Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky @ Tate Britain

This is a one-room, FREE display of the wonderfully evocative 1920s and 1930s black-and-white photos of the Jewish émigrés, Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky.

In fact, despite the name difference, they were sister and brother, two Austrian Jews born and raised in Vienna (Edith born 1908, Wolfgang born in 1912), who fled the Nazis, settled in England, and made a major contribution to documentary photography and film in mid-20th century England.

Their father was a social democrat who was born into the Jewish community in Vienna, but had renounced Judaism and become an atheist. He opened the first social democratic bookshop in Vienna and the family home was a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals.

Edith Suschitzky trained in photography at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus in Dessau by which time she had become a fervent socialist, eventually a communist, and vowed to dedicate her art to documenting the lives of the poor.

A child stares into a Whitechapel bakery window (circa 1935) by Edith Tudor-Hart

In 1933 Edith was jailed for a month in Vienna after acting as a courier for the Communist Party. Upon release she married a British medical doctor, Alexander Tudor-Hart, who left his wife and two children to be with her. (Tudor-Hart was himself an active member of the British Communist Party who would volunteer to serve as a doctor on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39). And so the couple fled Vienna where she was in jeopardy twice over, for being a communist and a Jew.

Demonstration outside the Opera House, Vienna (about 1930) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Once settled in London, Edith continued her photography, photographing the working class in the East End and then undertaking trips to depict poor communities all round England – from the south Wales coal miners, to the unemployed in Jarrow, to working families in London’s East End.

Gee Street, Finsbury, London (1936) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery

She worked for several British magazines – The Listener, Picture Post and Lilliput among others – and earned a modest income as a children’s portraitist. There was always a completely separate strand to her work which was about health and education, especially of small children, something that dated back to her early enrolment, aged just 16, in a course with Maria Montessori in London, where she at one stage planned to become a kindergarten teacher.

Later, in England, alongside her photos of the poor and deprived, she also took numerous photos of children in clinics and health centres and exercising healthily outdoors. As if contrasting the misery and poverty and deprivation of 1930s England with what might be if only we could organise society’s resources rationally.

Ultraviolet Light Treatment, South London Hospital for Women and Children (c. 1934) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Wolfgang Suschitzky

Edith’s younger brother, Wolfgang, fled Vienna a little after Edith (in 1935) and although he, too, settled in England, his photography was strikingly different in style and approach. He too took mostly street scenes of ordinary people, but his work is more consciously poetic, carefully arranged and lit.

Backyard, Charing Cross Road (1936) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Light and shade and shadow, and the glimmer of dust in sunlight or fog and mist attracted him.

Westminster Bridge, London (1934) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Whereas Edith’s work focuses relentlessly on the day to day poverty of the working classes, Wolfgang’s, as the wall label puts it, ‘displays an affection for the city in which he found freedom and safety’. Probably his best-known photos are from a series made on the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. They can be interpreted as a) street scenes from the London he came to love b) a memorial to his bookseller father (who took his own life in 1934 in despair at the collapse of Socialism in Austria) c) a tribute to books and their readers as symbols of intellectual and imaginative freedom which need to be treasured and defended.

Charing Cross Road/Foyles (c.1936) by Wolfgang Suschitzky

Spies

In fact Edith’s story has an extraordinary extra dimension: she was a Soviet spy. And not just any old spy but played a key role in the recruitment and management of the Cambridge Five spies including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

She was instrumental in recruiting members of the Cambridge Spy ring, which damaged British intelligence from World War II through to its discovery in the late 1960s.

During the early 1930s Edith’s former lover Arnold Deutsch was teaching at the University of London, but was also an active Soviet spy, recruiting British students to spy for Russia. When, in 1934, Kim Philby and his Austrian wife Litzi Friedmann arrived back in London from Vienna, Tudor-Hart – who had met and got to know them in Vienna – suggested to Deutsch that the NKVD recruit them as agents. After some vetting, a direct approach was made to Philby and he became the KGB’s longest-serving and most damaging British spies.

Entwined lives: Kim Philby and Edith Tudor-Hart

Edith had been placed under surveillance by Special Branch soon after her arrival in Britain, but despite this she was able to carry on espionage activities. In addition to Philby, she also helped to recruit Arthur Wynn for the Soviets in 1936. In 1938–39 Burgess used her to contact Russian intelligence in Paris. When the rezidentura at the Soviet Embassy in London suspended its operations in February 1940, Edith acted as an intermediary for Anthony Blunt and Bob Stewart, passing on their messages to the Soviets.

In 1950 Edith was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to take a series to be titled Moving and Growing, showing children undertaking healthy music-and-movement style exercise, often outdoors.

From the series Moving and Growing (1951) by Edith Tudor-Hart

But they were to be among her last photographs. Following Kim Philby’s first arrest in 1952, Edith was brought in for interrogations by MI5 agents and her apartment was searched several times. She burned many of papers, notes, journals and many of her negatives in order to protect herself. What a loss!

Despite the searches and interrogations MI5 were unable to prove evidence of her espionage, so she was left at liberty. However, Edith’s mental health was not good. She had divorced Tudor-Hart in 1940, and had to cope with the fact that their only child, a son, Tommy, born in 1936, was severely autistic, and was placed in mental institutions from the age of 11, never to be fully released.

How hard that must have been for a woman who had taken so many life-affirming photos of happy little children at innovative health centres or playgroups or dancing in the sunshine.

So later in the 1950s Edith abandoned photography altogether and moved to Brighton, where she opened a tiny antique shop on Bond Street and lived in the flat above it in genteel poverty until her death in 1973. It was only 20 years later, after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, that files about her were released and a newspaper article first revealed her role as a Soviet agent and spy.

And that her relatives, namely her brother Wolfgang’s children, first learned of their aunt’s scandalous double life. This led to research, the writing of a biography, and last year a documentary was released about her double life. This is the trailer:

Conclusion

So this modest one-room display of 49 photos by just a brother and sister ends up unfolding a story of huge historical, artistic and psychological complexity and poignancy.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

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

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming (1964)

This is a strange and eerie tale about a ‘Garden of Death’ in remote and exotic Japan, so I liked it more than the straightforward adventure yarn of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, set in France and Switzerland.

As often, Fleming uses a simple but attractive structure for his tale, in this case dividing it into two parts: 1. ‘It is better to travel hopefully…’ 2. ‘… than to arrive.’

