The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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Shaped by War by Don McCullin (2010)

I felt I was in the right place at the right time. I had an almost magnetic emotional sense of direction pulling me to extraordinary places. (p.37)

In 2010 the Imperial War Museum held an exhibition of the war-related photos of Don McCullin. This is the large-format, coffee table book of the exhibition. It features a lot of his best-known work but also a number of previously unpublished photos, alongside some of his less well-known colour photos, and documentary records of his numerous trips, including passport photos and the covers of the magazines the work ended up appearing in. The final pages feature a selection of the powerful black-and-white photos he’s been taking more recently around his home, a renovated farmhouse in Somerset.

Many of the wars are introduced with explanations of the situations Don flew into and what he observed there, and so this handsome book amounts to an autobiography told through pictures of war. It’s divided into five sections:

  1. Early years 1935-1957
  2. Discovering photojournalism 1958-1966
  3. The Sunday Times 1967-1978
  4. Changing Times 1976-1983
  5. A new direction 1983-2009

The photos are printed large and on good quality glossy paper. They come across much powerfully than in his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour. The bigger pages, and gloss shine, makes a surprising difference.

I’ve read criticism of this book about the way that many of the photos are shown in the context of the original newspaper or magazine pages where they were first published. But, for me, seeing the yellowed pages of old Sunday Times magazines, and the words that journos and sub-editors have put round them, vastly increases their impact. Plus there’s an element of nostalgia for me, as I began to read newspapers in the early 1970s and so the layout and typefaces and picture quality reminds me of my youth.

The inclusion of the original magazine spreads also reminds you that McCullin was a jobbing photographer, going to sometimes extraordinary lengths to get the shot that conveyed a situation, a plight, a crisis. Not an artist. He is very insistent about this. Commenting on his single most famous image, the shell-shocked American soldier at Hue in Vietnam, he comments:

There’s an iconic look about it and you have to be careful about icons, because they can border on art. I have to be mindful about playing that card because I don’t want to be associated with art. I’m a photographer. I’m a photojournalist or whatever you want to call me. But I don’t belong to the world of art. (p.82)

Below are links to some of the images in the book. After an opening sketching out McCullin’s very tough, deprived childhood in squalid Finsbury Park, each section of the book has introductory text explaining the background to the war in question, as well as anecdotes about how he got to the scene, what he witnessed, the struggle to get the defining shot. There are also memories of colleagues he worked with, quite a few of whom died along the way, highlighting how many times he just made it, was lucky, avoided bullets, shells and grenade while those about him were not so lucky.

Another notable thing about the book is the number of colour photos, from a man known mainly for his preference for black and white. The coloured ones are just as good.

The photos are grim and powerful but what comes over most from the text is how much he is now ashamed, embarrassed and even disgusted at the way he sometimes behaved, at the situations he found himself in, at the continual nagging feeling that he was exploiting people and their terrible suffering.

I’m ashamed of it, of all the things I’ve seen in my life, all the blood, all the burnt children. I’m disgusted with the whole business. (p.160)

Which begs the question – How should we feel? The people who buy and look at these photos for ‘pleasure’?

The short last section concludes with a few of his landscapes and still lifes: louring photos of the Somerset countryside around his farmyard home, and still lifes he has carefully arranged, unique combinations of traditional English flowers and fruits with artefacts brought back from his travels.

He only photographs the landscapes in winter. He likes the skeletal structure of the trees and the spareness of the landscape. Also, he dislikes it if people compare the landscapes to war photos or imply they contain the psychological damage of his war experiences.

I like my landscape photographs to have the most perfect composition, because I want them to be kind on the eye. I want you to fall in love with them. You’re not going to love one of my war photographs, because they were never made for that reason. But my landscapes are for you to enjoy. (p.185)

As with the autobiography, the book ends with a hymn of appreciation to the beauty of the landscape around his house. It is very moving, after all the mayhem he has witnessed and described, for him to end the book watching the trout dance in the nearby stream, and for us to learn that he bought the land on the other side of the stream so that no-one could hunt and shoot the deer who sometimes cross it.

Enough of killing.


Credit

Shaped by War by Don McCullin Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2010. All references and quotes are to the 2010 hardback edition.

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The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson 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 with the unconscious Esmond 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.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (2010)

The map at the start shows the ‘Balkan escape route 1941’, highlighting the train track from Berlin to Salonika on the Greek coast. So we have a possible subject matter, and date, before we’ve read a word.

Like all Furst’s novels the text follows the adventures of one manly man, a good man, in this case the Greek detective Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis who enjoys smooth, sophisticated sex with his English girlfriend. As in all Furst’s novels, events are very precisely dated, so as to embed them in the troubled events of war – this one taking place between 5 October 1940 and 5 April 1941, giving a powerful sense of the historical events the characters are caught up in, as well as a dynamic sense of movement to the story, pace, at times rising to genuine tension.

Like all Furst’s historical spy stories, the text is divided into a handful of parts or ‘acts’, in this novel, four:

1. Dying in Byzantium – 5 to 27 October 1940

Introducing us to Costa Zannakis, senior detective in the port town of Salonika, to his staff in his office on the Via Egnatia, to his family and girlfriend, the succulent English woman Roxanne (‘content, feline and sleepy, her damp middle clamped to his thigh as they lay facing each other,’ p.46), to his beloved dog Melissa, and other characters such as Elias, the venerable poet who remembers fighting with the partisans in the Balkan Wars before the Great War, Vangelis, the ancient head of the police department, and so on.

Roxanne introduces Costa to Francis Escovar, a posh English travel writer who he immediately suspects of being a spy. More importantly he meets Emelia Krebs who begs him to help her set up an ‘escape route’ for the harassed Jews of Berlin. Costa’s role is to manage their transfer on through Bulgaria, into Greece, and then on to Turkey. Being a good chap he agrees. He can use his contacts in the Bulgarian police to smooth the way, and also pull in favours with the Turkish consul to facilitate ongoing journeys into Turkey.

2. The Back Door To Hell – November 1940 to mid-January 1941

Mounting political threats finally solidify as Mussolini’s Italian Army invades Greece from Albania (which it had invaded in April 1939) on 28 October 1940. Costa is called up and moved north to the village of Trikkala, along with detachments of the Greek Army. His unit are housed in a school which becomes the main radio contact for the area, and here he is met by a liaison officer from Yugoslavia, Marko Pavlic.

A local criminal is suborned by threatening foreigners to locate the building with a radio mast and to place a white blanket on the roof. This acts as a marker for the Italian dive bombers which appear and bomb the schoolohuse. Costa only just survives because he happens to have been standing in the doorway, the frame of which protects him. He pulls Pavlic from the wreckage and is himself taken to hospital with cuts to leg, damaged wrist, one eardrum punctured. And eventually patched up and sent back to Salonika, having made his military contribution.

Alas, at the first sign of trouble his English lovely, Roxanne, suddenly needs to leave. She gets Costa to drive her to an airfield where she is being met by an RAF plane, no less. Costa realises, sadly, that Roxanne was always a British spy, ‘not on you, my darling,’ she insists, but still. Deception.

Ho hum, but every cloud has a silver lining and back into his life comes Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who he’d had a fling with previously, and who now wants to test out some of the tricks she’s learned from being an enthusiastic bisexual during their period apart. Lucky old Costa.

Back in his office, Costa continues working through the plans to set up the escape route. He and Emilia settle into a routine of sending innocent-looking letters about business to fictional companies requesting fictional orders, in which are concealed coded details of the people being sent down from Berlin.

Costa uses his underworld contacts in Salonika (Sami Pal) to identify a leading underworld figure in Budapest, Gypsy Gus, who he flies up to meet and concludes a deal with to smooth the refugees’ passage through Hungary.

We follow the fraught journey across Europe of the Gruens, renamed the Hartmanns, who encounter various problems but overcome them, in Budapest thanks to the enthusiastic stewardship of Akos, the white falcon’, a teenage psychopath who Gypsy Gus puts in charge of ensuring the ‘packages’ safety.

At every step, Furst makes us aware of the threat, the permanent threat from the Nazis, SS, Gestapo spy machinery, designed to keep watch on everyone. And we are introduced to Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, a tidy-minded Gestapo official who had been instructed to arrest the Gruens and is irked to find them disappeared. And so starts to keep tabs on their social contacts, including one Frau Krebs. — Thus giving the story an ominous threatening sense of a net closing in on Emilia.

Back in Salonika Costa’s boss in the police, Vangelis, then brokers a meeting with Nikolas Vasilou, the richest man in Salonika, who is persuaded to donate money to fund the escape route. The quid pro quo is that Vangelis has assured Vasilou that Costa might one day end up Head of Police in Salonika: a good man to have in your debt. OK. Here’s your money, Zannakis, spend it well.

As Vasilou’s Rolls Royce purrs away Costa catches a glimpse of Vasilou’s (third) wife, the matchlessly beautiful Demetria, and it is love at first sight!

3. A French King – mid-January to 9 February 1941

British SIS officers tell Escovil he has to manage the escape of an airman, Harry Byer, from Paris. Byer is an important scientist who rashly enlisted in the RAF, was shot down in France, rescued and transported to a safe house in Paris by the Resistance. Escovil has an uncomfortable meeting with Costa in which he forces him to take the mission. Costa travels to Paris, meets the French people guarding Byer, but there is a complication. When one of the French resisters takes him to the Brasserie Heininger for dinner, Costa nearly gets into an argument with a drunk SS man who, unfortunately, follows them to the secret hotel where Byer is being kept. In getting away, Costa is forced to shoot the SS man as he approaches their car.

So, Plan B, which is Costa goes to track down his uncle, old Uncle Anasta, who moved to Paris all those years ago. Amazed to see him, Anasta calls on contacts until Costa meets an amazingly smooth man who is obviously doing very well out of the occupation (the French king of the title) who arranges for them to join an illicit cargo flight which is carrying machine guns to Bulgaria, departing from a foggy field somewhere north of Paris.

Arriving at Sofia airport Costa and Byer are nearly put under arrest until he persuades the captain unloading the crates to phone his old friend, Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives in Sofia. What it is to have friends! Lazareff takes him and Byer for a tasty restaurant lunch, arranges exit visas and later the same day, Costa is back in Salonika, greeted like a hero by his family, handing over Byer to a suspicious Escovil,  before collapsing exhausted onto his bed.

4. Escape from Salonika – 10 February to 5 April 1941

10 February 1941. Back in his office Costa has to deal with some petty cases, then Escovil phones and irritates him by demanding a meeting and then demanding to know exactly how he got Byer out of Paris which – as it involved his uncle and Costa promised the rich Frenchman complete silence – he refuses to do.

Then he plucks up the courage to call Demetria, who he is completely besotted by – but she has gone, left with Vasilou for Athens. But then he opens one among the many letters waiting on his desk to read that she has escaped Athens on the pretext of visiting her mother and is a hotel in a village not 10 miles away. Costa takes a taxi there. They rendezvous in the place’s one shabby hotel. They sit on the bed, sad adulterers. If this was Graham Greene, just this adultery would give rise to hundreds of pages of suicidally-wracked guilt. Being Furst it only takes a glass of retsina before she’s slipping her silk panties over her garter belt and Costa makes the important discovery that her bottom is fuller and rounder than it appeared when she was dressed – and then that she is an ‘avid and eager lover without any inhibitions whatsoever’ with a fondness for fellatio. Lucky Costa. But she is another man’s wife, and not just any man, the richest man in town. This is all a very bad idea.

Next day a phone call out the blue for Roxanne, his former English lover. She drives round to his apartment. No romance, she is all business, every inch the hardened SIS agent. She describes the deteriorating situation in the Balkan countries which, one by one, are being forced to ally with Nazi Germany or will be invaded. One hope is to mount a coup in Belgrade against the pro-Nazi government. If a vehemently anti-Nazi regime can be put in place, the British will support it and that will hold up the Germans. Roxanne has come to ask Costa if he can pull strings, and contribute in a small way to the success of the coup. A wistful farewell and… she is gone!

1 March. King Boris of Bulgaria signs a pact with the Axis Powers and allows German troops to swarm into Bulgaria, not to occupy, to ensure ‘stability’ elsewhere in the Balkans. The border between Greece and Bulgaria is 475 km long.

As March proceeds Hitler threatens Yugoslavia and Costa makes arrangements for his friends and family to flee Greece. He secures visas for his lieutenant Gabi Saltiel and his family, and tells his own family they must go to Alexandria. Without him. He will stay and fight.

Costa takes a train to Belgrade where he meets up with the friend, Pavlic, who he pulled to safety from the bombed schoolhouse all those months previously and, along with a squad of hand-picked Serbian detectives, they carry out the British orders which are to arrest 27 senior Army officers and hold them in preventative custody while the Serb Air Force can carry out a coup, replacing the pro-Nazi government with an anti-Nazi one. Which is what – despite one or two hairy moments – happens.

Emilia is visited by the Gestapo man Hauser who adopts a polite tone but she is not fooled. When her husband returns home they realise they must part. She drives to see her grandfather (very rich) who has secured exit visas. Their chauffeur drives them all the way to the Swiss border which they cross with ease. Well, that was simple.

Costa’s office seems empty without Saltiel. Costa helps his family pack – even his beloved Melissa – then sees them off on a ship bound for Alexandria. Goodbye my beloved family.

A phone call from Demetria. She has finally left Vasilou. She is in a luxury hotel in Salonika. He takes a fast taxi there, runs up to her room, they order champagne, and in a few seconds she is just wearing bra and panties. And so on. It does seem to be a kind of law in these novels, that the men hold guns and the women hold penises.

The end is a sudden clot of plot. An anonymous letter, clearly from Escovil, includes one ticket on the last steamer heading to Alexandria, the Bakir. They go to board but the captain says, trouble with the engines, come back tomorrow. They’re lying in bed in the hotel next morning when the Germans begin bombing the city. The first hits are the ships in the port including the Bakir. They take what they can carry and trot to the train station. It is mayhem but they just about squeeze Demetria on the last train out of town. Costa plans to stay but has to hit a few surly men to get them to let Demetria get a tiny space on the jam-packed steps, so she implores him to stay. Thus it is that Costa ends up hanging onto the handrail by the door, one foot on the platform, almost swinging off at the bends. But instead of stopping at the next stop, the train accelerates through it and the next one, until it reaches the Turkish border. Without wanting to, he has fled Greece.

