China’s War with Japan 1937 – 1945 by Rana Mitter (2013)

The aim of the book

Mitter is an eminent historian of twentieth century China and of the period leading up to World War II in particular. In his introduction he points out that the Sino-Japanese War – which lasted from 1937 and then became subsumed in the wider World War – is often neglected in Western historiography which, perhaps understandably, focuses on the war in Europe/Russia and on the American War in the Pacific: both perspectives tend to overlook the fact that the Chinese were fighting the Japanese for four long years before the Americans joined the struggle. By providing one continuous narrative of the entire Sino-Japanese War, as seen from the Chinese point of view, Mitter aims to redress this imbalance and tell this generally ‘untold story’.

The second main point, which emerges increasingly as the wider World War progresses, is that China – as the four-year adversary of the Japanese, and as the country responsible right to the end of the war for tying down some 500,000 Japanese troops as well as supplying men to fight alongside the British in Burma – deserved much greater representation in the meetings of the Big Three – Russia, America, Britain – which decided the fate of the post-war world. China was only invited to one, minor, Allied conference – held in Cairo – and was not invited to Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. To this day, Mitter claims, the lack of recognition of China’s part in the wider anti-fascist struggle, and then her deliberate omission from the meetings of the Big Three – which they think should have been a Big Four – rankle in the memory of educated Chinese.

It contributes to the smouldering Chinese sense that for a long, long time, for some 150 years, first the British and then the Americans assumed control and sway over the Pacific and all its peoples, and that Chinese interests and contributions were consistently ignored or trampled on.

Now, at last, in the 21st century, China is confident enough and powerful enough to begin to flex her muscles and assert her rights in the region. Which is why, Mitter argues, educated people in the West need to be aware of the often harrowing events of this brutal eight-year war, and of the emotional significance it still has for many Chinese, and how it still informs modern China’s attitudes and worldview.

The Sino-Japanese War

1. 1937 to Pearl Harbour (1941)

Having annexed neighbouring Korea (1910) and the huge northern province of China known as Manchuria (1931), the aggressively militarist Japanese Empire took the opportunity of a trivial border incident (at the so-called Marco Polo Bridge) to launch a full-scale armed invasion of China in July 1937.

When Japan attacked there were broadly three forces in China: the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-Shek (also known as the Kuomintang) which claimed to be the official government of the whole country; the smaller Chinese Communist Party – whose leaders included the up-and-coming demagogue Mao Zedong – and a number of regional warlords.

China was divided like this:

a) Because the latter part of the 19th century was marked in China by decades of civil war and administrative weakness. The biggest of these disruptions was the Taiping Rebellion, a vast civil war which dominated the 1860s and in which anything up to 100 million Chinese might have killed each other, and which people in the West have little awareness of. The rebellion had only been put down at the cost of giving autonomy to regional military leaders and it was this which established the pattern of ‘warlord’ control of some regions. A growing body of politicians, modernisers and revolutionaries all realised that the old imperial structures just couldn’t rule this huge country, and the turmoil eventually led to the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1912 and the establishment of a republican government.

b) However, the nationalist revolutionaries proved incapable of preventing the country falling apart into a patchwork of regions controlled by local military leaders or ‘warlords’. Hence the complex geography and politics of the ‘Warlord Era’, 1916 – 1928.

Japan’s advance was swift not only because of China’s political, administrative and economic divisions but for the more basic reason that, under successive 19th century rulers, China had failed to modernise and keep up with the industrialised world. Convinced of their cultural superiority, of their lofty position as ‘the Heavenly Kingdom’, China’s rulers looked down on the big-nosed Europeans with their crude manners and obvious greed. Which turned out to be a mistake because the foreign devils (one of many discriminatory terms the Chinese use for non-Chinese) came armed with the benefits of the Industrial Revolution – steamships, guns, cannon, trains.

In the 1840s Chinese rulers found themselves forced at gun point to agree to treaties with Western imperialist powers – Britain, France, America – who secured for themselves coastal entrepôts (Hong Kong, Shanghai), exemption for Western citizens from Chinese law, but who (wisely) never made any attempt to colonise the vast peasant interior.

China’s economic and social backwardness contrasted with Imperial Japan, whose government realised in the 1860s that they had to keep up with the farangs by importing the best of Western know-how. The Japanese gave Westerners limited rights at certain specific trading ports but, more importantly, embarked on a wholesale reform and modernising of their technology and industry. By the turn of the twentieth century Japan combined an ongoing level of rural Asian poverty with surprising levels of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was brought forcefully home to everyone when Japan defeated Russia – itself arguably a vast, backward nation but still, in theory, European – in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Bolstered by this victory, Japan’s well-organised, well-equipped and well-managed army and navy went on to seize control of all Korea in 1910.

The disparity in cultural attitudes (Japan’s Big Yes to Western know-how compared to China’s lofty rejection), in their respective levels of industrialisation, and in central economic, political and military control, help explain why – when they decided to extend their occupation in 1937, Japan, with a population of just 72 million, managed to subdue China, with a population of about 520 million.

The war was marked early on by the Japanese massacre of the civilian inhabitants of the capital Nanking

and continued to be marked by extreme Japanese brutality and bloodshed, including the indiscriminate bombing of cities crowded with refugees – for example, the bombing campaign against the Nationalists’ temporary capital of Chongqing – which resulted in horrifying casualties.

The Nationalists themselves contributed to the mayhem with a ‘scorched earth’ policy, including burning some of their own cities to the ground before the Japanese could take them and – most notoriously – in 1938 breaking the dikes which held in the massive Yellow River. This created a truly epic flood over a huge area of central China which certainly delayed the Japanese advance but led to a mind-boggling 800,000 deaths from drowning, not to mention further deaths from disease and starvation.

The Communist forces, such as they were, had retreated deep into remote northern China in the long flight which their propaganda machine turned into the legendary ‘Long March’. About 70,000 communist cadres set out on it and maybe as few as 7,000 completed it, the rest dying or giving up along the way. Thus the bulk of the resistance to the Japanese invaders, of the actual fighting, fell to Chiang, his German-trained Nationalist forces, and whatever warlord allies he could press to help him (and who all too often let him down).

The whole story is a panorama of extraordinary chaos, suffering and death on a continental scale.

2. After Pearl Harbour

The story becomes a lot more comprehensible – and therefore interesting and memorable – once the Japanese have their bright idea to attack Pearl Harbour and declare war on the most powerful nation on earth. And Hitler decides – quite unnecessarily – to rally to their support and also declare war on America.

There had been an earlier turning point when the war in Europe broke out in September 1939 and Chiang’s Nationalists suddenly hoped for arms and support from the European democracies (who just happened to be the very same imperialist devils which Chinese nationalist propaganda had been reviling for decades). But, in the event, the supposedly all-powerful British Empire turned out to be weak – in fact, it was shown to be an essentially peacetime operation, able to carry out local police actions and just about manage a huge array of established colonial assets, but in no way ready for a war of aggression – unlike Germany or Japan. Britain herself struggled for survival in 1940 and ’41 and so the last thing on her mind was sending troops to the other side of the planet to fight in someone else’s war.

Pearl Harbour marked the beginning of the war for America, but was only a way station for the Chinese who had, by this stage, been resisting the Japanese for four long years. It would take three more bitter years to defeat them, with mixed results for Chiang’s Nationalists: on the one hand they now found themselves de facto allies of Britain and America in the war against Japan; on the down side, they now found themselves caught up in the very complicated diplomatic and military manoeuvering which took place even between the nominal allies Britain and America, with the added challenge of Stalin’s Russia, as well as coping with Mao’s communists and the Chinese collaborationist regime.

For one of the many untold stories which Mitter brings back into the light is the role of Wang Jingwei, at one time a colleague of Chiang’s, who was persuaded that the patriotic thing to do in order to prevent more loss of Chinese lives and destruction of Chinese land, was to co-operate with the Japanese. After agonising soul-searching – recorded in detail by one of his aides-de-camp, Zhou Fohai, in a diary from which Mitter liberally quotes – Wang agreed to fly back to the occupied former capital of Nanjing and allow himself to be set up as the Japanese-backed puppet leader of Occupied China – an equivalent of the Vichy Regime in France or Quisling in Norway.

The three years of the War in the Pacific are detailed in Max Hasting’s grim history Nemesis. Mitter usefully complements such Anglocentric accounts with his narrative of the ongoing battles – and the complex diplomatic manouevres – taking place in war-torn China.

One of the most interesting themes which emerge in the final part of Mitter’s book is that the various Chinese administrations – as they struggled to keep control of their areas and populations, to properly organise the collection of taxes, the feeding of soldiers, the distribution of the growing amounts of Allied aid – became progressively more centralised and relied increasingly on Terror as a political tool. Each of the three regimes set up secret police forces who used arbitrary arrest, torture and executions to intimidate dissident voices, each one headed by specific individuals – the equivalents of the Nazis’ Heinrich Himmler – who became notorious for their brutality and sadism. For Chiang’s nationalists it was Dai Li, for Wang’s collaborationists it was Li Shiqun, for Mao it was Kang Sheng.

And all three parties despised Westerners as culturally inferior, hated and bitterly resented the shame and humiliation they’d been subject to during the era of Unequal Treaties, and were – accordingly – contemptuous of the hypocrisy of Western ‘liberal, ‘democratic’ societies. None of them really understood the Western notion of democracy from below – the models of all three (as indeed of the conquering Japanese) was of top-down rule by a strong Leader – Generalissimo Chiang or Chairman Mao.

Given the huge political differences between all three factions and given the direct links between the Chinese Communists and Stalin’s Russia – Stalin told the CCP, basically, what to do – on the one hand, and the widespread corruption, brutality and inefficiency of Chiang’s Nationalists (to the many Americans who had experience of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, he acquired the nickname ‘Cash My Check’) on the other – it’s no surprise that relations between the Western Allies and the various Chinese factions were fraught with misunderstandings, miscalculations, misgivings and mistakes, which Mitter records in great detail.

3. Conclusion

By the end of World War II, the sustained struggle against the Japanese had exhausted Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. By contrast the war had seen the growth in strength and confidence of the Communists who had been able to send out political cohorts to infiltrate broad areas of unoccupied China to spread their message of a revolution for the peasants, for the poorest of the poor.

It was also during the latter part of the war that Mao began to establish his grip on the Chinese Communist party through a programme of biting criticism and calls for ideological purity – the so-called ‘Rectification Process’ – which was the start of 30 years of intimidating, arresting and executing his opponents. As Mitter points out, the techniques which underlay the catastrophic Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s were first laid down in the early 1940s.

When the War in the Pacific came to an abrupt end in August 1945, the war for control of China still had four more bloody years to go, a ragged civil war in a shattered country which ultimately led to the complete seizure of power by the Communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. The remnants of Chiang’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they rule to this day. As Mitter sums up – Chiang’s Nationalists won the war but lost China.


Related links

Reviews of books about other Asian wars

Rogier van der Weyden by Stephan Kemperdick (2013)

‘The most influential painter of the 15th century’ (p.6)

The Northern Renaissance

When I went around the Renaissance wing at the National Gallery in London I found myself drawn again and again to works by the Netherlands and Flemish masters from the so-called ‘Northern Renaissance’ – in particular, Robert Campin (A man and a woman, 1430), Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini portrait, 1434) and Rogier van der Weyden (The Magdalen Reading, before 1438). There’s something magical about the 1430s and 1440s…

For in 1400 Netherlandish art still shared the late medieval International Style, but in the first third of that century a new school of art arose, led by van Eyck and van der Weyden, which introduced:

  • light and shade used to give people and objects three-dimensionality
  • individualised modelling of faces
  • realistically depicted interiors
  • extensive landscapes in the background extending into the distance

Campin is a shadowy figure, whose name appears in the documentary record and who, only after a lot of research, has been identified by modern scholars with the master of Flemelle. Van Eyck made the sensible career move of signing all his paintings, thus guaranteeing his identity as their creator.