Plot summary

If Bond was hacked off in OHMSS (which began with him composing a letter of resignation from the Service), in this one he has lost all interest in not just his job, but life itself. Eight months have passed (p.24) since his wife, Tracy, was shot dead just hours after their marriage, by the dastardly Blofeld, and Bond has gone to pieces. He’s drinking heavily, not sleeping, missing appointments (to the anguished concern of his secretary, Mary Goodnight, and M’s PA, Miss Moneypenny). Bond has (not very believably) been sent on two missions during this period, both of which he’s ballsed up (p.22). Again he says he wants to resign (p.29).

M calls in the latest of umpteen nerve specialists, Sir James Molony (p.20) who says Bond needs to be shocked out of his gloom with a good tough mission, just like the last war forced so many people to stop dwelling on themselves and pitched them into challenging situations, which ‘cured’ them.

Cue M calling Bond in and giving him a rather peculiar mission. Turns out the Japanese secret service have been cracking Russian codes in the East (‘from Vladivostok and Oriental Russia’, p.30) and deciphering vital information about nuclear weapons testing, giving the system the codename MAGIC 44 (p.49). But they only share it with the CIA, not us. Bond’s mission is simple: go meet the head of the Japanese secret service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka, and do whatever it takes to persuade him to secretly share their deciphered information with us (behind the backs of the CIA; maybe not that difficult as Tanaka is given a page-long speech expressing his dislike of American ‘culture’ and its revoltingly decadent exports, p.59).

Tanaka is a hard man. He gained a First in PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) at Trinity College, Oxford, before the war – and so has a veneer of Western manners – but returned to Japan to join the military, becoming a member of the Kempeitai (‘their wartime Gestapo’), rising to be personal aide to Admiral Ohnishi before training as a a kami-kaze in the closing stages of the war, only saved by the abrupt nuclear end to the war from flying his plane into an American battleship (p.15). Now he has risen to the top of his country’s secret service, the Koan-Chosa-Kyoku and is a canny, sly, ironic operator.

Rather oddly, Bond will be posing as a member of the Australian secret services, under the guidance of the loud, drunk, profane head of Australia’s station in Japan, one Richard ‘Dikko’ Henderson. (‘Henderson looked like a middle-aged prize fighter who has retired and taken to the bottle’, p.37). This leads to a sequence of hard drinking nights in geisha bars, and a lot of background briefing on Japanese culture, politics and society, all presented as drunken rants by the colourful Dikko.

(At one point he makes a typically tipsy and grandiose reference to ‘brother Hemingway’, p.43 – the only use of the ‘brother X’ formula in all the Bond books – and I immediately thought of John le Carré, many of whose self-mythologising, grand-standing characters refer to others in their little circles as ‘brother’ this or that. Also, the hard-drinking, swearing, boorish ex-pat culture which Dikko represents reminded me of The Honourable Schoolboy, the overblown middle novel of le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy, set among Hong Kong’s hard-drinking, boorish, ex-pat community.)

As so often, Fleming uses flashbacks to depict the various scenes outlined above and to give selected highlights of the month or so Bond has spent in Japan, steadily getting to like and respect Tanaka, which are all told from the position of the ‘now’ when the story proper begins.

‘Now’ is a lengthy sake-fuelled session lasting into the early hours, during which Tanaka finally states the terms of his deal. First a little background: He and his superiors have been dismayed by Britain’s decline and fall, by the speed with which she lost an empire and divested herself of her colonies, and then appalled at the fiasco of the Suez Crisis (1956). The long, apparently rambling conversation then wanders round to Japanese national characteristics and to the national fondness for suicide as an ‘honourable’ way out of various problems and of gaining face with family and ancestors. (Some 25,000 Japanese commit suicide every year and Tanaka is lavish in his praise of the rituals of seppuku, pp.70-73 [the current annual rate is 30,000, according to Wikipedia]).

In fact, Tanaka, goes on to explain, over the past year a strange sequence of events has occurred. Nearly a year ago a foreign scientist – Dr Guntram Shatterhand – and his wife, Frau Emmy (p.61) came to Japan, toured the country, then bought a derelict castle in the southern island of Kyūshū. From here they have imported every form of poisonous plant, tree, fish and insect known to man (spiders, scorpions etc) to create a ‘Garden of Death’. They gained permission from the Japanese authorities after promising to ultimately leave the garden to Japanese botanists, as well as to make available various rare poisons which Japanese scientists could use to experiment with cures and serums. (Fleming gives a four-page list of the poisonous species of tree, shrub and bush in the Garden, complete with Latin names and precise properties – pp.66-69).

But news of this intense ‘Garden of Death’ has leaked out to the general Japanese population with the result that depressed, unhappy, shamed or humiliated Japanese have been making their way there to kill themselves – to break into the ‘Garden of Death’, assured of being stung, bitten, grazed, poisoned or infected by any of the poisonous life forms in it. In the past year no fewer than 500 (!) Japanese have died in the Garden, despite Dr Shatterhand’s best attempts to put up security fences, employ security guards from Japan’s notorious Black Dragon Society (p.64), and so on.

The deal

‘So, Bond-san,’ Tanaka says. ‘My government is willing to share the secret Russian information we are intercepting – on condition you show your country still has pride, still has valour and that you enter the Garden of Death, uncover its secrets, render it harmless.’ In other words, kill Dr Shatterhand. No Japanese could do it, because the government would lose face if it failed. If Bond is caught or exposed, the government can claim he was a foreign agent (which he is).

Kill Dr Shatterhand and you get the secret information. Then Tanaka shows Bond photos and maps of Shatterhand’s hide-out on a remote coastal promontory, along with photos of the man himself and his wife. Bond is electrified: it is Blofeld, the wicked evil Blofeld who planned to detonate atom bombs in America in Thunderball and to decimate British agriculture in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and who, along with his squat ugly accomplice, Irma Bunt, shot dead Bond’s newly-wed wife, Tracy on the last page of the previous novel.

Bond had been hesitating before, about the propriety of assassinating a foreign national on foreign soil. Now his heart is set. Now it is personal. It is going to be revenge, pure and simple (p.115).