But Costa and Demetria have no visas and are just being turned away by an unimpressed Turkish official when a weedy little man pops up with Costa’s name on some list which he puts in front of the Turk – who jumps to his feet and salutes Costa! ‘Certainly he and his wife may enter Turkey!’ The little man is an agent of the British and tells an amazed Costa that he is now a captain in the British army! They will be taken to Izmir where they will help to co-ordinate the Greek resistance. They are safe. They will live!

And the little man who saved them? Is none other than the shabby little agent S. Kolb who has cropped up in numerous other Furst novels, helping out various protagonists. When his name is given on the penultimate page, I burst out laughing. It’s like the moment at the end of the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves when the tall knight takes off his helmet to reveal it is – Sean Connery!

Although they deal with terrible events, there is a kind of Steven Spielberg sentimentality to Furst’s novels which means you are never really threatened, upset or afraid.


The political and strategic backgrounds

The timelines in Furst’s novels keep you on your toes regarding your World War Two knowledge and their depth of research into – here – the fast-moving political situation in the Balkans over a six month time period is fascinating.

Above all, the novels make you realise what it felt like day to day to live through the changing and generally grim events of these years. The story we on the British side are told is always very monolithic – Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, Blitz, the Desert War, D-Day, Victory.

Furst’s novels are very well-researched attempts to take you into the maze, the extremely complex mesh, of political developments on the continent, showing the reader the wide range of attitudes or opinions which were available for people to hold. Every European nation had to consider its position vis-a-vis not only the Nazis, but the likelihood of help from the Allies (Britain alone, before the Americans joined in December 1941) or the risk of entanglement with communist Russia. And every individual in those nations had to decide whose side they were on, how long they could delay making a decision, how things would pan out and affect them and their loved ones.

In Salonika, in the morning papers and on the radio, the news was like a drum, a marching drum, a war drum. (p.224)

Shucks, it was nothing

Something that places Furst’s novels a little on the simple side, psychologically, is that in all of them the protagonist is a hero: they may have foreign names but beneath the foreign clothes and foreign food and foreign languages, you can make out the lineaments of a clean-cut, all-American liberal fighting for Truth and Justice. Furst’s heroes abhor Hitler and his bully boys, they instinctively sympathise with the Jews or any other refugees. They are all decent men.

But if there is one thing we know about WW2 it is that it unleashed a very large amount of horrific indecency – betrayal, violence, torture, mass murder. Furst’s heroes not only never really see this, but even if they have minor adventures ‘in the field’, you can rely on them always returning to the healing presence of a round-bottomed young lady in their bed, trailing a winsome finger over lovely female contours, before making inventive love.

The carefree, problem-free sex (no periods, no pregnancy, no venereal disease) are symptomatic of fictions in which the hero encounters various problems, but has no inner problems or complexity. There is an untouchable innocence about the novels which is what makes them so easy and enjoyable to read. The Second World War without tears.

Style

Furst has developed a relaxed easygoing style which easily incorporates the thoughts of the main characters. In the last two novels, however, I’ve noticed the characters starting to say ‘fuck’ quite a lot. I dare say lots of people did say ‘fuck’ or its equivalent during the war, but it is such an Anglo word that rather undermines the effort of setting the stories among foreigners, among Greeks and Turks and Hungarians. Once they all start saying ‘fuck’, they all sound like they’re in an American action movie.

Zannis walked back to the office. Fucking war, he thought. (p.172)

Shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you. (p.183)

Go fuck Germans and see where it gets you, Zannis said to himself. (p.192)

They start to sound like Rambo or Bruce Willis or anyone out of The Godfather. The advent of ‘fuck’ also made me notice the way other aspects of Furst’s style have also become more unbelted, more American. This is a Gestapo officer reviewing his card index of suspects:

He returned to his list and flipped over to the Ks: KREBS, EMILIA and KREBS, HUGO. The latter was marked with a triangle which meant, in Hauser’s system, something like uh-oh. (p.177)

Uh-oh? This makes the supposedly fearsome Gestapo officer sound like a character in Scooby-Doo or The Brady Bunch. And here is Costa, trying to decide whether to phone his mistress at her home, given the risk her husband might be there and might answer the phone:

Zannis’s eye inevitably fell on the telephone. He didn’t dare. Umm, maybe he did. Oh no he didn’t! Oh but yes, he did. (p.175)

The blurbs on the cover talk about Furst’s sophistication but I think they’re confusing descriptions of exotic locations, nice meals in fancy restaurants and women slipping out of their cami-knickers with psychological depth or acuity. In moments like these Furst’s characters come perilously close to being pantomime figures.


Dramatis personae

As always, it’s only when listing them that you realise the scale and breadth of Furst’s imagination in creating such a multiplicity of characters whose paths cross and recross in fascinating webs of intrigue.

  • Constantine ‘Costa’ Zannis, detective in Salonika, a sea port in northern Greece.
  • Gabriel – Gabi – Saltiel, his assistant.
  • Vangelis, head of the Salonika police force.
  • Spiraki, head of the local office of the Geniki Asphakia, the State Security Bureau (p.21).
  • K.L. Stacho, Bulgarian undertaker, somehow mixed up with the mystery German in the first part of the book (p.22).
  • Roxanne Brown, Costa’s sexy English girlfriend, ostensibly head of the Mount Olympus School of Ballet (p.24) though when the Italians invade she is exfiltrated by RAF plane, suggesting she was always some kind of British agent.
  • Laurette, Costa’s lover from way back, from his early years growing up in Paris.
  • Balthazar, owner of a popular restaurant in Vardar Square (p.24).
  • Sibylla, the stern clerk in Costa’s office (p.27).
  • Ivan Lazareff, chief of detectives up in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria (p.28).
  • Emilia ‘Emmi’ Krebs, née Adler, rich Jewess from Berlin, who entreats Costa to smuggle into Turkey two Jewish children (Nathaniel and Paula) she’s brought with her all the way from Berlin (p.30).
  • Ahmet Celebi the Turkish consul (p.35).
  • Madam Urglu, ‘in her fifties, pigeon-chested and stout’, Celebi’s secretary (p.37), in reality the Turkish legation’s intelligence officer (p.142).
  • Elias, king of Salonika’s poets (p.41).
  • Francis Escovil, English travel writer Roxanne introduces to Costa, pretty obviously a spy (p.44).
  • Captain Marko Pavlic, Costa’s liaison counterpart from the Yugoslav General Staff (p.74).
  • Behar, young illiterate Greek thief, bribed to place a white sheet on the roof of the schoolhouse which has been commandeered by Greek soldiers after the invasion, which acts as a marker for dive bombers who score a direct hit on it, wounding Costa and Pavlic, and killing many others (p.80).
  • Anastasia ‘Tasia’ Loukas, who works at Salonika city hall, former lover with a bisexual twist (p.94).
  • Sami Pal, Hungarian crook in Salonika, dealing in forged passports among other things (p.103)
  • Gustav Husar aka Gypsy Gus, head of Sami’s gang in Budapest (p.107).
  • Ilka, once beautiful, still sexy, owner of the bar where Gypsy Gus does business (p.119)
  • Nikolaus Vasilou, richest man in Salonika (p.120).
  • Demetria, Vasilou’s stunning goddess wife (p.122).
  • Herr and Frau Gruen, rich Jews helped by Emmi Krebs to flee Berlin, given the names Herr and Frau Hartmann (p.123).
  • The vindictive woman who picks up on the fact the Hartmanns lied when they said they were going to Frau H’s mother’s funeral, and confronts them on the boat to Hungary (p.127).
  • Man wearing a maroon tie who follows Akos and the Hartmanns to their cheap hotel and who Akos scares off by slicing the tie with his razor sharp knife (p.131).
  • Akos (Hungarian for white falcon), psychotic young fixer for Gypsy Gus (p.119).
  • Haupsturmführer Albert Hauser, dutiful officer in the Gestapo sent to arrest the Gruen / Hartmanns a few days after they arrive safely in Salonika (p.135).
  • Traudl, Hauser’s departmental secretary, a ‘fading blonde’, ‘something of a dragon’ (p.177)
  • Untersturmführer Matzig, Hauser’s devoted Nazi assistant (p.136).
  • Colonel Simonides, of the Royal Hellenic Army General Staff, gives a speech to the top 50 people in Salonika, including Costa, explaining that sooner or later the Germans will intervene to support the Italians and will win and occupy Greece. Everyone in the room should prepare for that event (p.148).
  • Jones and Wilkins, two British Secret Intelligence Service operatives who arrive in a yacht from Alexandria, compel a meeting with Francis Escovil, and surprise him by handing him a mission to smuggle a British scientist out of Paris (p.160).
  • Harry Byer, British scientist, pioneer of location finding radio beams who foolishly enlisted in the RAF and got shot down over France. Smuggled by the resistance to a safe house in Paris. Jones and Wilkins want Escovil to use Costa to smuggle him out (p.161).
  • Moises, ancient Sephardic Jew who owns the best gunshop in Salonika (p.171)
  • Didi, French aristocratic woman who is Costa’s contact in Paris, and takes him to dinner at the Brasserie Heininger, then onto the hotel where Byer is being hidden (p.180).
  • The Brasserie Heininger. Like the Fonz saying Heeeeey or Captain Kirk saying ‘Beam me up Scotty’, this is the scene the audience waits for in every Furst novel, the appearance of this fictional up-market restaurant. Here Costa is taken to lunch there by his contact in the French Resistance and, as always, they are seated at table 14, the one with the bullet hole from the shootout which featured in the first novel in the series, Night Soldiers.
  • The drunken SS officer who nearly picks a fight with Costa at the Heininger.
  • French aristocrat guarding Byer at the Paris hotel (p.185). Typically, Costa guesses that Didi and this officer are lovers.
  • Uncle Anastas, Costa’s uncle who stayed on in Paris minding a second hand store in the vast flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt (p.194). He is astonished to see his nephew, then earnestly sets about using his contacts to get him smuggled out of Paris.
  • The unnamed friend of a friend who looks like a French king, smoothly accepts the $4,000 Costa gives him, and explains the process for being flown out of France (p.197).
  • An emigre Greek who drives them up to a field north of Paris (p.199).
  • The Serbian (?) pilot of the plane which flies them to Sofia (p.200).
  • Vlatko, a bulky pale-haired Serb detective who Pavlic elects his number two when he and Costa set about rounding up potential Army opponents of the Yugoslav coup (p.239).

Credit

Spies of The Balkans by Alan Furst was published in 2010 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Phoenix 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. (390 pages)
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. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative secures priceless documents indicating german plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans The adventures of Costa Zannis, senior detective in the north Greek port of Salonika, who is instrumental in setting up an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Eastern Europe down into Greece and then on into neutral Turkey. The story is set against the attempted Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940) through to the German invasion (23 April 1941).
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré (2010)

‘Well, fuck, said Hector happily.
‘Fuck indeed,’ Perry agreed, bemused. (p.88)

Plot

Perry and Gail

Thirty-something Oxford tutor, Peregrine ‘Perry’ Makepeace, and his girlfriend, the beautiful, rising star barrister, Gail (immediately reminiscent of the beautiful, rising star journalist, Penelope, in The Mission Song), are on holiday in Antigua.

Gail is a stunner (‘Men fell in love with her all the time’, p.181). Perry, we are told, rather adventurously, went to a State school – gosh – but seeing as he is a famous tennis player, and a famous mountain climber, who is also passionate about cricket, looks good in his Oxford bags, and says ‘chaps’ and ‘fellows’ a lot, he actually sounds like all le Carré’s other public school heroes. In fact, the characters’ lexicons quickly transport us back to the 1950s of the black-and-white St Trinians movies.

As a small example, there’s an Australian tennis coach at the resort who takes Perry under his wing but sounds like no Australian I’ve ever met, more like a diamond geezer from a 1950s crime caper.

‘Thank you, Perry, no doubles for Dima, I’m afraid,’ he interjected smartly. ‘Our friend here plays singles only, correct, sir? You’re a self-reliant man. You like to be responsible for your own errors, you told me once. Those were your very words to me not so long ago, and I’ve taken them to heart… Perry, I do not believe you should be reluctant to take this gentleman on,’ Mark insisted, ramming his case home. ‘If I was a betting man, I’d be pushed which of you to favour, and that’s a living fact.’ (p.9)

Australian? Similarly, the maitre d’ at the hotel is named Ambrose but since, in le Carré land, no character goes without a facetious nickname or adjective for very long, he swiftly becomes ‘the venerable Ambrose’ (p.48).

This habit of giving every character a larky adjective (‘the immaculate Gail’,  ‘Ace Operator Perry’ p.77) and then making them speak with improbably plumminess or butler-like servility, quickly makes the whole book feel like a P.G. Wodehouse novel with, admittedly, a lot of modern swear words thrown in. As if aware of this, JLC has the characters explicitly reference PGW on p.94:

Precisely, Bertie,’ Perry agreed in his best Wodehousian, and they found time for a quick laugh.

Dima

It is Perry’s demon tennis-playing which gets him introduced to a stocky, charismatic, over-friendly Russian named Dima. Perry and Dima have a sweaty singles match, with Dima effing and blinding all the way through, as he goes on to do throughout the rest of the novel.

Next day the couple find themselves invited to join Dima’s extended family on the beach, getting to know his reclusive, religious wife Tamara, the stroppy twin boys and the beautiful, pubescent Natasha. Ice cream and cricket on the beach are followed by an invitation to a party at Dima’s villa that evening.

Here Perry and Gail are surprised to find themselves ushered into a remote room up in the windy attic of the building and handed a piece of paper while Dima signs them not to speak and they realise he is worried about being bugged and recorded.

On the paper, Dima has written a long message claiming that he has invaluable information he wants to give to the British government in return for asylum in Britain for him and his family. Gail is taken aside by Tamara, leaving the men alone, and Dima gives Perry a small package which turns out to contain a tape cassette to give to ‘the right people’ back in England. Then they all go on to the party.

After the party, back at their holiday apartment, a bewildered Perry and Gail decide to cut short their holiday and return to Britain. Being a lecturer at Oxford, Perry has heard about a fellow tutor who, rumour says, makes ‘approaches’ to his undergraduates on behalf of the security services. Perry goes and tells him his story; the don listens, then gives Perry a phone number. Perry rings it and is put through to ‘Adam’ who instructs him to a) write his own account of the proceedings b) expect a taxi driven by ‘Ollie’ who will collect him and Gail and drive them to a basement flat in Bloomsbury.

