her! Meanwhile, his one-time secretary Gabriella turns up back from Italy and, well, they have to go to bed together.

The Night Visitor

A boy André smuggles him across a small river which forms the boundary between German-occupied and Vichy France. From there he makes his way to the hotel in Lyons – but instead of a suicidal Citrine, he finds her leading the revels at a drunken wedding. Later that night, both completely plastered, they go to bed and make love. Then wake up in the morning and make love again, followed by five paradise days of walking during the day, then drinking and making love every night. Eventually she sees him off at the train station.

Back in Paris various people have been looking for him including the German co-producer, Altmann. He invites Casson to a meal at the Bar Heininger (which has now featured in all four of these novels). Casson goes out to Montrouge to the factory of his friend Langlade, which he thought was an eccentric little thing making lightbulbs but turns out to be a big industrial complex producing a wide range of precision goods for the Germans. For the German war-machine. Urbane and smiling, he stops smiling when Casson tells him he told Citrine to send postcards to Langlade’s office address as a formal method of communication. He suspects his own mail is intercepted. Postcards can have brief meaningless messages, it’s not the message, it’s the mere fact that they’ve been sent… Anyway, Langlade asks him not to compromise him with the authorities…

Dinner at the Bar Heininger quickly turns into a tete-a-tete with a certain Franz Millau, who works for the Sicherheitsdienst, the SD. He quickly reveals that they know about Casson’s trip to Madrid, in fact they eavesdropped on his conversation with Marie-Noëlle, who they have arrested. The blood drains from Casson’s face. I think this is the aim of the novel: to take a fairly interesting, educated Frenchman – l’homme moyen sensual – to describe his job eg his working on the script for the next movie, the office chores, sorting out bills, socialising with his friends, sleeping with several different women… and then draw him slowly into the Underground, into doing small favours to people who ask or pressurise him, fondly imagining his old life can continue, and then – BOOM! Theses eruptions of pure fear as the little favours and trips he’s done suddenly expose him to arrest or worse by the authorities.

Millau asks Casson a) did Marie-Noëlle recruit him? No, Casson insists, nervously. b) Will Casson work for Millau; the resistance are planning bomb outrages – it is Casson’s patriotic duty to prevent them. Well, what can he say?

The Secret Agent

After two hundred pages of wine and women, the novel suddenly picks up pace on the espionage front – Millau continues Casson’s recruitment, taking him to a villa outside Paris where he hands him the identity papers of one George Bourdon, who is to play a part in a Resistance mission. Back in Paris Casson phones Véronique, the woman who had put him in touch with the people who helped smuggle him across the border into the Non-Occupied Zone. She arranges a meeting with a third party in a church, one Mathieu, an Englishman who speaks perfect French and is himself nervous. Casson briefs him about his situation. Mathieu says he’ll ask London and get back to him. Later, the message comes: ‘Go along with their plan.’

So Casson finds himself ordered to take a train to the countryside north of Paris where he poses as Georges Bourdon to a bunch of farm lads who take him to a field. There they light flares and a small British plane lands, unloads crates with guns and money and a slightly injured intelligence officer. Casson and one of the men and the injured Brit and the bags of guns, explosive and money, load into a car and drive the backstreets back to Paris, with one very tense moment when the car is stopped by a joint German-French patrol which lets them through.

He sees the Reistance man and injured Brit to a safe house, then gets a call from the German Millau and has to go see him. Here he is debriefed, and tells the Germans a completely accurate account of the men he met and the plane landing and dropping the bags etc, but gives the men codenames instead of their real names and then, when he gets to the Paris bit, makes up the address where he claims they are hiding. Good, Millau smiles: now they would like him to go to the SD offices in Strasbourg to make his report. Strasbourg? Why? Casson is now playing a very dangerous game.

The Escape

Casson reports to Mathieu, especially about the pending trip to Strasbourg. Back at his apartment he gets a distraught phone call from his friends. Langlade, one of their close circle and the man he went to visit at his big factory in Montrouge, is dead. Under cover of an RAF air raid, a huge explosion blew up the factory, killing Langlade among others. Casson goes to the wake/funeral party with a heavy heart. He knows his friend was killed with the explosives he smuggled into Paris.

He puts in a blank day at the office, feeling empty and returns to his apartment at nightfall, convinced the walls are closing in, convinced he has only days to live. Imagine his amazement when he opens to door to find Citrine there, waiting. they fall into each other’s arms, a dam of frustration and anxiety exploding in their caresses. Against the silhouette of the night sky she starts to do a strip-tease for him, slipping off her skirt, it is going to be another one of those evenings…

Except it isn’t. The phone rings and Mathieu at the other end garbles a frantic warning before the line is cut off. Galvanised, Casson and Citrine grab what they can and hurtle out the flat, down the stairs. Out the window in the hall he can see the German cars pulling up so he makes a split-second decision and bangs on the door of the aloof baroness downstairs. She draws herself up to her full height and of course agrees to hide Citrine. Casson could have gone with her but then they’d have searched the building from top to bottom. So he doesn’t; this way she will be safe.

Casson rushes out the front door and nearly makes it but they chase, catch and beat him up. They take him to Gestapo headquarters at the Rue des Saussaies. These last fifteen pages of the novel pass ins a blur of activity as Casson is hauled out of the cell where he’d been dumped, to be interrogated by Obersturmbannführer Guske, the rather kindly German official who had issued Casson his pass to go to Spain in what seems like another life and now, very angry, slaps him brutally round the face.

Casson asks to use the toilet and to his and our surprise Guske says yes and the guard who takes him waits politely outside. This gives Casson time to see there is a window in the toilet, which he quickly prises open and climbs out onto the guttering. It is a stormy rainy night and the guard, Singer sticks his head out, and then, madly, follows Casson out onto the guttering, leaning against the sloping tiled roof, his feet only supported by the guttering. Casson has found a hand grip at head height, clings on then pounds the guttering with all his strength and the German falls six floors to his death in the courtyard. Whistles blow, lights go on, guards run about down there, as Casson edges his way round to where a kind of parapet begins, gets onto it and runs the width of the building and round the other side where he sees someone behind a window and knocks. It is a French caretaker who takes him in to a part of the building not used by the Germans and hurries him down to the basement. Other colleagues cleverly leave windows and the front door open as if Casson has escaped that way.

Very quickly the novel hurtles to its conclusion. The people at the institute hide him, then when the German search has calmed down, equip him with new clothes and money. Casson crosses Paris to the café he knows Véronique frequents and, after she’s got over the shock of his sudden appearance and then of his story, she tells him to go to a certain house, ask for a certain person etc. In this way he is gathered into an escape route, given false papers and hidden until taken to a houseboat which trundles north along canals, until picked up by a truck and taken to the port of Honfleur, and then in a secret compartment, along with several other stowaways out to sea, where they will rendezvous with a British fishing boat.

When the boat has passed through the last of the German checks and is well under way, the fishermen allow the stowaways up on deck. Casson stares at the French coastline and reviews his life and his likely life in England, a land of strangers. All that matters to him, all that gives his life any meaning is his love for Citrine. Did the baroness protect her? Did she escape from the Gestapo? Where is she now?

Without any doubts, he jumps overboard and starts swimming back towards the French shore. Madness!


The three previous novels have started in East Europe, featured East European heroes (Bulgarian, Polish-Russian, Polish) and a large and diverse cast of characters and, although all three of them gravitated towards Paris as one setting for their characters’ travels, a city Furst lived in for some time and obviously knows very well, there were countless other settings particularly in Eastern Europe, which gave them their special atmosphere.

This novel represents a kind of retreat from the East European settings and background which made the first three novels feel so new and exciting. It is an American writing about Paris, as have thousands of Americans. And a film producer hero, like the umpteen novels and films about film producers, directors or stars, whose life is a round of classy dinner parties and leisurely lunches in smart restaurants. Who starts the novel in bed with a leggy young Italian woman, lovely long hair, soap suds on her firm young breasts, just like Emanuele or Bilitis. This character, this setting, this milieu – not so new or exciting…


The World at Night by Alan Furst was published in 1996 by HarperCollins. 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 – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo.
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 France

Icon by Frederick Forsyth (1996)

‘Do you remember those descriptions of the last days of the Weimar Republic? The unemployment queues, the street crime, the ruined life-savings, the soup-kitchens, the quarreling midgets in the Reichstag yelling their heads off while the country went bankrupt? Well, that’s what you’re watching here. All over again. ‘ (p.192)

This is a cracking thriller. I was going to stop reading Forsyth after his famous opening trilogy of novels, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol or The Negotiator. But I would strongly recommend The Fist of God and this novel.

I think the difference is the plausibility of the plot. The plots of Devil, Fourth and Negotiator all seemed far-fetched and implausible – lose the reader’s belief and everything collapses like a house of cards. It’s the astonishing plausibility of his debut, The Day of The Jackal, totally convincing in every detail, which makes it an outstanding read to this day.

In The Fist of God the plot ie the heroism of SAS man Mike Martin, becomes cumulatively more improbable, but the (long) text is really sustained by the detailed background account of the Gulf War, which makes it an absorbing and thought-provoking book. Something similar happens here. Icon is in two parts.

Part one

Forsyth very effectively places two separate but converging narratives next to each other, each conveyed in short alternating sections for the first 270 pages or so.

Russia 1999 One strand is set a few years after the book was published, in 1999. In this future Russia has endured several years of bad harvests, is experiencing hyper-inflation as its currency collapses, and the city streets are full of refugees from the countryside, begging and dying of exposure. This storyline opens with the current President (fictional successor to Boris Yeltsin) dying suddenly and triggering a new presidential campaign. At the heart of the book is the threat that a nationalist demagogue, Igor Komarov, head of the right-wing Union of Patriotic Forces (UPF), will use his control of TV stations, funds from a nationwide mafia syndicate, the Dolgoruki, and his ‘army’ of some 100,000 black-shirted zealots, to win and become President then dictator.

In the opening pages a poor cleaner, Leonid Zaitsev, steals the so-called Black Manifesto which one of Komarov’s assistants had unwisely left lying around. Handed into the British Embassy, the Manifesto turns out to be a hair-raising revelation of Komarov’s real plans ie re-arm Russia, invade and conquer the neighbouring nations, send all ethnic minorities, Jews, liberals, homosexuals etc to a new system of slave labour camps. In other words, the worst elements of Stalin and Hitler combined.

Jason Monk Intertwined with the storyline of how the Manifesto is stolen, ends up with the British, is passed to the Intelligence Services, to the Americans, and the Allies’ horrified responses – is the completely different narrative focusing on CIA agent Jason Monk. Recruited into the CIA in Vietnam in the 1960s he goes on to have a golden career, recruiting and running four key agents within the KGB/Soviet intelligence organisations. A great deal of detail goes into describing the recruitment of each agent, in various exotic locations (Nairobi, Yemen, Silicon Valley – all complete with interesting factual background briefings, circa 1995) and explaining how they are ‘run’ and managed.

Aldrich Ames However, Monk’s fictional rise is interwoven with the astonishing career of the true-life US CIA double agent, Aldrich Ames, by all accounts an incompetent alcoholic who managed to get promoted to senior positions where he had access to reams of top secret information which he sold to his KGB handlers for a fortune. Ames’s minders demand information about Monk’s four spies which, after some effort, and helped by CIA incompetence, Ames is eventually able to supply and all four are rounded up, tortured and executed.

Infuriated, Monk tells anyone who will listen that there must be a mole at a senior level in the Agency, but instead of being listened to he is cashiered out of the service in the early 1990s. In true life it wasn’t until 1994 that the mole was revealed to be Ames. He is still alive and currently serving a life sentence in US prison.

The astonishing feats of the real-life spy Ames combines with the tradecraft around the recruitment and running of Monk’s spies to make the first half compelling and factually informative. At its climax, we are shown the meeting of a fictional group of retired politicians, financiers and so on – the ‘Council of Lincoln’, including, for example, Mrs Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and so on. When they are presented the Black Manifesto by Sir Nigel Irvine, retired head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, they authorise an attempt to stop Komarov’s election, funding provided by some of the super-rich bankers on the Council, details left to Sir Nigel. One of its members, a former head of the CIA, quizzed by Sir Nigel, recommends Monk for this dangerous mission…

Part two

Irvine tracks Jason Monk down and discovers he is living a relaxed, low profile life in the Turks and Caicos Islands, renting himself and his boat out to tourists who want to go deep sea fishing. Despite his protestations, Irvine more or less blackmails Monk to take up the mission, threatening to use his influence to get Monk’s fishing permit rescinded and his house repossessed. Monk in fact still holds out until Sir Nigel tells him who Komarov’s Number Two is – Anatoli Grishin, who in his role in the old KGB was responsible for rounding up Monk’s agents, torturing and executing them… That does it: for Monk, it’s personal.

From then on it reads a little like a Mission Impossible episode. Monk is flown to Scotland, does intensive training with ex-SAS personnel, before flying in to Moscow. Here he puts into practice an elaborate plan master-minded by Irvine. He

  • Contacts a Chechen mafia leader, Umar Gunayev, whose life he happened to save in one of his more exotic postings in part one. Monk shows Gunayev the parts of the Black Manifesto which describe how Komarov will round up and exterminate the Chechens. So, throughout the mission the Chechens move him around safe houses and give him very effective bodyguards.
  • Contacts the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexei II, who takes some persuading but is eventually prevailed upon to support and encourage the more outspoken of his bishops and priests who had been preaching against Komarov, and then to sign up to a plan to restore a new Tsar to Russia.
  • Contacts a venerable and legendary retired Army General Nikolai Nikolayev (the sequences describing his military career starting during the Nazi invasion of 1941 are, as usual for Forsyth, thoroughly researched and completely believable). Shown the Manifesto he promises to speak out against Komarov in media interviews.
  • Contacts the richest banker in Russia, Leonid Bernstein, who happens to be a Jew. When Monk shows him the Manifesto, with its plans for a final solution to Russia’s Jews, he is persuaded to threaten to call in loans to the bankrupt TV companies unless they refuse to carry any more Komarov propaganda.

In addition to getting these opinion-formers onside, Irvine’s small team of ex-SAS men blow up the printing presses for Komarov’s magazines and newspapers, and also do some counter-intelligence work by tipping off anti-corruption police about the funds, paperwork and arms dumps of the mafia group which had been supporting Komarov; and then spreading the word that the tip-off came from one of Komarov’s Black Guards.

Restoration of the Tsar

Meanwhile, Sir Nigel has been making enquiries and there is a series of broadly comic scenes where he interviews a chubby, professorly expert at the College of Heralds, Dr Lancelot Probyn, in order to see if there is anywhere in Europe a possible contender for the throne of Russia. And there is. (As usual, the research, the factual information contained in these sequences, about genealogy and about the descendants of the Russian Royal Family, make fascinating reading).

In the climax of the novel, Komarov is panicked by the multi-pronged attack on his interests, into trying to stage a military coup. Monk is just about able to pull every string available to him and tip off the various Army units so that the streets of Moscow are turned into a battlefield. The media carry live pictures of the fighting in which the forces of the State slowly but inexorably crush the Black Shirts.

In a sequence straight from a movie, Monk gets to pursue his own private vendetta against Komarov’s Head of Security, the sadistic torturer Grishin, the man who murdered his agents, as the two men chase each other through the ruins of the Kremlin Museum until, inevitably, Monk gets him – with one of his last bullets, bang! Right between the eyes!

The novel closes with Komarov discredited, and the Presidential election converted into a plebiscite on whether the Russians want a restoration of their Royal Family. At the end a distant prince of the British royal family (apparently a thinly disguised Prince Michael of Kent) is seen stepping down from a plane to be acclaimed the new Tsar.


From fact to fantasy

Once again the reader has been carried from the world of pure fact (Aldrich Ames’s shameful CIA career), via plausible fiction (the recruitment and running of a handful of Soviet agents), into a fairly plausible future (the economic and social collapse of Russia and the rise of a fascist demagogue, hmmm), into a dizzyingly improbable finale – the invitation of a British Royal to become the new Tsar of Russia!