Turning Japanese

You Only Live Twice often reads like Fleming swallowed a guide book on Japan whole. There’s a friendly amount of cultural background on Jamaica, whenever Bond goes there; Fleming provides 2 or 3 page backgrounders to Saratoga races or Harlem or Las Vegas when Bond visits them in the States; half of From Russia With Love is set in Turkey which gives Fleming plenty of opportunity to describe Istanbul, Turkish food, customs and people: but none of the previous books has been so saturated with local colour as You Only Live Twice, which offers up guidebook facts and schoolboy explanations of Japanese history, customs and language on every page. Among many other things, we learn that:

  • samisen is a three-stringed musical instrument played at geisha parties
  • sake is Japan’s alcoholic spirit, to be drunk warm and, ideally, giving no outward sign that you are getting drunk
  • sumo wrestlers oil and massage their testicles from an early age so that, before a fight, they can retract them into their body cavity
  • bonsan means priest (p.54) so the Japanese can make a pun on Bond’s name, since it is polite to add san to the end of a name, thus Bond-san
  • futon is Japanese for bed
  • gaijin is Japanese for foreigner
  • tanka is a poem with 31 syllables
  • haiku is a poem of three lines and 17 syllables whose master was probably the 17th century poet, Basho (pp.100-101)
  • in Japan they don’t close doors to ensure security, they open all the doors and slender partitions in their houses so they can see that no-one else is eavesdropping
  • light switches go up, taps turn to the left, door handles likewise
  • samsara is a generic phrase for the good life, for wine, women and song
  • ‘All Japanese have permanent ON [a kind of moral/spiritual duty] towards their superiors, their Emperor, their ancestors and the Japanese gods.’ (p.42) The only way to discharge this burden of ON is to do the right thing, to behave ‘honourably’.
  • futsukayoi is an honourable hangover
  • four is an unlucky number in Japanese culture, as unlucky as 13 is for us in the West
  • According to Tanaka, the Japanese have no swearwords, which Bond finds hard to believe and gets him to explain at length (pp.83-84)
  • Food: Bond is astonished when the lobster he’s served begins to move – he is expected to eat it alive (p.89). He is similarly unimpressed at the fine strips of fugu, raw poisonous blowfish he is served later (p.104), or the bland and over-salty seaweed which comes with everything – although the raw beef he eats after meeting a farmer and massaging his cattle (!) does turn out to be the best steak he’s ever tasted (p.93). But he politely refuses a bowl of fresh bull blood when it is offered.

But for all the book’s immersion in Japanese culture, Fleming and Bond are still very sceptical and uneasy about the Japanese and their well-proven taste for the violent and the bizarre.

This suicide business in Japan is nothing more than a form of mass hysteria – an expression of the streak of violence that seems to run all through the history of Japan. (p.71)

It doesn’t change his mind when Tanaka gives a long and moving account of what inspired him to become a kami-kaze pilot on pages 87 to 89 – describing the excitement of dive bombing an American aircraft carrier, with detailed advice on where best to aim the plane (at the deck-top cranes and equipment). Tanaka makes it sound moving and heroic. Even worse is his eye-witness account of watching his boss, Admiral Ohnishi, commit ritual suicide by inserting a dagger in his belly and moving it from left to right and then upward to cut into the breast bone, all without flinching. Ohnishi in fact didn’t die of these self-inflicted wounds, but refused to move from his position and sat expiring for 24 hours. ‘A most sincere gesture of apology to the Emperor’ (p.89), Tanaka remarks.

Bond dislikes ‘the automatic, ant-like subservience to discipline and authority of the Japanese’ (p.152). Even the half-mad Blofeld is made to discuss ‘the profound love of horror and violence of the Japanese’ (p.134).

And the exaggerated politeness and stifling rituals get on his nerves. Bond becomes very exasperated at the never-ending bowing and sibilant hissing all the Japanese make from extreme politeness –

Bond had had about enough for one day. There weren’t many bows and smiles left in him, and he was glad when he was left alone… (p.85)

Bond hates having to sit on the floor in the lotus position until your knees are screaming with pain, and finds it impossible to sleep on an uncomfortable futon.

The isle of Kuro

Tanaka plans the operation with his lieutenants and Bond: the promontory with the Garden of Death is not far from a group of islands inhabited by the Ama, a self-contained tribe of Japanese who make a living diving for pearls in awabi or oysters (p.135). The divers tend to be lithe young women who often dive completely naked. They plan to dye Bond’s hair and skin to give him a Japanese complexion, then embed him in the little fishing village of Kuro, population 200 (p.121).

Travelling south Tiger takes him to visit a training camp for ninjas or ‘stealers-in’ (pp.93-98). Bond will be given a ninja black outfit, climbing rope and knife.

Here, Tanaka smirks broadly, Bond will be helped by the presence of one of the daughters of the community, Kissy Suzuki (p.113), a young girl who was talent spotted by roving Hollywood agents and went all the way to Hollywood to make a feature film, hated it, and has returned to the bosom of her family and community, but with a good working knowledge of English and of the Western mind-set.

So they travel down to the southern island, taking in various tourist sights along the way (the oldest whorehouse in Japan (p.99) taking the Murasaki Maru, a modern ocean liner to cross to Kyūshū (p.100). Here they meet the commissioner for police of Fukuoka, the administrative capital of the island. There are a few incidents along the way, most notable of which is when a stranger jostles Bond in the crowd and picks his pocket. Later they become aware of a motorcyclist who’s following their car. Tanaka orders the driver to ram the biker, who then puts up a fight and is killed. The body is found to have Bond’s wallet on him. Hmm – someone knows who Bond is and is paying hoods to trail his movements. Suspense!

Once again, Fleming gives a very persuasive description of this idyllic place and of his first sight of the simple fisher people. In the midst of this perilous mission and Bond’s personal trauma, Fleming is able to convey the sense that this is a ‘good place’, these are good people. You often come across these persuasive and powerful scenes in Fleming.

Bond is introduced to the smiling sardonic Kissy, her ancient parents and the local priest. For the next few days he goes pearl fishing with her, obviously attracted by her firm sexy body which wears just a g-string while diving, but Fleming also devotes pages explaining the diving technique, the lives and values of this community.

The idyllic setting makes Fleming relaxed and whimsical: he invents a pet for Kissy, a tame cormorant who she keeps tethered to a string, who dives with her and who she calls ‘David’ after the only person she met in Hollywood who respected her, the English actor David Niven.

This sequence climaxes rather beautifully when Kissy takes Bond to see the squat stone statues of the six Jizo guardians, the ‘Kings of Death’, old Buddhist gods who look over the island and its people, also known as ‘the Children of the Sea’ (p.136). Kissy prays devoutly to them for Bond’s safety and Bond finds himself making a prayer and then – in an astonishing moment – thinks he sees the one he prayed to nod its head. Nonsense! Just a trick of the gathering dusk. Pull yourself together man.