So for centuries after their deaths Van Eyck was seen as the founding father, and many paintings now attributed to others were credited to him. Only in recent generations have Campin and van der Weyden emerged as credible artists in their own right. For both we are only certain of a relatively small number of core works which can definitely be attributed to them – followed by a larger number of works which may be by them or from their workshops – and then an outer nimbus of works which may be by followers, or not connected at all. All these decisions are liable to potentially endless scholarly debate.

Despite controversy at the edges, the core assertion is secure – that these three artists were responsible for introducing a revolutionary new spirit of realism into northern painting, an approach which went on to flower in the next generation of Netherlandish painters – notably Hans Memling (b.1440) and Hugo van der Goes (b.1440).

Given the longevity of Van Eyck’s authentication and fame it’s no surprise that there are scores of books about him. There don’t appear to be any in print about the shadowy figure of Campin, and only one I could find about van der Weyden.

The book

The book is 140 pages long, printed on glossy paper which brings out the best in the 130 or so glorious full-colour images. There are also ten or so black-and-white reproductions of cartoons and sketches, along with a one-page chronology of Rogier and a handy three-page glossary of terms.

The text goes chronologically through what is known of Rogier’s career, with a final chapter on his reputation and influence. But this narrative is interrupted by 2- or 3-page ‘insets’ on related topics e.g. a useful background on the kingdom of Burgundy, one on how an artist’s workshop of the time functioned, on contemporary manuscript illumination and tapestries, and so on.

It was written and published in German and was translated by Anthea Bell OBE, a prolific translator from French and German who is probably most famous for her translation of the 35 Asterix books.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier was born in 1399 or 1400 in French-speaking Tournai in northern France. From 1427 to 1432 there is documentary evidence that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of master painter Robert Campin. Having ‘graduated’, Rogier moved to Brussels, where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1464. There are enough scattered mentions of him in old records to be able to sketch out his life story: the birth of a son in 1437; the purchase of a house in 1444; an Italian writer records seeing the Deposition in Ferrara in 1449; the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa mentions seeing Rogier’s (now lost) Scenes of Justice in Brussels and calls him ‘the greatest of painters; the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio mentions that Rogier travelled to Rome in the Jubilee year of 1450; there’s records of a legal dispute with the Italian painter Zanetto Bugatto in 1461; in 1462 he becomes a member of a religious order in Brussels, and lends money to a local monastery; and we know that he died on 18 June 1464 and is buried in the church of St Gudule.

More biographical information than for many medieval figures, and enough to begin to sketch out a chronology of his works. We know that he was prosperous (from his donations to religious houses), eminent (the dispute with Bugatto was settled by the Dauphin i.e. heir apparent to the throne of France, no less), and famous – a number of Italian historians refer to him, works were commissioned from him by the Medici family, and by the king of Spain.

The Deposition

The earliest work we can definitely identify is also his greatest, his most copied and most influential – the Deposition or Descent from the cross.

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The ten figures are placed in a shallow box as of a niche in a church. The background is covered with gold leaf. It is a masterpiece because of the flow or rhythm of the composition, with the two groups of three one either side of the cross, subtly reflecting each other, for the way the Virgin Mary’s swooning body echoes Christ’s body – and for the stunning detail of their hands, almost touching, hers white and pure, his hideously mutilated. For the sumptuous detail of the clothes, for example the gorgeous pattern of gold brocade on Nicodemus’s fur-lined gown and – my personal favourite, the high, tight belt around the vertically ribbed green dress of Mary Salome (if that’s who she is). It’s hard to see in this reproduction but the tears were important and influential, capturing the real grief of the mourners. The combination of the strange Gothic box setting, the foreshortening of the space and the gorgeousness of detail set it apart from Italian renaissance painting.

Scholarly tone

As you read on, you realise this is quite a scholarly work, which goes into considerable detailed discussion of every aspect of Rogier’s work, including a comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the attribution of each of the 70 or so works it discusses. Since none of these attributions are straightforward, and often involve assessing the reliability of 18th or 19th century copies of archives which were themselves written a century after the events they record and which frequently contain palpable errors of chronology, names and attributions – well, it means the text can get quite heavy-going.

Kemperdick also explains modern scientific methods which are applied to medieval paintings, namely:

  • dendrochronology – since almost all these works were painted on wood (almost always oak wood, generally imported from the Baltic) it is possible to date individual works by counting the number of annual growth rings on the planks – although it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.
  • infrared reflectography – this process pings infrared rays through the work and records the images which bounce back. These black and white images allow scholars (and us, since Kemperdick includes reflectographs of some of the key paintings) to see the underdrawings for each piece, and – if you’re lucky – also to show how the artist changes and adapts the composition during its creation.

The techniques are interesting but the results are of limited interest (e.g. at some point the forefinger of John the Baptist was changed from pointing to heaven to pointing towards the Christ child; there was originally going to be a wall at the back of the Miraflores Tryptich – but it was changed to open landscape in the final version). In fact the results of both these techniques don’t really add anything to our appreciation of the work; they are used mostly to add into the extraordinarily dense web of discussion of the relative styles, attribution, provenance, dating and possible authorship of the rather confusing array of works by Rogier, his workshop, or by other contemporary and generally anonymous artists. As the text progresses this involves increasing numbers of comparisons between details of different pictures. (The angular folds of the Virgin in figure 53 are reminiscent of the so-and-so altarpiece in figure 11, but the change in hand position suggests the influence of the later work shown in figure 85, although recent dendrochronology evidence pushes both of them back before the latest possible date of composition as suggested by the 18th century copy of the original archive record of the commission of the painting from the Monastery of such and such. And so on.)

Stunning pictures

For students and fellow scholars this is important stuff, but as an amateur fan I found myself drifting away from the text to just luxuriate in the wonderful images on display, flicking over the pages to discover another treasure to absorb yourself in. And not necessarily sticking to Rogier, though he is the subject of the book; there are plenty of works by other contemporaries, reproduced here in excellent high quality colour illustrations.

For example, I find the painting of St Veronica displaying the veil on which Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted – nowadays attributed to Robert Campin – frankly astonishing. The characterisation of the face and the gorgeous orange background bring early John Everett Millais to mind (for example, the famous Lorenzo and Isabella of 1849). It is hard to believe it is from the early 15th century, 400 years earlier.

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Van der Weyden’s largest work is the Beaune Altarpiece, which shows a vivid and striking depiction of the Last Judgement.

The Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive account of the altarpiece’s genesis and meaning – and is a good example of the way these artefacts are not just works of art but important exemplars of social history. For me the two most striking elements are the oval-faced archangel St Michael balancing the scales of Justice directly under the Judging Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

But also the amazing spectacle of the buried dead burrowing themselves up out of the ground like worms. Normally in Day of Judgement scenes we see coffins opening; but here the dead are like moles erupting directly out of the soil. For me medieval and northern art often has this weird, unexpected, half-mad quality – think of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly, the really horrified look of the naked people being dragged (by their hair in one case) down into the burning pits of hell.

Learnings

  • Archivolt -the moulding or band around the inside of an arch. In many of the altarpieces the figures are framed by a Gothic arch and inside the archivolt are depicted scenes from the life of Christ which relate to the scene depicted in the main image.
  • Dendrochronology
  • Infrared reflectology
  • Most of the Netherlands was, at this period, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Duke of Burgundy who ruled during this period was Duke Philip the Good, who had a long reign from 1419 to 1467. He commissioned altarpieces, portraits and illuminated manuscripts from Rogier and his workshop.
  • Grisaille – a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or another neutral colour, such as brown. Mostly used to duplicate the effect of sculpture e.g. the statues in the bottom two central panels of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (when closed) or this image of St Lawrence, on the reverse side of a full-colour portrait of Jean de Froimont.
  • Halos – towards the end of the book I noticed that all the holy figures in contemporary Italian paintings have big round solid halos, which emphasise the hieratic staginess of the figures e.g. The Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico (c. 1440), whereas there are few if any haloes in the northern paintings and then they are either transparent or bursts of golden rays, for example it’s quite hard to see the golden rays emanating from the head of the Virgin at the centre of the St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455).
  • Medieval painters whose names we don’t know are often named ‘the master of x’ where x is a particular work with a distinctive style. For centuries scholars referred to ‘the master of Flémalle’ after three painted panels, now in Frankfurt, said to have come from a monastery in Flémalle. Controversy has raged for over a century as to whether the master of Flémalle is one and the same as the Robert Campin who we know ran a workshop in Tournai, modern Belgium. Nowadays most scholars think they are one and the same.
  • Tears – there is evidence that Italian nobles, who commissioned works from Rogier, particularly valued the realism of the tears he gave to Christ’s followers:
  • Tryptich (i.e. three-part) altars fold out. The two side wings are hinged so the tryptich can be ‘closed’ or ‘opened’ to reveal the gorgeous colours of the interior. They were usually closed and only opened on special Holy Days. The outside of the closeable doors were also painted – but generally in drabber colours – and often with portraits of the donors who commissioned the work. For example, the relatively drab but beautifully modelled exterior of the Beaune Altarpiece features portraits of Nicolas Rolin, the powerful Chancellor to Philip the Good, and his wife. Roline was in fact portrayed several times by both Rogier and Jan van Eyck. A tough and powerful man, and van Eyck captures that wonderfully.

In later generations Rogier was venerated for the delicacy and artfulness of his compositions, along with the ability to convey the intense emotion and anguish of the characters in the Passion (all those weeping Marys). But I love the beauty, the calmness, the delicacy, and the quiet intimacy of the best of his portraits. Nearly 600 years later his people still live and breathe.

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Related links

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

Related links

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (2013)

Conspiracy thrillers

I started reading grown-up books and watching movies in the mid-1970s, which happened, among other things, to be the golden age of conspiracy thrillers. After Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, a wave of disillusioned American film-makers produced gripping and chilling movies based on the premise that wicked, money-grabbing corporations had fatally corrupted government, and that any naive young government operative who stumbled on these secrets would be eliminated by their own side.

Thus films like Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Conversation (1974), and The Parallax View (1974) still deliver a paranoid thrill today – and they have a legacy in the ongoing Bourne franchise, where yet another fresh-faced, young white man is shocked to discover that his worse enemies aren’t the Russkies or the terrorists – they’re his own superiors carrying out corrupt and covert operations which are sanctioned at the highest levels.

40 years later le Carré has, rather belatedly, woken up to idea that the same thing could happen in Britain. The plot of this novel – conscientious civil servants try to expose government-corporate cover-up – feels old, very old. And instead of the handsome Robert Redford (Condor) or Warren Beatty (Parallax), we have as ‘heroes’ the very British paring of a timid young civil servant and a fogeyish retired diplomat.

Quite apart from the dusty plot, what’s really striking about the book is the garish prose style and stilted dialogue through which it’s told, a tortured style which comes from a strange parallel universe where Jason Bourne has been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.

The plot

British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers the evidence that his Minister, the bullying Fergus Quinn, helped arrange a hush-hush ‘mission’, Operation Wildlife, to be carried out by an American corporation – Ethical Outcomes – involving US mercenaries, four British soldiers, and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high-value terrorist on Gibraltar.

But there was no terrorist: the apartment he was meant to be hiding in turned out to be empty, and instead a Muslim woman and her baby, probably illegal immigrants who were squatting there, were mistakenly shot to ribbons.

Three years later, retired British diplomat, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, is approached out of the blue by Jeb Owen, one of the British soldiers who took part in Wildife and has been haunted ever since by what he saw. Jeb has identified Kit as the FO man sent to witness the operation (Kit did so under an assumed name and was spirited away moments after it ended in confusion), and now Jeb has tracked Kit down to his genteel retirement in a manor house in Cornwall.