The trouble with Russia

I think the book ‘works’ because this conclusion, and the extent to which one superspy, Monk, single-handedly changed the course of history, preposterous as it is, doesn’t eclipse the strongly factual and imaginatively powerful first half of the book. In particular, it is carried along by the harrowingly powerful vision of the astonishing criminality and violence of Russian society, state-funded violence during the communist era, and then the chaos of mafia violence in the post-communist years. (There is a sequence of very interesting journalistic prose explaining the historic origins and development of the Russian mafia, pp.189-192.)

In Robert Harris’s novel, Archangel, the historian character, ‘Fluke’ Kelso, delivers a short but persuasive lecture to the gung-ho American character, O’Brian, saying the key to understanding Russia is the fact that it has never had a Western concept of private property: the entire edifice of Western democracy is based on Common Law which guarantees and underpins the ability of everyone to own their land and goods; Russia has never had that. The country and its goods have always belonged to the most powerful or brutal.

This is reminiscent of the sections in economic historian Niall Ferguson’s books which emphasise the importance of private property as the collateral against which citizens can take out loans with a view to investing in inventions and improvements. No private property – nothing to borrow against – no ability to invest in or improve anything – your best hope of growing income comes from corruption or crime. This one fact explains the dire levels of crime and corruption in all ‘developing’ countries or in a failed western nation like Russia.


Forsyth doesn’t go into economic theory in that way. Instead the book makes a socio-political point: arguing that every society needs a focus, an icon, for people to project their hopes and fears onto. We have the British Royal Family which (so goes the theory) guarantees and underpins institutional and political stability. The Americans have their President, held in semi-royal adulation, a human focus for their patriotism. Russia…

‘All nations need a symbol, human or not, to which they can cleave when times are bad, which can unite them across barriers of language and clan. Komarov is building himself into that national symbol, that icon. No-one will vote against him and in favour of a vacuum. There must be an alternative icon.’ (p.378)

It is this rather simplistic socio-psychological theory which underpins the novel: the Russians, more maybe than other nations, require an icon, a Strong Leader. Komarov is the absolutely wrong person to fufil that role and so the novel, fancifully, imagines the role could be filled by a born-again monarchy. In fact, as we know, 20 years after the book’s publication, that role is currently played by Vladimir Putin, three times President of Russia, and depicted in press photos bare-chested, working out in the gym, horse-riding or hunting in Russia’s vast outback.


As in previous Forsyth novels, there are pages and pages describing in gruesome detail man’s inhumanity to man: the torture of the old cleaner who steals the Black Manifesto and triggers the entire narrative is difficult to read, but so are some of the background stories set during the Second World War or descriptions of KGB ‘interrogations’ or of life in a gulag under the communists.

Set against this, deliberately I think, are scenes describing the astonishing peacefulness and civilisation of workaday England. Forsyth is every bit as plummy as John le Carré, probably more so, but whereas le Carré characters just are posh and his novels marinate us in their privileged private school backgrounds in order to deepen our understanding of them, the posh sequences in Forsyth are there for a political reason.

When Sir Nigel meets the editor of the Daily Telegraph at his club, Forsyth gently satirises the way both grown men still enjoy the boyish food they remember from their prep schools, namely treacle tart* (yummy), crustless cucumber sandwiches or rice pudding with jam! When Probyn is running down possible contenders for the throne of Russia among Europe’s royals, one likely contender is dismissed because he was once caught cheating at backgammon. Cheating at backgammon! (p.398) And when his wife calls to him from the garden that he’s got to go and help her dig over the flowerbeds in their Dorset home (in the village of Langton Matravers), and he tuts about having to do a chore he doesn’t really like, the moment is clearly there to demonstrate the quiet, civilised, understated values which centuries of Common Law, respect for property, and democracy have blessed England with, and couldn’t be more sharply contrasted with the descriptions of people being tortured, executed or dying of exposure in failing Russia.

Fascinating facts

Forsyth’s novels are not only highly researched but often contain chunks of text which read like articles for serious newspapers or just encyclopedia entries, so keen are they to convey facts about organisations, countries, technology or military hardware.

  • The CIA is divided into two main directorates, Intelligence and Operations, each headed by a Deputy Director (hence DDI and DDO), the former intelligence gathering to produce a big daily, weekly, monthly digest; the second actually carrying out operations.
  • In 1991 Gorbachov broke up the KGB: the First Chief Directorate was renamed the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); the Second Chief Directorate, devoted to catching spies and suppressing internal dissent, renamed the FSB.
  • ELINT – Electronic intelligence gathering.
  • FAPSI – Russian Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information.
  • GRU – the foreign military intelligence main directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
  • GUVD – Moscow’s organised crime department.
  • HUMINT – Human intelligence gathering.
  • MVD – Russian Ministry of the Interior.
  • OMON – Russian Federal Militia Anti-Gang Division.
  • SOBR – Moscow City Rapid Reaction Force.

* ‘The British in middle age are seldom more content than when being offered the sort of food they were fed in nursery school.’ (p.114)


Icon by Frederick Forsyth was published by Transworld Publishers in 1996. All quotes from the 1996 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.

The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (1996)

‘In Panama everyone knows Harry Pendel.’ (p.68)

Le Carré’s narrative technique

Le Carré is masterfully cunning at releasing his information in dramatic instalments, deploying the constituent parts of the plot with great rhythm and timing. In its predecessor, Our Game, and in this novel, le Carré opens by selecting a key scene from his narrative, choosing it to be ‘the present’, portraying it at great length to establish setting and characters – and only once this static island in time is firmly anchored, then arranging a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and memories in the rest of the text to paint in all kinds of elements of backstory, characters’ history and psychology, memories, re-enactments and so on – simultaneously moving the story forward to tell us what happened next.

Quite often the amount of ‘what happened next’ narrative is smaller than, or less vivid than, the ‘flashback’ material, so that reading the book feels more like watching a tree or bush grow in a nature programme, with tendrils moving out in all directions – completely different from the much more straightforward linear narrative of a Deighton or Forsyth.

Thus the first hundred pages of the Tailor describe a day in the life of the eponymous tailor, Harry Pendel, leading up to his appointment to measure a new customer, Andrew Osnard. Except that Osnard is quickly revealed to be no ordinary client. He spends the measuring session probing Harry extensively about his past – before revealing that he knows Harry’s carefully cultivated front as a partner in a posh tailors’ firm is rot; his firm never existed on Savile Row, the sadly deceased partner he likes to spin long yarns about is a complete fiction.

No, Osnard knows that Harry grew up in poverty in the East End of London, went to work for his Uncle Benny in the rag trade, was caught burning down Benny’s warehouse in a plan to defraud the insurance company, was convicted of arson, imprisoned and, immediately upon his release, fled England with guilty Uncle Benny’s help to Panama, where he married a local American woman whose parents had money.

Osnard says he knows that Harry has used up that entire inheritance to buy a rice farm out in the countryside, but that the water has dried up, it will never be viable, and he is losing money fast on the loan he took out to buy it at an extortionate rate of monthly interest. In fact, Osnard reveals to a stunned Harry that he was stitched up by his banker ‘friend’ (Ramón Rudd), who was the one who tipped him off about the opportunity in the first place and encouraged him to make the purchase and loaned him the money, but who is in cahoots with the rice farm estate manager (Angel) to drive it into the ground, then buy it at auction for a song, restore the water, make it a thriving concern and sell it off at a big profit. He’s been had.

Having reduced Harry to speechlessness by the depth and devastating content of his knowledge about him, Osnard then reveals that he is a spy for Her Majesty’s government and asks Harry if he wants to work for him. Osnard has done his research and knows that Harry, as a snobbish tailor to the great and good of Panamanian society (including, believe it or not, the President himself) gets to hear a surprising amount of gossip and confidential information. ‘Report it back to me and there’s money in it for you, old boy,’ drawls Osnard. Harry’ll be able to repay the loan which is threatening to bankrupt him. Harry hesitates, but can’t really say anything but yes.

A kaleidoscope of flashbacks

All this – a man has a fitting session for a new suit – takes up no fewer than 100 pages.

And from this slender incident in the present opens up a flood of memories and backstories from the past, which come in numerous fragments, sometimes less than a page long, sometimes just a few, or even one, paragraph. These paint rapid sketches of Harry’s miserable childhood in the East End of London; him finding out he’s illegitimate; what it was like working for kindly Uncle Benny; getting caught setting fire to Benny’s warehouse to claim the insurance; the police beating the crap out of him; his miserable experiences in prison and Uncle Benny seeing him onto the boat to Panama, complete with a letter of introduction to his old friend form London who’d emigrated there, Mr Blüthner.

It is Blüthner who finds Harry a shop, loans him material, puts customers his way. Harry falls in love with the American woman, Louisa, but it is always a troubled relationship, then has an affair with the Panamanian girl, Marta. The US Air Force comes to bomb General Noriega out of power but ends up destroying the poorest slums in Panama City and killing hundreds of civilians including all of Marta’s family, while Harry and Louisa watch terrified from their house up the hill.

Later, in the febrile post-air raid atmosphere, Harry is driving Marta home when they are stopped by Noriega’s fascist Dignity Brigades and, because she is wearing a white t-shirt associated with the resistance to Noriega, Marta is really badly beaten with baseball bats, leaving her face permanently disfigured, Harry pinned down by the cops and forced to watch, begging them to stop.

When the Dingbats walk off, Harry drives the bleeding Marta to the apartment of his friend, Michelangelo ‘Mickie’ Abraxas, who takes them both on to an undercover doctor, who makes a mess of trying to fix Marta’s face, and the next day reports them to the cops, but only knows Mickie’s name and address. So it is that the cops arrest Mickie and send him to prison, where the beautiful young man is repeatedly raped and brutalised, emerging a shattered shadow of his former self.

All of this comes out in a tumble of vivid, often lurid, flashbacks, not necessarily in the correct order, sometimes repeated with variations of new facts or phrasing, building up a mosaic or kaleidoscope of Harry’s life and the back stories of the novel’s main characters, with key moments – like the bats smashing Marta’s face, the roar of the flames in Uncle Benny’s warehouse – emerging and re-emerging like gold strands in a tapestry.

And also interspersed among them are the ‘now’ parts of the narrative, as Harry drives home from his session with Osnard thoroughly confused and anxious, worrying about Osnard, worrying about the rice farm, worrying about his wife. The structure, the use of these scattered flashbacks, is very effective:

  • with its repetition of key scenes it builds up a powerful sense of the important memories and elements of the characters’ personalities
  • with its repetition of descriptions, it takes you deep into a thoroughly imagined world, into the humid Panama of hotels and drug barons, roadside militia and brothels
  • above all it allows le Carré to get right to the point: to give just a snapshot of a moment, to describe the key moment or phrase or word, which defines a situation, a decision, a narrative turning point – bang! – and then move on.

Osnard ‘recruits’ Harry

Around page 200 le Carré finally gives us a lengthy description of Osnard’s back story. Although employed by MI6, he is basically a crook on the make. He went to Eton and has used his connections to cruise through a number of unsatisfactory jobs before being recruited into Intelligence. When he is offered Panama, he senses the possibilities and, within days of arriving he’s shaping a plan: he realises that he will get to handle large amounts of non-attributable slush money if he can persuade his bosses there’s a big underground liberation movement in Panama which needs supporting.

Some research brings him to Harry, a well-connected liar and ex-convict, and the long opening scene is there to demonstrate Osnard’s technique of coercion and the way his plans begin to fall into place as he realises how scared and malleable Harry is.

Thus Osnard prompts and encourages Harry to invent out of thin air a network of spies with members among the student movement, the fishermen and workers and to concoct the so-called ‘Silent Opposition’ of political rebels. Osnard winks at Harry nominating his best friend, the ex-convict and down-on-his-luck drunk Mickie Abraxas, as head of this fictional SO. In a typical piece of wit, Osnard christens his imaginary source BUCHAN, which allows all concerned to make jokes about the ‘brave Buchaneers’ etc.

Political background

The background to all this is that the Americans commissioned, funded, ran and kept military watch over the Panama Canal from its opening in 1914. In 1977 the Democrat US President Jimmy Carter (roundly despised by all the right-wing characters in the book) signed a treaty promising to hand the canal over to the Panama government in 1999.

As a result, US authorities, the US Army and – to a lesser extent – allied governments are all anxious that some other foreign power might take control of this vital gateway of world trade, maybe not militarily, maybe just doing favourable trade deals with the Panama government. Osnard knows he can screw money out of his employers back in London – and maybe even out of the Yanks – if he can convince them some big conspiracy is afoot.

Once the ‘spy network’ is up and running, and Osnard is feeding entirely fictional reports from Agent Buchan back to base, he finds himself under pressure to provide more factual detail, and so it is he asks Harry to commit the ultimate ‘betrayal’, and spy on his wife (who works for the Panama Canal Authority, another factor which helped Osnard decide to approach Harry in the first place). Harry embellishes the resulting documents, and then Osnard embellishes them a bit more – including accounts of the Panama President’s recent trip to Japan and South-East Asia – to make it seem as if the Panamanians (or ‘Pans’ as they are dismissively referred to in the neo-colonial slang of the white protagonists) are about to flog the Canal to the ‘Japs’.

[Historical note: back in the early 1990s the expert view was that the West was about to be economically and militarily overtaken by the Japanese and the other South-East Asian Tigers. So much for the geopolitical ‘experts’.]

The media mogul

Osnard’s boss back in London, Luxmore, a canny Scot, encourages Osnard in his wild fantasies, which seems puzzling until we discover this is because he is on the payroll of a wicked media mogul, the potty-mouthed Ben Hatry – not unlike the wicked media mogul played by Jonathan Pryce in the Pierce Brosnan-James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies. Hatry wants to engineer an American takeover of Panama in order to rally round the forces of reaction, to galvanise his audience and sell newspapers and make money. But he is pushing at an open door of right-wing conspiracy theories, xenophobes, bigots and at the paranoid door of the US Army.

Thus, as the novel climbs to dizzier and dizzier heights of unreality, Luxmore flies to the Pentagon where he has a meeting with ‘senior generals’ who he persuades that BUCHAN’s ‘intel’ is the real McCoy and, ‘Gentlemen, we must move swiftly to protect our vital interests’. Luckily, the Americans have both a very big army and air force which, at the bloody climax of the novel, they send to bomb the crap out of Panama City. Again.

Mickie kills himself

While all this has been happening, rumour and gossip about Mickie Abraxia have leaked out and spread, not least via a vile gossip columnist ‘Teddy’. The police arrive on Mickie’s doorstep, threatening to send him back to prison, the same prison where he was brutalised and gang-raped. With Harry’s help and money, Mickie leaves Panama City and drives to Guararé, another Panamanian town, which is having a carnival – lots of fireworks, lots of bangs. One of the bangs is the sound of Mickie shooting himself in the head; he couldn’t face being sent back to gaol. Mickie’s girlfriend, Ana, rings up Harry in hysterics, and he honourably decides to drive to the town to calm the distraught woman, smuggle Mickie’s body into his 4 by 4, and drive it to an ancient religious site, out in the woods where, heart-broken, he arranges and leaves it.

Louisa gets drunk

Meanwhile, Harry’s wife, Louisa, suspects from all his furtive behaviour that he is having an affair. When he gets a phone call from a hysterical woman and insists on driving off into the night with no explanation, she becomes convinced of it and first of all drinks a lot, far too much, crying, shouting and swearing against her unfaithful husband. In this state she breaks into Harry’s desk and finds all the documentation about the made-up spy network, including the paperwork incriminating her as a major source.