The Garden of Death

That night Bond slips into the ninja outfit Tanaka left him and Kissy accompanies him as he swims to the mainland setting of the ‘Garden of Death’ and the ominous, ruined Japanese castle at its centre.

Using his ninja grappling iron, Bond ascends the defensive wall, then steps carefully through the Garden, witnessing two Japanese who are killing themselves – one whose face and hands are hideously swollen by some plant poison and who blunders into the central pond where he is shredded by piranha, another who bows politely and walks down into one of the Garden’s stinking fumaroles or volcanic mudholes, voluntarily incinerating himself with a final shriek of agony (p.147). Bond finds a work shed and hides behind a big pile of sacking, eating and drinking a little, and waiting till dawn.

He is awoken by the sight of Blofeld dressed in medieval chain mail (as protection against all the poison) and Irma Bunt in a rubber suit with a beekeeper’s hat, strolling around their macabre domain. Bond is tempted to attack them there and then but the armour would be difficult to pierce and he has seen members of the violent Black Dragon Society roaming the Garden as security.

Inside the castle

Bond hides until night falls and then breaks into the castle. A couple of tense pages describe his faltering process up dark stone staircases, along deserted corridors etc, all eerily empty. Finally, he enters a corridor he saw a servant just leave and is half way along it when it swivels in the middle and tips him helplessly into a stone oubliette where he cracks his head very badly. He comes to being beaten around the face by some of the Black Dragon goons and then Blofeld intervenes.

These final scenes feel oddly disconnected: they’re gruesome enough but somehow lack conviction.

First of all it takes Blofeld, dressed incongruously in a silk kimono, a little while to realise that this intruder is in fact James Bond, come to kill him. Blofeld and Bunt take their captive to the ‘Question Room’. This turns out to be a stone throne Blofeld has built over one of the Garden’s many volcanic geysers. Bond is forced to sit on a toilet seat above a little hole up which a spurt of 1,000 degree-hot volcanic mud erupts every fifteen minutes. So Bond sits there as the minutes tick by till the next eruption, his flesh crawling as he imagines the devastating fiery impact incinerating his lower body.

Except that, oddly, Bond isn’t actually tied there and, a minute before the eruption, he simply gets up and strolls over to Blofeld and admits who he is – just as the volcanic mud squirts up the hole. So not that dangerous, really.

Even odder, Blofeld allows Bond to be escorted back to his ‘audience chamber’ and then dismisses his guard, relying on his own skill with a massive, razor-sharp samurai sword to keep Bond in check.

And now, he does what all the baddies do – conducts a long soliloquy in which he justifies all his wicked actions, insofar as they have roundabout beneficent results. And, as usual, this long rant gives Bond the opportunity to scope out the room and make a plan. As it draws to an end (‘and now to finish you for good, Mr Bond’) he makes a leap for a long wooden stave one of the guards had left leaning against a wall.

Bond a) clouts Irma Bunt in the head, knocking her out, then b) embarks on a long and tense fight withg Blofeld, the latter’s razor-sharp sword against Bond’s stave, with Blofeld steadily getting the upper hand, until Bond desperately throws himself at Blofeld, grabbing for his throat and, despite all blows, pummeling and biting, proceeding to strangle Blofeld to death, and to carry on choking and bludgeoning him long after he’s dead in a red mist frenzy.

Balloon escape

Bond comes out of his bloodlust daze and runs into the Question Room, using the machinery he saw to move a lid over the volcanic vent – that should block it up then cause quite an eruption! Back through the audience chamber and out onto the balcony, but it’s a sheer 100 foot drop to the ground, when he sees that a big balloon is tethered to the balcony balustrade. He tethers the loose rope round his body, then undoes the knot and – whoosh – is immediately lifted up into the air and moving away. Only at about this point does he become really bothered by the very painful throbbing in his head from the large bump he picked up when he fell into the oubliette. A few shots from the castle graze him as the Black Dragon goons realise he’s escaping before, suddenly, the entire castle shimmers, shakes and explodes with the force of the mini-volcano he had blocked. Cascades of boiling mud and then flames as various gas pipes etc rupture.

Bond clings to the rope as the balloon flies out over the sea, but the pain in his head is obliterating everything else and he can feel himself getting weaker and then, and then… He feels the rope slipping and passes out as he falls hundreds of feet into the sea below.

Amnesia with Kissy

If certain parts of the previous narrative had seemed disconnected and dreamlike, the final ten pages are unique in the Bond oeuvre for their strange and floaty feel. For Bond has complete amnesia. Impact with the sea completed what the heavy blow to his temple had begun, and he has completely forgotten who he is and what he does. Kissy and Bond had arranged that she would swim out to meet him every night, and so she sees his body fall from the balloon into the sea. But when she gets to him he doesn’t recognise her, doesn’t know what he’s doing in the sea.

Kissy’s heart sings as she realises she can make him hers forever, and she ferries him slowly in the rescue position back across the straight to Kuro, where she calls the village doctor, then fixes up with the village priest to tell the people to keep his presence a secret. While she tends his wounds and nurtures him back to health, the villagers stonewall a succession of visitors from the outside world, first Tiger, then British embassy officials. To all of them the villagers say they saw him depart, then the castle blew up, and they haven’t seen him since.

Far away in London, six months passes and the Service concludes Bond is missing presumed dead. M contributes an official obituary to The Times, in which we get a potted biography of Bond’s life, parents, upbringing and so on. But on the small island Bond is lovingly nurtured to health by Kissy and enjoys the simple healthy life of a pearl diver.

It may be a far-fetched comparison but a lot of this reminded me of Edmund Spenser’s Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene. In each of its six books a knight from the court of King Arthur sets out on a heroic Quest, encountering, battling and overcoming various allegorical figures along the way. By the sixth and final book, though, you can feel Spenser’s tiredness and are not surprised that, when Sir Calidore encounters a rural community living in complete equality, peace and harmony with its rural surroundings, the knight simply abandons his Quest and decides to live with them and enjoy pastoral simplicity and happiness.

In the last ten pages of You Only Live Twice, something similar happens and James Bond, cynical city slicker and worldly secret agent, forsakes his livelihood, forgets his raison d’etre and, tired and ill like his maker (Fleming was a sick man by the time the book was published in 1963), longs to become part of a simpler world, a healthier life, a place without conflict.

But will it last…?


