Tokyo Station by Martin Cruz Smith (2002)

It is Tokyo, December 1941, and Harry Niles is a fast-talking, streetwise American nightclub owner, one-time American movie importer, gambler and fixer with friends in low – and high – places. He was brought by his parents (Roger and Harriet Niles) to Japan soon after the First World War. They were Southern Baptist missionaries who came to convert the Japanese and left young 10- and 11-year-old Harry in charge of drunk Uncle Orin while they went off for long journeys around the country.

So while uncle was off drinking, Harry grew up speaking fluent Japanese and running wild in the red-light district of Asakusa. The book opens with a scene of the boy Harry being chased by his Japanese schoolboy friends as they re-enact an ancient Samurai legend (which requires an inordinate amount of fighting with bamboo sticks), running through the streets till they tumble through a building, and up against a closed door which, under pressure of their fighting bodies, springs open and lands Harry and the most aggressive of his native Japanese pursuers, Gen, suddenly into the dressing room of a small theatre, the Folies.

Harry and Gen become friends with the manager, with a camp artist Kato who hangs around the theatre and draws and sketches the clientele, and some of the showgirls at the theatre, and are quickly running errands for them and gaining all kinds of new insights into adult life. He develops a crush on the beautiful actress and sometime geisha Oharu, who is fond and kind to him in return.

This is all set in 1922 in the opening chapter of the book, and the narrative for the first half of the book alternates chapters between grown-up Harry, ‘now’, in 1941, and boy Harry, ‘then’, back in 1922, giving us more of Harry’s childhood memories, which explain his character, and also relationships with some of the central adult characters.

But the ‘now’ of 1941 is where most of the narrative takes place and which entirely takes over the second half of the story. It is December 1941, in December. Tension between Japan and America is becoming intense. America has long since imposed an oil ban on Japan, along with a ban on a wide range of modern textiles and produce, but it’s the oil ban that’s hit hardest, with the result that all cars are having to be propelled by charcoal-burning stoves set up in their rears.

All the talk is of conflict, and most of the Americans who can leave Tokyo have already done so. But Harry remains, a puzzle to his acquaintances, happy-go-lucky, blessed with an intimate knowledge of Tokyo, not so lucky in his mistress, Michiko, a fervent communist who he rescued from being beaten up by the ferocious Tokyo police after a protest march some two years earlier, and who latched onto him ever since. He has installed him as the Record Girl in his bar, standing by the jukebox, changing records and mouthing along to the words, dressed in a dinner jacket and sexy stockings. Give the place sex appeal. Encourages the male clientele to buy more drinks. Unfortunately, Michiko is fiercely almost insanely jealous, continually threatening either to shoot Harry or kill herself. Yes, she is quite a strain to be with.

The last plane to leave Tokyo is scheduled to take off on Monday December 8. Unfortunately, as we the readers know, the Japanese launch their surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December, so we know the plane will probably be cancelled and Harry trapped. Ooops.

So the book follows Harry through three or so days of feverish, against the backdrop of mounting war hysteria, as half a dozen or more complicated plotlines meet and clash to provide a complex plot and mounting tension. Among these are:

Eight months earlier Gen, now a lieutenant in the Japanese Navy, introduced Harry to a man in the back of the geisha house opposite Harry’s Bar who turns out to be Admiral Yamamoto. As a notorious con-man Harry is taken to see the experiments of a certain Dr Ito to turn water into oil. These are impressively staged with lots of electric arcs and sparking, but Harry immediately sees it is a confidence trick and helps Gen expose it.

Now, eight months later, Harry repeatedly makes it clear to anyone who will listen that any coming war will be entirely decided by access to oil. America has vast supplies of it, not least from its own Texas oil ranges. Japan has no oil in its territory but will have to invade and conquer the oil-producing islands of the Dutch East Indies. Hence the willingness of the desperate High Command to believe in the ridiculous Dr Ito and his experiments.