Perry and Gail’s debriefing

Here the couple undergo an immensely detailed ‘debriefing’, in which their ‘handlers’, Luke and Yvonne, force them to relive every word, every inflection, every facial expression of every single exchange they had with Dima and with each other during the Antigua trip.

This is le Carré’s forté, the detailed presentation of the debriefing and recruitment process, a process we know from his biography that he actually carried out himself when he worked for the security service in the 1950s. But whereas in, say, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the reader is only slowly and cannily allowed insights into the cunning conspiracy being carried out by the disgruntled spy, Leamas, and so is on tenterhooks throughout his interrogation by East German security – here, we don’t yet know how much, if anything, is at stake, and so these long opening pages contain no tension.

Lacking this, we are left with the characters of the posh young couple and quickly become irritated by their bickering and nerviness, especially Gail’s bitchiness. Her feminist unhappiness that Dima chose to speak to Perry alone, and that Perry then refused to reveal what was said at that private meeting, comes out in the sustained use of italicised emphases:

‘It’s true. I felt appointed by him. Over-promoted is more like it. Actually, I don’t know what I felt any more.’ (p.50)

In her leaden sarcasm:

‘You listening, Gail?’
What the fuck d’you think I’m doing? Singing ‘The Mikado’? (p.75)

And her improbable mimicking of the voices of everyone concerned – Dima, Tamara, Perry himself – so that she comes across as a rather demented Mike Yarwood. Not helped by her mannerism of ending almost every paragraph with the tag, ‘didn’t we, Perry?’ Gail is meant to be a rising star barrister but quickly comes across as a petulant, spoiled 14-year-old.

‘Perry! Stop! Come back! Stay here! I’m the fucking lawyer here, not you.’ (p.75)

Hector Meredith

At the end of these sessions, disgruntled Gail is told to go (again), leaving Perry with Luke and Yvonne. At this point they reveal that their boss has been listening, upstairs, to the couple’s debriefing. Now he pads downstairs to meet Perry in person.

The boss is called Hector Makepeace and he is an extraordinarily old-fashioned, 1950s type of fellow, who overwhelms the text with his blustering, hail-fellow-well-met manner, his bolshy, anti-modern Britain attitude, and his copious, ceaseless swearing.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what you are, Mr Perry Makepeace, sir,’ he asserted, as if he’d reached the conclusion they had both been waiting for. ‘You’re an absolute fucking hero, is what you are’ – seizing Perry’s hand in a flaccid double grip and giving it a limp shake – ‘and that’s not smoke up your arse.’ (p.87)

‘Smoke up your arse’? ‘And that’s a living fact’? On every page the prose is studded with heroically out-of-date slang. Although the narrative is set in the Noughties, the lexicon is a combination of Dixon of Dock Green livened up by The Sweeny. The monotonous, continuous use of ‘fuck’, many times on every page, quickly becomes wearing. Pages 75 to 77:

‘Jesus Perry. I’m fucking scared…I’m the fucking lawyer here…For fuck sake, it’s me, Gail…What the fuck is going on between you two…What the fuck d’you think I’m doing… what the fuck are you trying to tell me… Tamara didn’t speak, Perry. Not one solitary fucking word… absolutely fuck-all passed between Tamara and myself… either mind your own fucking business or tell me what Dima said to you.’

I laughed out loud when Hector is described as a ‘maverick’ (p.124). Just like the swearing, blustering ‘maverick’, Bachmann, in the previous novel, Hector is the ‘legendary’ subject of the same kind of ‘rumour mill’ (p.125) and ‘ground-floor gossips’ (p.145) and ‘office wits’ (p.163) that all JLC’s sweary mavericks inspire. He even has devoted ‘Hector-watchers’ (p.126), as there are ‘Bachmann-watchers’ and watchers of each of this character type in all the novels going back to Tinker, Tailor (and even turn out to be ‘Perry watchers’, on page 180). It’s as if every JLC character comes trailing a retinue of adoring followers, like a supermodel or film star.

Hector explains himself:

‘You’re on record as believing that our green and pleasant land is in dire need of saving from itself. I happen to share that opinion. I’ve studied the disease. I’ve lived in the swamp. It is my informed conclusion that we are suffering, as an ex-great nation, from top-down corporate rot. And that’s not just a judgement of an ailing old fart. A lot of people in my Service make a profession of not seeing things in black and white. Do not confuse me with them. I’m a late-onset, red-toothed radical with balls. Still with me?’ (p.119)

No, frankly. This is worthless as any kind of political analysis, and it just confirms your opinion of Hector – who is the lynchpin and centre of the plot – as, well, an ailing old fart. Is this how the author sees himself – a late-arriving radical, a maverick, the man who tells it like he sees it, damn the consequences and that’s not smoke up your arse?

There is a bit of sub-plot thrown in whereby Hector, a few years earlier, took leave from the Service to fight off the aggressive takeover of his family firm by dastardly corporate raiders. His battle made the press, in which he is described as ‘a doughty lone warrior’ fighting off ‘vulture capitalists’ (p.126), depicted as the kind of gentlemanly, paternalistic, tweedy business owner that went extinct in the 1950s. So the reader is not at all surprised to learn that the doughty warrior is ‘a stubborn technophobe’ (p.145).

A man, in other words, completely unsuitable for the 21st century world he finds himself in, who is not trusted or respected by his superiors and who, as we shall see, embarks on a ramshackle security mission which completely fails.

With Hector we get our first introduction to the office politics of the security services, insofar as this wild ‘maverick’ has trouble getting his superiors on-board for his projects (just as Bachmann had trouble with his bosses in the previous novel).

This is especially true of the Head of his Department, William J. Matlock. Since no le Carré character goes un-nicknamed (just like back at prep school), Matlock is immediately referred to as Billy Boy Matlock or plain ‘Bully Boy’ (p.130). From the start Hector conveys the sense that there are wheels within wheels at the security service, and that he is struggling against official scepticism, bureaucratic inertia, and worse, to get the Dima project signed off.

Dima’s career

Through all Hector’s bluster and swearing, it emerges that the security services know about Dima and have a good record of his career. For Dima is currently the finance officer for the seven brotherhoods which dominate the Russian crime underworld. As a youth he was imprisoned in the harshest possible labour camp in the Kolyma region of Siberia. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for murdering a military administrator who frequented his horrible state-built family apartment, and who ushered him and the other kids out of the apartment while he screwed their mother, very noisily, so that the rest of the floor could hear it all. Until teenage Dima snapped and stabbed him to death. (As with Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, every reference to ordinary life in Russia makes it sound unbearably awful.)

In the Kolyma camp Dima got covered in underworld tattoos, and became a vor or member of a criminal brotherhood. Once released and back in Moscow, his natural aptitude for figures, and the contacts he made in prison, saw him rise through the ranks of his particular brotherhood, before becoming financial manager for the Big Seven, going on to create a vast international money-laundering operation of which he is now the lynchpin.

But now things are going wrong for Dima. A shadowy underworld figure referred to only as ‘the Prince’ (p.147) is taking over the brotherhoods and he wants to replace Dima with his own man. Dima is being forced to sign over his control of all the gangs’ finances, in two separate tranches which are coming up very soon, whereupon he knows he will be ‘whacked’.

The net is closing in very fast and violently. A protege of his, a vor he mentored named Misha, who had married Tamara’s sister (an ex-hooker) and so became family, was assassinated just a week before Perry and Gail met Dima. Hence the air of tension about the whole family which they both noticed, the bodyguards, the silent meeting in the attic of the villa. And why Misha’s newly orphaned children were among the large family group Gail, in particular, found herself entertaining on the beach.

All this explains Dima’s desperate approach to the first half-reputable Englishman he could find – the unfortunate Perry. And clarifies the whole following sequence of events – Perry approaching his fellow tutor, phoning Hector, writing his account and now, meeting Hector.

What Perry hadn’t told Gail – and part of the reason for her resentment at his secrecy – is that Dima insists that, when he meets representatives of British security, Perry and Gail are present as a guarantee for his safety. Hector now offers Perry his proposition: do he and Gail want to work for him, and British intelligence, on a dangerous mission, namely to help smuggle Dima and his family away from the Russian mafia, out of the Continent, to safety here in Blighty?

Perry returns to Gail’s flat and puts the proposition to her. She thinks of Dima’s girls. She thinks of the beautiful Natasha. She says yes.

Conspiracy at the highest levels

Dima has insisted that Gail and Perry rendezvous with him in a box to watch the French Open Tennis championship at the Roland-Garros stadium in Paris on June 7. So the team must be in place by then.

Hector meets with his boss, Matlock and plays him Dima’s tape, which contains hot information about the far-reaching criminal activities of the seven brotherhoods, some of which include British officials.

Then, a whole new arena in our understanding of the situation opens up, with the screening of video footage taken by British security agents of a party held aboard a luxury yacht given by ‘the Prince’ and featuring a rogues gallery of crooks AND a senior figure in the British Opposition (ie Labour) party, who happens to be charged with overseeing banking reform and regulation, AND Aubrey Longrigg, Matlock’s predecessor as senior executive in MI6 itself!

Once again in a le Carré late fiction, Britain’s darkest enemy seems to be inside the ranks of its own ‘Establishment’: as in The Night Manager where the evil arms smuggler was shown to have supporters within the security services, as in The Mission Song where an illegal African coup was mounted with the help of ‘elements’ of the British security services.

Same here. Hector is playing a ‘dangerous’ game by trying to secure Dima’s defection, since the Russian’s confession will implicate some very influential people indeed, people who will pull every string to make the mission fail or to silence Dima.

The plan

While these high-level machinations trundle on, Gail and Perry undergo a detailed preparation for their role in the great Dima defection, an abbreviated course in spy skills given by Ollie and Luke. (Throughout the book we hear more and more about Luke, about his unhappy marriage and his multiple affairs and indiscretions. He is quickly ‘little Luke’ and moves on to being described as ‘randy little Luke’, not least because he rather too overtly fancies Gail, another string in her bow of permanent irritation.)

Gail and Perry are flown to Paris, put up at a hotel and the next day, as arranged, accidentally-on-purpose, bump into Dima in one of the shopping malls outside the Roland-Garros stadium.

Dima is accompanied by a large group of Russian mafiosi, including the Prince himself, and a number of western courtiers, including the over-the-top ‘queen’, Bunny Popham, the sinister Italian fixer, Dell Oro, and a former Royal Navy officer, de Salis, now PR man for the Prince in the City of London.

Dima is being kept under the beady watch of sundry heavies but gaily invites Gail and Perry to join him in their luxury box for the big game featuring Roger Federer (since all the best Society events nowadays have special boxes for the Russian mafia).

Out of all these courtesies and invitations, it is somehow agreed that Dima and ‘the Professor’ will play a little amateur match (after everyone has enjoyed the big one with Federer) on one of the small, private courts. It is pouring down with rain, but they decide to proceed anyway and the group of criminal VIPs, their hookers and hangers-on, as well as the armed hoods watching his every move, don’t seem to find this suspicious.

But in fact this match is an elaborate excuse for Dima to go with Perry down to a subterranean ‘massage room’ where Hector is waiting – to introduce himself to Dima, and ask him vital questions about the timing of his signing over of his fiduciary powers, to explain how they’re planning to snatch him, to quiz him about his family who are still back in Switzerland and how they will be brought to safety.

Hector and Dima shake hands on the deal, then Dima and Perry sally out to play their rather silly game of tennis in the rain. Once it’s over, both players return to the ‘massage room’, where Hector and Dima make final arrangements – before both players return, showered and changed, to the hoods drinking champagne in their box.

The snatch

Next day our team are in place – as in an episode of Mission Impossible – at the Bellevue Palace Hotel, which is where the Russian contingent is staying.

Luke is in the lobby, posing as an innocent bystander tapping away on his laptop. When Dima comes downstairs with the Prince and other heavies he asks to go for a pee in what happens to be the downstairs toilet. Down he goes, followed by Luke, who none of the Russkies know or suspect. As they turn a corner and are hidden from view of the mafia, in one fell swoop Luke clobbers one of Dima’s two minders with his laptop, while Dima turns, punches and savagely kicks the other one to the ground.

They flee out the back door – carefully unlocked in advance – jump into the car stashed in a nearby car park, roar out onto the street and are well on their way to the remote Alpine village of Wenden, before the Russkies realise anything is wrong.

Collecting the family

Meanwhile, Gail and Perry have been driven by Ollie, in a horsebox as a disguise, to Berne, where Dima has told us his family are staying. Here they hurriedly load up Tamara, the boys et al. Except that the beautiful teen Natasha is not there! That morning she had asked her bodyguard, Igor, to drive her to the station. Gail – who had formed a close bond with Natasha on the beach and then carried on exchanging messages by text and phone – volunteers to track the teenager down and bring her to the safe house.

Reluctantly, Perry and Ollie leave her and drive the rest of the family direct to the house in Wenden. What Gail knows that none of the others do – because they’ve discussed it in text messages – is that Natasha is pregnant by her ski instructor, Max. Gail knows the ski resort where Max lives and has a shrewd idea that’s where Natasha has gone.

After taking the train there, Gail asks around and quickly finds the house of the dashing instructor, and there finds a miserable Natasha cowering on the sofa. She has discovered that her Alpine Adonis is in fact married with a child of his own and is being offered tea by his kindly wife, all unawares of the situation. Ah. Teenage love. Gail gently removes Natasha and transports her via a series of trains towards the safe house and to the rendezvous with the main party.

Tension

Now that the 250 pages of meetings and interviews are over, and that something is actually happening, these last forty pages of the novel become genuinely tense. For a start the various cars driven by Ollie et al – and Gail and Natasha on their train – seem to be stopped and asked for their tickets or their passes or their car permits, more than is strictly necessary.

They become convinced that some kind of alert is out for them, even though no law has been broken. The text powerfully conveys the strong suspicion that the Swiss authorities have been tipped off by – might even be collaborating with – the Russian mafia. At each stopping, as the police kick the tyres and ask for the boot to be opened and then stare at them for a long time as they drive off, JLC very effectively builds up the tension and the certainty in the reader’s mind that one or all of them will be arrested, assassinated, blown up – that something terrible is going to happen.