Bond as Saint George

When Tanaka offers him the challenge, he puts it in Arthurian medieval form: ‘you are to enter this Castle of Death and slay the Dragon within.’ (p.78) Similarly, when Bond realises Shatterhand is Blofeld, he not only declares it is now a matter of personal revenge – he says: ‘It was ancient feud’ (p.116). ‘Ancient’? Hardly. His wife was murdered 9 months earlier. Calling it ‘ancient’ is part of the process of giving Bond a mythic, archetypal overtone.

Later Tiger says: ‘Does it not amuse you to think of that foolish dragon dozing all unsuspecting in his castle while St George comes silently riding towards his lair across the waves?’ (p.119)

In The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming had the female lead, Viv Michel, refer to Bond several times as her knight in shining armour, as her Sir Galahad, and Thunderball contained references to St George. It doesn’t especially deepen the pleasure of reading the books, but it is an indicator of the kind of quest-like, rather simple-minded Victorian-medieval hero worship, which is one thread underpinning the texts.

Visions of paradise

It’s only a paragraph or two, but as Bond arrives at the island community of Kuro he is struck by how it seems to be one of the world’s good places.

It was a pretty scene, with the delicate remoteness, the fairyland quality of small fishing communities the world over. Bond took an immediate liking to the place, as if he was arriving at a destination that had been waiting for him and that would be friendly and welcoming. (p.120)

Fleming’s writing conveys a genuine sense of peace and tranquility. It has several times before, especially in Jamaica or when he was in the hotel in Istanbul looking out over the Bosphorus at sunset. But here the setting has the added fairy tale element which threads strongly through the book.

At that moment, it all seemed to Bond as the world, as life, should be, and he felt ashamed of his city-slicker appearance, let alone the black designs it concealed. (p.123)

This ability to perceive and respond to natural beauty, and to find a refreshing innocence and loveliness in it, is one of Fleming’s most appealing features.

Male camaraderie

Bond may be a figure of male fantasy fulfilment in a number of obvious ways (easily available women, fast cars, tough fights which he always wins). One of the under-reported ones is his male friendships.

There’s the deep, abiding warmth of his father-feeling for M (‘James Bond felt a quick warmth of affection for this man who had ordered his destiny for so long’, p.32).

There’s the buddy-buddy act with his CIA pal Felix Leiter, who appears in no fewer than six of the novels and allows Fleming to let rip with pulp American slang and indulge Bond’s boyish bantering side.

There are the one-off friendships, forged in the intense closeness of a dangerous mission would include the elemental life force of Darko Kerim (From Russia With Love), the wise and clever Marc-Ange Draco (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and in this novel, the canny clever ex-kamikaze pilot Tiger Tanaka, owner of a ‘formidable, cruel, samurai face’ (p.14).

All three are elemental figures of masculinity, rooted in foreign cultures untouched by Western norms or political correctness; they have very dubious morals or pasts (Darko involved in various scams against the Russians, Draco the head of the Corsican mafia ie a dyed-in-the-wool criminal, and Tiger with his unapologetic devotion to the kami-kaze ideal); and all three smile big grins every time they explain another outlandish custom, extravagant scam or unacceptable piece of behaviour.

There is an elemental male aspect to their bonding; but there is also naughty schoolboy japery as well.


Credit

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming was published in March 1964 by Jonathan Cape. Fleming died in August the same year.

All quotes and references are to the 1965 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1964

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)

Bond put the thought of his dead youth out of his mind. Never job backwards. What-might-have-been was a waste of time. Follow your fate and be satisfied with it, and be glad not to be a second-hand motor salesman, or a yellow-press journalist pickled in gin or nicotine, or a cripple – or dead. (p.148)

From Russia With Love has 28 chapters divided into two parts: 1. The Planning 2. The Execution.

Part one – The Planning (chapters 1 – 10)

The opening chapters introduce us to Donovan Grant, ‘Red’ Grant, a psychopath who loves killing. He discovered this as a violent young man in the countryside of Northern Ireland, graduating from going out at full moon to kill animals, to slitting the throats of tramps and vagrants for fun, and then getting employment for his special talents with the local Sinn Fein/IRA.

Grant was sent off to do his National Service in Germany, where he promptly defected to the Russians who realised his special value, and selected and trained him intensively to become a perfect killing machine. In fact he has been made Chief Executioner for Bond’s nemesis, SMERSH, the execution department of what he calls the MGB (p.36). Now Grant is called Krassno Granitski, codename ‘Granit’.

Cut to the head of the SMERSH (Colonel General Grubozaboyschikov, known as ‘G’, p.39), the Head of Army Intelligence and a few other Soviet high-ups having a major conference. The Politburo is unhappy that Soviet intelligence has suffered recent setbacks (they mention a few recent examples, e.g. the unmasking of the atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, a real event which took place in 1950). The Politburo has decided they must strike a decisive counter-blow against Western Intelligence. One by one, the assembled heads make a systematic review of all the NATO countries, assessing their intelligence services, until they come to England.

Here there is some shameless jingoism as Fleming has Soviet Intelligence marvelling at how the English secret service punches so much above its weight, with operatives who are paid a pittance and get no special privileges.

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

Very reassuring. And comments which link Bond effortlessly back to the Public School adventurism of Kipling, Rider Haggard and John Buchan.

So the Soviets agree to mount a high-profile attack on English Intelligence. But targeting who? Its head (M)? The public has never heard of him, he is secretive and well-protected, so it wouldn’t have much propaganda value. Well, what about this agent called Bond? Yes, he caused them a lot of trouble in the Le Chiffre affair (CasinoRoyale), and then by breaking up the Mr Big network in America (Live and Let Die), and then by foiling the Drax plan (Moonraker). Yes. They will assassinate James Bond to demoralise and humiliate Western intelligence.

The Head of the MGB calls in the head of SMERSH’s Directorate II (Operations and Executions) who turns out to be Rosa Klebb, a dumpy, frog-like woman (so memorably played by Lotte Lenya in the movie) and briefs her. We see her consulting with World Chess Champion and SMERSH strategist, Kronsteen (Head of the Planning Section of SMERSH, p.77), who is introduced to us in a taut scene at the climax of a major international chess game.

Then there is the scene where Klebb calls in Comrade Corporal Romanova, the stunningly beautiful and naive MGB operative who they are going to set up as the ‘honey trap’ for the well-known womaniser, Bond.

In a gruesome twist, after Klebb has terrified the rather simple Romanova into agreeing to the mission and briefed her, Klebb pops out of the room for a minute and then reappears in ‘something more comfortable’, namely a see-through nightie, and lies on a couch, dimming the lights, expecting to seduce Romanova. The latter obediently turns off the main light, but then runs out the door and down the corridor, apparently not to be punished for rejecting Rosa’s advances.