Now we discover that Harry has been involved in falsifying the shipment papers of American oil tankers coming to Japan, to the harbour of Yokahama. He makes it look as if they set off with ten thousand barrels of oil and arrive with only one thousand. Where do they stop off? Hawaii and the naval base of Pearl Harbour. So Harry’s fiddling with the accounts seems to imply that the Americans are building up stocks of oil in secret oil storage tanks somewhere at the harbour. But are they?

Why is Harry bothering to do this? We learn that nobody is paying him to. In fact, he is definitely persona no grata with the American authorities, a position he consolidates by making an outrageously anti-American speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, the club for Tokyo’s most important businessmen and politicians. Here Harry makes a big speech explaining why there is no need for a war. This is because he genuinely doesn’t want there to be a war, but it has the effect of setting both the American and powerful British community against him as a traitor.

As a sideline, there is the thread of Willie Stauber, a German emigre, fully paid-up Nazi, but who Harry worked with in Nanking four years earlier, and who returned from China with a Chinese bride in tow. He is desperate to get out of Tokyo but to make sure his Chinese bride can accompany him. At odd moments, in the midst of his other concerns, we see Harry purposefully working to try and help Willie, eventually by securing faked official documents, into which he, Harry, writes an official text declaring Iris a fit person to travel, sealed with an official seal which he himself makes and stamps, using one of his many underworld skills, this time as a forger.

Colonel Ishigama 1

But the central driving force of the narrative is definitely is the fact that, right from the start of the book, Harry is being hunted by a certain Colonel Ishigama, who has vowed to kill him. Why?

Their paths have crossed twice before. Once, back in 1922, the artist Kato had asked Harry to deliver a fine print to a client. Harry had already taken several to the tall severe figure inside an opulent-looking house. This time he wants to see a new movie so asks his friend Gen to take it. Bad mistake. Hours later, when Gen has not returned, Harry goes to the house and is invited in by the forbidding owner. He finds gen lying sideways on a large pillow with an odd look on his face, while the owner proceeds to show Harry his collection of antique swords, and then to demonstrate samurai moves with it. Eventually, he ushers both boys out of his house, giving Gen a white chrysanthemum as he leaves.

Back at Kato’s studio, the artist explains that this is because Colonel Ishigama (for this is the man’s name) has deflowered Gen, taken his homosexual virginity. This is why he had wanted Harry to take the print; Harry is too ugly for a connoisseur like Ishigama to be attracted to. Now he has spoilt everything.

Kato and Oharu

In fact Kato is so disappointed with Harry that he decides, on the spot, to sever friendship with him, to see him no more. Harry is devastated. the past few months have given him a wonderful insight into art and adult life, and wonders and mysteries. But Kato is unbending and Harry is kicked out to wander the streets in tears.

That night boy Harry tracks down Kato to a walled garden. Sneaking over the wall Harry is transfixed to discover that Kato is sketching Harry’s beloved actress Oharu being fucked in various positions by one of the comedians from the Folies theatre. Having become drenched in Japanese aesthetic values Harry is able to appreciate the subtlety of the positions, and the rapid way Kato sketches lines and form, writing scribbled notes in the margins indicating what colours later to use when he works them up to prints in his studio.

But a sudden flash of lightning reveals Harry standing in the garden watching the scene. Quick as a flash he turns and leaps back over the garden wall, scampering way through the alleyways of Asakusa in the pouring rain back to the house where he’s meant to be supervised by drunk Uncle Orin, but where he is, as usual, alone, and hunkers down into his bed cold and wet and miserable. Except that, a few minutes later, Oharu knocks meekly at the door, comes sits by the bed and apologises. ‘It was only sex, Harry,’ she says, voicing the very different attitude the Japanese take to copulation from us shame-filled Westerners. it was just poses and positioning for her friend the artists, Kato, nothing more. She strokes his head. He is cold and feverish. She insists on getting him out of his wet things. She climbs in behind him and Harry feels her nipples hardening. She takes his hand and guides it between her legs. In short, she guides him through the mysteries of sex, and takes his boyish virginity.