Delay

Gail, Perry, Luke, Ollie, Dima and his family are now all holed up in a remote Swiss chalet awaiting the signal for them to be shipped to England. And wait. And wait.

Because the running thread through the book describing Hector’s struggles with his superiors – with his boss Matlock, and the people above him, and also the baleful influence of Longrigg and other shadowy figures – now comes to the fore.

Hector phones the team from London, bitterly reporting delays, with the Home Office, passport, immigration, HMRC, all putting blockers in the way. Meanwhile, the hours turn into days, day after day, of tense waiting and diminishing hope for Dima, his family and the team.

In their conversations, JLC is at pains to bring out the theme of all his post-Cold War fiction, that the Enemy Within, the greed and corruption inside the so-called ‘Establishment’, which infects the higher reaches of British society – Parliament, the banks, corporate lawyers, multinational corporations – is at least as bad as the Enemy Outside, terrorism or international crime.

Thus it is strongly implied that a cohort of 40 or so MPs, a number of buyable Lords, the Financial Services Authority, parts of the Press guided by PR consultants, have all been bought and paid for by the Russian mafia. As one character puts it, at a period of crippling credit crunch, any money – even Russian mafia money – is good, especially if it comes in billions.

Eventually, Hector tells Luke and Perry that he’s got conditional approval to fly Dima to London and that, if Dima’s information satisfies the security services and other stakeholders, then the family can follow.

Perry accompanies Luke and Dima to the tiny private airport at Belp, near the safe house, and there are last hugs and handshakes. He notes that Dima seems a shrunk, lost man, having abandoned hope over these last soul-sapping days.

Fin

Dima and ‘randy little Luke’ board the plane and Perry watches it take off, bank and then blow up. BOOM. The flaming fragments falling to the snowy earth. That’s the end. There’s a page giving an impartial record of the ‘official enquiries’ held into the ‘incident’ which speculate about ‘instrument failure’ or ‘pilot error’. Oh well. Nothing at all about Perry or Gail or Ollie or Yvonne or the rest of Dima’s family or Hector.

Just a cold bleak end.


Reader response

So a high-level Russian mafiosi is murdered. Do I care? Nope. Will Gail and Perry go back to their normal lives, sadder and wiser? Yes. Will Hector the maverick’s career be damaged, maybe finished? Probably, but he is ‘an ailing old fart’, anyway. Is it sad to see ‘randy little Luke’ blown to pieces? Yes, but he was as tiresome as all the other characters.

In fact, the only people I felt anything for were the two unnamed pilots of the plane who were, presumably, totally innocent of any involvement in anything and are the most genuine victims of the whole book.

Am I scared or concerned that ‘senior figures’ in the Establishment are somehow ‘in cahoots’ with possibly criminal elements of the Russian mafia? Once I’ve put the book down and the sense of fear generated by the clever writing towards the end has faded away – No. I can well imagine MPs and Lords working as consultants for companies which are ‘fronts’ for dubious activities – they’ve done that for centuries.

All of us know that our banks have been involved in countless criminal activities, from selling us PPI to laundering drug money – so no surprises there. Do I believe that the British Security Services engage in illegal and criminal activities? Well, we know they bugged and burgled their way across London for decades, and Edward Snowden’s revelations proved the astonishing degree of their surveillance over us, and we’ve known about the US-UK policy of extraordinary rendition for some time.

So, although JLC is outraged at these travesties, he seems to have discovered them a long time after the rest of us. The one claim that stands out from these books, is that some elements of the British Security Services actively conspire against other elements in the same services, to collaborate with international criminals and to quash investigations into their activities. But again, since 9/11 and the decision to invade Iraq, it’s become common knowledge that different security organisations don’t talk to each other, withhold information, are poorly co-ordinated, and so on. That this sometimes crosses the line into actively criminal behaviour would require more proof than a novel.

No matter how serious, complicated and well-documented many of these issues are, in imaginative terms, I’d say these books fail to convince you because – whatever the facts of the matter – the style of these novels all too often makes the characters seem absurd.


Style

This is because every aspect of the style is overblown.

Legendary characters

From the get-go the characters are ‘legendary’, ‘fabled’, ‘famous’, much talked-about, the subject of the ubiquitous ‘gossips’ and ‘rumour mills’, with sets of ‘watchers’ devoted to monitoring their every move, as if they are film stars or celebrities.

Where are they legendary? In the world they move in? Or in the author’s mind, where he creates theatres of overacting?

  • … Perry says, parading his fabled powers of recall. (p.35)
  • Perry on guard over his celebrated memory. (p.47)
  • He was renowned for his ability to quote tracts of English literature on the strength of a single read. (p.58)
  • His surprise had been all the greater therefore when a month into his sentence he lifted the phone that hardly ever rang to hear himself being summoned by Hector Meredith to lunch with him forthwith at his famously dowdy London club (p.123). ‘Forthwith’?
  • Was it because Longrigg and Matlock had for years been famously at daggers drawn? (p.163)
  • Hector’s fabled nerve (p.152)
  • a view of the fabled Lauterbrunnen Valley (p.276)

The ringmaster presents!

The narrative introduces characters with the facetious over-ripeness of a circus ringmaster – the eminent this, the legendary that, introducing for your deelight and deelectation none other than the one and only, world famous Mr Mafia Himself!!!! Or, as Dima’s become by page 277:

The world’s number-one money-launderer.

The circus master idea is made explicit late in the novel, when the text refers to ‘Giles de Salis, ringmaster of the media circus’ (p.282). Is le Carré consciously parodying this bombastic manner? Why? It’s one of the many ways in which there is no subtlety or nuance in these late novels. Everyone is performing grand, larger-than-life roles.

Another aspect is the way all the characters accumulate a large number of descriptors:

Perry the English tutor (p. 35) Perry as capsule historian (p.109) Perry the puritan (p.48) Perry the climber of north face overhangs (p.54) Perry the devoted mountaineer (p.299)

Gail the actress’s daughter, Gail the barrister (p.184) the immaculate Gail (p.94)

Little Luke, randy little Luke, Luke the conciliator, adept little Luke, dapper Luke, little B-list Luke, Luke the habitual worrier (p.276), Luke the good man on a rope (p.304)

Mocking sobriquets

Giving all the characters facetious tags is very double-edged. Sometimes the tone is one of reckless over-promotion; but at least as often it smacks of public school mockery. The tags which attach themselves like limpets to the characters, are often mocking, knowing, superior, dismissive.

  • Nine p.m. approx. Supper arrives, wheeled in not by any old room-service waiter, but the venerable Ambrose himself. (p.32)
  • ‘This very fine bottle of champagne comes to you folk courtesy of the one and only Mr Dima himself.’ (p.32)
  • the hallowed archives (p.140)
  • Yvonne, our Iron Maiden (p.138)

These larky adjectives don’t help the plot at all. Maybe they’re intended to add depth to the characters but they do the opposite, turning all of them into caricatures:

  • Deft little Luke papering over the gaps (p.38)
  • Genial Ollie the driver (p.40)
  • Little Luke ever the conciliator (p.49)
  • Perry the innocent (p.146)

Two of the Prince’s entourage are never named but Gail immediately makes up nicknames for them – Peter and the Wolf – which everyone agrees are jolly apt, and that’s how they’re referred to for the rest of the book. Similarly, one of Dima’s minders is a lean lanky man and Gail nicknames him ‘the cadaverous philosopher’, which is how he’s referred to for the rest of the book.

Everyone is infected with the same kind of facetious public school banter. For example, Hector is referred to as the team’s ‘supreme leader’ (p.85), the head of HR is referred to as ‘the queen of Human Resources’ (p.124).

Because Gail is not going to be available for work during ‘the mission’, she texts her chambers to get a colleague to cover for her. The colleague is named Helga, but these facts aren’t enough for the narrative, which immediately caricatures her:

Helga her bête noire? Man-eating Helga of the fishnet stockings who played the Chambers’ male silks like a lyre. (p.214)

JLC doesn’t just show his characters – he is continually poking you in the chest, nudging your elbow and crowding you into accepting his caricature estimation of them. And I intensely dislike being bullied by a book, instead of being allowed to judge and work out for myself. It is condescending. It insults the reader’s intelligence to be continually nudged and reminded that Luke is little or randy, that Yvonne is stern, that Gail is immaculate, and so on and on and on and on.

Italics

The overblown effect of the characters is reinforced by the liberal use of italics to emphasise random parts of the characters’ dialogue.

  • Perry wasn’t signing when he signed the form, he was joining. (p.34)
  • ‘After picking her way delicately over the sand for all eyes to see, she then settles herself languidly under the furthest sunshade of the row and begins her terribly serious reading. Right, Perry?’ (p.35)
  • ‘Her whole body was like a warning sign in black and red. Forget Dima, I thought. This is really something. And of course I was still wondering what her problem was. Because boy, did she have one.’ (p.57)

There are scads of italics on every page, which so often emphasise trivial and insignificant details that they not only become dreadfully wearing to read, but eventually teach the reader to ignore half the things the characters are saying.

Public school tags

Adding to the tone of heavy-handed public school facetiousness, the text is sprinkled with tags from the Bible or popular classics, knowing references to clichés from hymns or the Bible or Shakespeare.

  • The Lord is in his heaven (p.122)
  • in heaven or on earth (p.139)
  • ‘our green and pleasant land’ (p.119)

It is a recurrent habit for the most pompous characters to add ‘Amen’ to the end of any grand or definitive sentence.

Humour

Similarly, the text tries to bully you into thinking things are funny when they aren’t. Every one of these later novels has a scene where protagonists discourse in a restaurant or lecture room or bar to an audience which falls about ‘hooting’ with laughter, who interrupt the speech with gales of hysterical mirth, who explode with laughter – when nothing funny has actually been said.

  • [Dima] ‘You know Jack London? Number one English writer?’ [Perry] ‘Not personally.’ It was a joke. (p.23)
  • [Niki the driver] ‘To cut undergrowth you got to have big knife.’.. ‘I wish we had, Niki,’ Gail cries, still in her father’s skin. ‘I’m afraid we English never carry knives.’ What gibberish am I talking? Never mind. Talk it. ‘Well, some of us do, to be truthful, but not people like us. We’re the wrong social class. You’ve heard about our class system? Well, in England you only carry a knife if you’re lower-middle or below!’ And more hoots of laughter.. (p.74) Hoots.
  • ‘Is this the Men’s Singles Final or the Battle of Borodino?’ [Dima] shouts gaily, pointing at Napoleon’s troops. She makes him say it again, lets out a hoot of laughter, and squeezes his hand. (p.197) Hoot
  • ‘Do I sound like a scoutmaster?’ ‘I’ll say you do,’ said Perry… ‘Good,’ said Hector complacently to jolly laughter (p.209) I’ll say
  • Dell Oro was asking Bunny Popham whether it was too early for champagne and Bunny was saying it depended on the vintage. Everyone exploded with laughter (p.220) Exploded
  • Bunny Popham, queen of the roost, is addressing the unwashed. ‘Our brave gladiators have finally agreed to grace us with their presence. Let us all immediately adjourn to the Arena!’ A patter of knowing laughter for Arena. ‘There are no lions today, apart from Dima. No Christians either, unless the Professor is one, which I can’t vouch for.’ More laughter. (p.227)

Humour is difficult in a novel, but this novel’s consistent promising of humour and consistent failure to deliver it, adds to the sense of untrustworthy over-reaching, of a book which says it is a subtle indictment of corruption at the highest levels, but feels like a collection of posh caricatures swearing and doing funny voices.

Dated

The characters either sound like 1950s servants or 1950s debutantes.

  • [Gail] ‘And I mean honestly, try buying decent wrapping paper in St John’s, Antigua.’ (p.51)
  • If they had been looking for adventure, the Nature Path alone would have provided it. They must have been the first people to use if for simply years. (p.52) Simply years.

Dixon of Dock Green servility:

  • ‘All the same,’ said Luke, ‘If you don’t mind, sir.’ (p.58)
  • ‘And you an experienced lawyer, if I may say so.’ (p.60)

Posh

JLC emphasises that the two lead characters went to State school (golly, the daring). But in imaginative terms they are just the same upper-class, pukka characters as swan around all his late novels. Gail has a nice flat in Primrose Hill, her brother likes shooting pheasants in the country with his rich friends, she talks about her and Perry’s ‘Brideshead look’, how good he looks in flannels, and says ‘daahhling’ as liberally as Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. The text is more at home with Luke who went to Eton (are there any other schools, darling?) and his wife, the French aristocrat. She’s the one who gives the MI6 building at Vauxhall the terrifically funny nickname of La Lubyanka sur Tamise (p.141), the Lubyanka on the Thames. It’s so terrifically funny because it’s in French, you see.

The fact that Perry’s an Oxford don doesn’t shed much light on teaching English at Oxford, but it does mean that:

a) he is comfortable in JLC’s own posh, pukka, upper-class milieu, and so can confidently discuss Dima’s unrealistic request to get his children into Eton and Roedean schools
b) his supposedly ‘flawless’, academic memory is a naked authorly contrivance which enables him to repeat vast stretches of his initial conversations with Dima to Hector verbatim, allowing the scene to be told in the book’s long opening flashback
c) it allows all the characters to refer to him, in typical cartoon style, as ‘the Professor’, and for the narrative to make plays on his profession: thus Hector jokes that Perry’s written account of the meeting with Dima is an ‘alpha plus’ essay, Hector refers to his retelling of events as his ‘recitation’ and ‘lecture’, his interview is referred to as his ‘viva voce‘ and so – leadenly – on.

Conclusion

All these elements, taken together, amount to a tone of permanent overemphasis and exaggeration which can accurately be described as ‘bombast’ – defined as ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

The sustained use of sarcasm and facetiousness, the shouty italics and the overselling of every character, the use of swearing and bluster where there should be thought or analysis, all give the impression that someone is shouting at you for hours on end. It becomes very wearing and dulls any interest in the storyline which – once abstracted from the bombastic style and improbable dialogue – is actually quite gripping.

You can see why a lot of these later novels have been successfully turned into TV dramatisations or movies. By changing medium you at a stroke remove the intolerably mannered style; all you have to do then is completely rewrite all the dialogue, as if it’s spoken by real people living in the 21st century – and the resulting storylines emerge as very compelling.