Kit was never sure exactly what happened that night, having observed it all from a distance in the squaddies’ ‘hide’, but Jeb now confirms his worst fears that something went badly wrong, and backs his story up with black-and-white photos of the dead woman and baby.

They make a date to meet again when Jeb will produce more evidence, but Jeb not only fails to keep this meeting with Sir Kit, he turns up dead in the back of his own van, in what the authorities claim is a ‘suicide’, though his wife knows this isn’t true. The evidence in hand, and Jeb’s dodgy demise, determine the honourable Sir Kit – backed by his charming lady wife Suzanne, and with the support of his feisty doctor daughter Emily – to inform the proper authorities.

So he goes up to London, to the Foreign Office, naively and stupidly to tell the very people who covered up the fiasco in the first place that he has evidence to prove there was a fiasco and a cover-up. To Kit’s amazement – and the utter unsurprise of anyone who’s ever seen or read a conspiracy thriller – the powers-that-be not only brush aside the incident, but end up blaming him for the deaths – seeing as he was the ‘responsible officer’ on the spot – and make it clear that if he breathes a word to anyone, he will be the first one to be prosecuted. Does he want that to happen? Does he want to put his wife – in remission from some unspecified illness – through that? Or his daughter? ‘Go home, Sir Kit.’

Meanwhile, in a separate thread, we flash back three years to the build-up to the botched mission, to the period when fresh-faced young civil servant, Toby Bell, was private secretary to New Labour bruiser and Foreign Office minister, Fergus Quinn.

Toby dutifully fetches and carries for Quinn but is puzzled by the bruiser’s secretiveness – a new safe is installed in the office, his door is always closed, secret phone calls abound. Toby’s concerns reach a peak when he is told to organise a hush-hush meeting in private rooms, and to ensure that even the CCTV on the side entrance into the building is turned off, so there’s no record of the attendees.

Intrigued, Toby digs up an antique reel-to-reel tape recorder which has been mouldering in his office, plants it in the meeting room and sets the timer to record the ‘secret’ meeting. Listening to it later, he hears Fergus conspiring with a renowned shady operator who floats on the periphery of Whitehall, a certain Jay Crispin, to organise the mission, and so first hears the words Operation Wildlife.

Aware that he’s breaking various protocols and possibly the Official Secrets Act, Toby transfers the tape recording of the meeting to a computer memory stick and seeks the help of his mentor within the service, Giles Oakley.

Lofty, insouciant Giles explains that Crispin is the smooth English front man for a US mercenary outfit known as Ethical Outcomes. In fact, Toby himself briefly meets Crispin and his partner and fundraiser, introduced in characteristic JLC ringmaster fashion as ‘the one and only Miss Maisie from Houston, Texas’. Quinn introduces them to Toby in his office for what might just have been an interview to be recruited into the mission – but Tobym with his Bertie Woosterish innocence, fails the audition. And just as well, as things turn out.

Toby discovers that the FO man referred to in the plans is Sir Kit, gets his address, and so travels down to the diplomat’s big house in Cornwall. Here the pair share their discoveries and, with the latter’s forceful GP daughter Emily, they form an alliance to ‘uncover the truth’. Tremble in your boots, oh baddies.

Toby travels on to Wales to meet Jeb in his crappy, post-industrial town, only to hear from his distraught wife that Jeb ‘committed suicide’ just a few days earlier – despite having just expressing new confidence that he’s finally exorcised his post-traumatic demons by meeting and talking to Sir Kit. Plus, Jeb shot himself with his left hand, which is odd because he was right-handed. Almost as if dark forces might have bumped him off and made it look like suicide. Crikey.

1. Kit takes the dossier of evidence he’s compiled up to London and, after some effort, forces his way into the Foreign Office and an interview with some creepy lawyers. These slick operators magically twist everything round to show him that the only person named for sure in the entire operation is himself, backed up by his own admission that he was senior man on the spot. Since all the others deny any involvement, this means that if his dossier is published, he, Sir Kit, would be the prime suspect and legally held responsible. A broken man, he catches the train back to Cornwall.

2. Jeb’s widow gives Toby the phone number of one of Jeb’s army colleagues who was involved in the mission. But when Toby meets this fellow, ‘Shorty’, in a North London café, instead of having a discreet chat he finds himself being briskly escorted to a car which then drives him to a very secure, guarded house in St John’s Wood, where he is received by the smooth, handsome, posh Jay Crispin he has heard so much about. Like all baddies in thrillers, Crispin is immensely urbane and polite – ‘more coffee, Mr Bond’ – before asking if he’d like to join Ethical Outcomes – sign a confidentiality agreement and immediately double his salary? No? Oh dear. That is unfortunate.

Toby walks out and walks home, opens the door to his Islington flat and is immediately gagged, hooded and given an extreme beating by professionals wearing knuckle dusters. As he lies vomiting on the floor, one of them mutters, ‘This is just for starters’ – such a cliché it made me laugh out loud. When Sir Kit’s daughter Emily phones, Toby groans into the receiver enough to make her come round and clean him up. Feeling slightly more human, he insists on getting dressed, finding his hidden memory stick and all the other evidence, and hobbling with her help to the nearest internet café, from where he emails all the evidence he has to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 news, Guardian and so on.

At which point they hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Sirens coming from all directions and converging, with a screech of tyres, just outside the café. Almost as if his blackberry, phone and even the memory stick are tagged and monitored and that, by using them, he has drawn down on himself the forces of darkness!

Just because you’re paranoid…

This ‘powerful’ ending reminded me of the 1988 movie Defence of the Realm, in which investigative journalist Gabriel Byrne and the fragrant Greta Scacchi come together to reveal the massive official cover-up of a near-nuclear accident – which ends with them, also, posting all the documents they have to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Guardian etc – before the forces of darkness ensure that they meet a very sticky end.

The sticky end, after all, the time-honoured ending of the paranoia thriller (cf Warren Beatty getting killed at the end of The Parallax View) – just the final thrill in a sequence of shocking revelations.

Moreover, the downbeat climax repeats the fatalistic endings of le Carré’s other late novels – the whistleblower ‘Salvo’ unjustly extradited in The Mission Song, the innocent refugee Issa brutally kidnapped by the CIA in A Most Wanted Man, the defecting Russian mafiosi (and his innocent Brit minder) blown to pieces by the forces of darkness at the end of Our Kind of Traitor.

The ‘clean-cut-heroes-against-the-corrupt-Establishment-cover-up’ plot is an old and venerable one, one I quite literally grew up with 40 years ago. So how is it handled here? What about its style and presentation?


Le Carré land

From the first pages we are in le Carré land, where posh, naive white men talk to each other in superannuated 1950s slang, are tyrannised by modern, go-getting types who show how up-to-date they are by saying ‘fuck’ a lot, who are in cahoots with dastardly foreigners – not Islamic terrorists or Russians, no, the worst foreigners of all – Americans! – and where all the characters and the omniscient narrator are indistinguishably soaked in the same heavy-handed, lumbering, facetious tone of voice.

Le Carré’s response to every aspect of the modern world, especially in its bureaucratic and organisational forms, is one of unremitting sarcasm. He has a particular bee in his bonnet about the way ‘Personnel’ departments have been renamed ‘Human Resources’ in big organisations, a bugbear which crops up in several books. Here is Sir Kit meeting the head of HR at the Foreign Office right at the start of the novel:

‘So how’s your poor dear wife?’ asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday afternoon when all good citizens are running home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.
‘Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,’ he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?’
‘So she’s leavable,’ Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly enquiry.
‘My hat no! In what sense?’ – determinedly keeping up the jolly banter. (p.4)

The whole book is written in this phony, mock heroic voice. The passage contains examples of several JLC mannerisms:

  • The way public schoolboys use condescending tags and clichés to indicate their superiority over the great unwashed – ‘when all good citizens are running home’ – like the poor miserable rabbits that they are, presumably.
  • And is it really a ‘life-threatening encounter’, chatting to the head of HR? No. Then why make out that it is? Ironic hyperbole, old chap. All part of the ‘jolly banter’.
  • Antiquated slang. How many people, in Britain, in 2016, in a moment of surprise, exclaim, ‘my hat’? Anyone?

The HR thing gets le Carré’s goat so much he repeats it later:

‘Were the Personnel people – or Human Resources or whatever they call themselves these days…’ (p.172)

Yes, why do people keep bloody changing the words for things all the bloody time?

Jeb might be psychotic, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the other big words we throw around so easily these days… (p.187)

As Colonel Blimp might have put it: ‘Bloody confusing big words: what’s wrong with the short words we used in the good old days – dago, darkie, pansy boy?’ To my surprise, Sir Kit does actually use the expression ‘pansy-boy’:

Said one of the Americans was a little fat bastard with effeminate mannerisms. Pansy-boy, according to Jeb. The pansy-boy was the worst.’ (p.213)

Well, who could possibly disagree? ‘Bloody Americans. Bloody fat Americans. Bloody fat American pansy-boys, they’re the worst, oh definitely the worst, old boy.’

The reader thinks: ‘Well, we better not tell the confused old buffer that we no longer use pounds, shillings and pence or that we’ve put a man on the moon. His head might explode.’

And this character – Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Probyn – with his ailing wife, his devoted labrador and his manor house in good old Cornwall – this is one of the two ‘heroes’ of the book. He is held up as a gold standard of old-fashioned morals and conscience – but comes over as an ineffectually blundering buffoon.

Our Le Carré’s use of the little word ‘our’ is symptomatic. He deploys it in a way which radiates public school, upper-class facetiousness; a pally-pally, knowing condescension:

‘our dear young queen… our stoical defenders… Mr Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider… And the secret pulse of our great nation, Laura?… a reliable has-been from the ranks of our own dear Service… our intrepid friend… our selfless volunteers… [at his village fair Sir Kit enters the] roped-off enclosure of our Rustic Crafts section… [Sir Kit is referred to as the] leader of our gallant British detachment…’ and so on and so on

Far too intelligent to simply refer to people by their names or functions the narrator – and Le Carré’s characters (interchangeably) – use ‘our’ to indicate their mocking familiarity with the personage in question, advertising their lofty height above the great unwashed.

Your fine family Similarly, family and loved ones or careers and places – especially funny foreign places – are routine targets for upper-class exaggeration and elaborate hyperbole, or for the public school habit of using religious tags and mock pomposity in a tone of permanent sneering:

‘should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family… given to him by his beloved wife… Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended conferences… Paul, you are now and for evermore family… My beloved wife Hermione tells me… his beloved La Rochefoucauld… the fabled castle that is Prague’s pride… My beloved ex-partner…’ and so on and on.

Ye olde English Toby’s mentor, Giles, tries to reassure him that everything’s been sorted out, but cannot say anything without using the same facetious upper-class banter, with the same mock Shakespearian rhetoric, that all the other characters use:

Just listen to me, dear, will you? The scandal at Defence is dead, and Jay Crispin is henceforth and forever banished from all ministerial and government premises on pain of death.’ (p.74)

Is he, though? Banished? On pain of death? No. That is deliberate hyperbole and exaggeration because posh Giles – imprisoned, like so many Le Carré characters, in the lofty tower of his expensive education – just can’t speak like ordinary people. He can’t say, ‘Listen, Crispin is finished, it’s official. No-one is allowed to contact or do business with him,’ because that is how ghastly oiks speak.

When Toby gets a new job as Private Secretary to Quinn, the narrator can’t state this as a simple fact, but has to describes him as ‘newly anointed’. In one of their long conversations, Giles goes into ecstasies of sarcasm about ‘Man of the People’ Quinn: I counted him using the ironic phrase ‘your nice new master’ five times in as many pages.