All novels are, at some level, wish fulfilment. The wish fulfilment and fantasy is nearer the surface in ‘genre’ fiction. What man reading this could not be transported and wish this was how he lost his virginity.

Unfortunately, Harry is just falling asleep in Oharu’s arms when the light is brutally turned on to reveal Harry’s parents standing over them, unexpectedly returned from a long missionary tour, accompanied by the bleary-eyed and mortally embarrassed Uncle Orin.

Harry’s father brutally yanks Oharu by the hair out of Harry’s bed and when Harry protests belts him so he reels across the room. He would have pushed Oharu naked out into the street, except that his wife points out the neighbours will see, the humiliation etc, so they let her hurriedly dress in her kimono before kicking her out then Roger Niles takes his belt to Harry and beats him till he bleeds.

Suffice it to say this experience crystallises Harry’s love for everything fine, refined and Japanese and his contempt for everything big, blundering and brutal about America. Within days they are on a boat sailing back to the States. A few months later Tokyo is devastated by the vast earthquake and firestorm known as the Great Kanto earthquake, an appalling disaster in which some 144,000 people lost their lives in the unimaginable holocaust of out of control firestorms. Harry later learns that Kato died trying to protect his prints, and nothing was heard of Oharu: like so many other she simply disappeared, burned without trace.

Colonel Ishigama 2

Anyway, it is only two-thirds of the way into the book that we discover the cause of Ishigama’s ire and why Harry has been trying to evade him for the first 300 pages, in a prolonged flashback. The story is actually told by the German Willie Staub. Four years earlier Willie had been in China when the Japanese invaded. He had been in the capital Nanking when the Japanese arrived and began their reign of fear. They gang raped all the women they could find. they rounded up men and shot them in squads of up to a hundred. NCOs arranged for the still raw recruits to use live Chinese as bayonet practice in order to perfect their technique.

In the midst of this holocaust Willie and the handful of other Europeans tries to set up a safe quarter of town to protect the Chinese fleeing there. From nowhere appears an American who can speak fluent Japanese and becomes Willie’s driver. He tells several stories about how Harry used his con-man confidence to interrupt executions and gang rapes.

Best technique was to muscle through the Japanese soldiers holding down the woman, take out a stethoscope and examine her groin (having first gotten the Japanese penis removed) and announce confidently that she had venereal disease, reminding the soldiers that they don’t want to infect themselves and bring this pollution back to their wives and sweethearts. The Japanese desisted. Harry and Willie took the traumatised woman to their lorry, to join all the others, and, once the lorry was full, be driven back to the (relative) safety of the European zone.

Anyway, one day on their tour of the atrocities, they come across a crowd of soldiers surrounding a line of ten Chinese civilians who have their hands tied behind their backs and have been made to kneel in a line. At the end of the line is Colonel Ishigama. Harry recognises him instantly. And recognises the beautifully crafted, infinitely sharp samurai sword he is holding. He is about to see if he can behead ten people in a row in under 60 seconds. As he flexes his wiry forearms, and as his aide de camp prepares the bucket of water and cloth with which he will wipe the sword between strikes, Harry grabs all the cash he and Willie have in the cash box in the lorry, jumps down and walks confidently into the ring of soldiers, yelling that he will give Ishigima 100 yen and every man in the watching soldiers ten yen each, if Ishigama can behead them all in under thirsty seconds, those left unbeheaded to walk free. The soldiers cheer for the money and Ishigama reluctantly agrees (refusing would lose face) and Smith then describes the grisly decapitation of the first five civilians, with Ishigama losing time because he’s flustered, because the aide de camp drops the wiping cloth, accidentally hitting his own aide de camp on one backswing: the upshot is that Ishigama only manages five before the thirty seconds is up.

The crowd of soldiers roar, Harry gives them the huge bundle of yen to distribute and hustles the surviving five civilians – including a 13-year-old boy who has pooed and peed himself – into the back of the lorry alongside the raped women, and they carefully reverse, through the cheering soldiers and drive off before Ishigama can do anything.