Appalled, she drives over to confront the man who seems to be at the root of all the problems, Osnard. She interrupts his meeting with Luxmore where Luxmore had been explaining about the small fortune he’s brought from London to fund the uprising of the ‘Silent Opposition’, and how it’s to be co-ordinated with the US attack. Osnard farcically smuggles Luxmore out the back way, then lets in the extremely drunk Louisa. Unfortunately, she is wearing only a flimsy housecoat and in their tussle all its buttons ping off so she is naked and, well, guess what happens next.

In the morning she awakes humiliated and ashamed in Osnard’s bed to find him packing. Osnard realised his number was up when Luxmore arrived in Panama City and he and the Ambassador announced they wanted to take over the running of BUCHAN. The secret of the con will be out in days, if not hours. Osnard takes the bags full of money which Luxmore had brought with him and left the night before, and absconds. Louisa borrows underclothes, t-shirt etc and makes her way home.

But they are not reconciled. They hear the drumming of the American helicopters overhead and know that history is repeating itself: once again they will stand on their hillside balcony and watch the quarters of the poor be carpet bombed by the warlike Americans. Disgusted with himself and the world, Harry sets off down the hillside, past the injured and screaming people fleeing in the other direction, walking into the bomb blasts and the flames.

If the novel was ever intended to be a comedy, this fatalistic, doomed, heart-broken savage ending is a very sour note to end it on, and eclipses whatever levity preceded it.

After the Cold War

Decades ago critics wondered what spy novelists like Len Deighton or John le Carré would do when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed and – according to Francis Fukuyama – history ended. The orthodox answer is that le Carré seamlessly transferred the mind set and worldview of the intelligence agencies over into the numerous other issues and conflicts which carried on troubling the world – regional conflicts, the iniquity of multinational corporations, drugs and arms smuggling.


My impression is that le Carré’s response was to go posh.

The world of his early novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is cold and shabby, down at heel, a world of losers.

Around 1990 the feel of le Carré’s novels changes, they start to feel considerably buffed up and to focus on formidably posh circles of chaps who went to major public schools, are members of the right clubs, and bonk foxy gels fresh from finishing school. There’s more sex, a lot more sex, in these later novels, and the business of espionage, of recruiting your own agents and persuading chaps from the other side to cross over, is described more and more in the language of love and seduction. There are more warm bedrooms in South America with naked women in them, than cold alleyways in Berlin with armed guards.

Above all, the figures at the centre of the novels increasingly talk in a distinctly posh, upper crust manner, complete with public school slang and Oxbridge banter.

Thus Ned, the retiring intelligence officer narrator of The Secret Pilgrim, appears at first to be a caricature of an old posh buffer – except I think we’re meant to take him seriously. The circle of friends, lovers and fixers surrounding the British arms dealer, Richard Onslow Roper, in The Night Manager are extraordinarily posh, from his jolly hockeysticks girlfriend to his sideman, a gin-swilling retired colonel, what, what. The narrator of Our Game is another unbelievably posh bloke whose CV reads ‘Winchester, Oxford, British Intelligence’, who inherits a pile from a rich old aunt and a West Country vineyard from Uncle Bob, terrific fellah, did you know Uncle Bob? A long way from the back alleyways of Berlin.

Now, whatever the location, be it Panama or the Caucasus, le Carré’s characters carry the indelible mark of upper crust, élite, public school and Oxbridge attitude and locutions along with them.

In his earlier novels the fact that he spent five years working for the ‘Foreign Office’ is probably the most relevant part of le Carré’s career, giving him unparalleled insight into the realities of interviewing, vetting, interrogating suspects; in these later novels, by far the most important fact is that he taught at Eton.

Lots of people have made up spy stories, but not so many have drowned them, like le Carré does his later stories, in torrents of public school slang and banter. For Eton isn’t just a school. It is the apex of an educational system devised to run the greatest empire on earth, and still has extraordinary cultural and political dominance in this country. As the Evening Standard pointed out the other day, if actor Damien Lewis is selected as the next James Bond, it will be the first time that the current Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury and James Bond all went to the same school. Eton. Where le Carré was socially, intellectually and culturally distinguished enough to be acceptable as a master and to teach our future rulers.

The author’s experience at the heart of British snobbery and elitism seems to me to underpin the dominant tone in these later novels, where almost all the characters not only went to public school, but soak their talk and dialogue and thinking in confident, arrogant public schoolboy banter and slang.

Posh English

So although The Tailor of Panama is indeed set in Panama and although – in its first hundred pages or so – it contains convincing descriptions of the buildings, layout and geography, of the roads and rush hour traffic jams, the street beggars, the heat and noise of Panama City, the characters are strangely insulated from it all, carrying everywhere with them the class-conscious attitude and argot of the public school-educated Englishman.

Thus the novel opens with the tailor of the title, half-Jewish Harry Pendel, waking, breakfasting with his wife and kids before driving to his shop, and here he is visited by a new chap in the country, one Andrew Osnard. And although it is set in Central America, the reader is transported to a timeless scene – the seigneurial relationship between a posh Englishman and his canny tailor, a scene that could be from Thackeray.

Pendel regards his quiet and civilised shop and fitting room as an oasis of calm in a busy world. But it is much more than that. It’s an oasis of old-fashioned pukka Englishness, with its cucumber sandwiches, copies of the Times and Country Life strewn about, and the servile tailor serving the insouciantly superior cad, who murmurs on in his upper class drawl:

‘Bravo… thing is, old boy… little local difficulty… splendid… frankly, a bit of a facer… good show …’

Which public school did you go to?

My heart sank and I began to withdraw even more from the novel when, around page 150, we’re introduced to the (senior) staff at the British Embassy in Panama who are, at first, annoyed by the imposition of an Intelligence agent on them. In thumbnail portraits of the Embassy staff we learn that the ‘Ambass’ went to Harrow, the first secretary, Stormont, to Shrewsbury (then Jesus, Oxford: a disappointing Second in History). They are both a bit jealous of Osnard who, we now find out, was educated at Eton. Eton. Harrow. Shrewsbury. It’s a broad social mix, I suppose.

The only woman on the team, Francesca Deane, is depicted from word go as a sex object (‘A body to kill for, the brains to go with it’ -p.138. Or, as Luxmore describes her, ‘That prim Sassenach virgin with large attachments and come-hither eyes.., Is she what in my young days we called a cock-teaser?’ p.393)

Fran is lusted over by the Ambassador, and most other men who meet her, but resists all offers until she is swiftly seduced and bedded by Osnard. She is the daughter of a Law Lord and ‘in London she had spent her weekends with a frightfully handsome hunting stockbroker named Edgar.’ (p.218). She knows a bit about Osnard because her simply weird half-brother, Miles, went to Eton too, and tells her about old Andy’s chequered career there. Apparently he doesn’t like to talk to his time there and refers to England’s most prestigious public school as ‘Slough Grammar’. What a wit. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Luckily for Francesca, fat, sweaty Osnard turns out to be a demon lover, tactfully not referring to his previous ‘conquests, although ‘many and varied’, and touching her in a special way only he knows how, taking her

without a word, endlessly, wonderfully, tirelessly, hours, years on end, his thick body skimming weightlessly over her and round her, one peak after another, something that till now had only happened to Fran in her schoolgirl imagination. (p.222)

Yes, as Stormont tells Maltby, ‘He’s shagging Fran’. Lucky old Andy, eh.

Public school comparisons

One of the most tedious thing about people who went to prep school and then a bloody good boarding school is the way the total institutionalisation of their childhood and youth follows them to the end of their days so that whenever they think of their childhood they think only of their odd and unusual circumstances as if they are common. In these books, when comparisons and similes are made, so so often the old schooldays are the ones that come to mind.

Chance favours only the prepared mind. It was the favourite dictum of a science master at  his prep school who, having flogged him black and blue, suggested they make up their differences by taking off their clothes. (p.230)

Osnard had assumed his head prefect tone, though he had only ever been on the receiving end of it, usually before a beating. (p.257)

His voice had acquired the saw-edge of schoolboy sarcasm. (p.258)

‘Gave him the carrot, then waved the stick at him, sir,’ he reported in the Boy Hero voice he kept for his master. (p.268)

[All Fran can think of when Osnard takes her to a casino] was her first gymkhana when her pony which like every other pony in the world was called Misty took the first fence perfectly then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury. (p.327)

‘We shall need an enormous amount of stuff,’ Maltby went on, with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy looking forward to a new train-set. (p.356)

‘Intelligence is like exams. You always think the chap sitting next to you knows more than you do.’ (p.365)

Maltby, sitting like an obedient schoolboy at Mellors’ right hand… (p.376)

For a moment Fran is in her old school chapel, kneeling in the front pew and watching a huddle of handsome young priests as they chastely turn their backs to her… (p.381)


Now in this kind of school, everybody is famous for something, for being top at games or lessons or having a Duke for father or a Princess for a mother or being heir to some great business fortune. This attitude carries over into these later novels, where all the main characters are the well-known this or the legendary that. It is one of the strategies of the books to make you think that, in a country of 60 million people (Britain), only about 200 or so people really count and they all know each other and they’re all frightfully clever; that in Panama there may be swarms of blacks and half-breeds cluttering up the place, but there are only really a handful of chaps like you and me who appreciate the finer things of life, who understand the value of a well-made alpaca suit, appreciate buttons made from genuine tagua, wear shoes hand made by Ducker’s of Oxford (or possibly Lobbs of St James’s, p.120), who enjoy cucumber sandwiches and a spot of tiffin.

The scuffed leather porter’s chair, authenticated by local legend as Braithwaite’s very own. (p.42) [Braithwaite being the other partner in the tailoring firm of Pendel and Braithwaite, a legend in Savile Row and then a legend when they came out here to Panama.]

[Pendel’s assistant Marta made the cucumber sandwiches.] ‘I don’t know whether her renown has reached you.’ (p.44)

[When approaching the brothel where he is to meet Harry, Osnard finds ‘the fabled pushbutton’ of room number 8] (p.251)

[Rafi Domingo and Mickie Abraxas make] ‘a famous playboy pair’. (p.313)

Allow me to introduce a Brother who needs no introduction, so a big hand, please, for our wandering sage and longtime Servant of the Light, diver of the deep and explorer of the unknown, who has penetrated more dark places – dirty laughter – than any of us round this table today, the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah! (p.287)

Now we are in the tailor Pendel’s cutting room, known to customers and employees alike as the Holy of Holies. (p.385)

Of course, simply everyone in Panama knows who Harry Pendel is. Similarly, he introduces his friend, jailbird Mickie Abraxas, as ‘one of Panama’s few real heroes’ (p.85) and later as ‘Mickie Abraxas, the great underground revolutionary and secret hero of the students’ (p.121). We know the important people. We know what’s really going on. For the simple reason that we ourselves are the only important people: the only people who went to Eton or Winchester or Harrow or Shrewsbury…

Thus, Stormont is appalled when he hears that the committee back in London in charge of the project is being chaired by a certain Geoffrey Cavendish. Of course he knows him. They all know each other, that’s the point.

Cavendish the influence-peddlar, he was thinking. Cavendish the defence lobbyist. Cavendish the self-styled statesman’s friend. Ten per cent Cavendish… Boom-boom Cavendish, arms broker. Geoff the oil. (p.213)

And Luxmore doesn’t prepare one-page reports for his colleagues in Intelligence, he prepares ‘his famous one-page summaries for submission to his mysterious planners and appliers.’ (p.333)


‘Hell did the G stand for?’… ‘Hell’s the crest o’ the Prince of Wales hanging outside for?’… ‘Hell happened to that woman?’ (p.48) … ‘Hell did they give him that for?’  (p.51) … ‘Hell d’you do that for?’ (p.65) … ‘Hell did he swing it?’ (p.76) … ‘Hell’s that mean?’ (p.77)

Breviated words. Breviated sentences. Omit pronouns. Sound more pukka. ‘No time to dawdle, old man, Got an empire to run. Crack on. One more for the road? Won’t say no.’ Fat drunk merchant banker Jamie Pringle talks like this in Our Game. Most of the horrible drunks in The Honourable Schoolboy ditto. And this is how the central figure in Tailor talks, all the time – 458 pages of top hole, old chap, good fellah, hell you up to?

Public school tags & quotes

Like over-educated public schoolboys, characters in these later novels dress up their trite chatter and banal insights with tags and quotes, bits of Latin, rags of Shakespeare, religious stuff fondly remembered from morning chapel and the Founders Day service back at the old alma mater, what, what. Clichés. They talk in clichés.

‘Great wheel of time, eh?’
‘Indeed, sir. The one that spins and grinds and tramples all before it, they say,’ Pendel agreed. (p.47)

‘As I’m sure your good father will have told you many a time and oft.’ (p.54) Shakespeare.

‘For all the people to come to eat your sandwiches. So they increase and multiply and order up more suits.’ (p.110) Bible.

No gilded porticos or grand staircases to instil humility in lesser breeds without the law. (p.136) Kipling.

Pendel waited, as must all who only stand and wait. (p.155) Milton.

The quotes make the people using them feel and sound clever. But their real point is to emphasise that you’re one of the club, one of the chaps who’s at home with all these quotes and references and in-jokes and tags, one of us, people like us, properly educated at a bloody good traditional school, on the inside!


In the 1990s le Carré’s characters passed through some kind of threshold of restraint and good manners and now all his characters liberally say ‘fuck’. At first in the novel it is just the sweaty middle-aged men, then a so-called expert on international affairs says ‘fuck’ in every sentence for 3 or 4 pages, then the media mogul Hatry says ‘fuck’ in every sentence (‘Let’s fucking do it’ p.334) as does his creature ‘Cavendish’ and by the end of the book it seemed like everyone was saying ‘fuck’ in almost all situations: Louisa says ‘ Fuck you, Harry’, Osnard says ‘fuck’ all the time (‘Fuck do I care?’ p.201), even Harry ends up saying ‘fuck’. The repellent gossip columnist Teddy, viciously tells Harry, ‘How you can fuck that faceless half-breed is beyond me.’ (p.324)

[Policeman] ‘He fucks you, doesn’t he?’
[Marta] ‘No, he doesn’t fuck me.’ (p.384)

Louisa asks Marta whether Harry gave her money ‘for fucking?’ (p.387)

So ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck this’, ‘fuck that’ it is, then. (‘Do you mind putting that fucking thing out, please.’ p.341) Not really very funny. (‘This is my fucking patch, not his.’ p.378) In fact, quite wearing after a while.

‘Fuck you, Harry Pendel! Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you! Wherever you are. You’re a fucking cheat!’ (p.399)

More than that, the novel is in danger of using hyperbole – in this instance a blizzard of ‘f’ words – to paper over the gaps in the plot. In Our Game the academic Larry Pettifer was promoted by the incredibly posh narrator as being the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a fountain of brilliant, incisive insights into geopolitics etc etc. But when we actually hear him talk, he says things like:

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (p.138)

Which is hugely disappointing, buffoonish, thick and he carries on talking like a crude dimwit to the end of the novel. In this book there are several places where we get to hear the ‘thinking’ of the shadowy powers behind the scenes – and they, just as disappointingly, also turn out to be full of men saying ‘fuck’, as if that makes the ‘arguments’ more powerful.

The first of these scenes takes us to one of le Carré’s characteristic milieus, an exclusive men’s club full of oafish, swearing ex-patriates, one of whom – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – is singled out as some kind of expert about the future of the Canal. But what he actually does is drone on for pages about the ‘fucking Japs’ and the ‘fucking Chinks’ and the ‘fucking Yanks’, as if such dismissive swearing improves his ‘insights’. But there are no insights, no intelligence and, like a lot of other le Carré experts, he sounds from the start like a foul-mouthed, drunken idiot.