Almost all the character speak in this insufferably mannered upper-class style. There’s only so long you can listen to these smug wankers with their insufferable smugness and superiority before wanting to hit something.

Telegraphese Too posh to say complete sentences? Bark them out like a retired colonel:

  • ‘Man’s a liar.’
  • ‘Hell are you doing with my daughter anyway?’

Music hall compère I particularly relish the occasions in Le Carré novels where the narrator introduces his characters with the pomp and moustachioed bombast of an old-time, music hall compère:

And who is the guiding light in London who presides over this pragmatic trade in human destinies…. – None other than Giles Oakley, Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large. (p.61)

‘Tobe, kindly pay your respects to Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.’ (p.86)

The first quote is the narrator speaking. The second one is ‘Man of the People’ Fergus Quinn speaking. The mock heroic phraseology is identical in both. That’s why I say the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices are interchangeable: they all radiate the same kind of condescending, mock heroic, upper-class grandiosity.

This inability to find any other voice than a pompous Old Etonian is particularly noticeable when le Carré tries to do colonials. Just as the Australian tennis coach in Our Kind of Traitor didn’t sound remotely Australian, so Elliot the allegedly South African character doesn’t sound remotely South African – he sounds just like all Le Carré’s other elaborately facetious characters – although in these two particular cases, rather more like an elaborately ironic butler than the lord of the manor:

‘Sir, I believe I have the singular honour of welcoming Mr Toby Bell of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Is that correct, sir?’ (p.316)

Really? Is that really how a tough bastard South African mercenary would talk?

1950s slang Is there anyone of working age who routinely says ‘old sport’ and ‘old chap’ at the end of every sentence? Or ‘what?’ Or exclaims ‘My hat’? In a remarkable moment, the smooth-talking New Labour-era creep Jay Crispin, manipulator of American billionaires and Whitehall ministers, while trying to buy Toby off, tells him that Jeb, the soldier he was due to meet is a bit, you know,

Not quite himself, ‘twixt thee and me. (p.319)

‘Twixt thee and me’?

Sarcastic descriptions Similarly, when le Carré wants to ridicule characters he does it with very heavy sarcasm, lumbering them with elaborately ironic adjectives and descriptions. In particular, in all these later novels, le Carré can barely contain his anger at the way Tony Blair’s New Labour betrayed all its promises, instigated the appalling ‘corporatisation’ of the state (in this case the civil service, with its outliers in the military and intelligence services – renaming perfectly good Personnel departments Human Resources, for chrissakes), and rubber-stamped America’s mad invasion of Iraq.

This anti-New Labour animus adds such malevolence that posh Giles can only bring himself to refer to Toby’s minister – ‘your nice new master’ Quinn – with arch facetiousness:

‘…your distinguished minister… appears determined to outdo the militarist zeal of his late great leader, Brother Blair…’ (p.97)

(I’ve never seen this formula – ‘brother X’ – with its air of smothering but simultaneously contemptuous familiarity, used in this way by any other author. It’s a le Carré trademark.)

The first half of the book amounts to a satirical caricature of a New Labour minister, Fergus Quinn, who bulks large in the first half of the novel as Toby’s bullying master, helping to arrange the ill-fated mission, presumably in expectation of some back-handers or a transition to a nice, corporate position when he leaves government. With characteristic New Labour emphasis on slick media presentation, Quinn hypocritically puts on a smile for the cameras and likes to present himself as a straight-talking Glaswegian. And so gets skewered with the same withering descriptors throughout:

‘Fergus Quinn, man of the people… Quinn the People’s Choice… the Champion of the Working Classes… Fergus Quinn, MP, white hope of the powers-that-be in Downing Street (p.191)

A politician who puts on a fake smile for the cameras but is really a hectoring bully in private? Golly. A politician who helps high-level business contacts while in office and then moves smoothly into a related directorships when he leaves? Crikey. This isn’t really new. It isn’t even New Labour new. Weren’t Trollope and other Victorians aware of the canting posturing of politicians. Isn’t 18th century literature awash with corrupt political figures? What is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) but a satire on the deep-dyed corruption of the Prime Minister?

Bluster instead of insight As per usual, when key players in a le Carré novel try to get to the heart of the matter, they prove incapable of intelligent analysis – instead they bluff and bluster. The first meeting between the good guys, Sir Kit and Toby, has them discussing the situation and leads up to Sir Kit summarising for Toby his understanding of the military cock-up which is at the heart of the whole plot:

‘Operation Wildife,’ he barked. ‘Roaring success, we were told. Drinks all round. Knighthoods for me, promotion for you – what?’ (p.198)

Days later I am still reeling from the imbecility of this moment. The man is meant to be a seasoned diplomat. Toby, who he’s talking to, is meant to be a fast track civil servant.

When I worked at the Department for International Development, I had contact with some of the heads of directorates and once with the Secretary of State himself. What came over was their immense workload and the brisk, professional way they dealt with it. I was impressed by the speed and incisiveness of their fact-processing and decision-making. By contrast, almost all le Carré’s Whitehall characters come over as dim and slow – really slow, much, much slower than the reader, who is always streets ahead of them. By about half way through I was really hoping the entire crew of dim duffers would be arrested, extradited, or simply blown up, as the only fitting way to respond to such irreparable denseness.

Humour Le Carré is probably the most humourless writer I know. But his narratives act as if they’re hugely funny. Take Elliot, the dodgy South African mercenary handling the British soldiers during the ill-fated mission. Here he is explaining to Sir Kit that the aim of the mission is to kidnap a terrorist, codenamed Aladdin.

‘Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship… Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism…’ (p.23)

Ha. Ha ha. Le Carré is so proud of this joke that he repeats it a few pages later. And to be fair, it is probably the funniest joke in the novel. There’s another cracker when Sir Kit asks one of the yokels in his village, Ben, the owner of Ben’s garage, if he can borrow some metal cutters, prompting this sparkling exchange:

‘You off to prison?’ Ben enquires.
‘Well, not just at the moment, Ben, thank you,’ replies the same Kit, with a raucous hah! of a laugh. (p.142)

Because, you see, Ben the yokel is making a humorous suggestion that Sir Kit might want metal cutters so he can break out of prison, and Sir Kit pretends to find this frightfully funny. Ha ha ha. Oh, my hat!

Italics Why so many italics in the dialogue? Scattered so randomly? After as little as one page the reader begins to wonder whether the characters are mentally ill, afflicted with a version of Tourette’s Syndrome which makes them emphasise words with no logical reason, like a pub drunk jabbing you in the chest with his finger according to no discernable logic.

As a tiny example, when Sir Kit goes up to London to (naively and hopelessly) put his case to his former employers at the Foreign Office, he has to pass through several layers of security but then is gladdened to see a familiar face:

‘Molly, my God, of all people, I thought you’d retired aeons ago, what on earth are you doing here?’
‘Alumni, darling,’ she confided in a happy voice. ‘I get to meet all our old boys and girls whenever they need a helping hand or fall by the wayside, which isn’t you at all, you lucky man, you’re here on business, I know. Now then. What kind of business? You’ve got a document and you want to hand it personally to God. But you can’t because he’s on a swan to Africa – well deserved, I may add. A great pity because I’m sure he’ll be furious when he hears he’s missed you.’ (pp.282-283)

Partly it’s standard upper-middle-class class gush: ‘Oh Lavinia, how simply marvellous to see you’ etc. But it’s been turned up a notch, beyond the comprehensible, to become a mannerism, a compulsion.

The suspicion arises, not for the first time, that when le Carré tries to do clever dialogue between people who are assessing and probing each other – dialogue which ought to be subtle, measured and understated – he can’t. So he has his characters either swear a lot ‘for fuck’s sake’, or randomly emphasise every other word to make it sound somehow more forceful and intelligent.

Both of which tactics fail.

Conclusions

Whereas the outcomes of, say, a Robert Harris thriller are genuinely unexpected and sometimes terrifying, the outcomes – in fact most of the plots – of le Carré’s later novels are entirely predictable variations on the dominating obsession of his post-Cold War books, all emanating from the, to-him, shocking revelation that the modern world is corrupt.

The key text to understanding his attitude is his 2003 article ‘The United States of America has gone mad‘, which perfectly captures the way he can barely contain his white-hot anger at the American government’s stupid, blundering, imperialistic invasion of Iraq – so much so that the tone spills over into sarcasm, facetiousness and barely controlled hysteria.

(Note particularly the final section which abruptly switches from outraged journalistic diatribe to a spooky dialogue between an earnest lickle child asking innocent questions about the war and a reassuring Daddy telling him the it will all be over quickly and everything will be alright.)

The same runaway anger informs these later novels – anger that:

  • transnational corporations get away with murder (The Constant Gardener)
  • a rogue America can trample roughshod over individual and national rights in its obsessive ‘war on terror’ (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man)
  • and worst of all, how Britain has also fallen into the mire [since some imaginary romantic past of chivalrous idealism] so that senior politicians, businessmen and even elements of ‘our dear Intelligence Service’, are in corrupt collusion with shady foreigners like the Russian mafia (Our Kind of Traitor), or are paid agents of dastardly international arms dealers (The Night Manager) or are helping to plan coups to impose corporate-friendly rulers on helpless Third World nations (The Mission Song)

Anger that is only barely contained beneath a simmering surface of withering sarcasm, of fake joviality and spurious bonhomie littered with the bizarre remnants of the almost-forgotten, upper-class banter of the 1950s.

The movie

If you dumped the entire bombastic narrative voice, changed the characters from 1950s throwbacks to make them 21st century people, rewrote the dialogue so it is intelligent and snappy rather than sweary public school chaffing, and trimmed down and focused the plot – in fact if you dropped everything about the book except the core idea – Foreign Office hero uncovers conspiracy to cover up UK involvement in US-led extraordinary rendition cock-up – then it would make a cracking movie or TV series, just like A Most Wanted Man or The Night Manager which, once they’d been extracted from le Carré land, and comprehensively rewritten, proved to be very successful.


Credit

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré was published in 2013 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2014 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 – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
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 – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar – but there was no terrorist: instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson (2013)

An entertaining and eye-opening survey of the role of the spy since 1945.

The sub-title is Modern Spying from the Cold War to the War on Terror, but in fact the book reads as if it is in two distinct parts: 1. The Cold War. 2. The War on Terror, each of which has completely different rules and atmosphere.

Also it is a history of the spy, not of spying as a whole. As it progresses you begin to realise that a full and complete history of spying would itself be huge, and also just part of a wider history of ‘intelligence’ gathering in the broadest sense. This would be a vast, maybe an impossibly huge task, bringing in all kinds of electronic, remote and automatic surveillance and communications monitoring.

Simpson describes some of the most vivid instances of this kind of wire tapping and phone cable intercepting, but the focus of the book is on the stories of individual spies. He very usefully sets the stories against the main geopolitical events of the past seventy years, which are briefly described, but always to revert to the book’s core content, which is a set of 100 or so potted biographies of notable spies and summaries of their activities.