This is why, when Harry hears, right at the start of the story, that Ishigama is back from China in Tokyo, it fills his mind with anxiety and drives the narrative.

Ishigama’s revenge

There are a lot of other plot strands. Harry meets with his mistress (Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, the British ambassador), tries to hide the fact from Michiko, runs his bar, the Happy Paris, makes his speech at the Chrysanthemum Club, meets other friends Japanese and American, for drinks and gossip, is present at the small group for drinks where Willie tells the story about Ishigama, meets his schoolboy friend and nemesis Lieutenant Gen, now in the Japanese Navy, for conversations about oil or lack thereof for the Japanese war effort.

In a separate plotline he is being investigated and followed by Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police, also known as the Thought Police, and his goon assistant Corporal Go. They have been tipped off about his involvement in the Magic Oil experiments of Dr Ito, and turn up at the Yokohama dockside offices of one of the oil companies whose books Harry is fiddling to make it look like oil is being offloaded in Hawaii.

Also we run into several of Harry’s small gang of boyhood Japanese friends, and discover how they’ve turned out. One is a sumo wrestler, Taro, twin of Jiro, who had joined the navy and been killed and who, in a series of scenes, Harry promises to accompany to the office where they collect his ashes and official war box (containing the ashes, military citation and so on) to be given to the dead hero’s family.

Plus involvements with various local gamblers and a strand where Harry swaps all the cash he has for gold from a friendly pawnbroker.

Altogether, these intertwining plotlines and strands form a wonderful fabric, a tapestry of stories and adventures and scams, each of them shedding light on different aspects of Japanese culture, and tradition, building up a persuasive sense of life in Japan of the period.

But it is only in the last 100 pages or so that Ishigama finally catches up with Harry. It is in the willow house, a geisha house opposite his bar. Harry has returned from various meetings and adventures to discover his own bar dark and locked up. Unusual. He didn’t give instructions for this. And the willow house opposite is strangely quiet. It is unlocked. He takes his shoes off and tiptoes along the hall until he hears a voice calling his name.

In a genuinely bizarre scene, he discovers Colonel Ishigama quietly kneeling at a traditional Japanese table with his immense super-sharp samurai sword lying on it, attended by an immaculately painted geisha girl. Harry knows everything about Japanese culture and so this scene is stuffed with facts about geishas and the intricacy with which they are painted, their social and cultural role, as well as lots of information about Ishigama’s background.

Ishigama is infinitely polite and solicitous. He asks the geisha for hot sake. They drink each other’s health. Harry knows that if he makes one false move or says something wrong, Ishigama will whip up the sword and behead him faster than he can move.

It is the standout scene in a novel full of strikingly vivid, beautifully imagined scenes. Ishigama calmly and politely informs Harry that he (Harry) owes him (Ishigama) five heads, the five heads he never got to take off back in China. Of course Harry’s will be last, but he, Harry, will select the identities of the other four. Harry’s mind races…

At which point one of Harry’s acquaintances, Al DeGeorge, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, knocks on the door. He is drunk as a skunk. He stumbles inside shouting Harry’s name wanting to know why his bar isn’t open. He makes it right up to the entrance of the back room when Ishigama abruptly swoops to his feet, with one stride is at the doorway, and with one enormous sweep of the sword cleaves DeGeorge from shoulder blade to belly button. the dying man grunts a last syllable and falls in two halves.

Neither Harry nor the geisha has moved. As I say, powerful scene. In the event it slowly dawns on Harry, to his amazement, that the geisha is none other than his fierce lover, Michiko. All kinds of speculation goes through his mind. Was she always a geisha on the side. Who painted her so elaborately, every geisha needs an assistant? Was it Ishigama, a psychopath famed for his aesthetic abilities? In which case, did she service the brutal sadist?

Harry’s mind is swimming while he all the time makes no movement as Ishigama ritually cleans his sword and returns to the kneeling position opposite Harry at the low table. More sake! And the three toast each other as if nothing had happened. Then suddenly Michiko has a small dagger at Ishigama’s throat. She makes him put down the sword and Harry grabs both it and the smaller ceremonial sword from Ishigama’s sash.