Here is Jonah explaining that the Japanese have, supposedly, developed a new technology for converting their poor quality oil sources into good quality oil, thus turning them into a world-shaking threat:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle… The Nips have found their magic emulsion. Which means that your tenure here in Paradise is scheduled to last about five minutes by the station clock. You pour it in, you shake it all about, and bingo, you’ve got oil like all the other boys. Fucking oceans of it. And once they’ve built their own Panama Canal, which is going to happen in the flick of a very small mayfly’s dick, they will be in the very happy position of being able to flood the fucking world with it.’ (p.290)

Bar room drunk. And, of course, wildly wrong: the Japanese were just about to embark on their twenty-year period of ‘stagflation, during which they have been eclipsed by other up-and-coming powers. ‘Then there are the prolonged scenes with the wicked media mogul Hatry ‘discussing’ his plans with his sidekick Cavendish – which amount to page after page of the crudest bar-room prejudices wrapped up in the coarsest swearing, in which they try to outdo each other with the potty-mouthed stupidity of their shouted opinions.

Quite possibly the men who run everything do shout ‘fuck’ at each other all the time, but as a rule of thumb, the more swearing there is in these novels, the less analysis or insight.


Religious imagery and vocabulary are also dragged in to help inflate events and descriptions, to make everything bigger sounding, louder and more significant.

The rows of ladies’ summer frocks like convent martyrs… (p.115)

The Blüthner household became his secret paradise, a shrine that he could only ever visit alone. (p.128)

In the beginning was the Hard Word, he told himself… Arthur Braithwaite, known to Louisa and the children as God. (p.277)

The Canal smouldered to the left of them and the mist coiled over it like an eternal dew. Pelicans dived through the mist and the air inside the car smelled of ship’s oil and nothing in the world had changed or ever would, Amen. (p.189). [Why the Amen? The opening phrases are brilliantly descriptive: why drag it round to a pointless orotund piece of bombast?]

When Harry goes to meet the US general in charge of the canal Louisa describes it as ‘a pilgrimage’. As he drives up the hillside of the US base he feels as if ‘he had experienced a vicarious promotion on his way to Heaven’ (p.196) When Osnard decides to try for the Foreign Office, he realises he has found his ‘Grail’ (p.233) Luxmore speaks of the righteousness of Osnard’s ‘high mission’ (p.245). When Maltby invites Fran for breakfast, that’s not how he phrases it; he asks

whether it would be an offence against Creation if he took her to the Pavo Real for a boiled egg. (p.382)

The rule of three

Classical authors writing about rhetoric formulated ‘the rule of three’. This is simply that, as a general rule in speaking and in writing, concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable and more memorable than in ones or twos, while four is too many.

Again and again, as you read through the novel, you feel that le Carré doesn’t analyse situations or people: he massages and shapes them, using strings of synonyms, repetitions, high-flown comparisons. The repetition gives the impression of that analysis or understanding is taking place, but it is purely rhetorical. Sometimes more or less, but often in tell-tale threes:

[Harry] was Robin Hood, bringer of hope to the oppressed, dispenser of justice. (p.89)

‘The people the other side of the bridge… the hidden rank and file… the strivers and believers…’ (p.89)

‘The sham, Andy, the veneer, the beneath the surface…’ (p.88)

‘[Louisa] greets, she covers, she papers over the cracks.’ (p.81)

[Harry’s philosophy aims…] To make it tolerable. To befriend it. To draw its sting. (p.78)

A long slow complicitous, insinuating, unnerving policeman’s shrug, expressing false ease, terrible powers and an immense store of superior knowledge. (p.99)

I’m here for ever. Banged up. In the womb. Doing time. Turn off engine, turn off air-con. Wait. Cook. Sweat. (p.115)

Mickie my failure, my fellow prisoner, my spy. (p.315)

My suits are not confrontational. They hint. They imply. They encourage people to come to you. They help you improve your life, pay your debts, be an influence in the world. (p.315)

‘These men of the world understand that. They know what it is to be unseen, unheard, unknown.’ (p.332)

‘All that is being offered here is a helping hand – the counsel of wise heads – a steadying influence upon a brilliantly managed operation.’ Suck of teeth, sad frown of troubled father, the placatory tone raised to entreaty. (p.380)

Here, take this, it’s Osnard’s money, Judas money, Mickie money, now it’s yours… Undertaker money. Police money. Chiquilla money. (p.383)

I am chosen. I am blessed. I walk on water. (p.399)

[Of Osnard sexually ‘taking’ the drunk Louisa] Then he took her very slowly and deliberately, using all his skills and hers. To shut her up. To tie a loose cannon to the deck. To get her safely into my camp before whatever battle lay ahead. Because it’s a maxim of mine that no reasonable offer should ever be passed up. Because I always fancied her. Because screwing one’s friends’ wives is never less than interesting. (p.4110

In these examples the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation of rhetoric is pleasantly satisfying, filling, gives you the sense you’ve learned or grasped something. But you haven’t. It is fine-sounding wind.

‘The Silent Opposers. Mickie’s Boys. Waiters-in-the-Wings,’ I call them. (p.94)

‘We’re not asking her to plant a bomb in the Palace o’ Herons, shack up with the students, go to sea with the fishermen.’ (p.262)

The rule of threes (ie how to pad out your writing but also make it sound weighty and meaningful) also applies to paragraphs.

The imp again. (1) The one that pops up to remind us that nothing goes away; (2) that a moment’s jealousy can spawn a lifetime’s fiction; (3) and that the only thing to do with a man once you’ve pulled him low is pull him lower. (p.90)

It sounds fine. Is any of it ‘true’ or worth a second thought? At other moments the rule is applied to make life choices or situations sound profound and serious. For example, Marta refuses to move back to her old house:

Can’t because her parents had lived where this building now stood.
Can’t because this was her Panama.
Can’t because her heart was with the dead. (p.130)

Interestingly, the rule works fine if the prose is not straining for pseudo-profundity. Simple descriptions often benefit from the rule, when used to create atmosphere, a mood, a scene.

A silence for spies while the waiter replenished their water glasses. A chink of ice cubes like tiny church bells. And a rush like genius in Pendel’s ears. (p.93)

But either way, there is a strong compulsion on every page to exaggerate, over-write, big up, and repeat, repeat, repeat things numerous times in different ways. Which partly explains why these novels feel so very long.

But she didn’t answer, didn’t stir, didn’t turn her head. (p.428)

Like the ‘legendary’ status given to everyone in the books, like the profuse swearing, the tags and quotes and the fake religious vocabulary, the addiction to saying three times what could more crisply and clearly be said once, lends the characters and plot a spurious importance. But these threes are merely one sub-set of the dominating quality of this prose style, which is:

Bombast and exaggeration

Present in and dominating every paragraph, every page, every description and piece of dialogue, is the overwhelming use of bombast, exaggeration and hyperbole – high sounding but empty of information. Rich in attitude – poor in insight.

The Club Unión is where the super-rich of Panama have their presence on earth. (p.73)

This kind of heavy-handed facetiousness was rampant throughout The Honourable Schoolboy, set among the ‘legendary’ hard-drinking journos of Hong Kong, but it becomes really ubiquitous, in fact it is the chief characteristic of the novels after The Secret Pilgrim. The tone of one, very narrow class or type. It is at its most pronounced when le Carré is describing actual upper-class toffs but it isn’t limited to them and in this novel extends, implausibly, to the other not-public school characters, such as half-Jewish Borstal Boy from the East End, Harry. When Harry is deciding whether or not to accept Osnard’s offer, he finds he can’t get into bed with his wife. How is this little decision couched? He

leaves his bed to the pure in heart. (p.124)

When Harry arrives at his office and goes out back to say hello to the girls who sew the suits, he exchanges words with them like ‘a great commander on the eve of battle’ (p.133). At the hotel where he introduces Osnard to his circle, he talks like this:

‘Allow me to present my good friend Andy Osnard, one of Her Majesty’s favourite sons recently arrived from England to restore the good name of diplomacy.’ (p.74)

When Harry really starts embellishing his reports, he is

now genius, now slavish editor of his imaginings, master of his cloud kingdom, prince and menial in one… An explosion, Harry boy, an explosion of the flesh. A rage of power, a swelling up, a letting go, a setting free. A bestriding of the earth, a proving of God’s grace, a settling of debts. The sinful vertigo of creativity, of plundering and stealing and distorting and reinventing, performed by one transported, deliriously consenting, furious adult with his atonement pending and the cat swishing its tail. (p.318)

And when he confronts the body of the dead Mickie, he knows that

Harry Pendel, tailor, purveyor of dreams, inventor of people and places of escape, had murdered his own creation. (p.427)

It is almost like a challenge, like a party game where you have to talk for a minute converting every single phrase you use into the most bloated, pompous, pretentious, overblown, hyperbolic bombast you can think of – and score double if you can slip in an old tag from the Bible, Shakespeare or the more obvious English poets, along with as many public school idioms as possible – ‘good chap, stout fellow, good man, plays with a straight bat, sound chap, wonderful fellah, she’s a bit of alright, shouldn’t mind old boy’.

I laughed out loud when Harry is driving back from talking with Osnard, having decided to work for him, and the text therefore describes him as ‘the Great Decider.’ Not an atom of text must go uninflated. The next day, in his cutting room, Harry begins work on a suit and le Carré does – what? – take the mickey? express affection? – when he describes him as:

The Mature Man of Affairs, the Great Weigher of Arguments and Cool Assessor of Situations. (p.134)

A set of three grand abstract nouns, in capitals. Even little details are inflated. The scrambler phone to London is known as ‘the digital link with God’ (p.228). Luxmore has a phone in his office which ‘links him with other immortals on Whitehall’s Mount Olympus.’ (p.241)

There is an explosion of this kind of thing when Harry is called to an audience with the President of Panama to measure him for his new uniform. The capitalised epithets fly so thick and fast I realised that this scene and their use are meant to be funny.

The Sun King himself, the All Pervading, the Shining One, the Divine Misser of Hours…His Sublimity strode forward… the Immortal One.. his Radiance…his Supremacy… his Immensity… His Transparency… the World’s Greatest Leader… the Master of the Earth… the Lord of the Universe, the Grand Master of Panama’s political chess-board… the Keeper of the Keys to Global Power… His Luminosity… (pp.154-57)

So is that why they’re used so liberally elsewhere? Is this kind of laboured facetiousness what my English teacher used to call ‘attempts at humour’? Thus, when Osnard becomes ‘the official Canal Watcher’ is that, in and of itself, supposed to be funny? Or when Cavendish explains that drinking booze at lunchtime is frowned upon these days in America, he doesn’t put it like that, he says:

In today’s Born Again Washington, said Geoff Cavendish, alcohol at lunchtime was regarded as the Mark of the Beast. (p.338)

Why the hyperbole, why the grandiose reference to religion/the Bible? Why can nothing be simply said? If it’s intended to be funny, it isn’t – it’s tiresome.

Mealy mouthed

Defined by the dictionary as ‘not willing to tell the truth in clear and simple language’. Le Carré’s verbosity, his fluency, his unstoppable torrent of lyric descriptions and multiple descriptors, amounts eventually to a sustained evasion of telling it straight. Here he is being characteristically facetious about an important politician in Panama.

The peerless Ernesto Delgado, Washington-approved straight arrow and Preserver of the Golden Past. (p.108)

The prose gets up on stilts and uses capital letters, legendary nicknames, religious quotes, public school banter and exaggeration to such an extent that it eventually becomes quite hard to understand what’s going on. I read the three pages which describe the media mogul, Hatry’s, plan to support the US invasion of Panama several times, but it is depicted in such a sweary, hyperbolical and overblown dialogue that I still don’t really understand his motivation. And at moments like this the suspicion arises that the bombastic style and dialogue is deployed so widely because there often is no reason behind the conversations or the plot. (It is telling that the entire character of sweary, shouty Hatry, his entourage and conspiracy, is dropped from the movie. The plot doesn’t, in fact, need it.)

These later novels are written in such a tone of permanent sarcastic facetiousness that it begs the question: if the author doesn’t take his own characters or stories seriously – if, in fact, he devotes a good deal of energy to taking the mickey out of them, exaggerating, stylising and mocking them – why should we?


Whether you like le Carré’s later novels comes down to whether you enjoy the ponderous facetiousness, the heavy humour, the showy bombast and the slang and banter of the tremendously posh public school characters which they describe. If so, you will enjoy the hundreds of pages in which you are marinaded in their pukka prose style and upper-class attitudes.

The plots are clever. The background research pays off. The locations are colourful. The tradecraft is very believable. The sophisticated structuring, the use of flashbacks, memories and key moments to create depth and colour to the characters, all work really well. And there are felicities of description and phrasing on every page. But for me these achievements are cancelled out by the heavy-handed and over-the-top style, by the permanent boom of the upper-class bombast, which outweighs the book’s many, many virtues.

The movie

The novel was made into a movie, released in 2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan as Osnard and Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as his American wife, Louisa. Interestingly, le Carré co-wrote the screenplay and was Executive Producer.

The most obvious change required by the movie version of any novel is to transform the lead characters so they can be played by bankable stars, and to trim and simplify the plot so it can be understood by teenagers in Iowa. Thus vast swathes of the upper class content and attitude is ditched; Osnard is no longer an impossibly posh, fat, sweating old Etonian: he is Pierce Brosnan. My son watched it with me and made three penetrating observations:

1. Why do they have to swear so much? Brosnan effs and blinds all the way through, setting the tone of the film early on when he watches a pretty girl dancing in a hotel and says, ‘I’d fuck that.’ When Harry is reluctant to go along with his plans, Brosnan says, ‘Don’t be a cunt, Harry.’ And early on, explaining spying, he says, ‘It’s like oral sex – it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.’ Funny? No. Embarrassing? Yes. Lowering? Very.

2. It’s a bit ‘rapey’. Both my kids use this word to describe men who are creepily lecherous, constantly making suggestive remarks, touching, looking or talking inappropriately. Thus Brosnan talks about ‘fucking’ more or less every woman he meets and – very improbably – he does. Posh Law Lord’s daughter Francesca is the only woman on the embassy staff and has maybe two minutes of screen time before she is being fucked very hard standing up in his apartment, later on being seen being fucked very hard lying down on his bed. It must be very depressing being a female actor. Two or three moments of rolling her eyes at Brosnan’s suggestive banter and then we are watching her boobs bobble about as he ruts her.

Brosnan tries to chat up Jamie Lee Curtis (as Harry’s wife, Louisa) every time he sees her, creepily stroking her back on a family outing with Harry and their kids, and then grabbing her breasts when she comes to his apartment late at night, before pushing her forcefully onto the bed into a pre-rape position.

Both Francesca and Louisa are supposedly highly intelligent professionals – a senior embassy official and a senior figure in the Canal Administration, respectively. But their main role in the film is to swoon when the male hero comes in sight and then get their breasts out. The ease with which they are both seduced is so unlikely as to make the whole film seem a preposterous male fantasy. When this film was released, the writer (le Carré) and director (Boorman) were both about 69 years old. It seems like a blast from an old-fashioned, much more sexist past, as my son was quick to point out. But it is true enough to the spirit of the book in which various lecherous old men try to seduce young, old, married or single women. At Louisa’s dinner party one of Panama’s eminent men spends his time working his shoeless foot up Louisa’s legs towards her crotch, while ogling the married woman opposite,

squinting down the front of Donna Oakley’s dress which is cut on the lines of Emily’s dresses, breasts pushed upwards like tennis balls and the cleavage pointing due southward to what her father when he was drunk had called the industrial area. (p.175)


3. Is it meant to be funny? Like the book, the film thinks it is funny, but is so heavy-handed, crude and violent as to be gobsmackingly humourless. When Harry measures Osnard for his suit there’s a moment when he asks whether Osnard ‘dresses’ to the left or the right. As in the book, Osnard says, ‘Never know where the bloody thing is. Bobs about like a windsock’ (p.61) and the film pauses there for the audience to laugh its pants off. In fact the film likes this joke so much that it has Harry repeat it down the phone to his wife, Louisa, who laughs like a drain. But is it funny? No. Just crude.