Sample spy stories

  • Igor Gouzenko, a lieutenant in Russian intelligence, defected in 1945 and implicated 21 Canadians as Russian agents, including Fred Rose, the only communist ever elected to the Canadian parliament.
  • Elizabeth Bentley, ‘the red Spy Queen’, who’d been working for the KGB since 1933, confessed to the FBI in 1945 and named 150 Americans working as Russian agents, and wrote a 107-page document detailing all aspects of Soviet spycraft and organisation in the US.
  • Georges Pâques, a key advisor to various French ministers through to the early 1960s, was a KGB agent with access to the entire NATO defence plan for Western Europe.
  • Gunvor Galtung Haavik worked at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1977, and was a KGB agent the whole time, passing secrets to the Russians.
  • From 1953 GRU officer Pyotr Popov supplied the CIA with details of the organisation of Soviet military command, the structure of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the USSR armed forces) and with names and operations of Soviet agents in Europe, before being caught and executed by the Russians.
  • Army sergeant and part-time pimp Robert Lee Johnson tried to sell his services to the KGB several times before getting lucky and getting assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service at Orly airport. He was able to break into the top secret vault there, photograph and send the Soviets information about cypher systems and defence plans for the US and NATO.
  • Canadian economist Hugh Hambleton worked for the Russians from inside NATO between 1957 and 1961 and provided so much material that the KGB had to provide a black van equipped with a photographic library so that it could be speedily copied and returned. He spied for over 20 years.
  • British naval clerk John Vassall worked in the Admiralty and sent the Russians thousands of classified documents covering naval policy and weapons development. He did this for five years.
  • By 1960 the KGB had three agents working in the newly-founded US National Security Agency (NSA). Two cryptologists, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected to Moscow and gave a press conference in which they revealed the NSA was spying on all sorts of countries ‘friendly’ to the USA.
  • Staff sergeant John Dunlap was chauffeur to the chief of staff of the NSA and from 1960 onwards supplied the Soviets with instruction books, manuals, and designs for the Americans’ cipher machines, up till 1963.
  • Head of the East German HVA (the intelligence wing of the dreaded Stasi) Markus Wolff, was said to have up to three thousand agents working for him at every level of the West German state. He became well known for the honey trap whereby handsome young men seduced older female secretaries working in West German government positions. Thus Irmgard Römer who worked at the Bonn Foreign Office, was persuaded by her handsome lover, a KGB agent, to give him copies of all the top secret telegrams she handled. Leonore Sütterlein, another secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was eventually convicted of passing over 3,000 classified documents to her husband who was in fact a KGB officer. When she realised he had only married her in order to access the documents, she killed herself.

And so on and so on, the book selecting some hundred – from what it suggests could easily be thousands – of similar stories.

1. The Cold War

Three or four big themes emerge fro this litany of betrayal:

Russia versus America

Simpson’s book overwhelmingly focuses on the conflict between communist Russia and capitalist America. The text proceeds decade by decade, setting the scene of major geopolitical events – the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and so on – to explain the pressure of events which often motivated individual defectors and agents. For example, the KGB operatives who were disillusioned by the way the Russians crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. But the axis of battle is always between East and West.

There are sub-sections on other countries: Britain recurs, presumably because this is a British book by a British author, maybe also because we are so closely tied to the Americans thus there is a substantial section about the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge spies in Britain, and brief references to the reorganisations over the period of MI5 and MI6. But of other security services with hefty histories of their own – BOSS in South Africa or Mossad in Israel – there are only fleeting references. Mostly – as with the East German Stasi or the Czech StB – they are only referenced insofar as they connect with the book’s main CIA-KGB axis.

A treachery of spies

Maybe the biggest revelation of the book is simply how many spies there have been. And how often their betrayals were on an epic scale: lots of the individuals mentioned here didn’t hand over bits and bobs to the other side, a file here or there – but spent years and years systematically copying, photographing and handing over the most sensitive, top secret material imaginable. Some needed sets of filing cabinets or even lorries to cart away the huge amounts of documents they betrayed. Others sent so much to the enemy their material was still being sifted and analysed five years later.

The sheer scale of the material these agents sold, passed on and betrayed raises two thoughts:

a) An impressive number of the traitors described here were obvious security risks: known alcoholics, unreliable, erratic, greedy or amoral materialists. As the list of traitors grows steadily longer through the post-war decades, it makes you seriously wonder about the ‘vetting’ techniques of all these so-called ‘security’ bodies. When you consider that the British traitor Kim Philby, a committed agent for the KGB, almost became head of MI6, you wonder whether the word ‘security’ actually means anything.

b) There was so much to betray. In movies the McGuffin or thing being stolen is always small and portable, nowadays just a disk or flash drive. But in reality, it consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, if not truckloads – of documents. The sheer weight of information betrayed and sold by both sides is staggering. And how can the security apparatuses on either side have survived having so much stolen and given away?

For example, the Manhattan Project which produced America’s atom bomb appears to have been riddled with Russian spies. So much so, that the Russians themselves detonated an A bomb just four years after the Americans (1949), based entirely on stolen US technology.

Looking back, did it matter that security around the bomb was so tight, when it appears to have been so comprehensively broken? As you read page after page of shocking revelations about how much has been betrayed, you begin to wonder whether anything can be kept secure.

Bureaucracy

Spying is about finding out information someone wants to keep secret. The modern industrial state generates information on a colossal scale, itself increased by many orders of magnitude by the advent of digital technology.

But even between 1945 and 1991, reading this book makes you realise that the spying, information and counter-espionage agencies were just part of vastly bigger military and political bureaucracies and organisations, themselves just part of vast nations with tens of millions of people, engaged in the enormous, multivarious tasks of creating and running the modern world. An indication of this is the six page glossary of organisation acronyms at the end of the book – ASIO, ASIS, AHV, BND, CSIS, CTC, DCI, FAPSI, FSB, GRU, HVA – and so on and so on.

The book gives the sense that there seems to be no end of projects and initiatives and reorganisations going on at any one time, and no end of alcoholics, gamblers, sex addicts or ideological fanatics ready to betray everything they know for money, love or political conviction.

2. The War on Terror

Al-Qaeda was set up at the end of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. It pledged itself to destroy America, kill Jews and restore Islamic purity. It funded and organised a string of attacks against US military and civilian targets throughout the 1990s, and ushered in a completely new era.

Looking back, various CIA etc experts make the point that the Cold War had rules and was played by ‘gentlemen’. Prisoners were interrogated, sent for trial and imprisoned. Periodically there would be prisoner exchanges, their spy for our spy. Both sides knew the rules and kept things more or less under control. (The Sovs routinely executed their traitors but then, so, in the 1950s, did America, for example the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

There is none of that with Islamic terrorism. They are not ‘gentlemen’. They want to die and take as many people as possible with them. It is almost impossible to infiltrate their small, loosely-organised cells. It presents an altogether different challenge.

The two most notable events in the ongoing Century of Islamic Terror were 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Simpson briskly retells the stories as colossal failures of intelligence:

9/11 There were lots of intelligence leads suggesting some kind of spectacular was about to take place against America, and even suggestions it might be done with planes acting as bombs. Some of the hijackers had been marked by intelligence services. There was just a complete failure to pull this intelligence together and to realise what it meant. Personally, I think hindsight is a great thing, everything is obvious once it’s happened. If the previous 200 pages had shown anything, it is the challenge presented by the sheer volume of intelligence information, the challenge of making sense of it all.

And there are some obvious historical parallels for the complete failure to anticipate major attacks which, in retrospect, seem obvious. For example, nobody at all expected the Great War. A lot of people were alarmed at the arms race with Germany, especially the naval arms race, but nobody expected the war to become quite the epic catastrophic it turned out.

And whereas the Second World War was a lot more expected, it still contained several stunning intelligence failures. The failure of America to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is something historians still debate. More intriguing is the decisive event of the war, and of the 20th century, Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. If he hadn’t, Nazi Germany might have enjoyed prolonged hegemony over occupied Europe, but even though (this book says) over 80 separate reports reached Stalin about an imminent Nazi attack, he rejected them all as Western propaganda and so the red Army was completely unprepared for Operation Barbarossa when it kicked off on 22 June 1941.

Iraq Ironically, the opposite case: there was a dearth of solid intelligence but that didn’t stop politicians, specifically George Bush encouraged by Donald Rumsfeld, from twisting what intelligence there was into ‘evidence’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use against the West at any point.

This is such a vast subject, and such an ongoing nightmare for the Middle East, all recently raked up again by the Chilcot Report, that there’s no point trying to summarise it. Suffice to say this book gives a useful historical perspective to recent events by briskly describing previous Western invasions or attempts at regime change, including the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez Crisis) and the American attempt to foment an armed uprising against Castro in Cuba (1961), or the successful Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, or the CIA-assisted overthrow of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

The debacle in Iraq didn’t stop NATO from intervening in the Libyan civil war to bomb Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, and the British Parliament from voting to approve UK involvement in air strikes on Syria in 2015.

What is a spy?

In movies and fiction a ‘spy’ is a special agent who goes on a ‘mission’ often into enemy territory, to capture a gizmo or rescue a person or – in the more grandiose fictions – to foil a plot for world domination. The real life cases given here suggest that secret service work involves either:

  • being based in your home country
    • managing networks of agents overseas
    • analysing the ‘product’ ie trying to make sense of the reams of information they send back
    • doing counter-espionage ie trying to spot and control enemy spying going on in your home country
  • being posted overseas, generally working from an embassy, or being funded by your home government
    • engaging in propaganda work of some sort or another, providing money and materiel to political parties or activists
    • actively recruiting and running agents in sensitive positions who could supply ‘us’ with useful information

John le Carré is probably the novelist most associated with emphasising the humdrum, desk-bound, essentially administrative nature of most intelligent work, with only the occasional flash of violence out in the real world.


Credit

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson was published by Robinson in 2013.

Related links

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith (2013)

‘All I know is that we don’t have a government anymore, just thieves.’ (p.269)

Joseph

Joseph cycles out to the beach. He’s a cool, well-paid freelance translator. The current job has gone well and he’s cycled here to Kaliningrad strand on his priceless bicycle to take the sea air and feel the sand between his toes. Onto the empty beach rolls an odd-looking van, a butcher’s van with a model pig on the top. A thug gets out, comes over and starts talking to Joseph, then hassling him. Finally, he bundles him into the back of his van and the gulls flying overhead hear a single shot.

Moscow

Senior Investigator Arkady Renko and Detective Sergeant Victor Orlov attend the funeral of a Moscow gangster, Grisha Grigorenko, bantering with his thuggish son Alexi, observing the other mafia bosses in attendance – ‘Ape’ Beledon, Abdul Khan the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman – before the hoods go off for a wake aboard the old crook’s luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, moored in the Moscow river.

Renko and Orlov are distracted by a noisy demonstration marching by. It’s the readers and fans of the ‘fearless’ investigative journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, who recently fell to her death from her 6th floor apartment in Moscow. They’re protesting at the lack of investigation of her death and at the suspicious way her body has gone missing from the morgue.

Arkady joins the protest marchers, noting the presence of Tatiana’s editor Sergei Obolensky, the fashionable poet Maxim Dal, and other intelligentsia, among the crowd. Arkady also spots his occasional bed partner, Anya Rudenko, also a journalist, who lives in the same apartment block as him. Barely have the rag-tag marchers arrived outside Tatiana’s apartment building than a gang of skinheads attack them with steel-capped boots and metal pipes.

When the police turn up they are – as so often in these Arkady novels – much more scary than the criminals and start attacking the protesters. Arkady had been knocked to the floor by some skinheads, and was taking a serious kicking when the militia arrived. He manages to fight his way back to his feet, and then make his identity known to the militia, and tries to protect Anya from arrest.

When Arkady makes it away from the scene he discovers he has a black eye and cracked ribs, in fact one of his ribs has punctured a lung. Several days of bed rest are prescribed, with a pipe inserted in his chest which will help reinflate the lung.

He is tended by Dr Korsakova, the sardonic doctor who nursed him through being shot in the head in the Stalin’s Ghost, with much entertaining banter on both sides. She points out that, according to X-rays, shell fragments seem to be moving round inside his brain. They could rupture at any moment. ‘Might as well smoke, then’, says Arkady, with typical bloody-mindedness.