In the final chapter of Part One, we see Klebb restored to full uniform and complete control, verbally sparring with Kronsteen in SMERSH headquarters as they put the finishing touches to their plan. They choose Turkey as the location for the humiliation of the British Secret Service, since it is so close to the East, Bulgaria in particular.

The girl will lure Bond with the promise of giving him one of the Russians’ top secret Spektor coding machines. Grant will then be despatched to carry out the assassination. They will have cameramen and writers ready to capture Bond’s humiliation and death, written and film content they can then distribute via communist-controlled media (especially – Fleming says with a dig – in communist-dominated France).

Part two – The Execution (chapters 11 – 28)

Now we see it all from Bond’s point of view. James is bored. It’s a year since his last assignment (Diamonds Are Forever).  It’s August in London, hot and muggy and half the office is on holiday. And, we learn, his romance with Tiffany Case (who he picked up in Diamonds) has collapsed – she fell in love with an American Marine and went back to the States, leaving Bond to brood.

This allows Fleming to show us Bond at his most domestic, waking naked in bed, doing his morning exercises and, above all, having breakfast! Breakfast consists of:

  • Two large cups of very strong black coffee, no sugar, from De Bry in New Oxford Street, brewed in an American Chemex coffee-maker.
  • A single egg, boiled for three and a third minutes, served in a dark blue egg cup with a gold ring at the top. It must be a fresh, speckled egg from the French Marans hens owned by a friend of his housekeeper, May’s, in the country.
  • Two thick slices of wholewheat toast, a large pat of deep yellow Jersey butter, and three jars of jam: Tiptree Little Scarlet strawberry jam, Cooper’s Vintage Oxford marmalade, and Norwegian Heather honey from Fortnum’s.
  • The coffee pot and the silver on the tray are Queen Anne. The china is the same dark blue and gold as the egg cup. (p.127)

The housekeeper who attends on James at the pull of the bell rope, the fussy breakfast, the morning paper just so – this snug and cosy portrait of moneyed bachelorhood takes us back to the Edwardian age or before, to the reassuring Baker Street rooms of Holmes and Watson and their ever-loyal housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

M calls Bond to the office and briefs him: Head of the Turkey station, Darko Kerim, has received the strangest approach from ‘the other side’. One Corporal Tatiana Romanova of the Russian Security Service made an appointment to meet him on the Bosphorus ferry and explained that she has fallen in love with Bond on the basis of his photos alone and wants to defect with a brand-new top-secret Spektor machine – but only on condition that Bond in person receives her.

It’s so crazy it might actually be true, and so Bond packs his bags and catches a flight to Istanbul.

Flying to Istanbul

Just like previous plane journeys (from Florida to Jamaica in Live and Let Die, across the Atlantic then on to Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever) Fleming gives a very detailed account of the whole procedure, the make of plane, the sound of the jets, the view out the window etc. And, just as in Live and Let Die, the plane hits turbulence and Bond is genuinely afraid – his hands gripping the arm rests, his palms wet with fear (p.150). Realistic.

Darko Kerim

After checking into an uncharacteristically seedy hotel in Istanbul, Bond is taken to meet the head of Station T (for Turkey), Darko Kerim, who he immediately warms to.

It was a startlingly dramatic face, vital, cruel, debauched, but what one noticed more than its drama was that it radiated life. Bond thought he had never seen so much vitality and warmth in a human face. (p.160)

Kerim briefs him on the Russian girl, the offer of the Spektor machine, and the general situation in Turkey. The ‘other side’ are up to something, but he can’t put his finger on what. Kerim tells him about his life, raised one of 15 children in a harem of women kept by the biggest, strongest fisherman on the Black Sea. A spell as a circus strong man, when his father was contacted and paid by the English Head of Station T to report on Russian comings and goings. Darko was taken on the payroll and, with his extensive family and connections, ended up its head.

Bond warms to Darko and his simple, unashamed enjoyment of life in primal, Balkan passions.

Spying on the Russians

Kerim takes Bond up a secret underground passageway, in fact a huge water pipe built by the Byzantines, filled with thousands of rats and bats, until they are beneath the Russian Embassy.

Here Kerim’s people have fixed up a submarine periscope which allows them to see into the main meeting room of the Russian Embassy though not, alas, to hear anything. Bond watches some obviously senior Soviets meeting and then the arrival of Tatiana Romanova, a tall, elegant, obviously ballet-trained blonde girl, who looks strikingly like Greta Garbo.

The men look at her oddly, as if she is a prostitute. We know this is because they all know the nature of ‘the plan’ – for her to use her body to lure Bond into a ‘honeypot’ trap. But Bond doesn’t know this; he thinks she is concealing the fact that she wants to defect and so is puzzled by the mingled lasciviousness and contempt he sees in the Russians’ faces.

Catfight at the gypsies’

That night Darko’s Rolls Royce collects Bond from his hotel and they motor to the outskirts of Istanbul, to a dingy open-air cafe by a big, walled orchard. This is the base of the gypsies who work for Darko. Bond is introduced as a friend to the leader of the gypsies, Vavra, given pride of place at the head of the table and forced to eat along with the others the main part of their feast, a very hot stew to be eaten by hand, with bread to mop up the juice and raki to wash it down.

Turns out they’ve arrived at a bad moment: two young women have declared they’re in love with Vavra’s son, and are prepared to kill the other for his sake. The son has been sent to the hills and now, after the group feast, bolts are drawn back and Bond gets to watch along with the others a ferocious, vicious catfight between two gypsy women, Zora and Vida, who start off only wearing rags, and soon tear these off to emerge naked, sweat gleaming on their shapely breasts and rumps. Fleming knows how to write good pulp fiction.

Shootout at the gypsies’

And as if to prove it, right in the middle of the fight there’s a loud detonation as a group of Bulgarian assassins blow up the perimeter wall of the gypsies’ orchard and come streaming in, guns blazing. The women and children retreat into the trees while the men spring into action, Bond among them, saving Darko’s life at least twice, shooting dead several attackers in the massive fight which now develops, until a figure by the wall, the attackers’ leader Krilencu, blows and whistle and calls a retreat. They hop onto the scooters they arrived on and are gone into the darkness.

The gypsies tend to their wounded, the women return to the scene of the battle. Darko thanks Bond who sweeps aside his gratitude and wants to know why they were attacked. They go over to where the gypsies are torturing one of the surviving attackers, who says that they had orders to kill Darko but very specifically to leave Bond alone.