My little pony

Almost all John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels contain a my-little-pony moment, where a lead character reveals their ineluctably upper-class childhood with a sentimental reminiscence about the little pony their parents bought them. The reference in  this novel is shorter than usual, but still works as a marker, indicating the pukka nature of Gail’s character and – by extension – of the text as a whole.

Early on in the story Gail is on the beach with Dima’s extended family, supervised by an older man who Gail has, of course, given a nickname – in this case ‘Uncle Vanya’ after the Chekhov play:

Uncle Vanya from Perm is up his ladder with the family-sized pistol in his belt and Natasha – whose name is a challenge to Gail every time she approaches it; she has to gather herself together and make a clean jump of it like horse-riding at school – Natasha is lying the other end of the beach in splendid isolation. (p.41)

‘Like horse-riding at school’.

The subject matter of this novel is very 2010, with its vision of a crime-infested Russia whose money has reached out to corrupt western banks and politicians and even the security services.

But the style and the text itself keep reverting to a jolly hockeysticks mentality and prep school phraseology which are more reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels, with added swearwords.


Credit

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré was published in 2010 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2011 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing 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 trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities 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 also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth –

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (2010)

She crossed the road to look at the bus shelter. It had been built during a period of optimism, and although the pain had faded and holes had been mysteriously punched through the wall, Maya could still make out the faint outline of a rocket ship lifting off the ground, aspiring to more. The bus route had been closed for years. The shelter was mainly used now as a pissoir and message centre: GO FUCK YOURSELF, I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER, HEIL HITLER, OLEG SUCKS COCK.(p.118)

Three Stations is the nickname Muscovites give to Komsomol Square because of the proximity of three mainline railway stations, as well as the intersection of two metro lines and ten lanes of traffic, ‘a Circus Maximus with cars’ (p.12). Into its vortex are swept the worst scum of Moscow.

Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. (p.13)

This is the shortest (277 pages) and most Muscovite of the Arkady Renko novels, as it uses its characters and plot to explore the dingy surrounds, the violent underworld, and the moneyed corruption of Arkady’s home town. Its 36 chapters are short and punchy, making it feel fast-moving and edgy.

Arkady

Senior Moscow crime investigator Arkady Renko is in deep poo with his boss, prosecutor Zurin, despite solving the mystery of ‘Stalin’s ghost’ and nailing two colleagues who turned out to be murderers in the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

Zurin has forbidden him to work on any case. Typically, Arkady gets round this ban by simply tagging along with his assistant, the trying-to-give-up-alcohol detective Viktor Orlov. The novel opens with the pair standing over the body of a murdered prostitute in a shabby trailer near the three Stations. She seems to have been poisoned then her skirt hitched up around her waist and her legs carefully arranged so one ankle is touching the other heel. Why?

They follow a power cable from the one naked bulb in the trailer, through rubbish outside, to the nearest militia office: i.e. the police appear to have been pimping her out. This comes as no surprise since successive Renko novels have taught us that Russian police are often worse than the criminals they supposedly pursue; someone who’s been burgled often finds the militia removing any valuables the burglars missed.

Arkady names the corpse ‘Olga’ and gets an old schoolfriend, fat Willi Pazenko, to do an autopsy. She was given knock-out pills then poisoned with ether, which has remained in her asphyxiated lungs.

Zhenya

For the last couple of novels Arkady’s life has been enlivened by the occasional presence of Zhenya, a street kid who flops in his apartment sometimes, but also goes missing for stretches. Zhenya is a larger presence in this book than usual, as we see him fitting in with the hundreds if not thousands of street kids who infest the squalid Three Stations area. Cruz Smith repeats the stunning fact, first mentioned in Stalin’s Ghost, that there are anything up to 50,000 children living wild on the streets of Moscow, having run away from the traditional Russian, alcoholic, abusive home, and who have contributed to an epidemic of petty crime, mugging, arson and vandalism (p.102).

Zhenya differs from most of the kids in that he is a chess genius, rarely seen nott clutching his precious board. In the previous novel we learn that his father, Osip Lysenko, spotted his talent from an early age and used him to lure unwary passengers on trains or in waiting rooms into chess games which Zhenya was briefed to lose until the gull could be persuaded to bet big money on a game – at which point Zhenya wiped the floor with him. If Zhenya made any mistakes, let alone lost, his father beat him. That’s why he ran away when he was about 8 and Arkady first met him at one of Moscow’s many refuges for children.

Zhenya is 15 now and playing chess for money is the only life skill he has. Thus, throughout the novel there are scenes where he persuades unwary travellers between the three stations to bet on a match with him, with variable results, including violence.

Maya

The novel actually opens by introducing us to a simple-minded young woman, Maya Pospelova, aged 16. She is on a train to Moscow with her very small baby, Katya. When she goes outside the carriage to breast feed it she is confronted by a drunken soldier who threatens her for a blowjob. She is rescued by a sweet old lady, calling herself Auntie Lenya, who smacks the soldier and sends him off, before helping Maya back to her seat, giving her some of Auntie Lenya’s nice tea etc, generally fussing over her and telling her to get some rest while she looks after the baby.

When Maya wakes up the train is in Moscow station and Auntie Lenya and the baby are gone. Distraught, she searches all over the train, asks the guard, the driver, any station official she can find, and then the police. Nada. Nothing.

It is now that she is spotted by Zhenya who gets talking to her. He takes pity on her and takes her back to his secret base, a luxury casino near the station, named after Peter the Great, which has recently been closed down and mothballed, but which Zhenya is the only one to have figured out how to break into. Thus he – and she, now – have free run of a big, eerily empty building, giving Cruz Smith scope for some typically atmospheric descriptions.

Eva

Fans of the previous books in the series will be impatient to find out what happened to Dr Eva Kazka, the doctor Arkady hooked up with two novels previously, and who was – shockingly and unexpectedly – seriously wounded in a knife attack in the very last pages of the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

We have to wait until page 70 before she’s even mentioned whereupon we find out, rather disappointingly, that she recovered from her injuries, that their relationship staggered on a bit, and then she left him. She simply declared she didn’t want to wait around for him to be executed by criminals; she didn’t want to be the grieving widow at the graveside. Boom. She’s out of his life. Shame, She was a sparky, recalcitrant element in the novels.

The Nijinsky Fair

At the scene of Olga’s death, Arkady found an invitation to a glitzy, high society charity event called the Nijinsky Fair, so he uses it to go along. He looks woefully out of place, a skinny, lank, badly-dressed cop trying to mingle with super-rich mafia types and skinny supermodels in a huge ballroom festooned with luxury brands, flashing lights, waiters serving champagne cocktails and so on. Arkady catches sight himself in a room full of mirrors.

With so many mirrors reflecting each other, he seemed to share the room with multiple desperate men with lank hair and eyes deep as drains, the sort of figure who might wander the streets on a rainy night and cause people to roll up their car windows and jump the traffic light. (p.126)

Not, in other words, a desperately reassuring presence. To his surprise he bumps into Anya Rudikova, his new neighbour in his apartment building, a rather self-dramatising journalist. She is drinking with Sasha Vaksberg, a characteristically semi-criminal New Russian multi-millionaire who was running a set of casinos among other things, until ‘our friend in the Kremlin’ decided to cut the oligarchs down to size and closed them all down. His casinos include the Peter the Great casino in Three Stations, which we have seen Zhenya making his hideout. Aha. The reader has the familiar sensation of threads and storylines beginning to pull together.

This party is actually a charity event, given by nice Mr Vaksberg to raise money for the very street kids we’ve seen as we follow Maya and Zhenya. It leads up to a big stage show, part of which features ballet dancers, not actually dancing but adopting the numbered postures and positions they use in training. For some reason number 4 is missing, so Vaksberg surprises us all by running down onto the stage and nimbly adopting the posture himself. Laughter from his super-rich audience. More cocktails. Gaiety as a trapeze artist pulls cunning stunts and then there is another tableau, this time of the dwarfs from Snow White. And so the show rambles on while Arkady watches, dazed by all the bling on display.

The trapeze arsonist

Poking around, as is his habit, Arkady finds himself backstage and climbs to the gallery to look down on the stage. Here he finds the trapeze artist who was part of the show, crouched on his almost invisible wire. As Arkady asks him questions, the artist dementedly lights matches for each question and drops them down into the flies below. He could easily start a fire which would cause mayhem in the club, is he mad? Scratch, another match dropped. Arkady makes his excuses and leaves…

Maya the child prostitute

We get an incredibly bleak flashback of Maya’s childhood in some God-forsaken dump miles from Moscow and civilisation, working from as early as she can remember, since before puberty, as a child prostitute in a room decorated as a little girl’s room, all in pink complete with teddy bears.

She remembers all the fat, middle-aged clients who want to fuck Daddy’s little girl but end up on the side of the bed crying. Matti, her Finnish pimp, tells her she’s been sold into prostitution by her parents, presumably to buy more vodka, that noble drink for, as Arkady points out, ‘Four out of every five violent crimes involved vodka’ (p.20).

It is a portrait of a society in complete moral and social collapse.

‘Girls flock to Moscow with romantic ambitions of being models or dancers and Moscow turns them into escorts and whores. We wax them and pluck them and inflate their breasts like balloons. In short, we turn them into freaks of beauty.’ (p.138)

Eventually, Maya becomes pregnant, which causes trouble with the brothel’s owners who make Matti look like Father Christmas. Soon as she’s had the baby, two of the ‘Catchers’, as they’re known, come to visit, intending to take Maya away and make an example of her as they have of previous girls who in any way rebelled – burn her face off with acid or break every bone in her body, that kind of thing. Foolishly, they let her sit in the derelict bus shelter out front of the brothel while they crank up with some of Matti’s vodka.

Unexpectedly, an Army bus is passing from the nearby barracks and to everyone’s surprise stops when Maya sticks her hand out. She quickly boards to the cheers of the soldiers and although the Catchers come running out brandishing pistols, the bus has pulled off and Maya is safe. It drops her at the local train station and she uses all her pitiful savings to buy a train ticket to Moscow. It was on this journey that the kindly old lady stole her baby.

Shootout on the freeway

Back in the present, Vaksberg offers Arkady and Anya a lift home in his huge armour-plated, bullet-proof Mercedes. As it starts to rain, Vaksberg sits snugly inside patting the Adidas bag filled with the takings from the charity event, bitterly complaining how ‘the judo master in the Kremlin’ (p.138) ie Putin, has screwed the oligarchs.

The car drives up onto a stretch of freeway flyover which was never completed and the car stops at the edge of the road, yawning into space as thunder and lightning erupt. Vaksberg gets out to pace under an umbrella and is in mid-rant when the trunk of the Mercedes unexpectedly pops open and a figure opens up with a gun. Vaksberg’s bodyguard fires back and is mown down by sheets of submachine gun bullets, same with the driver, as Vaksberg drops to the floor and Anya hides inside the car. Meanwhile, Arkady grabs the bodyguard’s gun and walks calmly towards the boot and, as the assailant pauses to reload, shoots him dead.

To everyone’s surprise the shooter turns out to be the man who played Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs in the gala show earlier that evening.

Maya in the underground

Maya falls into the unhealthy orbit of a bully boy among the street kids, Yegor, who promises to find her baby for her if she becomes his whore. Zhenya tries to dissuade her but he can’t out-gun Yegor and his gang. Yegor’s mere name inspires terror.

Yegor’s name was a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade. (p.62)

In fact, we now learn how and why the baby was stolen. After leaving the train holding Maya’s baby, Auntie Lenya emerges from the toilets in her true identity of Magdalena, and joins up with the drunken soldier who turns out to be her partner in crime, Vadim. They take the baby back to their flat and then on to an apartment overlooking the Three Stations. Here, in a crappy Soviet-era tower block, lives Colonel Kassim and his wife, who is always nagging him for a baby.

Now Kassim pays off Magdalena and presents his wife with a real baby. But it is crying for its milk and refuses to take formula. After twelve hours of non-stop crying Kassim’s wife is begging him to get rid of the horrible little brat.

He packs it in a box with airholes punched in it, puts it in a carrier bag and sets off through the drizzle to the chaos of Three Stations. On one of the concourses he finds nowhere good to ditch a whimpering baby and is wondering what to do next, when he realises – he’s been robbed. He put the bag down for a second and – it’s gone! Oh well. Job done, he returns to his apartment where his wife resumes her nagging.

The catchers

The two angry Catchers arrive in Moscow in pursuit of the girl who got away. They show people in the Three Stations crowds photos of Maya. One of the people they show is Zhenya, who feigns ignorance but realises Maya is in deadly danger and is wondering how to get word to her, but one of the other street kids has already been shown the photo and immediately told the bad guys Maya is holed up with the street kid, Yegor. Off they go to find her.

Angry Anya

The journalist Anya turns up on Arkady’s doorstep, soaking wet and furious. Arkady left her and Vaksberg at the scene of the shooting waiting for the militia who, of course, stole the Adidas bag with the cash in it and gave them both a grilling. Some friend he turns out to be! Anya sleeps on his sofa, carrying on giving him a hard time until Arkady rather angrily shows her the letter he’s just received from his boss, Zurin.

Arkady has been officially fired for disobeying the clear order not to take part in any further investigations. So he has no influence with the cops any more, that’s why he left the shooting scene, advising Vaksberg to take the credit for shooting the assassin.

Itsy’s gang

Now the novel introduces us to a new set of characters, the barely pubescent members of Itsy’s street gang. Turns out it’s they who stole Colonel Kassim’s bag and are astonished to find it contains a crying baby. The narrative gives us several half-comic descriptions of owners of shops around Three Stations being ‘steamed’ by a gang of children storming through their shop, causing havoc but, when the dust settles, only having lost nappies, wipes and milk formula. Aha. That’ll be Itsy’s gang deciding they are going to raise the baby as their own and stealing the necessary kit.

We get Itsy’s backstory, too. Like Maya’s parents selling her into prostitution and Zhenya’s dad beating him until he became a chess huckster or Arkady’s own dad bullying him until he can strip and rebuild a pistol, Itsy’s childhood was one of unmitigated misery. Her father was a dog breeder, often drunk, who forced Itsy to feed and tend his dogs. One day he went too far and began knocking her about inside the dog pen and the dogs, who had come to think of Itsy as their feeder, savaged him to death. She left for Moscow with the fiercest dog, Tito, and quickly carved out a space in the street gangs.