Arkady ignores the medical advice and starts making enquiries about the ‘suicide’. He visits Tatiana’s flat in a soon-to-be-demolished block, and finds it has been ransacked. He visits Svetlana, the young woman Tatiana took off the streets and fixed up in the flat opposite her, along with her six cats. He visits Tatiana’s editor, Obolensky, who says they’d both seen a TV report about a body washed up on the shore off Kaliningrad, and Tatiana had set off to find out more. Nobody had identified the short skinny corpse (the corpse of Joseph who we met in the opening chapter), but Tatiana had tracked down the kids who found the body on the beach and discovered that they had found Joseph’s notebooks. She bought themoff the kids and found they were full of notes made in an eccentric and idiosyncratic style, using personalised hieroglyphs and symbols.

In the usual style of the Renko books, the plot ramifies out into a number of threads:

  • The poet Maxim Dal is unusually interested in Tatiana because, he claims, they had an affair years earlier.
  • Arkady is surprised to come across his own, admittedly occasional, girlfriend, Anya, hanging out with Alexi, the crime boss’s son (more or less what happened in Stalin’s Ghost, when Arkady’s girlfriend deserted him for the bad guy in that novel).
  • Arkady visits Professor Kunin at Moscow University (p.89), an expert on language and ciphers, whose lungs are ruined and so who drags around an oxygen tank and breathing tube. Some interesting light is shed on translators’ codes in general, but Kunin can’t decipher these ones.

Zhenya

Arkady examines the notebook carefully and notes the recurrence of bicycle pictures and cats. When he rings them, the authorities in Kaliningrad, namely one Lieutenant Stasov, are monumentally unhelpful (hiding something? or just standard Russian obstructiveness?).

Zhenya, the street kid we first met aged 8 in Wolves Eat Dogs, is now a shabby-looking 17-year-old and appals Arkady by announcing he wants to join the army. (This gives Cruz Smith the opportunity to refer to the terrible ‘hazing’ ie systematic cruelty, to which new recruits are routinely subjected, and so he refuses to sign the paper allowing him to enlist.) But Zhenya complicates the plot by breaking into Arkady’s apartment and stealing the notebook. He’ll only give it back if Arkady signs the form.

Panther bicycles

Arkady has a beer at a genuine ‘Irish’ bar where the bartender, unexpectedly, turns out to be an expert on bicycles. He makes the connection between the bike frames doodled in the notebook and the images of cats. The latter must, in fact, be panthers. And Panther is a range of hand-built and extremely expensive bicycles made in Italy by a firm named Bicicletta Ercolo (p.109). So Arkady tracks down the firm’s phone number and makes some long distance phone calls to the owner of the firm in Italy.

These calls, with their confusions and misunderstandings, are partly played for laughs, but the owner eventually comes up with the name of a purchaser from Russia who more or less fits the corpse’s description – one Joseph Bonnafos (p.154).

Bad memories

Interleaved through the novel are Arkady’s memories of his brutal Red Army general father – especially the time the General nearly shot Arkady when the boy sneaked into his study and hid behind the thick curtains. Eventually his father killed himself (as his mother had, in the events traumatically described in Wolves Eat Dogs).

Arkady also remembers the events surrounding the tragic and futile death of his wife, Irina, mistakenly given an injection of penicillin to which she was allergic.

In this melancholy vein Arkady finds himself drawn to listening, in the haunted early hours, to the trove of tapes he found scattered over Tatiana’s floor. They are records of her investigations and amount to a summary of recent Russian scandals, which Tatiana either attended or investigated:

You can see why the authorities wanted her shut up. But what was her involvement with organised crime? To find out, Arkady goes the rounds of some of the gang leaders or godfathers he and Victor noted at Grisha’s funeral, notable Abdul Khan, ‘Ape’ Beledon, Valentina Shagelman.

In the middle of the night Arkady’s car alarm goes off and when he trudges down to the garage, he is knocked unconscious. Coming to, he finds himself on a barge on the river, being tortured by Alexi Grigorenko who, to his surprise, wants to find out what Arkady knows about Kaliningrad and to get him to hand over the notebook.

Alexi’s eyes were slightly hooded. Hands quick and delicate as a croupier’s. Under his jacket the hitch of a gun. (p.119)

Just as Arkady’s wondering whether he’ll die, Alexi makes a slip which allows Arkady to grab his arm, pull him down, dislocate his shoulder and punch him quite a few times in the face before walking free, in the casual insouciant manner we’ve become accustomed to.

Arkady learns from his friend, Willy the pathologist, that Tatiana’s body has gone from ‘missing’ to ‘found and cremated’ in one fell swoop. Nothing to see but ashes. Apparently, her sister, Ludmila, identified the body over the phone using photographs faxed to her. The sister lives in Kaliningrad. Aha.

Kaliningrad

As in Stalin’s Ghost a lot of the plot strands point towards a specific location outside Moscow, thus giving the author an opportunity to send the ostensibly Moscow-based investigator to a new and interesting location. In Stalin’s Ghost it was the town of Tver, scene of major battles in the Second World War. Here it is Kaliningrad, where Arkady flies to be met by the poet Dal, in his swanky ZIL, the Russian version of a limousine.

Dal claims he had to be in Kaliningrad anyway to promote some Moscow-to-Kaliningrad rally. He tells Arkady he wants to know more about Tatiana’s fate because he’s up for a sizeable poetry prize from the United States ($50,000) and, if her death turns out to be murder, the fact of his old relationship with her might jeopardise the award. They sound like excuses to Renko.

Arkady and Maxim go to visit the sister, who doesn’t even let them into the house but wears dark glasses and yells out the window. She is more concerned about her vegetables than her dead sister. Yes, she identified her sister’s body from the photos she was sent, what does she care? ‘Now please leave.’

This isn’t the result Arkady spent the time and money flying here to find out to get. Back at Maxim’s flat the poet gets hopelessly drunk. Arkady carries him to his bed and sleeps on the couch.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Zhenya takes part in a ‘Blitz’ chess championship among university students and finds himself losing to an attractive red-head named Lotte, the first time he’s lost a game of chess in years. Intrigued, he lets her take him home to meet her grandfather, who made a career painting nothing but portraits of Stalin back in the day.

Then Zhenya takes Lotte to Arkady’s empty apartment, the only place he has to go. They’re sharing a beer and playing a game of chess when Alexi walks in with a gun and a big bruise under his eye (where Arkady hit him). Alexi threatens Lotte and Zhenya with the gun, demanding to know where the notebook is. Zhenya feigns ignorance and angrily says he’s got hundreds of notebooks of chess games, but not the notebook Alexi wants. Alexi leaves, pissed off. But Zhenya does have the notebook. It was lying on the coffee table throughout the whole confrontation.

Pig man and amber

Kaliningrad Arkady insists Maxim drives him out to the sandy spit where Joseph’s body was found. Apparently, this is where Tatiana bought the notebook from the children. They see a few children in the sea, playing with rakes except Maxim explains they’re actually raking for amber, which they can sell for a good price. The butcher’s van with a model pig atop it, which we met in the first chapter, turns up and the driver watches the kids for a while. Ominous.

On the drive back from the spit, Maxim takes a detour to an open pit mine and tells Arkady that Kaliningrad produces 90% of the world’s amber. Until recently the mafiosi Grisha Grigorenko owned the whole operation. Until someone shot him in the head, that is. Grisha’s front company was named Curonian Amber, the Curonian Spit being the long, thin, curved sand-dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea coast.

So it looks more than ever as if the murder of Joseph the interpreter, the suicide of Tatiana the journalist, and the clumsy threats by Grisha Grigorenko, the gangster’s son, are somehow linked – and have something to do with control of Kaliningrad’s amber.

Maxim then takes Arkady on a car tour of the city, taking in Kant’s tomb and also the mock old town. It is going to be heavily invested in, apparently. Money is flooding into the area. They’re going to open casinos. Whoever owns it will make a fortune. So that explains the gangland connection…

Just as they arrive at the quaint quayside, a 4×4 looms out of nowhere, rams the ZIL to a standstill and two heavies get out with Uzis, which they proceed to empty into the side of Maxim’s car. But Maxim’s car is an old Kremlin ZIL, completely armour plated and, when Maxim goes to ram the other car, it reverses and takes off. Angry, Arkady extracts from Maxim the fact that he promised to help Alexi, and promised to be parked down at the quay at this time. Why? Because he was scared. Because Alexi threatened to kill him.

Moscow Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Alexi returns to Arkady’s flat to catch Zhenya and Lotte red-handed, trying to decode the notebook. They have barely made any sort of start but Alexi threatens that he’ll be back in 10 hours and, if they haven’t decoded it, he will torture Lotte. He takes the kids’ mobile phones. He cuts the cable of the apartment’s phone. He stations one of his men on the door with a gun.

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady returns to the spit of land and finds one of the boys who was playing there. He is called Vovo. He and his sister saw the pig man murder Joseph, then search through his clothes looking for something, before throwing them away. When he’d gone, the kids found the notebook and a card with a phone number scribbled on it. When they rang it, Tatiana answered, and told them to keep the notebook till she arrived and could pay them $50. Which is what happened. And so she passed it on to her editor for safekeeping. And he gave it to Arakdy. And then Zhenya stole it. And now Alexi is threatening to torture Lotte unless she and Zhenya decipher it.

A twist

Leaving a forlorn and broken Maxim, Arkady hires his own car and drives back to Ludmila’s cottage. Now she is not wearing dark glasses and her little pug dog bounces out the front door. Ludmila says, ‘So you’re back.’ Arkady says, ‘And you are Tatiana.’ And she admits it, yes. Her sister, almost identical to look at, was visiting her in Moscow. Someone lay in wait and bundled her over the balcony rail. Max rang her at the magazine to tell her someone had murdered her sister thinking it was her, came to pick her up, and they drove through the night to Kaliningrad where they agreed Tatiana’s best hope of surviving was to impersonate the sister.

Arkady understand. ‘Will she be safe here?’ she asks Arkady. ‘No’, he replies. Especially when he points out that there’s an unmarked police car parked opposite her cottage, keeping an eye on her.

So they devise a scam. Arkady takes her dog for a walk past the car and rolls its toy ball under the car. The cop in it turns out to be the obstructive Lieutenant Stasov, who yells at him to piss off, while Arkady makes a big song and dance about getting the ball back for his dog. By the time this noisy charade has been played out, Tatiana has slipped out of the side door and mingled with the passing pedestrians.

Moscow Back in Moscow, the ten hours Alexi gave Lotte and Zheny to decipher toe notebooks are up, and the man guarding the door of Arkady’s apartment goes to push it open to shoot Zhenya and Lotte, to the latters’ horror. But there are the sounds of a scuffle, and the door eventually opens to reveal stalwart old Victor banging the hood’s head against the wall, before throwing him down the stairs. Hooray! Lotte and Zhenya are saved!

Victor handcuffs the hood – named Fedorov – and allows Zhenya to menace him with Arkady’s pistol, till he admits that Alexi is in Kaliningrad, along with the heads of the mafia families we met at his dad’s funeral. But why?

Kaliningrad Back in Kaliningrad, Arkady meets up with Tatiana at a bicycle shop and they sign up to one of the all-day, all-night bicycle outings he’d seen advertised. Soon they are anonymous among a pack of cyclists leaving the city. That night they camp in the countryside, sing songs round a campfire, and are surprised to watch a small orgy get underway among the cyclists. Takes all sorts. They sleep chastely in a tent till dawn, then cycle off along the coast to Tatiana’s childhood seaside house, full of family memories.

Here Tatiana explains that the government of crooks, dedicated to embezzling vast amounts for the state, has made a massive cock-up with its latest nuclear submarine, which cost hundreds of billions of rubles but is still not seaworthy.

The meeting of gangsters seems to be about a plan to get the submarine refurbished and cream off vast profits from the project. Joseph had been a translator at an initial meeting of those involved in the conspiracy, Tatiana had heard of him through her multiple contacts, and was going to ask Joseph to explain the details, but he was killed before he could meet her.