Bond gets the feeling he is a pawn in a bigger game. He and Darko make their thanks and apologies to Vavra and leave, but not before the proud, stern-faced gypsy says that, by killing so well, he can have final decision about which one of the wildcat women lives and which one dies.

Sickened by the slaughter, Bond insists that they both survive, throwing in as primitive reasoning that Vavra will need them to breed new sons for the tribe. Vavra is visibly displeased. Bond couldn’t care less.

The assassination of Krilencu

Immediately following the gypsy shooutout, Darko has Bond accompany him in his chauffeur-driven Rolls to another part of Istanbul, where they know they’ll find Krilencu, leader of the attackers on the gypsy camp, at the apartment of his mistress.

Darko explains that he’ll send in some of his sons masquerading as police and flush Krilencu out the secret escape hatch which Krilencu doesn’t know that Darko knows about.

With added pulp macabre-ness, this escape hatch is a trap door in the side of a hoarding used for advertisements. As Darko positions himself and assembles his lightweight rifle, Bond tries to make sense of the events of the evening. At a signal, Darko’s sons go into the building; a minute later the trapdoor in the wall opens and a figure drops to the sidewalk, crouches, turns to run and… Darko shoots him dead with one bullet.

They pack the rifle away, and Darko drops Bond back at his hotel where, characteristically, he has a long shower to wash off the blood and horror of the day.

Tatiana Romanova

Back out of the shower, it is only as he approaches the hotel bed that Bond realises someone is in it and hears a girlish giggle. It is the Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova, wearing only a black velvet choker. Fleming knows his S&M accessories.

What is interesting in this scene – as in the one where Rosa Klebb briefed her – is Fleming’s attempts to see things through Tatiana’s eyes. We are privy to her thoughts as she struggles to follow her simple instructions (seduce Bond and persuade him to take the Orient Express back to London). Except that the reader knows – and she does not – that once aboard the train, Bond will be murdered by Red Grant.

It’s not exactly James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but the mere fact that Fleming tries to reproduce the girl’s stream of consciousness (as he did, to some extent, with Tiffany Case in Diamonds) is interesting.

While she is trying to remember her lines, Bond tries to focus on the plausibility of her story and the feasibility of her plan to a) flee with the Spektor machine this very evening and b) flee aboard the Orient Express.

The reader knows full well it is a trap and it’s pretty thick of Bond not to realise it, but then, if he did, there would be no story.

Bond gets into bed with Tatiana, clasping her breast with its (as usual for a Bond girl) hard nipple, slipping his hand down over her tummy and watching her eyes flutter under the closed eyelids.

Cut to the next morning and Bond wondering whether he was too rough with her, thus bringing out the S&M feel of the scene. (The theme is continued a few pages later, where he leans down to Tatiana in bed, seizes her by the hair and pulls her head fiercely back before kissing her ‘long and cruelly’ on the mouth, p.199).

Meanwhile, as they move and writhe on the bed, Russian MGB operatives are filming it all on ciné cameras pointing down through the two-way mirror in this, the ‘honeymoon’, suite o the hotel. Everything has been set up in advance.

I like Umberto Eco’s point about Fleming writing to the endoxa or received opinions of his readers, with a strong tabloid flavour. Thus Fleming goes the extra mile to make the men filming Bond not just clinical operatives, but dirty voyeuristic perverts, noting how:

the breath rasped out of the open mouths of the two men and the sweat of excitement trickled down their bulging faces into their cheap collars. (p.186)

The Orient Express

It is the evening of the next day. We learn that Bond made love to Tatiana again, that morning, before she went off to work at the Russian Embassy. Now he is in the Istanbul railway station waiting for her by the Orient Express, as she requested. Exactly as it begins to move she calls out from a window and he leaps aboard. Here a) he again tries to figure out whether Tatiana is telling the truth and b) we see inside Tatiana’s mind as she continues to parrot the lies she was instructed in by her SMERSH masters.

Kerim is on the train, waiting outside their sleeper compartment and he and Bond share a cigarette while Kerim points out that three SMERSH agents are aboard the train. He says he’ll look after them, not killing them, but getting them thrown off. And by bribing the conductor, Kerim does get two thrown off the train but not the evil-looking third one, a ‘Herr Benz’.

Kerim and Bond have further talks about the girl, pondering what’s really going on, a conversation which expands on the various types of ‘game’ they are playing and which – by implication – the narrative is engaged in (see note below).

Bond toys with getting off the train with the girl and the Spektor machine but decides – dilettantishly, in Kerim’s view – to ‘play the game out to the end’. He is woken in the early hours by an alarmed conductor and taken to Kerim’s compartment. There is his friend, stabbed to death by ‘Benz’. But in his death throes, Kerim had himself managed to stab his assassin. The two men’s bodies are interlocked in a gruesome death embrace.

At Thessaloniki, one of Kerim’s sons boards the train only to be told the horrible truth. There is an eight hour waitover, so the son takes Bond and the girl to his flat, invites them to eat and drink the provisions laid on for them, while he makes sundry phone calls, and Bond looks out the window, smoking, full of remorse at getting his new-found friend into this plight and then killed, and still wondering whether to abandon the train. He makes one phone call to M in London, who suggests that he sends along a local British officer as back-up.

He doesn’t, and as they get back onto the train at the crowded station he sees an obvious Englishman making for the train among the thronging crowds. It must be the ‘back-up’ M had suggested sending to help out.

The over-dressed Englishman introduces himself as Norman Nash but we, the readers, know it is Red Grant, the SMERSH assassin. Grant knows all the correct passwords and has Service paraphernalia, but everything about him feels fake and wrong. Bond wonders if he might be mad. But Grant makes himself useful, is introduced to Tatiana, joins them for dinner, all as if acting a part, clumsily (which he, of course is).

At dinner he slips a sleeping draught into Tatiania’s wine, then, as she passes out, helps Bond get her back to the sleeper compartment. He says he’ll stay and keep first watch and Bond lies back on the lower bunk to sleep.

In the middle of the night Grant kicks Bond awake with a new tone of authority in his voice. He announces that he is a SMERSH agent, tasked with killing Bond. They’ll make it look like he murdered Tatiana, because she was blackmailing him with the tapes of them having sex, and forcing him to take her to England – and then had killed himself.

Left-wing journalists in France will give the story front page coverage, causing maximum embarrassment to his Service and country. Also the Spektor device is booby-trapped to kill the Service scientists who inspect it. ‘Quite a tidy little package, eh, old man,’ says Grant in his fake posh accent.