Brosnan insists on having his secret meetings with Harry in a brothel. Here he can lie on a bed and watch porno films while Harry spins his lies. At one moment Brosnan pops a coin in the slot and the whole whorehouse bed starts vibrating and the miserable Harry has to continue recounting his stories while his voice oscillates absurdly. My son and I discussed this: presumably the writer and director thought this made for a funny scene. But in fact Harry’s unhappiness, Brosnan’s coarseness, and the hard core porn film which we see a lot of in the background, are the opposite of light and witty. They are crude and heavy. It is the regular recurrence of scenes of sweaty lechery, interspersed with scenes of sickening violence, which dominate the film’s mood and undermine attempts at lightness or humour.

In the very last scene Brosnan has made his getaway with the money and is on a charter plane flying out of Panama. The pretty stewardess plumps down in the seat in front of him and Brosnan uses the same line he used to chat up Francesca from the Embassy: ‘There are two ways we can do this, wait until the last minute to have a passionate affair and not regret having done it sooner; or go for it now and find out whether we like it or not.’ a) Those alternatives are not really relevant to a short air flight b) presumably we’re meant to smile and tut at the old dog up to his waggish tricks; presumably it is meant to be a sharp, witty ending to the film. And it is an appropriate end to the film, but not in the way its makers intended – instead it tends to confirm the uneasy feeling you’ve had all along that this is an out-of-date, dingily lecherous, middle-aged man’s fantasy.


The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré was published in 1996 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes and references are from the 1997 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford and personally recruited – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has seduced his girlfriend, Emma, too, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three, expensively-educated but stupid upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes (1996)

It was getting hard to recognise myself. There was Kasim, too, the sudden impulse to seize his legs and throw him over the pulpit into the sea. And I was just a very ordinary young man, a mineralogist with a degree in economics…It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. For God’s sake, I wasn’t a killer. (p.276)

Innes’ final novel and, at 426 pages, the longest and strangest of the lot. It has all the strengths which make him compelling and intriguing, along with many of the weaknesses which make him frustrating and perplexing and have probably helped him go so very out of fashion:

  • Exotic foreign locations First half set in Romania just as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship was collapsing (December 1989); second half set in lawless Aghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (February 1989).
  • Everybloke narrator Paul Cartwright, who works for a mineral and metals company, the oddly-named Resource Potentials, reclaiming scrap in developing or ex-communist countries.
  • Everybloke narrator’s personal problems His mum & dad moved to Australia, where his dad died and his mum took up with a wife-beating b*stard, Kasim, while young Paul was packed off to boarding school. The Traumatic Moment in the past (which dogs so many Innes’ protagonists) is when Paul goes sailing with Kasim; the boat gets caught in a storm and is rolling madly and suddenly Paul has the urge to throw Kasim overboard, and then there’s a moment when he could have reached out and helped pull Kasim back onboard – but he doesn’t – he watches the waves break over him, he watches Kasim drown. Nightmares wake him in various foreign hotels. [The thriller protagonist must be psychologically scarred.]
  • Gothic family secrets The novel starts with Paul meeting an ageing dissident Romanian writer – Mihai Kikinda, and there is a lot of tortured, evasive non-communication about Mihai and his wife, Ana, and about their, ‘daughter’ Vikki, who Paul fell in love with years ago, on his previous trips to Romania when he was a teenager. Through the fog of evasions it seems as if Vikki isn’t Mihai and Ana’s daughter at all but was adopted: Paul is stunned: Who from? Why? Nobody will tell us.
  • Sex What the narrator does tell us about the mysterious Vikki is:
    • that since childhood she’s been obsessed with dancing, solitary dancing, going through steps and motions in the privacy of her bedroom or the house’s living room
    • that her need for solitariness feeds into a gift she has for computers: she recently told her adoptive father she has begun to hack into government computers (p.38)
    • that she took the narrator’s virginity. She ‘raped him’. They were both about 17, they were dancing together and, at the end of the dance, hot and sweaty she forced him to the floor, unbuttoned his flies etc. Innes has always had a robust, straightforward heterosexual eye for the ladies and over the years has described male desire in all its glory and humiliation: for every game-hunter’s daughter ripping open her blouse and pulling the narrator’s head to her breasts (The Big Footprints), there’ve been episodes like his going to bed with Barbara Ward but being unable to get an erection (Target Antarctica) or being interrupted just as things were getting steamy (Medusa). Innes isn’t salacious or pornographic; he just notices, as most men do, when a woman’s top highlights her breasts or when her nipples show through her blouse – notices it, notes it, before moving on to think about the weather, or reefing in the sails, or estimating the flight time to the destination. It’s part of his narrator’s life, but not an all-consuming part.

Anti-suspense The most characteristic feature of Innes’ novels is the pathological inability of anyone to tell anyone else what is going on. There’s lots of dialogue in which people seem go out of their way to be evasive and non-committal and the text refers again and again to the same four or five physical gestures: pause, hesitate, shrug, shake the head, go silent.

He paused… I shook my head… A pause.. He fell silent… He hesitated.. He didn’t answer that for a moment… Silence then… He was silent for a time… He shook his head… He didn’t say anything for a long time… He hesitated… He shrugged.. Mihai shrugged… He shook his head… He shrugged…

On page after page after page. With these kinds of evasions Iain Ward spent the two preceding novels completely failing to explain to the different narrators why the devil they were sailing to the Antarctic, and Iris Sunderby systematically refused to clarify her relationship with Angel Gomez or Eduardo and then Pete Kettil refused to tell anyone what he’d seen out on the ice. Innes characters shrug so much I’m amazed their heads don’t fall off and go rolling across the floor.

The plot

The dissident writer

Paul Cartwright is in Constantza, a port town in south Romania, on a job to assess the scrap value of the port workings and rusty old ships. But he has taken advantage of the trip to visit the old dissident writer, Mihai Kikinda, who he used to visit when he was first brought to the country by his uncle Jamie. During the visit there’s a knock at the door and Mihai hussles Paul behind a curtain, then opens the door to a brutal Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who asks him where’ he’s sent his latest dissident pamphlet to be published, then starts to strangle him. Paul comes out of hiding to attack the policeman but in the midst of the struggle Mihai stabs the cop, killing him.

Paul and Mihai throw the body off their balcony onto a passing lorry, then Paul drives in a state of high anxiety towards the capital, Bucharest. Mihai has given him instructions to drop off the text of his latest pamphlet at a printer, then make contact with one Luca, a Jewish dissident, who will help him.

Before and after the killing we learn in Innes’ roundabout fashion about Mihai’s wife, Ana, who, at a grand assembly of artists and poets in front of Ceaușescu, was foolhardy enough to protest the regime’s brutality, and especially its treatment of her husband and got as far as slapping the dictator in the face before being dragged off to be tortured. Mihai eventually shamefacedly admits that Ana was operated on to make her infertile, allowed back to her sorrowing husband, before being arrested, disappearing again and is probably now dead. We also hear about Mihai’s numerous arrests, tortures and beatings, painting a grim enough portrait of Ceaușescu’s Romania.

But it isn’t all communist brutality, as Paul finds himself describing his unhappy childhood and his recurring nightmare of watching his bully step-father drown. We learn that Paul, on his frequent trips to Romania, watched little Vikki grow into a young woman and then was astonished when she took his virginity in this very house (p.68). She is now, apparently, a computer hacker and was smuggled out of the country towards the East, into Asia, by some ‘sponsor’.

This is a lot of information to process in just 40 or so pages. Paul drives the dead Securitate man’s car to his hotel where he receives a telegram from the boss of Resource Potentials, Alex Goodbody, instructing him that his next trip will be to central Asia to assess scrap opportunities in the former Soviet Republics, and to replace Zelinsky, an RP employee, whose dead body is being ‘brought down’ from the interior. Paul broods. What did Zelinsky die of? What is the assignment, exactly?

The overthrow of Ceaușescu

Still in a sweat of fear, Paul drives to Bucharest where he checks in to a high-class hotel for foreigners, and gets chatting to a French freelance news photographer, Antoine Caminade, who fills him in on the political situation ie Ceaușescu’s rule is collapsing. In fact it collapses the next day, a few days before Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu calls a mass rally in Bucharest’s main square to rail against the dissidents who have been fomenting revolt in the provincial town of Timișoara, only to be horrified when the vast crowd in front of him starts chanting insults and abuse. He and his wife flee the building and are helicoptered away, while disorder takes over the streets.

Meeting Anamaria

It is against this backdrop that Cartwright gets a coded message from Luca, Mihai’s contact, telling him to be outside the house with the tame boar in the garden (!) at 10pm. Once there, a shambling figure walks over to his car, gives him the password and gets in. It turns out to be a very bossy, very capable young woman who Luca has assigned to help Cartwright escape because she herself must flee the country. He notices she has a badly disfiguring hairlip and a limp from a damaged leg, but this makes her take no crap from anyone. She demonstrates her toughness by the unflinching way she attacks guards at an Army checkpoint then looses off a Kalashnikov at them as a thoroughly rattled Cartwright screeches the car off into the night.

But there is no high-speed car chase; this is Romania, where even the police can’t afford petrol. Paul discovers the young firebrand’s name is Anamaria, and she navigates him to the town of Tulcea, on the edge of the Danube marshes, where it is arranged for them to be smuggled aboard a Greek merchant ship. Here they rendezvous with a young fisherman, Rudi, son of a contact of Luca’s. He ferries them out to an island in one of the many channels through the marshes, and there follows a scene which is very Innes in being wildly improbable and somehow very powerful.

Rudi leaves Paul and Anamaria in the depths of winter on a reed island with a foodbag cobbled together by his mother, matches and some plastic sheets, and that’s it! For 36 hours, two nights and a day, they are thrown into an extreme survivalist situation, trying to light a fire, trying to cook fish they catch, and then huddling together for warmth under a plastic sheet while snow falls on them. It’s a great opportunity for some powerful writing about raw winter nature and human endurance. Why are they there? The only safe place to hide out from the police while they wait for the ship which will take them to freedom.

Anamaria’s story

But also, and typically Innes, the narrator relentlessly badgers the girl about her background, and she for her part squirms and evades for page after page. Eventually, after lots of shrugging and hesitating and long silences, he extracts the full story: Anamaria is in fact Mihai and Ana’s natural child, who was taken away from them at an early age and dumped in a state orphanage. (That is the reason Mihai and Ana adopted Vikki.)

Anamaria had a hard upbringing, running away at various times and living on the streets, which meant prostituting herself from an early age. She was passed on to a gang of pimps and then into the control of one Gregor, a real monster, who pimped her out and raped her continually. But it was only when he took the baby which resulted from all this sex, stole her baby away while she was still breast-feeding it, never to be seen again that he snapped. The next time Gregor was raping her, Anamaria killed him with a long hairpin inserted into his coccyx. Ugh. (It is typical of Innes’s narrative strategy that the rapist is made to be Gregor Dinca, brother of the Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who we saw being killed in the opening chapter. Always the characters come in family sets in Innes.)

Anamaria made her way back to her natural parents who didn’t want her, her ugly hairlip, her limp, her shattered body, preferring the beautiful, nimble, clever dancer, Vikki. And so she was out on the streets again, homeless and hussling – more or less her condition when she approaches Cartwright.

Suffering women

Once again, as at the core of Target Antarctica, Innes has embedded a terrible story about the appalling lives, the terrible suffering and abuse, which women can be subjected to in our day and age. It is put down, along with the sterilisation of Ana, as a documentary fact, an incident in the narrative, like many others; it is up to us what we make of it, what value we give it, whether to be disgusted or outraged or whatever – but it is noticeable, this awareness or concern and the urge to record, the plight of women in so much of the modern world.

On board the Baba Tonka

Rudi turns up and ferries them back from the island to a derelict quay while they wait for the ship to arrive. When it does he rows them out to it, they climb a rope ladder up the side, Cartwright finds himself agreeing to pay Anamaria’s passage as well as his ($50 for him, $25 for her) and collapses asleep in the mercifully warm clean cabin he’s been given. There’s a small interlude when she appears at his bedside worrying that Customs will search the ship and what to do about the Kalashnikov we know she has rolled up in her bedclothes. ‘Throw it over the side,’ Paul says and turns over and back to sleep.


They bid the captain farewell and walk out into the bustling streets of Istanbul. Earlier, the captain of the merchant ship had let him use the ship-to-shore radio, over which his boss, Alex, in London, had given him instructions on who to meet and where to pick up the plane ticket for his flight on to Pakistan. Cartwright picks them up then checks into one of the swankiest hotels in town, with a breath-taking view over the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Golden Horn. He walks the streets and, returning to the hotel, recognises Anamaria amid the crowd. She is on the streets again, nursing her cash for a flight East, to Alma-Ata (characteristically, it’s not completely explained why).

Generously, Cartwright invites her for a meal – but she hasn’t got anything to wear – she can borrow something – but she needs a bath – she can have a bath in his room etc — and it leads to her walking, amazed, into his luxury hotel room – this harelipped, limping, used and abused street urchin – Cartwright running a massive bubble bath for her, giving her chilled champagne in the bath, then giving her lovely pyjamas and a nightgown to wear to sit on the balcony eating caviar then steak as the sun sets. At one point he’s chatting on about something, looks round and realises she’s fast asleep. Tenderly, he lifts and carries her to the other of the twin beds, tucks her up then goes back to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. In the middle of the night he’s awoken by her kissing his hand then pressing something into it, he begins to murmur something but the door has shut and she has disappeared out of his life. (Forever?) Next morning he wakes to discover he is grasping a small gilt crucifix.

Briefing on Central Asia

Cartwright checks out of the hotel and takes a cab to the airport. In the departure lounge he is surprised to recognise Antoine Caminade from Bucharest. He walks right up to Cartwright and makes no bones about it – he’s following him. For the length of the flight from Istanbul to Karachi (pages 206 to 224) Caminade engages in a long rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue: this includes the fact that his grandfather, Pierre Caminade, died while exploring up in the Pamir mountains, north of Afghanistan, following in the alleged footsteps of two hardy Victorian women explorers, until he was lost in a snowstorm, dug out a snow-hole near the Khunjerab Pass, wrote up a diary of his adventures, before dying of exposure, the diary found by rescuing Gurkhas and eventually mailed home to his wife and for young Antoine to stumble upon and read.

But Caminade’s monologue also extends over lots of other issues affecting Central Asia – from the folly of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the warlike mentality of the Mujahideen, with repeated emphases on the wickedness of Stalin’s policy of relocating entire populations throughout the region, and the horror of Soviet policy in Chechnya. Between him and Cartwright the text makes lots of references to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as to the various mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Karakorams and so on.

In short the flight serves to indicate that Caminade is up to something (typically, we aren’t told what) and has a typically Innesesque family story (his dead grandfather leaving a ‘secret diary’ which contains hints or suggestions of… what?) along with a great deal of background information on the part of the world Cartwright is flying into. All useful preparation for part two of this long story.

Cartwright lands in Karachi and goes to a good hotel. He meets the contact Alex Goodbody had told him about, who gives him tickets and preparation for the internal flight north to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Here these is more local description, before he is being shaken awake in his hotel bedroom by his local contact, Abdullah, telling him he has to run to meet the man he’s come this far to locate, one Laun Said.

The train chase

Laun Said is the native name adopted by a Welsh Army officer, at one time (apparently) a Brigadier. He mentions (and brings to mind) the ‘Great Game’, the term every public schoolboy uses to refer to the competition between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia to control Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, gateway to the great northern plain of India.

Laun’s native fixer wakes Cartwright from a deep sleep in his hotel, hussles him into his clothes and drives him quickly to a crowded market place in Peshawar. Here Laun Said turns up and plunges the text into a panic as he says, ‘Get in the bloody Land Rover,’ and off they drive at top speed to intercept the puffing old steam engine which has just set off to climb up through the Khyber Pass. Throughout this breakneck, harepin-bend, terrifying high-speed drive up into the mountains, Laun, in typical Innes fashion, refuses to say what Cartwright’s mission is or why they’ve been appointed to meet, nor does he tell us why they’re driving after the train in such mad fashion.