Tatiana explains that all the cases of corruption she’s dealt with over the past decades build to a climax with this one. It’s the lynch pin to the entire Russian system of official corruption – which is why everyone wants it.

Suddenly a searchlight cuts through the window of the cottage. It’s Alexi in a sleek, designer speedboat. He shouts threats through a loudhailer. He asks Tatiana if she wants to know what happened to her sister, Arkady if he wants to know what happened to Zhenya (implying he’s killed him). Tatiana, bravely or foolishly, walks into the open doorway and Alexi fires wildly at her, missing, but sending splinters pinging, then swings the boat around and roars away. Arkady was winged by some of the splinters. Tatiana cleans and dresses the wound, their hands touch, they kiss, they make love.

‘Afterward was an overused word, Arkady thought. It meant so much. A shifting of planets. A million years. A new sea. (p.276)

Now lovers, the couple go on the run, cycling up the coast in the dark. They encounter armed security guards who turn a searchlight on them and fire with automatics; but in the fog, they escape amid a herd of elk and cycle back to the resort town of Zeleogradsk and try to blend in as tourists.

From an internet cafe, they skype with Zhenya, Lotte and Victor in Arkady’s flat and both groups share the information they’ve discovered – Zhenya confirming the interpretation that the notebook was the record of conference, various parties spoke, it’s something to do with the sea, maybe a submarine, that the final meeting will be aboard the luxury yacht, the Natalya Gocharova, which has moored at Kaliningrad.

So getting out to the yacht and intervening in the meeting now becomes the plan.

The Natalya Gocharovas

In an odd scene Maxim, Arkady and Tatiana argue over which of them will be wired for sound and go out to the yacht, and who will stay in the flat recording whatever happens, onto a tape recorder.

In the event, Maxim insists that he goes instead of Tatiana, insisting on steering a dinghy out to the yacht moored in the harbour, on the basis that he’s a local and knows the seaways. It’s a very spooky and atmospheric trip…

But when they get there, the Natalya Gocharova is dark and unpopulated. What’s going on? Maxim turns nasty and claims the whole thing is a set-up so that Arkady could get him alone and kill him. Ridiculous, but the old drunk pulls out a pistol and is about to shoot Arkady when the latter’s mobile phone rings. It is Zhenya – he has somehow found out that there are two Natalya Gocharovas – the other one is an oil tanker, also moored in the harbour.

So Maxim grugingly puts his gun away and they putter on into the industrial section of the port, and discover that the other Natalya Gocharova is a ‘stubby coastal tanker’. Maxim and Arkady chunter up to it and ascend the rusty ladder to find a champagne party taking place. Overseeing it is old ‘Ape’ Beledon, along with Abdul the ‘rap artist’, Isaac and Valentina Shagelman, Alexi, along with a number of naval officers and two Chinese representatives from the Red Dawn shipyard.

There is a tense stand-off in which Arkady gets ‘Ape’ to confess details of the scam – the Russian government will sub-contract the refurbishment of the nuclear submarine to a Chinese shipyard, at a cost of billions of rubles (hence the presence of the Chinese delegates). But Russian crooks will work with corrupt government officials, going as high as the Kremlin, to cream half the sum into private pockets. It is a vast corruption conspiracy and explains the murders and assassinations which have surrounded it.

Arkady, initially outnumbered, does the classic thing of sowing disunity among his foes by pointing out:

a) that it was ‘Ape’s own sons who shot up the ZIL he and Maxim were in – not at Ape’s bidding, so someone else must have ordered them, probably Alexi – ‘aren’t you even in control of your own sons?’
b) that whoever killed someone as savvy as Grisha, must have been very close to him to get away with it – who else but his nearest and dearest son, Alexi?

At this very tense moment, Tatiana appears on deck, having rowed out to the tanker, and cries out to Alexi that he killed her sister.

She pulls a gun and fires on him but it jams and Alexi fires back at her. Maxim steps into the path of the bullet and is shot in the shoulder. ‘Ape’ – now convinced that Alexi shot his own father and suborned his, ‘Ape’s, sons, – shoots Alexi in the face, then twice in the back as he lies on deck. The naval officers have disappeared. The Chinese are long gone. ‘Ape’ suavely places the pistol in Maxim’s hands.

‘Congratulations. By the evidence you have just shot your first man.’ (p.312)

Being a reasonably civilised mafiosi – and realising there’s nothing to be gained by harming them – ‘Ape’ lets Arkady and Tatiana and Maxim go back to their boat and leave.

Death of the pig man

Now Arkady and Tatiana are free to share idyllic days in her family cabin by the sea. The shifting dunes, the sound of the waves breaking, the salt in the air – are all painted by Cruz Smith with characteristic prose poetry.

But Arkady wakes one night to hear footsteps prowling. It is the pig man, the psycho who killed Joseph in the opening scene. So Arkady is relieved when Tatiana announces that her editor, Obolensky, has commissioned her to write a long piece about Kremlin corruption, with the Natalya Gocharova story as its centrepiece. She has to go to Moscow to research and write it.

Off she goes and Arkady prepares for a shootout with the pig man. He rummages around in Tatiana’s father’s old tool shed and finds lots of cabling. He wraps this round himself and slips a poncho over. That night the pig van with the glowing model of a pig on top comes rumbling over the dunes. It parks and the pig man throws the three children Arkady met weeks ago, onto the sand, trussed and tied up. He threatens to shoot them unless Arkady shows himself. Arkady stands and walks towards piggy who, after some insults, shoots him. Arkady is knocked backwards but rises and walks forward. Pig man shoots again, and again Arkady staggers but carries on walking (as in a thousand movies), finally raising Tatiana’s little peashooter of a pistol and killing pig man at almost point blank range.

All threats are over.

Cleaning the bike

With the kids’ help Arkady and Tatiana find the lost Pantera bicycle. They take it back to Arkady’s flat in Moscow, strip it down and rebuild it. Zhenya gets involved. Tatiana is off collecting international prizes for journalism. Lotte, Zhenya’s ‘friend’, is playing at an international chess tournament in Cairo. His ex, Anya, is happily covering fashion. Maxim has recovered and has published a new poem.

All loose ends are tidied up and everyone is happy. Thus ends the 8th and most recent Arkady Renko novel.

Having read all eight, my favourites are Polar Star and Wolves Eat Dogs because their settings give full rein to Cruz Smith’s spectacular abilities as a prose poet. But all of them are immensely enjoyable and rewarding reads.


Credit

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Simon and Schuster in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Simon and Schuster 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 Kill List by Frederick Forsyth (2013)

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu about the early parts of this novel.

Like his previous novels Avenger and The Afghan it is about Islamic terrorism. The focus is very American, with scores of pages giving a factual account of the mushrooming of US security and intelligence forces after 9/11, including J-SOC (Joint Special Operations Command – ‘a component command of the United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM’) and TOSA (Technical Operations Support Activity) the agency which will end up running ‘the Tracker’.

Like the previous books the protagonists don’t really have ‘characters’, they have CVs and functions, more like the avatars in a computer game than characters in a traditional ‘novel’. As in Forsyth’s most recent books, they barely even have names but are more commonly referred to by their roles: thus ‘the Preacher’ is delivering blood-thirsty sermons on the internet instructing young Muslims to carry out personal attacks on individuals inside the Great Satan, and this is leading to a wave of fanatical young men stabbing or shooting US senators and other VIPs.

When one of these fanatics shoots dead the retired general father of lifelong US Marine Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, a fluent Arab speaker who has seen action in Afghanistan and the Gulf – it becomes ‘personal’ (p.99). (As in a thousand action movie trailers, the character actually says that phrase.) Carson morphs into The Tracker and that’s how he’s referred to by everyone he subsequently encounters and the narrator for the rest of the book.

Not only are the themes and many of the organisations and the character ‘types’ repeated from previous novels, but so are some of the scenes. For example, this is the third novel where Forsyth references the massacre at Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Afghanistan in 2001, picking out the death of the first American casualty in Afghanistan, Johnny Spann, who was beaten to death by Taliban prisoners.

There is yet another reference to the battle of Shah-i-Kot, where three Chinook helicopters full of special forces were attacked by Taliban fighters and, when a SEAL fell out of one as it did emergency evasion manoeuvres, the others went back overland to rescue him, leading to a prolonged firefight with the baddies. Forsyth places the protagonist of this book, Carson, at the heart of this very battle, where he saves the life of a fellow American who later rises to power in one of the countless security services and – very conveniently – helps Carson get the job to tracking down The Preacher.

The repetitions continue: late in the book there is a page devoted to the method of East German security chief Markus Wolf, who dispatched Adonis-like young men to seduce the ageing spinsters who worked as personal secretaries to numerous West German politicians, thus extracting priceless intel over decades (p.279). This is historical fact. Forsyth uses it as a roundabout introduction to an elderly (aged 75) lady who works as the tea lady at a hostage negotiating firm, but who also happens to be an agent of MI5 and reports back everything she hears of the hostage negotiations (see below). But what strikes this reader is that Forsyth included the same page-length explanation of Wolf’s technique in his previous novel, The Cobra (where a cocaine cartel’s daughter was seduced by just such a good-looking man, who was an agent leading her on).

Similarly, mention of the SAS prompts Forsyth to retell the story of how his heroes ‘took out’ the West Side Boyz in Sierra Leone, in Operation Barras, August 2000 (p.338) – an incident which is mentioned in several of his previous novels. Elsewhere Forsyth gives a couple of pages explanation of the hundi method of money transfer, by which terrorists can avoid using banks (p.309) – also a repeat from previous work.

So throughout the novel the reader stumbles on passages which are strongly reminiscent of, or plain copies from, previous novels.

The truth about Islam

A large example is the scene where – as part of his long and minutely-described military career in Egypt learning Arabic – Carson has several conversations with a peaceable Koranic scholar, who explains how unIslamic Islamic terrorists are, in the way they take small quotes from the Koran or hadith out of context and distort them for their hate-filled purposes. This repeats the scenes in the previous two Islamic novels where Koranic scholars have delivered ‘Author’s Messages’ about how the Koran specifically bans the murder of civilians, the murder of women or children, the taking of hostages etc.

I dare say the teaching is correct, it’s just a) the naivety of dumping it into the book like a piece of newspaper editorial, as if b) Forsyth’s page or two asserting that Islamic terrorists are plain wrong about their own religion will have any impact on any real life terrorists and c) the fact that the same message has recurred in all the recent predecessor books.

Critics could call it laziness or repetitiveness – using more or less the same plot, on the same subject, incorporating many of the same incidents and the same them-and-us, black-and-white Daily Mail point of view. But I see Forsyth’s ‘novels’ as being so devoid of character, so lacking in suspense and – towards the end of each one – so lacking in plausibility, that they become almost avant-garde.

They are like the shiny metal surface of one of his beloved fighter planes. Smoothly tooled and assembled from identikit parts, they present the same forces-of-law-and-order-worshipping worldview in the same super-factual style, devoid of any psychology or character – about as subtle and characterful – but as sleek and shiny – as a cruise missile.

The plot

The Preacher is publishing videos of hate on the internet. Kit Carson aka the Tracker is commissioned to track him down and eliminate him, by a special Presidential Order relayed to him via Gray Fox, director of TOSA. He recruits a computer whizz who he codenames Ariel, and who tracks the Preacher’s ‘secret’ IP address to Kismayo in south Somalia.

[As in the previous novels, the good guy is helped out by a computer whizz kid, this time a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, who is scared to come out of his bedroom but can work miracles online – one Roger Kendrick (p.79). (Even when Forsyth characters actually have names, they are generally bland, empty and characterless; monikers like the Tracker, the Preacher, the Killer, the Geek, have more flavour and depth than the various Rogers or Christophers or Bobs.) Forsyth tells us the Preacher has his own techno whizzkid, a British-born Muslim alumnus of Manchester University, who our guys nickname the Troll – so one recurring strand in the text is the conflict entirely in cyber-space between these two hackers.]