Ishigama is neutralised. He smiles. Now he knows Michiko’s true relationship with Harry. Then he stands up and, of course, Michiko can’t bring herself to stab him. Before they can stop him he leaps through the paper wall of the room and is into the garden and beyond. Harry collects up the swords, grabs Michiko’s hand and they run back across the road towards his bar, letting themselves in, locking the door, Harry fumbling for the pistol he has hidden under the floorboards.

Then Harry is picked up by the Thought Police and taken to a prison where he sees the manager of one of the oil companies whose records he had faked, bound to a table and beaten senseless with bamboo rods. Sergeant Shozo is very polite, offers him a cigarette, says this will happen to him unless he tells them what he knows about the secret oil tanks at Pearl Harbour. They only beat Harry a little and eventually (and a bit inexplicably, to me) they let him go.

Harry makes his way back to central Tokyo and spends the remaining 100 or so pages of the book in increasingly desperate attempts to inform the American ambassador, and then his mistress, Lady Beechum, that he is now convinced a Japanese attack is coming very soon. The ambassador, cornered at a swish Japanese golf course, simply pretends to ignore him. Lady Beechum tells him noone will believe him; he is the most discredited man in Tokyo.

Then there is another encounter with Ishigama, in the street which is interrupted by news announcers blaring from every streetside loudspeaker – that Japan has launched a surprise attack on the American fleet and utterly destroyed it. People stream out of their houses, cheering. Ishigama is lost in the torrent of people. All the plotlines come together. Harry drives through the throng to the American embassy only to discover, amid scenes of panic as all the embassy staff gather and burn all their secret information, that Harry’s name is not on the list of Americans who will be repatriated. His old schoolboy friend Hooper explains it is partly because he is persona non grata with both the American and British ex-pat community. But more because the Japanese want him.

Finally Ishigama catches up with him, helped by his oldest schoolboy frenemy, Gen, giving rise to a prolonged chase through shops and back alleyways until Harry finds himself, unwittingly, tumbling once again through the door into the dressing room of the Theatre Folies, where he had tumbled all those years ago. Now it is dusty and abandoned and now, on its empty stage, the last gruesome scene of the novel takes place.

You will not be surprised to learn that heads roll. But I think you should read this immensely enjoyable to find out whose.

Dramatis personae

Whites

Lady Alice Beechum – wife of Sir Arnold, British ambassador, Harry’s sexually athletic mistress, who has also worked in the British code room for two years, very well informed about international affairs

Sir Arnold Beechum – purple faced blimp who knows full well Harry is having an affair with his wife and, late on in the novel, ambushes Harry with a cricket bat, knocking him unconscious, as if Harry didn’t have enough to worry about already

Willie Staub – member of the Nazi Party, former managing director of China Deutsche-Fon – who was with Harry back in Nanking, China, then married Iris, a Chinese woman, who he is desperate to help get away with him back to Europe

Al DeGeorge – sceptical journalist for the Christian Science Monitor

Japanese

Agawa – keeper of a local pawnshop who exchanges Harry’s cash for small gold ingots

Corporal Go of the Thought Police, a grinning sadist

Goro – reformed pickpocket friend of Harry’s, gone straight and married the owner of a stationery shop he once tried to rob

Haruko – waitress at Harry’s bar, the Happy Paris

Ishigami – the young army officer who deflowers the boy Gen, and gives him and Harry a display of samurai swordsmanship, who Harry cheats out of his Chinese beheadings in Nanking, and then pursues Harry implacably through the second half of the novel like an avenging Fury

Kato – artist and printmaker, who teaches Harry (and the reader) the aesthetics of Japanese prints and design; after Harry lets Gen take a print to Lieutenant Ishigama – who seduces him – Kato drops Harry as unreliable