A long silence… Another shrug… The answer was another shrug… (page 236)

Eventually they park on the road near a siding ahead of the train and, just as it passes them, a man in native costume jumps off, comes running towards Cartwright followed by shots. The man nearly makes it before being hit and skidding forwards over the rubble of the siding, while Laun calmly takes sight and shoots two of the shooters on the train. One of them falls off and under the wheels of the following carriage, being immediately sliced in half in a squelch of blood and guts.

Then the train has passed a corner and is gone. Laun comes ambling back across the rubble to confirm what he feared. His man is dead. He was Ginger McCrae, his best friend, the two of them had been on many dangerous missions together. Laun thinks the assassins were from the Chechen mafia, revenge for some former operation. They drive up the trail a bit more to an old British graveyard and here Laun gets Cartwright to help him bury McCrae in a shallow grave. Before doing so Laun closes the corpse’s eyes and kisses him on the cheeks and lips. A little later, when they’ve got to a town, Laun jokingly says their host offers everything, food, drink, girls, boys, to which Cartwright emphatically replies that he is not interested and he is not homosexual. There is one other fleeting reference to the fact Cartwright has realised that Ginger and Laun had been lovers.

— Like lots of other sexual references in Innes this is mentioned, noted, and then the plot continues. I admire his acceptance of the sexual side of human nature. These may be preposterously Gothic adventure yarns, but the author is neither salacious or moralistic about sexuality. This is human nature; OK; now, what’s next?

Laun Said

Laun and Cartwright drive on up the mountain into the Khyber Pass, while Cartwright continues his luckless attempts to find out what the hell is going on. ‘How did Zelinsky die?’ he asks. ‘Exposure in the snow,’ Laun replies. ‘What is my assignment?’ ‘Haven’t a clue, old boy,’ say Laun. ‘Got to find out what Ginger was trying to tell me. Here, see this scrap of paper; it has something scratched on it before Ginger jumped off the train: What do you think he was trying to tell us?’

And thus, not too subtly, we feel Innes shifting the narrative from being (at least a bit) rooted in a sort of mundane reality (scrap metal dealing), onto pure John Buchan adventure yarn territory – our hero the passenger of a battered Land Rover driving up the main Khyber Pass road towards the Afghan border with a heavily disguised British Army officer, in pursuit of some undefined mystery. Come on, chaps.

Ahmed Khan

They stop at a walled citadel – an opportunity for Innes to tell us about the design and purpose of these buildings, as strongholds for the numerous competing warlords who are the region’s natural rulers – for Laun to ask the whereabouts of the master. He is further along the road at Landi Khotal, and here they meet Ahmed Khan at his well-defended warehouse. There is a typically evasive Q&A about Zelinsky’s mission: Khan thinks he was heading north-east and it was something to do with jewels. Thinks.

Laun parks the car at a spot along the highway with a stunning view of the mountains. He thinks Ginger had come down from another mountain range, further to the east. Is Cartwright willing to chance it? Chance what, Cartwright asks. Obviously Laun doesn’t tell us: ‘He shook his head, sitting silent and very still.’ But Cartwright agrees to follow Laun’s hunch.

Laun drives them back down to the plain, through Jamrud, through Peshawar and into Islamabad. There Cartwright spends a bad-tempered week wondering what the hell’s going on. All he knows is that Laun is buying snow equipment, thermals, masks, skis, the lot. And somehow that perishing Frenchman, Antoine, manages to track him down.

In an intense 1-on-1 interview, Antoine discloses that he’s found the final pages of his grandfather’s diary in the hands of a storyteller in the souk. He knows Cartwright has been making enquiries about jewels, about lapis lazuli, rubies and sapphires. Does he know why Zelinsky was murdered? No. Does he know why McCrae was murdered? No. Does he know why his company wants the jewels? No. Caminade offers him the final pages of the diary for $20 million.

(All the way through, the evidence has been that Cartwright is more than a humble mineralogist and now he phones Goodbody in London and conveys Caminade’s message in code. He seems to be morphing, in front of our eyes, into a special agent of some kind.)

Into the mountains

Cartwright is shaken awake by Laun. Russians are making enquiries about them, maybe the KGB, maybe the mafia, who knows. Hurry. They bundle downstairs, into the Land Rover to find a new character, Kuki, an Urdu taxi driver, and they’re off on another long distance drive, through Peshawar and right up the road towards the Malakand Pass. They rough it as the cold becomes more intense, snow almost blocking the pass. Once over they stop for hot coffee and Laun has a pee. Cartwright notices with shock that his penis is mutilated. Bunch of Tibetan guards on the China-Tibet pass, apparently; began hacking at him thinking he was a Russian till the Chinese guards arrived and saved his life. Atrocity. Danger. Fear.

The story of the old Buddhist

They are marooned in the next settlement, below the Shandur Pass, while the snow is cleared further up and here Camanide catches up with them. This time he tells them a long story which gets to the heart of the plot: His grandfather was travelling through the mountains in the footsteps of two lady explorers when he stumbled across a Buddhist stupa almost buried in the sand. As he excavated it he came across the mummified body of a Chinese man with a leather satchel. Inside the satchel was an account by the man, a Buddhist monk, who had travelled far and wide. It contained a description of a mysterious lost valley, which he nicknames Nirvana, long and narrow with an emerald-coloured lake at the end. If you stand at the right place at the right hour a tall mountain in the north-west appears completely black. In a crack in that mountain is the gateway to the home of the troglodytes. These are tall, fair-haired strangers who carry double-edged axes and speak an unknown tongue. In the depths of the mountain is the shrine to their fearsome thunder god with a huge hammer.

a) The text has prepared us for this rather amazing revelation on a several occasions, having the narrator remember stories about ancient Russia and the tradition that it was founded by blonde Vikings from Sweden and that these wanderers roamed far and near, founding Rus and the city of Kiev, penetrating as far as Constantinople.
b) There had been hints scattered throughout the text of a lost kingdom or scattered references to hobgoblins and troglodytes. Now the whole narrative has exploded into an unashamed homage to the lost world genre, as pioneered by Henry Rider Haggard in the 1880s.

Just to push it way over the bounds of plausibility, Caminade’s parting shot is that the ruler of this lost world is said to have a sultana who dances for him, a beautiful slender girl who dances night and day. Of course – it must be Vikki, from part one of the story when it still inhabited the real world. Now she has morphed along with the rest of the narrative, to become part of a fairy story!

The lost river

Did I mention the lost river? At several points in their earlier conversations, Laun had mentioned that the Russians began two road tunnels under the Pamirs to provide access to Afghanistan. Tunnel two was completed and used extensively. Tunnel one is less well-known because the Russians abandoned it half built. This is because they discovered an underground river running across the intended route. A hot underground river, as if fed by hot springs. Does this recall Rider Haggard or Jules Verne? Up in the mountains Laun and Cartwright blunder on through snowstorms, abandoning the Land Rover and proceeding on skis with Everest-style one-man tents. Conditions get really rough until they can’t see any way forward, with only the GPS and the co-ordinates Caminade gave them to guide them.

(Caminade had wanted to make a deal with our guys: his translation of his grandfather’s notes, descriptions of the magic valley and the Black Mountain, in return for letting him come along. After he’s left, Laun and Cartwright debate it. But amid all the detail of his story, Caminade had mentioned that he’d got a professor in Peshawar to translate the dead monk’s text. Laun and Cartwright both realise this academic must have circulated or at least mentioned the text and the secret valley, along with its rumoured treasure; somehow word had got to the KGB or Chechens, resulting in Ginger’s death and Laun being followed. On this basis (and for the simple reason that he’s French) Laun refuses to take Caminade with them. He and Cartwright set off in the middle of the night to elude him.)

Now, days later, snuggled up close to each other for body warmth in the tent high in the snowed-in mountains:

a) Cartwright parallels the situation with the night he spent bundled together with Anamaria in the freezing cold island of reeds in the Danube delta
b) Cartwright nervously worries about Laun’s homosexuality, mentioned a few times earlier – but Laun doesn’t try anything
c) Instead, Laun tells him another tall tale. This time Laun was a young man travelling through the area and manages to hitch a lift from a metal contractor up to the tunnel diggings, where he helps the contractor unload and then – ta-da! – changes into the Soviet officer’s uniform he just happens to have smuggled in the lorry – bluffs his way past the guard at the entrance, and gets himself given a guided tour of the long well-engineered tunnel that goes thousands of metres into the mountain, until, sure enough, they come to the river bed, open and revealed with a walkway across it. It is at this moment that Laun sees a stocky blonde-haired, blue-eyed underground Viking people. He shouts across the river in an unknown language. The Russian engineer shouts back that they’re closing the tunnel off. The Viking nods in approval and disappears into a crack in the wall.

If I was Cartwright I might have shouted, ‘Well, why the devil didn’t you tell me any of this before?’ But Laun has fallen asleep. As usual in Innes, the characters know almost all the story beforehand, they just refuse to tell anyone else about it. Next day they stagger on through a permanent blizzard, several times barely escaping falling over cliff edges or into crevasses, all very filmic, until the snow lightens for a moment and they can see the suggestion of Nirvana Valley beneath them and a tall dark mountain looming out of the gloom. They press on and camp for another 48 hours in a howling blizzard. When it stops – they are woken by voices outside their tent. Laun tries Pathan and Urdu, no response, Cartwright tries some simple Swedish he picked up working with Swedish navvies in Canada – and the voices respond, telling them to stay there till they return. They have met the Lost Viking Tribe!

In the underground kingdom

They are led down into the mysterious underground kingdom in scenes reminiscent of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Rider Haggard – are given the kind of tour of the facilities all characters are given in pulp sci-fi stories, having it all explained to them, how the thermal energy is converted to the electricity that powers the fluorescent lighting everywhere, and the lifts and the computer terminals (!) and the radio aerial. And there to greet them – in a scene beyond parody – is that damn Frenchman Antoine again. Turns out he had been there once before and knew the way into the front entrance (Why didn’t he tell them? Why doesn’t anyone tell anyone anything in an Innes novel?)

But what Laun and Cartwright quickly discover is there is trouble in Paradise. As so often in the lost world genre, outsiders arrive in an idyllic secret kingdom to find it isn’t so idyllic after all, and their arrival brings a smouldering situation to a head.

Turns out the current king, Ali Khan, is an outsider who made himself powerful as Chief Secretary before almost certainly murdering the old king and marrying Vikki. For – beyond the bounds of the wildest fantasy – it is indeed Vikki, Paul’s old friend from Romania, who is the now the aloof and powerful Sultana of Nirvana. And Vikki has secured the rescue of Anamaria, the street urchin he shared those nights with on the reed island, finding her and having her flown to join her in her underground kingdom. (Did Anamaria know this was in the offing when she made her hasty escape from Romania? Why was she set on getting to Alma-Ata, had she had word from Vikki? And I thought she was meant to bitterly resent the way Vikki usurped her in her parents’ affections?)

Vikki has just given birth to a baby. However, the baby is a girl, not the boy child required by the psychotic Khan. And at that moment, as all of this is being breathlessly explained to Paul and Laun, the king returns from a foreign visit and sweeps into the chamber demanding to know whether it is true that the child is a girl, well Is she, is she?,He rips open its swaddling clothes to confirm it, and in an excess of fury, dashes its brains out against the rock walls. Vikki shrieks, Anamaria sneaks round behind the king and slips one of her fatal hat-pins into his belly just as Cartwright, reacting on instinct, draws his gun and fills Khan full of bullets. He’s only been there a few hours and now he’s shot the king of the place. Terrific.

There is a moment of silence before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Erik Bigblad arrives, the figurehead of the traditional Swedish faction against the Asiatics represented by Khan, and he quickly takes control. He and his men disarm the Asiatic men, and the coup is complete.

(Note, even in this adventure fantasy setting, the odd parallelism with the earlier narrative, for this is the second time Anamaria has murdered a man for killing a baby – the first time it was Gregor, her pimp, who took away her own baby. And note also the heedless, almost unstoppable, brutality of men towards the most innocent and vulnerable in society.)

Back in London

Surreally, the last chapter is set in London three weeks later, where Cartwright is making his report to his nominal boss, Alex Goodbody, all the while trying to decide whether to strike out and set up his own company. That damn Frenchman turns up again and describes some of the scenes Cartwright missed back in the valley, namely the swearing-in ceremony of his Vikki as new ruler of Nirvana. Antoine reveals that he wants to leave the French mineralogy firm that employs him – why don’t they pool their resources and set up a company to work with the Vikings to exploit their mineral discoveries? Cartwright decides: Yes! He will!


Quite obviously the text is a farrago, a dog’s dinner of a text mashing up half a dozen different stories into one overcharged fantasia. The first two settings are reasonably realistic – communist Romania and Pakistan at the end of the Russo-Afghan War… and the plot up to that point had made use of Innes’ traditional technique of basing far-fetched coincidences around families with dark secrets – Cartwright’s recurrent nightmare memories of killing his step-dad prepares us for the voodoo theme of the two sisters, offspring of the ill-fated Kikinda marriage, deformed by communism’s brutalisation of women, whose story plays out against two continents.

Innes’ last three novels – IsvikTarget Antarctica and Delta Connection – contain particularly harrowing episodes, scenes which are so intense as to be almost visions, barely related to the mundane world which surround them or the workaday plots which frame them: the poor wretches in the ship’s hold being sprayed with anthrax toxin in Isvik; the devastating story of La Belle Phuket’s capture, torture and rape in Antarctica; Anamaria’s brutalisation in the orphanages and streets of Romania.

There aren’t many articles about Innes on the web, but the half-dozen I’ve read all say that he became more concerned about environmental issues in his later years – and he certainly wrote novels which feature oil pollution, deforestation and us hunting Africa’s mammals to extinction. But I think this final batch of novels go deeper than that; their far-fetched plots and dizzy coincidences are merely the framework he uses to deliver his deeper message:- it is not just that we can’t get on with the natural world without destroying it; we can’t even get on with each other.

This novel abounds in many throwaway visions of horror: Cartwright recounts flying over a bush fire in Western Australia and watching it catch and overtake a herd of kangaroos, turning them to twisting chunks of burned flesh. Laun spends a page remembering a doctor who accompanied a detachment of troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass until ambushed by Pathans, who shot all the soldiers before running down to cut the women and children to pieces. At several places (to prepare us for the Secret Valley ending) Cartwright thinks about the Rus, the legendary Viking travellers who sailed up the inland rivers of Russia, who launched their ships over the bodies of women sacrificed to their gods, the sound of their screaming as their bones were pulverised… and so on.

I think these last novels are about man’s inhumanity to man – and the central part played by the terrible stories of la Belle Phuket and Anamaria are intended as a searing indictment of how, for all the wonders of the internet and the gee-whizz gadgetry of space travel, we are unable to protect even the most vulnerable and innocent on this, our own, terrible planet.

What is harder to reconcile, or process, is the way this, Innes’ final story, turns away from these earlier levels of meaning to mutate into a late-Victorian romance of almost fairy-tale simplicity. It is so weird it is almost avant-garde. The inhumanity which I thought it was about until the last 70 or so pages, is completely trumped by the strange fantasy ending. The gripping chase in a car across night-time Romania, the survivalist episode on the reed island, the high-tension pursuit of the old steam locomotive up into the mountains – these are traditional thriller episodes.

But the fairy-tale ending – did Innes know this would be his last book? Did he write brutal, brutal, brutal episodes and then – sick of his depiction of such a violent world, decide to turn his grim tale at last into a kind of melodramatic pantomime? Or did he just run out of puff?

What a long, strange, compelling and mysterious book.


Delta Connection by Hammond Innes was published by Macmillans in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Ceaușescu’s death

As a corollary to the 200 pages set amid the confusion of Ceaușescu’s overthrow in Romania – and a grim testimony to man’s inhumanity to man – there’s footage on YouTube of him and his formidable wife, Elena, being tried by a kangaroo court and then executed by a shambolic firing squad.