In the morgue

Inevitably disobeying his boss’s instructions, Arkady accompanies Viktor to the morgue to see Dopey’s body. Stripped bare it is covered with amateur tattoos. Viktor expains to Arkady (and the reader) that Russian criminal tattoos give an elaborate account of the owner’s criminal career. Dopey was no amateur; he was a hard-core professional criminal.

Arkady notices the crop of other corpses on ice in the morgue includes a young man who has committed suicide.

Viktor has been doing some research at Arkady’s suggestion, and found a number of other murdered young women from the past few years, all found without panties, with their dresses hitched up around their waists and their legs arranged in funny postures. In a flash Arkady realises all the murdered women have been posed in the classical postures of ballet training, the ones he saw at the Nijinsky Club!

Ballet dancers

Arkady sets out to interview the inhabitants of the tower block which overlooks the trailer where ‘Olga’ was found. He meets he choreographer of the Nijinsky Club, Madame Isa Spiridona, fascinating survivor from happier times, with her b&w photos of the greats.

With a shock Arkady recognises the photo of her son on the mantelpiece – Roman Spiridon – as the corpse he saw in the morgue. Madame Spiridona explains that she got a message to say he was going on a long trip, passed on to her by his old friend Sergei Borodin. And from another photograph he identifies the trapeze artist behind the scenes at the Nijinsky Club, the one who behaved as if he was mad, as the ‘friend’, Borodin. Could he… have murdered M. Spiridona’s son? Is he the killer?

When Arkady leaves, Madame S lets him take a coffee table book which has taken his fancy, about the great dancer Nijinsky, since ballet seems to be the thing and the club was named after him…

The catchers

Maya is plying her new trade under the supervision of young Yegor. She is in the middle of being screwed by a middle-aged Pakistani trader, Ali, who has broken off to go for a pee, when the two Catchers burst into the seedy hotel room. Ali returns to find them waiting for him. ‘Where’s the girl?’ they ask. They torture him but he doesn’t know. In fact Maya had heard a sound outside, hidden from the Catchers, then slipped into the hall and out while they attack Ali.

She steps over the body of Yegor, who has had his pool cue broken and stuffed down his throat before the Catchers then killed him. For his part, before he dies Ali mentions Zhenya, whose name he’s heard being mentioned by the girl and Yegor. Oops.

Anya attacked

When Maya finds Zhenya and tells him what she saw, Zhenya knows bad trouble is coming and phones Arkady. Our hero picks him and Maya up and bring them back to his apartment, where he interviews the terrified girl, along with trusty (if alcoholic sidekick) Viktor.

Half way through Arkady senses rather than hears something and goes cautiously into the next door apartment, the one recently leased by the pain-in-the-neck journalist, Anya.

He and Viktor discover Anya in a crumpled heap against the wall, no knickers and her skirt pushed up around her waist, her legs posed in ballet posture number 5, blue and not breathing.

Arkady realises she is suffering from anaphylactic shock, having mentioned something about being allergic to milk. He saves her life by finding her EPI pen in her fridge, and injecting her with a full dose in the thigh. Above her body, ‘God is shit’ has been sprayed in big words on the wall.

Anya starts and begins breathing. Soon she is conscious again. Arkady wraps her in blankets, feeds her, settles her on his bed, packs Viktor off to his long-suffering wife and settles down to read the book Madame Spiridona leant him. But it isn’t a book about Nijinsky, it is an edition of his notorious diary, which chronicles his descent into madness, and it falls open at one of his rants.

God is dog, Dog is God, Dog is shit, God is shit, I am shit, I am God. (p.218)

So Arkady realises: he is dealing with a Nijinsky-channeling, ballet-obsessed serial killer.

Itsy’s gang

In a weird scene Itsy takes some of her gang of kids shoplifting leaving the two boys, Leo, Peter and Emma to guard their camp and look after the baby. The two boys immediately sniff air freshener and have a trip. They see a brightly caparisoned Mongol from the Golden Horde approaching, jangling his bridle. In fact it is a street cleaning machine driven by a Tajik (although Muscovites call anyone who comes from one of the central Asian republics a ‘Tajik’, regardless of their ethnic identity).

The driver sees that the boards of several crates near the kids’ base have been broken off to make firewood. What they don’t know is that the crates contain a big consignment of Afghan heroin which is being stored here in the scruffy backstreets before being distributed.

The ‘Tajik’ is not happy at the discovery. He pulls Peter’s head back and is about to slash his throat, when the baby starts crying. Emma, who has seen all this, scuttles to the furthest end of the container, and watches as the ‘Tajik’ approaches the baby’s makeshift cot.

She – and the reader – fear the absolute worst and steel our nerves. But when Emma pokes her head out from cover, the ‘Tajik’ has left, and she discovers the baby alive and kicking, having been given an amulet with Koranic script on it to suck on. Thank God there is some humanity in this God-forsaken wasteland.

Anya apologises

It’s a few days later and Anya is well enough to be up and doing her part time charity work, distributing condoms to the street children. We see her being hassled by the militia who try to blackmail out of her box till they realise what’s in it. Back in the apartment block she knocks on Arkady’s door to thank him and apologise again. She has found out from contacts that Vaksberg is virtually bankrupt and has been creaming the money from his own charities. The whole incident with Dopey was staged by him. Dopey was meant to steal the bag of cash and make off, later giving it to Vaksberg (minus a fee) but he got carried away with the gun and sparked a bloodbath.

Anya carefully establishes that Eva has definitely left, and that Arkady is definitely a single man – before abruptly consenting to have sex with him. Arkady isn’t complaining.

The catchers

Itsy returns from the shoplifting trip and Emma tells her what happened with the ‘Tajik’. Itsy realises they have to leave this base. She hussles her gang into packing up and moving out, whipping them on ahead of her, but Peter and Leo are lagging behind. When she goes back to find them, she discovers they have both been shot dead by the Catchers, their little bodies lying in the mechanics trench next to the trailer.

Then Itsy herself is shot dead by Ilya, one of the Catchers. He crouches over her body and is not at all expecting Tito the wolf to attack him, knocking him onto the trench and, while his partner tries to get a clear shot, ripping open his carotid artery so he is dead in seconds. Tito then bounds out of the trench to kill the second Catcher, but he empties his magazine into the beast which falls dead.

Christ, he thinks, what a mess. How is he going to move his partner’s body? Then he realises there’s a laser red mark on his own body, and he himself is shot by the ‘Tajik’. Carnage.

Sergei Borodin

Arkady is fairly sure the trapeze artist, Sergei Borodin, is the killer so he rings him, and implies he has the evidence to convict him, and invites him to his apartment for a chat. Then Arkady sets up two separate tape recorders to capture everything.

Eerily, Sergei is accompanied by his mother, who clearly dominates and dictates his life (distant echoes of Norman Bates in Psycho). Realising he really thinks he is Nijinsky reincarnated, Arkady plays on his delusions and extracts a spectacular confession from Borodin. All helped when he stage manages for the supposedly dead Anya to enter Arkady’s kitchen dressed in the nightgown she was wearing when Sergei tried to murder her, at just the right psychological moment. Confronted by a ghost, Borodin screams his confession.

Sasha at the races

Arkady visits Vaksberg at a racetrack outside Moscow where the millionaire is hosting a bizarre party. When Arkady had left the scene of the shooting of Dopey, he had told Anya and Sasha to omit mention of his presence and claim that it was Sasha who foiled a daring attack on a respectable businessman.

This has had the unexpected consequence of turning Vaksberg into a popular hero and, even more improbably, he has been rehabilitated with the Kremlin, had his passport returned, and his ability to do business restored.

Hence he is getting back into the swing of things with a new business venture. Although the stands at the racecourse are empty, the loudspeakers blare out the sounds of cheering crowds, as the relatively small number of VIP guests quaff champagne and let them be persuaded by Sasha to get involved in his next enterprise, buying and breeding elite racehorses.

This isn’t the first time Arkady sees Moscow’s hyper-rich in action and each time it gets harder to bear.

On his mobile Arkady gets a call from Viktor identifying Dopey as a regular at the racetrack, Pavel Petrovich Maksimov. Without even being questioned, Sasha suavely admits to Arkady that the dwarf attack was staged, and confirms Anya’s story that, yes, he was, at that point, skimming money from his own charities. But now everything has turned out well – ‘more champagne, detective?’

Madame Furtseva

In his questioning of characters in the apartment block overlooking Three Stations Arkady had met Madame Furtseva, a world famous photographer, her rooms adorned with b&w photos of the mid-century greats, Hemingway, Malraux etc. Out of nowhere, she appears next to the startled Emma in one of the alleyways around the Square, and offers to take her in.

Old and infirm, Madame Furtseva explains that, although she can barely move nowadays, still she likes to spend her time staring out the window, observing the human wildlife prowling around the waterholes of the Three Stations. She has seen a lot of Emma’s story play out and offers to protect her and the baby.

Car chase with Sergei

To his astonishment Arkady’s solid gold confession from Sergei Borodin is rejected by Arkady’s vindictive boss, Zurin, because it was obtained while Arkady was not technically employed as an investigator. Borodin is released from custody to kill again.

Driving back from police headquarters in Viktor’s knackered Lada, Arkady finds himself terrorised by a shining black Hummer. There is a high tension car chase around the snowy, midnight-black streets of Moscow and when the Hummer draws level the automatic window slips slickly down and Sergei points a pistol at Arkady’s head, smiling like the psycho he is.

But all the time Arkady has been driving towards his own rundown neighbourhood, and in particular towards the pothole which has been causing him grief intermittently throughout the novel and which we have observed various squads of unhappy workman trying and failing to fill.

Now, as Sergei goes to pull the trigger, the Hummer hits the big pothole at 150 kph, upending into it so that Borodin mother and son go flying through the windscreen at speed. End of the Borodins.

The final catcher

In a final sequence the sort-of family of Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya take a break at his father the General’s old dacha out in the country by a lake.

But – with wild improbability – Arkady has been ‘befriended’ by the second of the Catchers. Turns out he wasn’t shot dead by the ‘Tajik’ as we thought, just shot through the shoulder.

Now recovered, the Catcher makes efforts to adopt an (implausible) disguise, pretending to be a bookish intellectual who bumps into Arkady at libraries. He follows the ‘family’ to Arkady’s dacha and makes elaborate plans to swim across the lake in a wetsuit, emerge silently and kill them all in their beds.

Instead, as he emerges slickly from the black water, Arkady who had long ago rumbled his disguise, is waiting, and cuts him open from sternum to balls, then watches him writhe and die in the lake water, in clouds of his own blood.

This whole sequence feels like it comes from a different novel, even a different type of novel, a more straightforward action hero novel.

Maya’s baby returned

And in another scene which doesn’t quite match the tone of the book, the reader is surprised to encounter a fairy tale happy ending.

Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya put on a little carnival in one of the squares around Three Stations, hiring a number of child-friendly acts, balloons and entertainers, jugglers and fire eaters.

Lured from her hideyhole up in the veteran photographer’s apartment, Emma wanders open-eyed among the marvels and, when Arkady asks her to, very gently hands little baby Katya back to her mother, Maya.

Against all probability, plausibility or reason, this made me burst into tears. Thank God that something good and innocent and pure is capable of coming out of the moral, physical, spiritual, economic and cultural desolation which is modern Russia.

Comment

Three Stations is the shortest of the Renko novels and feels like a chamber symphony, with all the same instruments and elements, but on a more domestic scale, based on tighter, tauter, more integrated plotlines and themes – especially the locale of Three Stations with its hookers, street kids and street crime.

The waiting hall at Kazansky station put Zhenya in mind of the nocturnal habitat at the zoo, a place where things stirred indistinctly and species were difficult to identify. (p.41)

Russia is depicted as a lost, doomed civilisation. Is it really as woeful, as impoverished, violent and corrupt as depicted in these novels? Are there really so many Russian prostitutes in Italy that the new slang word for prostitute is ‘Natasha’? (p.18)

Mind you, in 2009 when this novel was being written, the entire global financial system was nearly brought to its knees by clever bankers in London and New York, and Cruz Smith makes the point that, in many ways, we in the West are no better, having the New Russian billionaire crook Vaksberg drily comment:

‘A year ago we had over a hundred billionaires in Moscow. Today there are less than thirty. So it’s the best of times, the worst of times and sometimes it’s just the shits. It turns out we don’t know how to run capitalism. That’s to be expected. As it happens, nobody knows how to run capitalism. That was a bad surprise. Cigarette?’ (p.97)

Maybe because it’s shorter and tauter, there were fewer really breath-taking turns of phrase in this novel than in its predecessors, though there are still some crackers:

The Lada’s exhaust pipe and muffler hung low and occasionally dragged a rooster tail of sparks. (p.8)

He tried to sleep but his anger was a match struck before a mirror and he saw what a fool he’d been. (p.160)

As a footnote, I annotated for the first time something I’ve noticed in the past few Cruz Smith novels, a particular verbal formula which helps express Arkady’s sense of whatevere-ness, a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders: his or the narrator’s habit of saying or thinking that, if something is not x, then what is?

The director of the children’s shelter that Zhenya originally came from claimed that the boy and Arkady had a special relationship. Zhenya’s father had shot Arkady. If that wasn’t special, what was? (p.9)

‘A healthy young woman was dead. If that doesn’t make you suspicious, what does?’ (p.89)

I like it. I like pretty much everything about these wonderful books.


Credit

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Mantle in 2011. All quotes and references to the 2011 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth (2010)

‘Good information is vital, accidental misinformation is regrettable, but skilful disinformation deadly.’
The Cobra (p.400)

After a sequence of thrillers dealing with the Muslim world and Islamic terrorism, Forsyth makes an (apparently) clean break with a novel about cocaine smuggling from Latin America. In the event, we are soon introduced to characters from previous novels, which gives it a pleasing sense of continuity.

Forsyth appears to have begun by asking himself: if the President of the USA asked his people to STOP the cocaine trade, what would it involve? He sketched out all the steps and operations which would be required – and then placed them in the hands of a couple of tried & trusted characters from a previous novel, to implement.