Kondo – bartender at the Happy Paris

Michiko Funabashi – young woman communist who Harry saves from a riot, sleeps with and thereupon becomes  his fiercely jealous mistress, she serves as the Record Girl in his bar, and pops up unexpectedly painted as a geisha girl in the central scene with Colonel Ishigama

Oharu – actress in the theatre who wipes the boy Harry’s face when he tumbles into the changing room, and becomes his muse, and who later takes his virginity: lost in the great earthquake of 1922

Sergeant Shozo of the Special Higher Police – thoughtful and playful officer who unwaveringly pursues Harry to find out if he was lying about the oilfields at Hawaii

Taro – sumo wrestler, twin of Jiro, who joins the navy and is killed, whose ashes Taro receives on the main day

Tetsu – one of their boyhood gang who becomes a yakuza and is covered in tattoos

Gen – the leader of their gang when they were boys, now a lieutenant in the Japanese navy

Admiral Yamomoto – head of the Imperial Japanese Navy who Harry is introduced to by a nervous Lieutenant Gen eight months earlier, whose trust Harry wins by playing poker with him, and who then asks for Harry to come and watch the conman Dr Ito perform his fraud of supposedly turning spring water into oil

Cruz Smith’s prose

Cruz Smith’s writing has two obvious pleasures: one is that he really transports you to his locations, making you feel and smell and breathe them. The bustling, noisy cityscape of 1940s Tokyo is vividly conveyed, from the pomp of the British Embassy, via the top businessmen at the Chrysanthemum Club, to the umpteen bars and pawnshops and sumo training gyms and artists studios which Harry’s numerous interests take us to.

Second is the way he can make language jive and shimmy. I’ve just read a couple of thrillers by the Englishman Robert Harris, which are written in clear efficient journalistic prose, the text’s ‘grip’ deriving from the mounting tension implicit in the increasingly fraught situations he describes. the prose is meant to be transparent as a reporter’s and let the fraught scenarios snag the reader.

By contrast Cruz Smith is a poet. He can make the language jive and shimmy in totally unexpected ways. You know the old archive footage where an artist like Picasso draws a couple of lines onto paper and… it is a bull! Same with Cruz Smith. A couple of ordinary words are arranged in a novel combination which opens up an entirely new idea or sensation.

In this way, not only are the novels exciting and informative but they supply a steady stream of moments when the prose leaps up and performs tricks for you. I’m not saying he’s Shakespeare. Just that he can do in a phrase what other authors need a paragraph to do, and then injects something extra.

For example, here is Tokyo as the loudspeakers at every road corner blare the news that Japan has launched and won the Pacific war.

Each radio report began with the opening bars of the ‘Warship March’, and with every account, Tokyo seemed to rise farther above sea level. (p.407)

When Harry is planning to ditch Michiko in order to be on the last plane out of Tokyo sitting next to his mistress, Lady Beechum, he thinks:

He’d garb his betrayal with small decencies… (p.233)

Lady Beechum is all-too-aware of Harry’s crooked shortcomings, as she sums up in a Wildeish paradox:

‘Harry, it’s a fantasy. You and I were not meant to be with anyone. it’s sheer incompatibility that keeps us together.’ (p.172)

Sometimes it’s more in the zone of American street smarts, descended from a long line of pulp writers, and crafted to reflect Harry’s own rueful self-awareness.

A crow trudged up the road and shared a glance with Harry, one wiseguy to another. (p.330)

It was one of those moments, Harry thought, when your life was put on the scale and the needle didn’t budge. (p.342)

But at others, it’s poetry, moments when you see a new aspect of human behaviour.

The man spoke with such intensity that it took Harry a moment to find the air to answer. (p.191)

Sometimes it’s the poetry of description.

Every few minutes a fighter plane would pass overhead, towing its shadow across the baseball diamond and up over the slope to the airfield across the road. (p.130)

This immediately and vividly made me recall all the times an airplace shadow has passed over or near me. I was there.