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 reveals an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land; features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute battle 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 lady journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm –

1946 Dead and Alive –
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 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 complicated 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 leads 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 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 cause he champions.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this time one convinced he can prove his eccentric theories about the origin of Man, Ice Age sea levels, the origin 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 the invitation to visit from a rancher’s daughter he’d met. 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 persistent 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 complex 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, all tied 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 old 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, the last surviving son of which 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, 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 gone aground 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 Lloyd’s 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 in time?
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 Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cartwright is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to rescue a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. It takes a lot of shenanigans, 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 a scam to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, diamonds like the ones the survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a story which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania during the chaotic days leading up to the overthrow of the communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller with car chases and shoot-outs – before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s boys adventure stories as Cartwright 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.

Charity by Len Deighton (1996)

‘You don’t like any of your old friends these days, Bernie. What’s happened to you? Why are you so caustic? Why so suspicious of everything and everyone?’
‘Am I? Well I’m not the only one afflicted with that,’ I said. ‘There is an epidemic of suspicion and distrust. It’s contagious. We are all in its grip: you, me, Fiona, Gloria and the whole Department…’ (p.183)

This is the tenth and final novel in Deighton’s series about 40-something SIS agent, Bernard Samson, his wife and family and the small group of friends and colleagues who have shared his trials and tribulations for the previous nine novels and the 10 or so years they cover (1977 to 1988).

As usual for the series, the story is told in a straightforward chronological way by Bernard himself in a first-person narrative, very much from his (limited) point of view, and in his own dry, sardonic voice. It’s divided into roughly three subject areas: straightforward espionage or spy episodes; family matters; office politics.

Spy stories

The novel opens dramatically with Bernard accompanying a very ill colleague, Jim Prettyman, back from Moscow on the Moscow-to-Paris train, along with a qualified nurse. Bernard notices the nurse fondling a pretty brooch and asks to have a look; she says Prettyman gave it to her and Bernard recognises it as having belonged to his dead sister-in-law, Tessa.

As the train trundles over the shabby, frozen border into Poland, Bernard is taken aside by Polish Security Police for questioning, and mournfully watches the train pull off without him. For the next week he is kept in an unheated cell in a fortress-cum-barracks and intensively questioned about his role in the abduction of George Kosinski and the related shooting of Polish security agents. These events had formed the dramatic climax of the previous book, Hope and Bernard is guilty as hell of everything they accuse him of, but sticks to his cover story that he is a German businessman. Although he is quite badly beaten up, he knows it is nothing compared to what they could do and sure enough, after a week, he is driven back to the station and placed on the next Moscow to Paris express. They know he knows they know he did it; but someone somewhere has ordered his release. Why was he arrested? Why was he released? It is never explained. It is an example of the puzzling randomness of the way things work in the Communist bloc…

Family matters

The Samson books are as much about families as about spying. The central event of the entire series was the revelation that Bernard’s wife, clever Oxford-educated Fiona, was a double agent working for the KGB and her hurried flight to the East, with Bernard close on her tail. This fills the first three books. In the second trilogy Bernard slowly realises Fiona has in fact been working for us all along and, after her absence of three years working as a double agent in the East, Bernard plays a big part in helping her escape back to the West.

But a) during the escape Fiona’s sister, Tessa, is shot dead b) during her long absence Bernard has fallen in love with an SIS colleague half his age, Gloria Kent. Although Fiona’s mission was part of long-term plans to undermine the East German government by supporting dissident civil society groups, it is also, on another level, a story about a man whose wife betrays and deserts him. Thus the domestic and emotional impact of Fiona’s desertion, not only on Samson but on his children, her sister and brother-in-law and on her father, are all described at length and repeatedly, in long conversations, at lunches, drinks or dinners.

In fact, the novels contain hundreds of pages which are devoted to the dinner parties and drinks parties and Sunday lunches at Fiona and Bernard’s house or George and Tessa Kosinski’s flat, or at Dicky Cruyer’s place or at Leith Hill in Fiona’s father’s luxury pile, or out in the Cotswolds at the rambling old farmhouse, Whitelands, belonging to the Department’s creepy eminence grise, Silas Gaunt.

A lot of narrative time is spent admiring the fixtures and fittings of various abodes, complimenting the wine and the cooking, being shown holiday snaps or latest additions to collections of swords or antique cars or oil paintings or vintage wine. A LOT of time is spent discussing how Bernard’s two children, Billy and Sally, are getting on at their prep school, with their private tutors in French and Maths, in the school soccer team, what presents they’re being bought for Christmas or their birthdays, and so on.

And this cosy, companionable family-ness, its domesticity, is one of the appeals of the series. It extends beyond England to Germany where so much of the action is set, to the run-down hotel in Berlin kept by old Tante Lisl, where Bernard grew up as a boy and where the shabby attic room is always kept for him; it includes his chats, sometimes about work, sometimes about family matters, with his oldest school-friend, shady businessman and sometime Department contractor Werner Volkmann, and his trouble with women (his two wives, Ingrid or Zena).

Also there are endless repeats of the scene in the office of Frank Harrington, long-time Head of the Berlin Office of the SIS, who plays with his smelly old pipe or shuffles his collection of vintage jazz records, while Bernard tells him yet another far-fetched interpretation of the latest perplexing plot twists. Here’s Frank fiddling with his beloved Dunhill pipe, accompanied by a dash of Deightonian humour:

He was smoking happily now, poking at his pipe bowl with the blade of a penknife, and attending to every strand of burning tobacco with all the loving care of a locomotive engineer. Or a dedicated arsonist. (p.171)

Office politics

The third element is the endless jockeying for position, promotion and office which goes on inside ‘the Department’. On an almost continual basis the entire cast of characters can, at the drop of a hat, start speculating about who will replace the gaga old Director-General, who will get the Deputy DG job, is Fiona in with a chance? Will it be Bernard’s slick superficial boss, Dicky Cruyer? Or will he be blocked by the much smarter but older American, Bret Rensselaer? And so on.

Since both Fiona (once she’s returned) and even Samson, are qualified, in their different ways, for promotion, many of their conversations (once she’s returned to the West) move easily between discussion of family affairs, into details of various spy operations – especially as the central plot rotates about Bernard’s wife and then, after her escape, about the true fate of his sister-in-law, Tessa – and both bleed into the office politics, as the success or failure of various plans and operations boosts or hinders the key players’ various hopes for advancement and promotion.

Each of the novels contains a canny mix of these three threads which are each, in their different ways, equally absorbing though, for me, the distinctive feature of the entire series, is the time and attention paid to domestic arrangements. You don’t catch James Bond fussing about what’s for dinner tonight or who’s going to buy little Billy’s birthday present.

The plot

After being released by the Poles (why was he arrested and beaten, why was he released?) the scene cuts to Bernard (still rather bruised) and Fiona staying at her father’s luxury pile near Leith Hill, Surrey. It is just into the new year of 1988 (the previous novel, Hope ended on Christmas Eve 1987) so only a few weeks after Bernard had virtually kidnapped his brother-in-law (revealed as being a spy for the Polish secret police) out of Poland and smuggled him back to the UK to be interrogated and maybe charged with treason. At the end of the previous novel we had also seen Gloria and Bernard going to bed in what seemed to crystallise his choice of her over his wife, Fiona. Which makes this scene where he is docilely accompanying his wife to his father-in-law’s house a little puzzling. Bernard is seriously confused about which of these two beautiful women he really loves…

At Leith Hill the father-in-law, David Kimber-Hutchinson, holds a big dinner party where the guests discuss political developments of 1987-8 ie Chancellor Kohl inviting Honecker to the West, along with the political and economic situation in the East. Later, Fiona explains in some detail to Bernard the way money is being channeled into East Germany in numerous sophisticated attempts to undermine the regime. (These kind of geopolitical discussions are relatively rare in the books: when they occur it is pretty obviously to provide the rationale for the entire plot ie that Fiona ‘defected’ in order to establish contact with civil society groups in the East who could destabilise the regime, and that that plot is working. Ie they exist to justify all the time and effort spent on the Fiona Plot.)

To his astonishment, Fiona’s father broaches the ludicrous suggestion that George tried to kill him; he had a headache in Poland and George gave him some local headache tablets which David kept and then, back in England, fed to the family cat who promptly died. Bernard listens respectfully, thinking what a melodramatic old queen his father-in-law is. David goes on to explain his presence in a photo of George in Warsaw that so startled Bernard in the previous novel, when he was shown it, as simply being a result of having been invited out there to help George locate Tess, Fiona’s sister. (For a while this photo had been a loose thread, leaving us wondering whether the father-in-law was involved some scam, as almost everyone else in the family has been. But no. Shame, actually…)

Bernard is confirmed as deputy to Frank Harrington, Head of the Berlin Office. Frank knew Bernard’s dad and promised to look after young Bernie, so they’ve always had a close nephew-and-uncle relationship, with Bernard amused by Frank’s endless fussing with his pipe, his string of unsuitable affairs, and his canny way of avoiding trouble.

Bernard drives out to Whitelands, Silas Gaunt’s rambling farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Here he discovers Gaunt is packing up and moving into sheltered accommodation as he has recently been diagnosed as too ill to keep up the house. Bernard makes sympathetic noises but extracts from Silas a reluctant confession that he knew about the cock-up over Tessa’s shooting; but Silas insists he had out-sourced the whole thing to the Americans, it was their decision to hire Thurkettle, nothing to do with us, old chap etc. He provides the familiar rationalisation that we had to make the opposition think Fiona was dead, at whatever cost, otherwise they would immediately have changed all their codes and procedures and ‘Fiona’s years of courage and jeopardy would have been in vain.’ (p.82)

Bernard meets ‘the Swede’ downstairs in a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The Swede is in fact a former Luftwaffe pilot (his back story is given with typical Deightonian thoroughness and historical detail on pages 90 and 91). We met him in the previous novel when he flew in to Poland and picked up Bernard and his brother-in-law George at the book’s exciting climax.

a) The Swede reveals he was on standby to fly Jim Prettyman out of Germany on the night of the famous Tessa shooting. He had been commissioned to bring in a secret box file, though Prettyman never turned up to collect it. b) Bernard asks him if he can do a mission for him, Bernard. The Swede guesses what it is. Bernard wants to kidnap his two children from the care of his smothering, smug father-in-law, collect dishy young Gloria and have the Swede fly them to Ireland, where Bernard will arrange flights on to South America, somewhere with no extradition treaty. The Swede says it is a bonkers idea but he’ll do it. The whole mad scheme shows us that, despite performing his spousal duties with Fiona, his heart is still with Gloria…

Bernard is panicked to receive a phone call from his son’s school saying his son’s school bus has overturned and there are some injuries. (In the previous novel a character had pointed out that the KGB always take revenge on those who betrayed them, giving the example of a double agent who was given a new identity in the States, but whose family the KGB tracked down and assassinated one by one. What if the same happens to Fiona, because of her super betrayal? Once this worry has been planted, it allows Deighton to scare us with of happenings like this, which make us think maybe the novel will be ‘about’ the KGB’s revenge.)

In the event his son Billy hadn’t even been on the bus. Bernard had driven down there with Gloria, who’d given him the message at work, and this gives her an opportunity to tell him a few home truths: that he doesn’t know his children any more, they’ve grown away from him; for her to pour scorn on his ludicrous proposal to run off with the kids; and they end the journey back to London with a blazing row. Hmm. His plan of starting a new life with her and the kids not going so well, then. As he gets out of her car he leans down to apologise but Gloria, very angry, drives off…

Next day Bernard drives to Berwick House where George Kosinski – Bernard’s brother-in-law who he had revealed to be a spy in the previous novel – is being kept and interrogated. The interrogation is getting nowhere and Bernard has been ordered down there to have a go himself. But a) he finds George feeling cocky enough to turn the tables and threaten Bernard, saying he has enough evidence to prove that Bernard wanted Tessa killed, which b) makes Bernard so angry he grabs George and shouts in his face. It also makes him realise, on the journey home, that George is small fry; he may have reported tittle-tattle back to the Polish security services but he wasn’t a planner or a doer. MI5, who are holding him, will probably release him on condition he scuttles back to Zurich and keeps stumm.

On the way back Bernard and his Special Branch driver stop at a pub for a drink. In the loos Bernard is attacked by two heavies and, because he happens to have a gun on him, first uses it to hit them hard in the face and arm, then steps back, brandishing it, to stop the fight. They say it wasn’t him, it’s the Swede they’re after. Bernard sends them packing and gives his Special Branch bodyguard, still sitting happily at the bar, a flea in the ear for completely failing to help him.

Later that night, at home with Fiona after discussing George’s likely fate, there’s a call and Bernard is summoned to jump into a waiting car and taken to a derelict house in south London. Here, in the garage, he finds the body of the Swede, dead, with his skull crudely staved in by a hammer. There is some colourful description of the Special Branch and MI5 officers attending, namely one ‘Squeaky’ King and the fractious relationship between ‘Five’ and the Department. No indication who murdered the Swede, and Bernard doesn’t know why anyone should. There goes his scheme of flying to Ireland. Gloria is angry with him and the Swede is dead…

Bernard is then summoned to a meeting with Bret Rensselaer (now acting Deputy Director-General), Dicky Cruyer, Head of Ops, and the D-G himself, fussing over his ancient Labrador and, in a running gag, never able to remember Bernard’s name, this time calling him Simson. But beyond the jokes they reveal they knew the Swede was going to be killed. It was done by a hitman from Dresden. They had to let it go ahead otherwise it would have blown the agent who informed them. Bernard is appalled. The reader is appalled.

Back in Berlin, Bernard is visited by Cindy Prettyman, Jim’s first wife. In an earlier novel she had been fairly innocent and inoffensive. Here she has been transformed into a harridan who swears at Bernard a lot and wants him to get rid of the security box her ex-husband dumped in her office and asked her to look after last year, at the time of the Tessa Fiasco. Bernard is left wondering: was Cindy involved in the murder? What is the significance of this security box? Has it got money in it, the payoff for Thurkettle, something valuable to Prettyman?

Once again in Frank’s office Bernard watches the old man tap the window and look out at the snow while Bernard tells him what he’s been doing for Dicky. There’s a fuss about some old uranium mines over in the East. It’s coming in a bit late in the story, but could this be what the novel’s ‘about’? Could there be a surprise twist where it all turns out to be about getting our hands on commie uranium or preventing them using it to make nuclear weapons?

Bernard meets Werner at the derelict Tegel airport on the edge of West Berlin to review the story so far. To his surprise he finds Werner going back over the night of the shooting and asking Bernard how he’s so certain of his memories: maybe, in all the confusion, he shot Tessa? What? It feels like every possible logical combination is being wrung from this one tragic event, which happened four whole books ago. The reader is becoming a bit impatient.

Bernard motors out to meet Jim Prettyman. Years ago Jim, his wife Cindy, Fiona and Bernard were friends, playing pool in a bar near the office. But Jim was into statistics and his skills got him a job in the States where he changed his name to Jay and got married to a new wife, Tabby, with useful State Department connections (divorcing the now-embittered Cindy). Now he’s terminally ill and Tabby’s looking after him in a house near Heathrow.

In his sick room there is a big confrontation scene where Bernard and Jim exchange conflicting versions of what happened the night Tessa died. Prettyman agrees that Thurkettle, the ex-CIA man, was hired by Silas Gaunt to do the hit. He even claims he arranged a meeting between Silas – who he describes as completely crazy – and Thurkettle in London the preceding week. That night it was Thurkettle who shot Tessa, cut off her head and switched it for the head containing dental work replicating Fiona’s, in order to fool the KGB, and then set fire to the car – this was all Gaunt’s plan, but Jim (like the reader) thinks it was pretty stupid – a car fire wouldn’t burn a body sufficiently to hide its essential features; they might just notice her head had been mysteriously cut off.