The novel is divided into four sections, named with typically tongue-in-cheek humour: Coil, Hiss, Strike, Venom.

1. Coil (pages 17 to 74)

The grandson of a servant of the US President dies of a cocaine overdose in a Washington slum. The old servant weeps at an important State dinner. The First Lady goes to comfort her. She and the Prez can’t sleep that night: ‘Is there nothing we can do about this curse of drugs?’ In the early hours, the Prez phones the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency: I want a briefing about cocaine in three days.

The narrative includes this briefing, a characteristically interesting summary of the production and sale of cocaine in the US and Europe (though obviously out of date if you Google the subject). The Prez asks the Director of Homeland Security, ‘Can we abolish the cocaine trade?’ DHS says, I’ll need a man who used to work for the CIA. They called him The Cobra, lol (of course they do).

This turns out to be Paul Devereaux, the highly educated Boston-born Catholic who we last saw masterminding a two-year project to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in the novel before last, Avenger. He was (unwittingly) foiled by one-man seize-and-kidnap operator, Cal Dexter, formerly a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam, now known as The Avenger.

So the head of Homeland Security calls Devereaux and asks if it can be done: Devereaux thinks about it for a month and then says, ‘Yes’,on the following conditions: $2 billion of funds, no record of the project, the recategorisation of cocaine as a terrorist threat, and if he can hire Cal Dexter. He then phones Dexter, who mulls over the offer before saying Yes. Reuniting these old characters is either a) lazy and unimaginative or b) has the same humorous impulse as reuniting the original cast of The A Team or Mission Impossible for one last mission. This is not Henry James; it is thrillerland.

Forsyth cuts and pastes entire paragraphs from the earlier book to describe first Devereaux then Dexter’s biographies. This also could be described as lazy – but it also has a slightly avant-garde feel.The exact repetition of previous text is like the re-use of the same conflicts and wars which recur as backdrops in Forsyth’s fiction. You could think of them like a pack of cards containing the same limited number of ‘characters’ and ‘conflicts’, which is cut and dealt out anew in each novel.

— To give a sense of the ubiquity of these illegal drugs, the text is interspersed throughout with descriptions of shipments of cocaine arriving in Hamburg, Portugal, California and Vancouver, and in West Africa, in different boats, using different smuggling methods – a steady drip of scenes designed to give a sense of the vast scale and the unrelenting nature of the cocaine smuggling, going on every day,day and night, as I write and you read this review.

2. Hiss (pages 77 to 255)

Forsyth claims that, after years of chaos following the death of Pablo Escobar, recent years have seen the emergence of a ‘super-cartel’, the Hermandad. As far as I can tell, this is entirely fictional. Part two commences with a summit meeting of the various members of this ‘Hermandad’, led by Don Diego Esteban, held at one of his vast haciendas, the Rancho de la Cucaracha.

Procedural We watch Esteban convening the members of the Brotherhood; cut to the British Prime Minister consulting with his chiefs of staff at his country house (Chequers) and asking whether the UK should join the US’s crusade (yes). Then go with Dexter round the City of London where Forsyth demonstrates his knowledge of merchant shipping to show how Dexter goes about buying two grain cargo ships which can be converted into anti-drugs boats. Also the purchase and building of a secret airstrip on the Cape Verde island of Fogo…

In fact, Forsyth sets quite a few strands running in parallel, enough to become a bit confusing:

  • The priesthood Devereaux meets the Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Colombia and suggests he distributes throwaway mobile phones to every priest in the land with the invitation to anonymously phone in any information about drug smuggling which they might learn in confession.
  • Guinea-Bissau Dexter flies to the failed state of Guinea-Bissau with two black SAS men to spy on cocaine being smuggled in by boat to the coastal region of the Bijagos (p.127)
  • Letizia Arenal Spanish police send the team full lists of people leaving and entering the country, and computers flag up oddities of behaviour. Thus the Cobra learns about a Colombian lawyer, Julio Luz, who makes monthly and unusually short visits to Madrid. Dexter flies in with a team of CIA spooks. They break into Luiz’s hotel room and ferret through his correspondence (p.140). They tail him and observe that on every trip Luz exchanges not only attaché cases (full of smuggling details) but meets a pretty young woman and exchanges letters. Dexter establishes she is Letizia Arenal and, by palming a cup with her saliva on, gets a DNA test and establishes she is the daughter of Roberto Cardenas, one of the Don’s inner circle. In a long sequence she is seduced by a handsome, art-loving young man into a love affair. They get engaged, then he says he has to return to New York, can she fly out to join him? Ignoring all her father’s orders, Letizia does and is promptly pulled over in Customs who find a brick of cocaine in her baggage, obviously put there by Dexter’s people. Tearfully, Letizia is hauled into court and faces 20 years in a state penitentiary. The handsome man disappears and she realises she’s been framed. At this point the Avenger smuggles a letter into Luz’s luggage to carry back to her father, Roberto Cardenas, in charge of the Brotherhood’s logistics, arranging a tense meeting in a hotel in Cartagena. Here Dexter confronts the evil, violent man and simply says: tell us what you know, and she goes free. Some weeks later a flashdrive arrives with names of corrupt officials across Europe and their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands etc. Dexter arranges for a fall guy to be caught in Spain (temporarily), who confesses to planting the cocaine in Letizia’s baggage. The court in New York dismisses charges. She is released and deported back to Spain. The Cobra has his List, the ‘Rat List’.
  • The two Q ships The two grain ships are extensively converted into anti-smuggling warships in a pestilential shipyard south of Goa, India. Each will contain a deck just big enough for a small helicopter and a brig to keep prisoners in. They are MV Balmoral, crewed by Royal Navy and Special Boat Squadron and MV Chesapeake crewed by US Navy SEALs.
  • Captain Francisco Pons flies a converted Beech King aircraft loaded with a tonne of cocaine from Brazil to an isolated airstrip in Guinea-Bissau.
  • Juan Cortez Father Isidro uses one of the throwaway phones to inform on one Juan Cortez, a master welder who creates smuggling places inside steel hulls. Dexter, using the Cobra’s limitless powers, co-opts a Hercules transport plane and six Green Berets who first stake out Cortez’s daily commute, then stage an elaborate mock road smash, kidnapping and chloroforming Cruz, putting a recent (American) corpse of an unknown drifter in his car dressed in his clothes, with his ring, watch and wallet, then set the car alight. Cruz is airlifted back to the States; his family are told through official channels that Cruz died in a car smash and is tearfully buried. Then, a few days later, Dexter turns up at their house with a tape recording and photos proving Cruz is still alive but can never return – the Cartel would murder him and his family. Faced with no alternative, his wife and kids pack up, leave a message saying they’ve decided to emigrate (!) and are secretly flown to rejoin Cruz in Miami. Now reassured as to the safety of his family, Cruz starts to ‘sing’, and gives the name of some 78 cargo ships which he helped adjust to create concealed smuggling places. The Cobra has his list of drug ships.
  • Forsyth continues his description of the route of the cocaine after it lands in Guinea-Bissau, being broken up into smaller packs and driven various routes north across the Sahara. From the north African coast it is shipped in knackered steamers like the Sidi Abbas to Calabria, under the control of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, to be watered down and sold on the street.
  • The fighter pilot Dexter recruits Major João Mendoza, ex-Brazilian Air Force, to fly the vintage Buccaneer jet fighter he’s had re-engineered to become a drug buster. We meet the team of engineer enthusiasts who’ve carried out the retooling and his (woman) instructor, Commander Colleen Keck (p.193).
  • Global Hawks Dexter supervises the repurposing of two spy-in-the-sky flying probes, to watch shipping in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil. They operate BAMS – Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, and will monitor all shipping from the Latin American coast, either heading north to the States or East to Africa. Humorously, Dexter names them after the wives of the Prez and the UK Prime Minister – Michelle and Sam.

3. Strike (pages 259 to 354)

The Prez’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Silver, phones the Cobra to say, You’ve had your nine months of planning: is everything good to go? ‘Yes,’ replies the Cobra. What follows is a sustained and co-ordinated attack on the Cartel’s activities, which Forsyth describes in documentary detail.

1. The spies in the sky identify all shipping heading north or east from Latin America. When they identify a ship on either Cortez or Cardenas’s lists, they flash the news back to the hi-tech project headquarters in Anacostia, a neighbourhood of Washington DC. The nearest of the two MV boats is dispatched. The small helicopter appears out of nowhere with a sniper pointing a rifle at the captain’s head. It is followed by fast dinghies containing the SEALS or SBS men. They board and hood the crew and locate the cocaine. By this time the big MV boat has arrived. Crew and coke are transferred to the brig/prison and hold, respectively. This is repeated scores of times, as Project Cobra clobbers the smuggling boats. Crews and coke are taken back to the Cape Verde island, then flown to the other base, Eagle Island, we saw being constructed in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There they will be held forever without trial.

2. At the same time, Dexter meets with Customs authorities across the States and Europe and shares the list of corrupt port officials. One by one these are caught in ‘sting’ operations, along with the deliverers and the receivers, thus trapping the maximum number of people along the chain.

3. In the third strand, Major Mendoza scrambles from his base in the Cape Verde islands, and flies his retooled Buccaneer to intercept suspicious planes, suspicious in that they’re unusually small to be making the trans-Atlantic flight (but are able to, as Forsyth explains, because of extra fuel tanks with fuel often pumped manually by Latino peons). Mendoza simply blows them out of the sky.

Thus, within a few weeks Don Esteban realises his operation is under co-ordinated assault. In usual style he tortures and murders a number of ‘suspects’ to find out who the ‘traitor’ is: various unfortunates along the pipelines – either in Colombia or Guinea-Bissau – are tortured to death, chopped up with chainsaws, decapitated, or have their noses, ears, fingers and genitals removed to make them talk. Forsyth doesn’t stint on describing the really super-brutal methods of the cartels. Eventually Esteban establishes Cardenas as one of the leaks, and he is gunned down in a mass raid on his remote jungle hideaway.

But the Cobra still has the Rat list and the ship list and the devastation of the Brotherhood’s operations proceeds apace. Eventually the gangs down the supply chain become restless with the Cartel. Black gangs in Africa, the mafias of Italy and Spain, all the suppliers in Mexico who pass on to the US, all these middle men gangs are suddenly not receiving wholesale shipments. They start complaining to the directors of the Cartel responsible for distribution, they start wondering if the Cartel is favouring other gangs, they start looking round for other suppliers. Forsyth, with his usual documentary authority, describes the visit of one Cartel rep to the gangs of North America, and one to Europe, in both giving breakdowns of the races and ethnicities of the gangs.

The sting Then we find out why the Cobra has been so careful to seize and not destroy the cocaine shipments. In elaborate sting operations, the Cobra arranges for some of the ‘missing’ coke to be bundled in with shipments which they do let through. Then organises police raids, carried out with the usual publicity and lots of photos in the newspapers. Photos which show the consignment numbers of the jute-wrapped packs (for everything in this highly organised industry is numbered and monitored). Then arranges for the raids to be given maximum publicity.

As intended, the information gets back to Don Esteban and his lieutenants: the information that some of the bales from the boats and planes which disappeared did in fact get through. The disinformation that this sends the Cartel is that someone, somewhere is betraying them on an industrial scale: ‘disappearing’ planes and boats then stealing the shipments. Vengeance will be awesome.

4. Venom (pages 397 to 447)

Having planted the suspicion in Don Esteban’s mind that he is being double crossed, the Cobra now manufactures evidence suggesting the culprits are some of the key gangs who control the trade in Mexico. The Don carries out punishments, which lead to revenge attacks, and soon the Cobra’s campaign of disinformation has sparked a massive and very bloody war among the Mexican drug gangs.

In fact this is just the opening of an extensive campaign of lies and deceptions – spearheaded by a blog the Cobra sets up, which carefully mixes accurate info about the drug seizures with inflammatory posts carefully assigning blame to the numerous heavy duty drug gangs in Europe and the US — until all these strategies have prompted a major outbreak of public violence in US cities second only to the street shootings of the Prohibition era. The public outcry, the newspaper headlines, politicians screaming, a groundswell of protest escalates up to the Senate and then the Prez himself.

The Cobra explains it all very clearly and cynically to Dexter. This is what he aimed for all along: for the only people who can ultimately defeat the drug gangs are the drug gangs themselves, fighting themselves to extinction, wiping out the infrastructure for a generation. The Cobra delivers what sounds very much like an Author’s Message – that the comfortable societies of the West are happy to dole out violence abroad (and Dexter’s career alone has given us eye-witness accounts of just fractions of the appalling bloodshed caused in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) but don’t like the reality when they see it on their own streets. (This sounds like the traditional soldier’s contempt for cosy civilians who have no idea what real combat is about – a timeless complaint).

The Prez is a democratic politician, coming up for re-election, and he asks his Chief of Staff to tell the Cobra to stand down the operation. Right on the brink of success. These final pages have a bitter flavour, as the elected politicians turn out not to have the balls to see the job through (and all because civilians are getting injured and killed in the epidemic of violence which has rampaged across the States.)

In a puzzling final section, the Cobra flies to Colombia to meet the Don, in a Catholic church. He candidly reveals that his country (the US) has betrayed him by cancelling the operation. He has 150 tonnes of cocaine hidden. He will deliver it to the Don in exchange for $1 billion, which will allow him to disappear and live out his life in luxury. I found this bewildering because the Cobra had up to this point been portrayed as a man of inflexible rectitude. He flies back to Washington and calls Dexter in to tell him:

a) The entire operation is being stood down: the two ships handed over to their respective navies, the soldiers and special forces returned to their units etc.

b) He orders Dexter to fly to a tiny coral atoll in the Bahamas, there to find and torch the 150 tonnes of cocaine. Dexter does so, arriving with instructions which are actually carried out by the Marines on the spot. But as they’re being splashed with petrol, Dexter cuts into a bale and takes a taste. It’s cooking soda. He allows the Marines to proceed, but asks them what ship brought the bales. He pieces together the evidence that there’s another steamer, which has been dumping these fake bales and keeping the real ones. Reacting fast, he calls the Project computer headquarters and quickly identifies the steamer which must be carrying the missing cocaine. Just as quickly, he gets through to Major Mendoza on Cape Verde and tells him there is one last job. He tells the Major (whose brother died of a cocaine overdose and so takes the mission deadly seriously) to fly out across the Atlantic, identify the steamer carrying the coke to Colombia as part of the Cobra’s deal with the Don, and sink it. Which – in a bravura passage giving documentary description of an air force strike – he does.