Maybe my favourite is the moment when the boy Harry pops over the wall into the garden of the house where he is to discover Ohasu having sex and being sketched by Kato, in a heavy summer downpour of rain, and:

The house was larger than it had appeared from the street, with a side garden not of flowers but  of large stones set  among raked pebbles. In a brief illumination of lightning, Harry saw the garden as it was meant to be contemplated, as small islands in a sea of perfect waves. The pebbles chattered in the rain. (p.250)

‘The pebbles chattered in the rain.’ Not show-offy, witty or paradoxical. Only six common little words. But which convey the moment perfectly, the garden of Japanese pebbles glistening and minutely jostled by the heavy downpour. You are there. With Harry. At the heart of the story. And Cruz Smith does this again and again with acute details and snappy phrases. His books are not only gripping and thoroughly researched, but deliver a really verbal, literary pleasure.


Related links

Other Martin Cruz Smith reviews

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’

Also:

1986 Stallion Gate

The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he’d met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well-known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar and they all get to chatting. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols. The other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is slow-paced, lazily describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are relieved to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands belonging to the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs).

Our team bump into a pleasant, big, strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

The suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day, but:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, and a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man gone to seed who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her, then touches her breasts. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

Later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days.

Which is why he is startled when an upstairs French window – which he knows is Louise’s  – opens, Louise comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath.

Louise goes back into her room and silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after.

Horrified Christessen lets Blake drop to the floor choking, and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and can see that it was obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements. So Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among his many contacts is an important politician, Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately, Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome young Blake. (Blake tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.)

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously.

Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that)?

Naively, Blake agrees and goes along to her house. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture.

Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands, feels a gun being placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father, but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of Blake Senior’s Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always seems to lead to death and disaster.

All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character).

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, they’d been drinking, Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning.

What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job of spiriting him away, the £200, off him at cribbage.

After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it. The kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height – from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders with his opium trances, and Frith with his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree.

But Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope, which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way that all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the peculiar and random moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again.

There’s no ‘why’ to any of this – just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Here is Saunders attending a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaya, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Night-Comers by Eric Ambler (1956)

‘They kill very easily. During the war of liberation I saw them. Men like that major. They smile and then they kill. For them it is easier to kill than to have doubts, to be uncertain.’ (p.68)

1956 was the year of the Hungarian Revolution, which was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks, and the Suez Crisis, which is routinely thought of as a key landmark in the decline of the British Empire. All the more striking that this, Ambler’s ninth novel, is the first not to be set in Europe and not among the murky politics of East Europe and the Balkans.

The Night-Comers

This is a first-person narrative told by Steve Fraser, an engineer. (Ambler had a qualification in engineering and many of his protagonists are engineers.) He has just finished a contract helping to build a dam in the fictional country of newly-independent Sunda, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, and is looking forward to returning to England.

As with Judgment on Deltchev the book opens with a potted history of the (fictional) country and its troubled political background ie as soon as the nation became independent, corruption and official harassment and sometimes even murder became commonplace, especially if you were a member of the former colonial power ie Dutch.

Anecdotes about Fraser’s time at the dam project show how his team had to take on unqualified Sundanese army personnel and pay them off to prevent harassment, how a neighbouring Dutch planter was blackmailed, then murdered, and other stories conveying the sense of fear and malaise in the country. Further up north, large areas are controlled by ex-Army officers who rebeled against the independence government, led by a self-styled ‘General’ Sanusi, a devout muslim who has called on the faithful to carry out jihad against the corrupt Nasjah government.

None of this bothers Fraser much as he flies down to the provincial capital Selampang before catching a flight on to Jakarta. The Australian charter pilot invites him out to a local club to meet Eurasian girls and then asks if he’d mind babysitting his flat while he, the pilot, goes off for a few days on a job. Little do either of them know what is about to happen…

Sex

For the second time, there is sex in an Ambler novel. Sex didn’t exist in the first six or seven books but has suddenly appeared here in these 1950s novels. Clearly the atmosphere of what is and isn’t publishable had changed considerably between 1936 and 1956: now his Eurasian girlfriend, Rosalie, can have a bath, appear with a sarong loosely tied round her breasts, invite him into the bedroom, stand naked stroking her skin – a frankness about sex which would have been inconceivable before the War.