But Jim denies killing Thurkettle, saying he arrived at the meeting spot primed to pay him to find him already dead. The plan had been to take Thurkettle on to a plane and fly him back to England but when he found a corpse, he rifled its pockets, found the brooch (the brooch he later gave the nurse in chapter one) among other things, and left. Bernard goes off wondering how much of this is true.

— For the reader the point is that Bernard now more or less knows the truth of what happened. He doesn’t seem particularly upset about it and, because we readers learned all this three books ago, it doesn’t come as much surprise to us either. As we enter the last 75 pages of the entire series, I wondered whether there was going to be some final Twist and Surprise that would make us sit up and gasp.

Chapter 10 An Autobahn exit. The German Democratic Republic Bernard and Werner drive along the Autobahn to the exit where Prettyman told him he rendevoused with Thurkettle on the Fateful Night. They find two East German farmers working in a field and who, with a little Western money, remember the camper van being parked there for a few days on the night. When they’re shown to the exact spot, Bernard and Werner find the remains of a motorbike concealed in a ditch and then, a bit further along, Thurkettle’s corpse, rotted and eaten away. Bernard locates the bullet holes in Thurkettle’s coat and then the gun Thurkettle was shot with. Beneath the corpse is a bag of dollars, Thurkettle’s payment for the hit. Yes: all the evidence is here confirming the story he’s pieced together.

Werner hurries him along and back into the car – it is strictly illegal to drive off the Autobahn in the East, and being found in possession of a gun and corpse! They’d be locked away forever. As they drive back into the West in a sleet storm Bernard puts his last question to Werner: Was it him who supplied Prettyman with the gun he used to shoot Thurkettle? Werner refuses to answer in such a way that Bernard knows he’s correct.

Pretty much the whole secret is out now. Tessa is dead; she was killed by an ex-CIA hitman on orders from SIS high-ups, notably creepy Silas Gaunt; Prettyman was the middle man who organised logistics then shot Thurkettle to assure his silence (why? Thurkettle was a pro; he’d have kept stumm anyway); Werner played a small part in supplying the gun. ‘Well done, Bernard,’ says Werner. ‘You’ve pieced it all together with superhuman skill; now let it lie.’ But he can’t, of course.

Chapter 11 The SIS offices, Berlin Bret and Dicky and Gloria have flown into Berlin for a security conference. First of all Bernard accepts a report from a local officer, Larry Bowers, that proves the East German uranium mine we heard about earlier has only a minimum staff and is barely being kept open: so the novel is not going to turn out to be about that, after all. Shame, really.

— Most of this chapter is devoted to a big party Werner hosts at his new grand house out by the Wannsee. It is a really massive fancy-dress party with the theme of ‘gold’, featuring lots of diplomats, local businessmen and politicians, movers and shakers, with a live band playing 1930s dance tunes and a massive buffet feast. Bret and Dicky and Frank and Gloria and Werner and Zena are all there.

In the middle of the festivities Cindy Prettyman (who we’d learned earlier was staying with Werner) comes down the stairs, wearing only a slip, her hair dishevelled, distraught and brandishing a pistol. Bernard and Werner go slowly up the stairs towards her as she threatens first one then the other. She accuses them both of stealing the security box from her office, the security box she’d mentioned earlier to Bernard and was trying to either get rid of or possibly use as some kind of blackmail threat. Either way, it’s gone now and she is very cross about it.

Werner makes a move towards her and she shoots, winging him in the head. Bernard flings a glass at her but is beaten to it by an Army redcap who rugby tackles her, all of them falling to the bottom of the grand stairs in a big pile. Frank Harrington steps forward from the band podium to thank the Volkmanns for a novel and imaginative charade, ha ha ha, trying to present it all as a weird party entertainment, and while the spotlight is on him speaking soothing words, the bodies are swiftly cleared away.

A lot later that night Bernard is allowed into his hospital room to see Werner, who was more injured by the fall down the stairs than the shot. He admits Cindy was right to be cross; he, Werner, broke into her office earlier that day and stole the damn security box. Cindy had come to think it was valuable and the Department would either a) pay for it or b) it would be some kind of lever to help her get back into contact with her estranged husband. Now she’ll be charged with attempted murder.

Arriving back at Tante Lisl’s hotel, Bernard is handed a telegram from Prettyman’s second wife, Tabby. Jim has passed away, but before he did so he asked her to send him the message that Bernard had guessed everything correctly, that Prettyman did everything Bernard accused him of. Bernard is still not sure whether he is doing a last piece of lying to cover someone else…

Chapter 12 The SIS Residence, Berlin Bret Rensselaer chairs a meeting of Bernard, Frank and Dicky. With little preamble they go into discussing the events of the Fateful Night and integrating Bernard’s findings into what they already knew. The only new thing is that Bret is determined to blame Silas for everything; Silas became unhinged; Silas thought the Service should go beyond its traditional intelligence-gathering role into positive action, violent action if necessary. It was Silas who wanted to protect Fiona’s work by making the KGB think Fiona was dead. It was Silas who cooked up the whole cockamamie plan to make sure Thurkettle murdered Tessa, cut off her head etc, burned the car with her body in it, then motored off to meet his contact, Prettyman, who proceeded to execute him. Blame Silas. — Is that it? Is that the pay-off to the last three novels, and to the entire series?

And the security box which Werner stole from Cindy’s office? Bret says Frank’s handyman is even at this moment sawing it open in the workshop. What! No! shouts Bernard and hares off down the backstairs of Frank’s rambling house (banging into the Director-General himself who is in a secret passage listening to the meeting with headphones) running down the stairs, out into the garden, along to the workshop, seizing the handyman just as he begins drilling to the box, and pushing them both out, away and down onto the frozen ground as the workshop explodes. It was a bomb.

Bernard had suspected for some time this was the significance of the mysterious box file which had been one of the numerous threads in the novel: it was the way the Swede had confirmed it was on his plane, the one which was meant to carry Prettyman away from the Tessa Murder, which gave Bernard the clue. Thus Tessa would have been killed by Thurkettle. Thurkettle killed by Prettyman. Then Prettyman and the Swede blown up in mid-air as soon as they opened the box.

For this reader there are still a few loose ends, loose ends which could only be tied up by going back and reading the relevant section of Spy Sinker again which, to be honest, I can’t be bothered to do. Tessa’s dead. It was a dodgy plot. Palming it off on Silas just about explains it away. After a certain point – this point – I’ve stopped caring about the details.

With all the main strands of the spy plot finally resolved, there’s family life and office politics to tie up: Bret tells Bernard he has proposed to Gloria and she said Yes. (This is, to be honest, completely unbelievable. Bret, as Bernard points out, is old enough to be Gloria’s grandfather.)

Bret reminds Bernard of the personal debt Bret owes him; in one of the earlier novels Bret was suspected of himself being a mole and made his way to Berlin to the only man he knew he could trust, Bernard. Now he’ll repay the debt. Bernard will finally get a full-time contract with a pension and all the perks; Bret will do what he can to see Bernard is eventually made Head of the Berlin Office when Frank Harrington retires (which will be soon), a post which everyone has always felt he should have.

And Bret (like the fairy godmother in a nursery story) gives Bernard a third piece of news/wish come true: he gives him a long letter Fiona wrote during her recuperation which eloquently states how much she loves Bernard, that he is kinder and more sensitive than everyone realises etc. Bret explains that Fiona is only burying herself in her work because she feels rejected by Bernard. ‘Go tell her how you really feel, you schmuck.’ And so the novel ends with a decisive closing of the entire Gloria love affair and the promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Thus the three strands – espionage, family matters and office politics – are all neatly wound up and dovetailed, with the espionage – nominally the subject of the whole series – here, as everywhere else, feeling like it’s actually the least important of the three.


It is hard to resist a sense of anti-climax: endings are always difficult; it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Unlikely though it sounds, basing the three books of the first trilogy around the notion of a married spy discovering that his spouse is a double agent, does work and is gripping and interesting. Similarly, the first two novels of the second trilogy successfully plant the seed and then craftily reveal the fact that Fiona is a triple agent, pretending to work for ‘them’ but really working for ‘us’. Very clever.

But the murder of Tessa in the rainswept Autobahn roadworks on that fateful night is not, I think, an interesting enough subject to sustain this last trilogy. The second instalment, Hope, is the best of the three because it takes us to an entirely new location, Poland, which Deighton describes with trademark historical, cultural, linguistic and geographical thoroughness. And because for most of it the subject is not ‘Who killed Tessa?’ but ‘Where is George?’, which was a welcome new theme.

But this final novel is solely about ‘Who killed Tessa?’ and the crucial flaw is that in novel six – Spy Sinker – Deighton told us. We know who killed her and why. It wasn’t very convincing then and it has become even less convincing as we’ve read on. Spy Sinker is a powerful novel and works in an interesting way because it sheds wholly new light on the five books that preceded it, undermining all the previous narratives, recasting everything we and the narrator thought had happened, and that was a bold and really effective stroke.

But, unless something stunningly new was to be revealed, it also meant the succeeding trilogy couldn’t show us anything new. And, despite a few red herrings and false trails, Charity indeed adds almost nothing to what we knew before, throwing in a few new characters (the Swede, Prettyman’s involvement) but leaving the outline of the story exactly as we already knew it.

Weakest of all is the way Deighton ends up pinning the blame on Silas Gaunt, presented as a Machiavellian super-brain in the previous novels, who is now suddenly described as unbalanced, bonkers, who crossed the line, who went too far, and who we now see being packed off to sheltered accommodation for the mentally ill. It was all Silas’s fault. Oh. OK. So there are no twists, turns or surprises at all. It is hard to avoid a sense of anti-climax.


The religious connotations of the titles – faith, hope and charity – are almost completely ignored. Deighton is not, thank God, Graham Greene, with his reams of doggerel theology. The word faith is mentioned a few times in Faith – Bret gives Bernard a Bible to use as a code book for a handful of ‘secret’ messages he sends him. I don’t think hope is mentioned at all in Hope; if it was George Kosinski’s hope of finding his wife Tessa, alive, it is cruelly dashed.

And, in the kind of dry joke which takes us right back to the start of the Deighton’s career, reminding us of the sly jokiness of the Ipcress novels – it turns out that Charity has no profound symbolic or moral meaning at all. Charity is the name of the half-senile Director-General’s raddled black Labrador.

Charity is a knackered old beast which slobbers and drools and is on its last legs.

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

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (1996)

‘How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen’,’ one is tempted to comment about the shenanigans at the court of King Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, who led a victorious rebellion to overthrow the mad king Aerys and his House of Targaryan, and now rules the continent of Westeros.

(Numerous maps of Westeros are available on the web, including a colourful one defining the regions ruled by each House; the ones included in the books are usefully collected on this page.)

Game of Thrones is the first in the epic seven-novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, by American fantasy writer George RR Martin, set in the mythical medieval land of Westeros. The novel follows the fortunes of the powerful noble families or Houses who divide up the land, interweaving the stories of countless kings and queens, knights and concubines, servants and maesters, as they scheme, poison and fight each other for power.

Genre Swords and dragons. Fantasy.

Style The style is Tolkien meets Michael Crichton. Tolkien because, although he wasn’t the first to write stories set in medieval times, far from it, I think he was the first to combine elements of legend, the supernatural, and previously disparate folklore entities – elves, dwarves, giants – into one coherent imaginary world, created with such enormous attention to detail, to the backstory, the languages, the geography of that world – that the Middle Earth he created is a universe which fans can still immerse themselves and get lost in to this day.

Suspense Michael Crichton because the chapters are short and punchy with a clear narrative focus, moving the story on at pace like a modern thriller. Something happens in each chapter, often shocking and unexpected events. Each chapter is named after a character and tells the developments in the complicated plotlines from their point of view. So a shocking surprising event happens in a chapter devoted to the dwarf Tyrion. But instead of the next chapter following on, it will jump to the adventures of Jon Snow on the Great Ice wall a thousand miles to the North. This leaping between about ten different characters, so that you don’t find out what happened next to Tyrion, creates a permanent sense of suspense which is very gripping.

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Style Similarly, although he throws in the odd token medievalism (‘oft’, ‘elsewise’, ‘near’ used as an adverb, inversions – “he was a man full grown”) essentially the tale is told in tough modern prose. A disconcerting symptom of the modernity of thought and style is the swearing. The characters quite often say ‘f***’ and sometimes the c word, something we do not find in the genteel narratives of Professor Tolkien. If nothing else does, the swearing alerts you to the harsh, cynical, contemporary mindset underpinning the books. Maybe it’s more like Tolkien meets Tarantino.

Paratext is the term is used by literary theorists to refer to the font, layout, pagination, prefaces etc which hedge round the text of a published book and which to some extent qualify and mediate our experience of the text. The book ‘Game of Thrones’ comes with five pages of maps, preparing you for a narrative which involves travel, and in an unknown fantasy land. It ends with 30 pages of Appendix featuring a couple of pages listing all the members of the major Houses, and a timeline of Westeros history, alerting the reader to the scope and complexity of the story. When my son was persuading me to read this book, this long appendix put me off – I thought: ‘God, do I have to learn all this?’ In the event, it’s vital and addictive: and I kept referring to it to understand who was who and why they were plotting against each other.

With a bit of license we can extend the meaning of ‘paratext’ to include the cloud of associated products and merchandising which so often surround the modern text. First, there is the network of websites, beginning with George RR Martin’s website, his blog, A Song of Ice and Fire wiki and numerous others. Each of the characters even has their own facebook page!

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Meanwhile, you can buy Ice and Fire hats, t-shirts, card games, board games, models, scarves, pendants, mugs, magnets and cook books (see the selection available at Forbidden Planet!) ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ isn’t in the Harry Potter league yet but it’s trying.

And there is now a TV series. This first book, Game of Thrones, came out in 1996. In 2011 the American channel HBO broadcast Game of Thrones converted into ten pacey, violent and pornographic, hour-long TV shows. (Beware of showing them to your children!)

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's 'Game of Thrones', broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, broadcast on Sky Atlantic © HBO

Series two covers the events of book two (Clash of Kings) and was broadcast last year (2012).  Series three has completed production and will be broadcast in March this year (2013). It transmits in the UK on Sky Atlantic.

Delay The novels themselves, originally intended to form a trilogy, were extended to a set of five, and now seven. ‘Game of Thrones’ was published in 1996. The fifth installment, A Dance with Dragons, took over five years to write and was published in 2011. The sixth book, The Winds of Winter, is being written. The waits between volumes have become notorious: see, for example, this page summarising the reasons fans are anxious GRRM may never complete his epic task.

Going by precedent, the sixth book should come out in 2014 and the last one in 2017, 21 years after the first one! And there’s a possibility the TV series might overtake – or have to pause to wait for – the books. Assuming a new season every year, the seventh season will air in 2017, so production would have to start in 2016 – a year before the book it’s based on is published.

So there’s not just suspense about the plotlines and narratives and characters in the text – there’s a higher level metasuspense about the resolution of the entire series, and its interdependency with the TV series. And the unspoken anxiety behind all this – what happens if – God forbid – GRRM (born 1948) dies before finishing the last books? Will it become the greatest unfinished novel since Charles Dickens’ ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’? Would any one of the thousands of other fantasy writers publishing today be invited to complete it? Or if GRRM does complete the series, what’s to stop his publisher commissioning other authors to extend the stories, to write sequels in the way James Bond novels continue to be published to this day, 50 years after Ian Fleming’s death?

Not just the novels – but the status, feasibility, long term future of the stories and characters they contain – will continue to be the subject of feverish speculation for the next four or five years, at least… for a humorous example, check out this video of a song written by US comedy duo Paul and Storn encouraging GRRM to hurry up and finish the series and “Write like the wind”:

The MUSIC and LYRICS of “Write like the wind” copyright Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo and Paul Sabourin

The photos of characters are from the HBO TV dramatisation of the books. Series 1 is out on dvd. Series 2 transmitted last year and will be out on dvd in March 2013. Series 3 will start transmitting on Sky Atlantic on Monday 1 April.

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