Amid a wealth of false passports and background info about the country’s notorious Intelligence Service, the ISI, the Tracker visits Pakistan, where he is hosted and given a good backgrounder by the local CIA officer. Using intel from various sources he establishes that the Preacher is the runaway son of a Pakistani General, that his name is Zulfikar Ali Shah, that he was radicalised during the Afghan War during which he took the nom de guerre Abu Azzam.

The Tracker concocts a childishly simple plan, which is to recreate in a Hollywood studio the exact backdrop and look of the room which the Preacher uses, to hire an actor (Hollywood bit-part player, Tony Suarez) who looks like him and a voice mimic who can sound like him, and to impersonate one of the Preacher’s broadcasts – then use Ariel to get it published via the Preacher’s authentic website.

But, in this fake video, the Preacher will abjectly apologise for inciting violence, saying Islam is really a religion of peace and love, and begging forgiveness for his errors (p.264). The idea is that his many millions of followers will be so disgusted by his ‘apostasy’ from the cause that one or more of them will kill him in revenge. Forsyth goes into the mechanics of hiring studio, actor, mimic and so on with his customary thoroughness – but the reader can’t help thinking it’s a silly plan.

Luckily, Forsyth throws a massive spanner into this linear plot, and the thing which – for all its repetitions – makes The Kill List different from its predecessors and a genuinely interesting read. He introduces the Somali pirates.

Somali pirates

A Swedish cargo ship, the Malmö, a 22,000-tonne general cargo freighter carrying Volvos to the East (p.203), is hijacked by Somali pirates, led by one of the most cruel and sadistic, Al-Afrit, meaning ‘the Devil’. Forsyth gives fascinating background information about Somalia the country, its geography and recent terrible history, the reason for the rise of the pirates and the evolution of their methods, which have reached such a maturity that London shipping companies now employ professionals to negotiate the release of their hijacked ships, and some of the London negotiators have become quite familiar with their Somali negotiator opposite numbers.

Thus when news come through that the Malmö has been hijacked, the London insurance firm of Chauncey Reynolds turns to the experienced Somali-hijack-negotiator Gareth Evans who is himself delighted to find, in the first phone call the firm receives, that the pirates are represented by Mr Ali Abdi, a suave, Western-educated lawyer, with whom he has done business previously.

We learn that the Western ship owners are always in a hurry to secure the release of their ship but how that works in favour of the pirates, who have all the time in the world. Forsyth tells us the ransoms normally start out around $20 million and invariably fall, through lengthy and protracted discussions, to around $5 million. This, like so much else in the book, is eye-opening stuff, like a well-written article in a high-end newspaper.

But this (fairly routine) hijacking impinges on the plot because the ship’s owner, Harry Andersson, had sent his youngest son, Ove Carlsson (19), aboard the ship as his first experience at sea. It turns out to be a very bad experience as, when the ship is anchored off shore and Al-Afrit visits, he takes a fancy to the tall blonde boy and has him dragged of the ship, thrown into a dungeon, chained and whipped. Just for kicks.

Opal

After the broadcast of the fake sermon begging forgiveness, the Preacher obviously knows someone is out to get him and has hacked into his computers. This is confirmed when his computer whizz kid, the Troll, is murdered by Israeli agents in a typically complicated and well-organised raid from an inflatable dinghy, which Forsyth describes in mind-boggling detail. The Israeli operatives rendezvous with their permanent agent in Somalia, codenamed Opal, on a deserted beach, before arranging the Troll’s assassination.

In a plot development which stretches credulity, Opal is then tasked with taking the package the Troll was carrying up to the Preacher’s compound in the north. Here he is to play the innocent who just happened to come across the Troll dying in a car wreck (in fact carefully staged by the Israelis), and say that the Troll asked with his dying breath for Opal to deliver the package.

On arriving at the Preacher’s compound with the Troll’s package and this unlikely cover story, it is no surprise that Opal is imprisoned while his story is checked out. So good is the Mossad arrangement of the Troll’s ‘accidental’ car crash that the Preacher’s men return and say Opal’s story checks out, so he is kept hanging around the Preacher, and then – as his knowledge of languages becomes known – the Preacher realises he may be able to use Opal and asks him if he wants to work for him as fixer and translator. Perfect. ‘We’ have an agent inside the enemy camp.

This was the Tracker’s plan all along. The compound had been identified using computer technology to track it down as the source of the internet sermons and is under surveillance by a Global Hawk permanently monitoring it from five miles up in the sky. But there is no replacement for human intel, and it is only when Opal, as instructed, slips on the red baseball cap the Mossad agents gave him, that our boys can be really certain that the Preacher is actually there, in residence in the compound. So the Tracker and his team finally have all their suspicions confirmed.

At this point all their planning hits a roadblock, for the powers-that-be ie the President, as advised by his chiefs of staff, vetoes all the options for taking the Preacher out. The compound is in the heart of Mogadishu ie too near innocent civilians to send cruise missiles. And no US President is going to send in troops after the catastrophe of Black Hawk Down (the 1993 debacle when some 18 US Rangers were massacred in a botched raid).

Fortunately for the Tracker, though less so for the victims, what changes official attitudes is a further Preacher-inspired attack in the States, this time a ruthless machine gun attack on a coach load of CIA employees which turns the coach, stuck in rush hour traffic, into a charnel house. Within hours a message is relayed down to the Tracker from the Top – terminate the Preacher.

The blonde hostage

Through his contacts in the Somali underworld, the Preacher becomes aware that the notorious Al-Afrit has hijacked a Western ship and has taken captive a very Western-looking blonde boy. He has a brainwave. The cruel murder and decapitation of the hostage on live TV, in the best Taliban-ISIS tradition, might just restore his image among his disillusioned internet audience as a scourge of the West.

So the Preacher sends a message to Al-Afrit offering to buy the boy. In the parallel conversations which have been going on all this time between the Somali negotiator Abdin and Gareth Evans in London, Abdin tells the Brit that his ‘principal’ has agreed to the $5 million ransom and that the Malmö will finally be released – hooray – but then has to reluctantly admit it will be without the blonde boy, who has been sold on to what Abdin thinks is the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Gareth puts his head in his hands.

Taking out the Preacher

The novel builds to a surprisingly effective climax. The spy-in-the-sky tracks the Preacher as he and his bodyguards depart his compound in a Toyota Landcruiser and drive south to the rendezvous point with Al-Afrit’s men, there to buy the blonde boy. (Opal’s presence is vital because he manages to sit in the exposed back end of the truck and once again puts on his red baseball cap to confirm to the via-satellite-watchers that the Preacher is there in person. But Opal’s presence also means they can’t take the convoy out with a cruise missile: Mossad would never forgive them.)

Therefore, it has to be a boots-on-the-ground operation. And there is an entertaining and plausible account of how the Tracker escalates a request via TOSA to the Prez himself, to ask him to phone British PM David Cameron, and request use of an SAS squadron, he’s found out just happens to be training in the Gulf.

Thus the final fifty pages or so are another hymn to the rugged professionalism of the Special Air Service, the unit Forsyth hero worships and who appear in nearly all his novels, each time with much the same detailed backgrounder on their history and structure and training etc (p.352ff).

But, for the first time in several novels, this final sequence is actually very gripping because, instead of giving us his usual high-level and brief summary of an action, Forsyth’s narrative descends ‘into the action’, as it were, with page after page describing the tense build-up to the parachute drop of the six SAS men and the Tracker into the Somali desert near the rendezvous point. I was gripped by this blow-by-blow account like I haven’t been for ages.

Our boys parachute into the desert, ‘tab’ the 8 or so klicks to the village, chuck doped steak to the pye dogs to make them sleep, then attack. In a textbook engagement, they ‘slot’ or ‘take out’ all the Somalis pirates in one village house, then slot the Preacher’s bodyguard as they run across the village square, meantime managing not to kill the Israeli agent, Opal, who slipped his identifying red cap on as soon as the shooting started.

And the whole movie, er, novels builds to a traditional climax when the Tracker comes face to face with the Preacher on the dusty, flat roof of one of the peasant houses. Here the two men have a short, intense knife fight among billowing washing hanging from the peasants’ washing lines by moonlight, which ends with the Tracker nutting the Preacher and, taking advantage of the latter’s momentary loss of grip, stabbing him in the heart. As the light goes out of the baddy’s distinctively amber eyes, our hero gets to whisper in his ear the words his father whispered to him as he died, the motto of the Marine Corps, semper fidelis, shortened to semper fi.


Thoughts

Anyone saddened by the steady decline in Forsyth’s books will be surprised: in my opinion the plot is more interesting and believable than its three predecessors and, because of this, it actually builds to a thrilling and gripping conclusion. It is certainly a return to form after the strange fizzling-out of the previous novel, The Cobra.

Many critics deplore Forsyth’s lack of character or credible plot. Many others dislike his enthusiastic depiction of his heroes’ outside-the-law, vigilante approach to ‘justice’. All true – but I find the books interesting. Hundreds of their pages may consist of little more than detailed background research linked together by far-fetched plots, but it is background information on extremely relevant subjects ie the international drugs trade, international terrorism.

As a tiny example, Forsyth can’t describe a meeting of Mossad officials discussing whether to co-operate with the Tracker’s scheme and commit Opal to his plan, without mentioning that they’re meeting in the same room where their predecessors planned ‘Operation Wrath of God’ to avenge the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1974 Munich Olympics.

The stories are so geopolitical in nature that they are larded with interesting information and insights into recent (war) history on almost every page. Snippets like this are interesting in themselves but also link the action back to previous conflicts. Through the hundreds of similar references, Forsyth’s fictions create a matrix or web bringing together the history of recent conflicts, wars, insurgencies, international crises and weaving them into a compelling (and terrifying) worldview.

It is the coherence of this worldview which I find compelling and, seen from this angle, the repetitions of accounts of recent conflicts aren’t a negative, they positively reinforce his military point-of-view.

Also I admire his ability to keep up to date. There is none of the ‘chaps meeting in gentlemen’s clubs’ which I associate with thrillers of the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. Instead US operatives sit in darkened bunkers staring at screens on which they see the images from Global Hawk predator drones relayed to them by America’s global network of spy satellites. They waggle joy sticks and press a button and a cruise missile obliterates the target they’ve identified.

The protagonists of the last few novels can’t get anywhere without the assistance of young digerati, computer dudes, surfing the dark net, hacking into banks and hidden internet IPs, setting screen against screen.

I admire Forsyth for, after 40 years in the trade, keeping up with not just the latest technology, but the way the hyper-digital world of today shapes every aspect of crime, terrorism and the efforts to combat it.

So, in conclusion, the lack of characterisation and the sometimes simple-minded plots don’t matter to me compared to Forsyth’s compelling vision of the world we live in now, a fast-moving and very dangerous world of skilled terrorists, throwaway mobile phones, 6-mile-high drones, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the infinite complexities of cyberspace.

A world in which men with grievances born in Palestine or Afghanistan or Yemen might start machine gunning us on beaches in Tunisia or concert halls in Paris or nightclubs in Florida, with no warning – while, on the other hand, an unprecedented level of surveillance of every aspect of our lives by numerous ‘security services’ has slowly insidiously grown up in the last fifteen years.

Forsyth’s latter books are not great novels – from a purist point of view they are lamentably bad novels – but I think they offer fascinating, compelling and snappily-written visions of the dark side of the world we live in now, a world in which terrorists can attack anywhere at any moment, and our side ‘kill people based on metadata’, and most of us are caught in the middle.


Credit

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2013. All quotes and references are from the 2014 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.

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