She took my hand and, leaning forward over me, held it against her breast so that my fingers touched one of the nipples. I felt it harden, and she smiled.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘I am not afraid.’ (p.133)

For the first time, the half-naked dolly bird on the cover (see below) is not a product of the illustrator’s imagination but genuinely justified by the text. It’s a striking leap forward in the depiction of human relationships and makes you realise how constricted and (self-)censored the 1930s novels were.

The coup

Out of the blue rebel soldiers force their way into the flat where Steve and Rosalie are sleeping. Because, they realise with dismay, it is above the national radio station and a military coup is taking place. Major Suparto, who Steve knew up at the dam, is managing the conversion of the apartment into the temporary HQ of the leader of the coup, General Sanusi. Somehow they knew Jebb would be away: everyone is inconvenienced to find our hero there. Now Steve and Rosalie’s lives hang by a thread. They are locked in the bedroom under armed guard but, at any moment, the twitchy Sundanese soldiers may simply butcher them.

There are further incidents: the building is bombed by loyal elements of the air force, and Steve helps patch up their sentry, earning kudos; the bombing floods the basement and shorts out the power source which Sunasi needs to make his radio announcements, so Steve is forced at gunpoint to repair it against the deadline of the General’s 6 o’clock broadcast. But behind these tense incidents, Fraser realises something odd is going on and the coup is not all it seems…

Improbability

The Dutch colony-Malay-muslim background is persuasively painted. The everyday corruption and incompetence of a developing country, ditto. The use of native terms – tuan, kampong, attap, boeng, betjak etc – adds flavour. The oppressive heat and humidity during the day and the relaxed, easygoing friendship with the Aussie pilot, the nightclub and hanging out with the compliant Eurasian women, all of these convince.

But the novel suffers a failure of plausibility when the apartment they’re staying in abruptly becomes the headquarters of the rebels. This privileged vantage point means the protagonist is able to guess – and then is explicitly told – that the rebels have been lured into playing their hand too soon, the loyal army units they were told were on manoeuvres, are not; the officers they were told would defect, do not; the air force and navy remain loyal: it is a trap, and Steve and Rosalie are about to be caught in the violent government counter-attack.

It is interesting to read a fictional account of a coup going wrong but it is hard to believe the coup leaders would end up confiding in an insignificant British engineer. It is a crashing coincidence that the one officer Fraser knows well – Major Suparto – a) should lead the requisition of the apartment and be a leading staff officer to the rebel leader Sanusi, b) turns out to be the mole, the traitor in the rebel camp, the man who encouraged the coup but is secretly a government loyalist. And it is too unbelievable that on a series of occasions he should tell Fraser what is going on, how the plot was conceived, what the military situation is, and so on.

Early in the book, when we meet him up at the dam, Major Suparto is an efficient but distant officer. When the violent requisition takes place there is murder in his eyes and he talks quite calmly about having to ‘liquidate’ Steve and girlfriend. It just doesn’t ring true that someone so deep in the midst of a fraught situation – and so separated from Fraser by race, language and culture – should suddenly start confiding in him at every turn, not least explaining in detail his reasons for betraying ‘General’ Sanusi while at the same time despising the existing government. It just seems improbable that a senior Army officer who is disciplined enough to play the role of sophisticated double-agent should suddenly start spilling information to a complete stranger – and a farang to boot – which could get him shot on the spot by either of his sponsors.

A realistic novel, I think, would convey more of the panic and fear and, above all, confusion about what was going on. Fraser’s acquaintance and then grudging friendship with Major Suparto guarantees him – and the reader – privileged insight into every stage of events which comes across as just a bit too convenient, too pat.

It is for this reason, rather than because of the (for Ambler) unusual, non-European setting, that I think The Night-Comers – despite many good things in the opening chapters and the scarily realistic depiction of street fighting once the coup gets underway – is among the weakest of Ambler’s novels.

Related links

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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