In the Epilogue Dexter returns to the sleepy New England town he left nine months earlier, to resume his quiet, unassuming existence as a small-town lawyer. And reads in his paper that locals found the body of Paul Devereaux in his Washington mansion. He and his housekeeper had been brutally murdered. The last words are, ‘Nobody treats the Don like this.’

This ending really puzzled me: I was expecting the fake cocaine ploy to be a subtle last cunning strike by the Cobra – like, maybe the cocaine he was sending back to Colombia would be poisoned or booby-trapped. But it seems not. So are we really to accept that the shining beacon, incorruptible good guy, Cobra, at the last minute made a sell-out deal with the head of the world’s cocaine industry? Really? And that Dexter’s spotting that the cocaine in the Bahamas was fake, then quickly dispatching Mendoza to blow up the real shipment, in effect condemned his boss and the man he’d come to respect so much, to certain assassination? Dexter doesn’t seem very upset when he reads the news in his paper. Is that because he has discarded Devereaux – despite the immense feat he pulled off of nearly ending the world’s cocaine trade – as a broken reed, as turning out-to-be-corrupted?

I’ve reread the last chapter twice and am still surprised and puzzled by what happened and what I’m meant to make of it.


Thoughts

This novel is a fantasy of what the existing forces of law and order (or FLO, as Forsyth calls them) could do if they abandoned ‘political correctness’ and ‘human rights’ and all the other namby-pamby concerns for legal process which, in Forsyth’s view, clearly hamper them. It is a ‘right-wing’ fantasy of how an upright and pure police force could stamp out this massive social problem.

Given the epic scale of the crime now associated with drug smuggling, it is a beguiling fantasy, not least because:

a) It’s not that serious. Like all Forsyth’s novels – despite the blizzard of factual research into recent conflicts and geopolitical history, into official and illegal organisations, the detailed accounts of ranks and structures of army, navy and air force and their precise weaponry, as well as factual backgrounds on international crime and terrorism, of organisations or technologies (preceding the text is a list of no fewer than 27 acronyms and abbreviations) – despite these mountains of research, there’s a simple-minded cartoon feel to the whole enterprise.

b) The serious question of to what extent civil liberties can be suspended in the war against terror or the war on drugs, is something that can be debated forever by moral philosophers and lawyers, politicians and columnists – and never reach an actual conclusion. But The Cobra is a fiction which, despite the weight of research behind it, in origin is similar to the creation of countless other fictional vigilantes and crimefighters-without-the-law, from Dirty Harry to Batman (b.1939). Gotham City/San Francisco/the Western world is overwhelmed by crime. The police are too corrupt or overwhelmed to cope. Into the breach steps a superhero – Dirty Harry/Batman/the Cobra, prepared to use unconventional methods to get the results we all deeply desire. Same stable.

Forsyth’s novels are crisply written, full of fascinating background information and the cardboard heroes – just like the heroes of a thousand movies and TV cop series – always get their man. We live, for the few days we read it, in a simpler, fairer world, a world of violence and immorality and illegality, where the good is unquestionably Good, and if it also behaves violently and immorally and illegally, behaves thus in a good cause and so we should cheer it on. Come on the good guys!

What more do you want for your £6.99?


Credit

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2010. All quotes and references are from the 2011 Corgi paperback 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.

Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder (2010)

In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people.

In 400 pages of densely packed text, illustrated by numerous maps, backed up by 40 pages of bibliography and 40 pages of notes, American historian Timothy Snyder places the Holocaust within the broader context of the planned and institutionalised mass murder of civilians undertaken by the Soviet and Nazi regimes between 1933 and 1945.

The Ukraine famine He points out that Stalin and the Soviet apparat began killing people in bulk before Hitler even became Chancellor. In fact Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 coincided with, and helped to conceal from public interest, the vast famine Stalin caused in the Ukraine which led to the deaths of over three million people. Hunger was the most consistent tool used by both dictatorships to kill millions, as many as seven million victims.

The Nazi Hunger Plan I don’t think I knew about the Nazis’ Hunger Plan, a deliberate scheme to starve to death all the Russians in the area they invaded in the first winter of the attack on Russia (1941). Hitler intended to destroy Poland and Russia as states, exterminate their ruling classes and intelligentsia and then, in that first winter of conquest, deliberately starve some 30 million Slavs to death. Tens of millions more would have been killed or enslaved in what would have become permanent slave colonies supplying the Fatherland.

Nazi mass murder of Soviet POWs Snyder calls Operation Barbarossa – the Nazi invasion of Russia – a ‘fiasco’ for the complete dysjunction between plan and achievement: Russia didn’t collapse, the Red Army fought on with growing confidence, and the Nazis didn’t seize vast stocks of food to feed their army and people. But they could starve to death the Russians under their control and so they did. Russian POWs were corralled into prisoner of war camps which were mostly just barbed wire around empty fields, with no toilets or shelter and no food. Here Russian POWs were crammed, sometimes packed so tight they couldn’t move let alone sit, and then left to die, the living skeletons trampling over the growing mound of corpses. Snyder describes these (as all the other killing methods) in unsparing detail. Over three million Russian POWs are estimated to have died of starvation and exposure, as deliberate German policy.

The scale of the killing, the number of individual tragedies encompassed by these numbers, dwarfs anything else in human history until the great disasters of Mao’s China.

A hecatomb of examples

  • The flower of Belorusia’s literary culture deliberately exterminated: 218 of the country’s leading writers were all executed.
  • Ten thousand Poles of the officer class executed in the Katyn Forest, followed by mass killing of schoolteachers. The Nazi plan was for Polish children to be brought up to understand enough German to obey orders and to count to 20. Nothing more. A slave nation.
  • Over three million Ukrainian peasants were deliberately left to starve once it became clear Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation of farms had backfired and catastrophically reduced, not increased, harvests. Cannibalism became widespread, parents ate their children, children ate their parents, brothers ate sisters. Visitors to the region became used to seeing bloated corpses littering the streets. NKVD and communist officers were given quotas of peasant ‘saboteurs’ and ‘spies’ ie anyone who complained about starving to death – to be captured, interrogated and shot.
  • More broadly, during the great leap forward of the Soviet collectivisation of agriculture over five million starved across the USSR in 1932 and 1933. Starved to death.
  • When the NKVD ran low on bullets thy made prisoners sit side by side so one bullet could be fired through two or more skulls simultaneously, then tipped them into the mass graves.
  • Order 00447 ‘On the operations to repress former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements’ (dated 30 July 1937) led to the execution of nearly 400,000 Soviet citizens in 18 months in 1937 and 1938.
  • It ran concurrently with order 00485, mandating the ‘total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organisation’, issued 11 August 1937. Quotas were issued to all NKVD offices throughout the USSR to capture, interrogate, despatch to the gulag or just execute a fixed number per week; if you didn’t fulfil your quota you yourself would be arrested. Since there was in fact no Polish Military Organisation, the NKVD had to manufacture networks of spies by arresting anyone with a Polish name, who had Polish relatives, had been to Poland or worked for Poles, then extracting confessions under torture.
  • Evgenia Babushkina wasn’t Polish, she was a promising organic chemist, but her mother had once been washerwoman for Polish diplomats and so she was arrested and shot. One of millions.
  • Sometimes more than a thousand death warrants were signed by NKVD authorities per day, and then rubberstamped en masse by their superiors. It was hard to find secure places to execute so many people, and vast areas of mass graves had to be organised outside major settlements throughout the USSR. Work work work.

I gave up listing even random examples. There are too many, too many statistics on every page. 33,761 people, the entire Jewish population of Kiev, was forced to march to the Jewish graveyard, stripped of their valuable and clothes, forced to lie face down on the still warm corpses beneath them, and machine gunned through the head. Then another line. Then another. Then another. For years. In Europe’s killing fields.

He has a way with days:

  • On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed in all the pogroms in the whole history of the Russian empire. (p.227)
  • On any given day in autumn 1941, as many Soviet prisoners of war died as the total British and American POW deaths in the entire war. (p.182)

Comment

This book sheds new light on well-known events because:

  • it brings together into one gruesome continuum Soviet and Nazi killing, usually kept separate
  • it uses newly accessible and translated archives all across Eastern Europe and Russia to give a detailed account of Soviet mass murder, and to put precise numbers to the Nazi killings
  • its focus on the Bloodlands – a broad loop of territory from the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) down through roughly Poland and east through the Ukraine to the Black Sea – unify the story and show how the competing dictatorships learned from each other, shared murder techniques and bureaucratic procedures

It is a transformative book, completely reshaping how you think about these events, placing them in completely new contexts and prompting new thoughts and insights, about the dictators’ aims and strategies and how these changed in the stressed, pressure-cooker atmosphere of the 1930s.

In its thoroughness and its presentation of unstoppable facts and statistics of mass murder, on every page, it drives the reader down and and further down into the deepest pits of hell, till you almost feel like one of the countless thousands, tens of thousands, of children thrown alive into the death pits and buried alive by the bulldozers.

Utopias of blood

But mostly it reinforces the terrible truth that all powerful leaders with utopian visions for transforming societies, always seem to start by having to murder some, then many, and then millions and millions, of their own citizens in order to get to the Promised Land of their dreams – but never do. All they leave behind is mountains of skulls – in Poland, Ukraine, Belarusia, China, Cambodia, Rwanda.

Building a paradise on earth is difficult, given that even building a house is demanding, raising healthy, happy children is well nigh impossible. But burning down houses, villages, entire towns – shooting, gassing and starving unarmed civilians. Easy peasy. The lazy way out.

Snyder’s long concluding chapter engages with various commentators on modernity or the industrial state or theorists of totalitarianism like Hannah Arendt. But maybe it’s just laziness and stupidity: neither Stalin nor Hitler were great thinkers, they were great manipulators of people’s stupid fears and stupid utopian hopes: ‘if only we can get rid of the Jews-kulaks-saboteurs-right deviationists etc, we’ll all be rich, everything will be better, we can sleep safe in our beds.’

Thus they tried to get rid of the bourgeoisie in Mao’s China and the the urban intellectuals in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croats and Bosnians in Greater Serbia, and now they are trying to get rid of the ‘infidel’ in the ‘caliphate’.

Primitive tribal fear of ‘the other’, shaped by dictators into genocidal violence. And when you’ve killed this lot of suspects and things don’t get better, well, it must be because of deeper conspiracies, of darker forces undermining the Volk or the People or whatever gibberish you’ve manipulated your people into worshiping – so that calls for another round of purges, killing and purification.

The hardest thing for humans seems to be accepting the otherness of other people, other beliefs and other traditions, of living and letting live – but the societies which manage to be truly tolerant and multicultural (the Ottoman empire in its heyday, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the British empire, the vast, diverse federation of American States) seem to be precisely the ones which last longest and give its inhabitants the best lives.

Related links

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

Related links

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2010)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is a brilliant book. It is a scholarly, systematic and scrupulous investigation of the phenomenon of the Vikings. Roberts carefully weighs the evidence about every aspect of the farflung activities of the amazing men who discovered America, settled Greenland, invaded Britain and France, became the special guard to the Byzantine Emperor and – the biggest surprise to me – founded Russia!

The message repeated in chapter after chapter is that the evidence from the Dark Ages is so pitifully scanty that most of the subject is shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. Thus: nobody knows the origin of the word, which language it comes from or what it means; nobody can agree the date of the “Viking Era”; there is no agreement on the definition of the Vikings: was it an ethnic group, a racial group, men from particular countries, or was it simply a form of behaviour, that men from certain northern cultures would, as the Old Norse has it, fara i viking, which seems to mean ‘go a-viking’, as if viking is an activity or profession.

Or, alhough Viking trader-warriors from modern Sweden spent decades clearing the river routes south to the Black Sea and in doing so founded the city of Kiev, though they were widely described as the “Rus” and though this activity was the basis of the modern state of Russia, nobody knows what Rus means or where it came from.

Nobody knows what pagans did or believed. All the shrines were destroyed by Christians. None of htese people could write: they recorded absolutely nothing of their activities. Only one four line prayer exists anywhere, embedded in a long poem in the Poetic Edda. There are a pitiful handful of eye witness accounts of pagan Viking behaviour, none of which are very clear, there’s a number of runestones which barely convey anything, there is a handful of primitive picture stones. I understand better than before why, against the background of this pitiful lack of evidence, the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems and the Prose Edda – the synopsis of Norse legends – both set down in 12th century Iceland are so enormously valuable.

However, as the book progresses, an idea emerges which develops into Ferguson’s central thesis: this, like everything in the book, derives from a scrupulous weighing of the evidence, and it is that the Viking phenomenon was a religious war. The idea is broached in the chapter about the start of the Viking era (different in every country): in Britain it (notoriously) started with the brutal attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Ferguson links this to the extremely violent and intimidating campaign of Charlemagne to convert northern Europe to Christianity which got underway in the 780s and targeted the Saxons who lived south of Denmark. As Charlemagne’s forces invaded Saxony, burning pagan shrines, forcibly converting pagans and killing resisters, thousands fled north into Jutland and, Ferguson argues, this may be what lies behind the sudden eruption of revenge attacks by the pagan men from the sea who we call the Vikings. Wherever the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian attackers landed, they went out of their way to loot and destroy churches and monasteries and to torture, rape and kill priests, monks and nuns.

Those within converted Europe, the Christians who wrote what records we have about the Vikings, the victims who were attacked again and again and again from about 800 to about 1050, they disagree about where the Vikings came from, whether they were blonde or dark-haired, what language they spoke etc – but on one thing they all agreed – they were heathen, pagani, unbelievers, infidels, illiterate outsiders, fired by terrifying ferocity and anger against everything connected with Christianity, going out of their way to loot and desecrate.

Which led me to wonder whether this period shouldn’t qualify as the First Wars of Religion in Europe – preceding the 150 years of carnage sparked by the Protestant Reformation (1500-1650), a period we should perhaps now rename the Second Wars of Religion.

This is a marvellous book, all the more awe-inspiring and romantic for the scrupulous care with which every scrap of evidence and every conflicting theory or interpretation is weighed and assessed.

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

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