All the time Bond has been desperately cooking up a plan, asking to be allowed to smoke a cigarette then concealing the cigarette case inside the cover of his (Eric Ambler) paperback so that – when the climactic moment comes, just as the train enters the Simplon Tunnel, Bond moves the book and case over his heart just as Grant fires.

Bond falls to the floor of the compartment as if shot and finds himself conveniently close to the briefcase which he’s carried all over Europe and which, as you might expect, contains a few fancy tricks supplied by Q Department, including razor sharp knives which can be extracted from its base.

Bond waits till Grant has both feet on the bunk above him, and is preparing to shoot the sleeping Tatiania, when Bond suddenly corkscrews upwards, plunging the dagger deep into Grant’s groin then pushing more. But Grant in his death throes falls, grabs Bond’s ankles and starts pulling him off the bunk preparatory to strangling him. Desperately, Bond scrabbles for Grant’s gun, turns it towards him and fires the gun five times. There is a horrible gurgling noise then Grant’s body collapses to the floor.

After taking some time to recover, Bond sets about tidying up the compartment using his bedsheets to soak up the blood which covers it like an abattoir. He wakes Tatiania in time for the train’s arrival in Dijon, where they finally leave the train, after four nightmare-ish days putting his feet on blessedly solid unmoving ground.

Coda

Before shooting Bond, while explaining the details of the plot to frame and humiliate him and his Service, Grant had mentioned that he would then head to a rendezvous with the mastermind of the conspiracy, Rosa Klebb, at the Ritz Hotel in Paris the next day.

Instead – having contacted his friend Mathis from the French Deuxième Bureau to a) look after Tatiana b) despatch the booby-trapped Spektor case to London – it is Bond who keeps the appointment.

He goes up to the room and knocks and enter. Klebb is disguised as a wizened old crone, clacking away at her knitting in a luxury suite. She keeps up the pretence while Bond takes a chair opposite and announces who he is. Her hand goes to a bell pull and only some instinct makes Bond leap sideways as a hidden gun in Klebb’s chair shoots holes in the Bond’s now vacant one.

And then she is on him with the knitting needles which, Bond realises, have poisoned tips. He kicks one out of her hands then grabs a luxury Empire-era chair and traps her body in it, pushing it back up against the wall to trap her.

At which point Inspector Mathis enters with two assistants carrying a large laundry basket. Klebb will be drugged and flown to England and interrogated. But just as Bond slackens the chair to let the French agents get to her, Klebb lashes out with the poisoned tip of her shoe and stabs Bond in the calf.

The poison works in seconds, Bond going numb and cold from the legs up, before crashing unconscious onto the rich, red, carpeted floor. The End.


Good food

Bond/Fleming loves his food and conveys his enjoyment and relish very vividly. For example:

  • In his hotel in Istanbul, looking out over one of the most famous views in the world, Bond enjoys thick creamy yoghurt in a blue china bowl with ripe, ready-peeled green figs and jet black Turkish coffee (p.157).
  • With Kerim in the market he eats sardines en papillote and raki (p.136), followed by kebab tasting of smoked bacon fat and onions along with Kavaklidere, a rich coarse Balkan red wine (p.180). Bond, for once, is not impressed.
  • At the gypsy camp Bond eats along with everyone else a greasy ragout with bread and raki. Peasant food.

The Turks

Bond is surprisingly dismissive of the Turkish people.

So these dark, ugly, neat little officials were the modern Turks. He listened to their voices, full of broad vowels and quiet sibiliants and modified u-sounds, and he watched the dark eyes that belied the soft, polite voices. They were bright, angry, cruel eyes that had only lately come down from the mountains. Bond thought he knew the history of those eyes. They were eyes that had been trained for centuries to watch over sheep and decipher small movements on far horizons. They were eyes that kept the knife-hand in sight without seeming to, that counted the grains of meal and the small fractions of coin and noted the flicker of the merchant’s fingers. They were hard, untrusting, jealous eyes. Bond didn’t take to them. (p.153)

Fleming makes Darko, himself the son of a Turkish fisherman and an English mother, be very dismissive of his fellow Turks, in a whole stream of comments condemning their dirtiness and their poor, peasant cuisine.

As soon as his hoteliers discover that Bond is a guest of ‘Effendi Kerim’, they pack his things and move him into the best room in the place – the so-called ‘Honeymoon suite’ – bending low and apologising. Bond is sickened by their grovelling subservience (p.171). The more he sees of the generality of Turks, the more he thinks of them as ‘this country of furtive, stunted little men’ (p.173).

Later, as he accompanies Darko to the alley where they will assassinate Krilencu, Bond is overcome by repulsion at Istanbul.

From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were the only population. His instinct told him, as it has told other travellers, that Istanbul was a town he would be glad to get out of alive. (p.220)

Even as they prepare to catch the Orient Express out of town, Fleming makes time to say how much he dislikes the main Istanbul railway station.

The Orient Express was the only live train in the ugly, cheaply architectured burrow that is Istanbul’s main station. (p.241)

Finally, as the Orient Express enters Italy with the promise of France ahead, Bond is hugely relieved to be ‘among friendly people, away from the furtive lands’ (p.283).

Everyone and their cat can accuse Fleming of sexism, racism and many other -isms, nothing could be easier. But I found it odd that people rarely seem to comment on the  solid anti-Turkism which runs throughout this book.

Naked

Bond routinely is naked, highlighting his sensuous self-awareness. He gets out of bed naked (p.123); on returning from the trip through the sewers to spy on the Russians Bond returns to his hotel, has a hot bath and a cold shower and sits naked sipping a vodka and tonic and enjoying sunset over the Bosphorus (p.193); at the end of the adventurous night with the gypsies Bond returns to the hotel room and enjoys the feel of the night breeze on his naked body (p.229).

Gadgets

The movies make ‘Q’ into a character, a grump old grey-haired inventor who provides Bond with nifty gadgets. In the books there is no person named ‘Q’, there is only a ‘Q branch’ which manages technical matters. For example, it is Q branch which supervises the skin graft on Bond’s right hand which takes place between Casino Royale and Live and Let Die.

This is the first book where they provide anything like a gadget, namely a hand-carried attaché case which contains:

  • two flat rows of 25 bullets packed between lining and case
  • in each side a flat throwing knife made by Wilkinson
  • a hidden compartment in the handle which, at the press of a button, would deliver a cyanide pill into Bond’s hand
  • a thick tube of Palmolive shaving cream which unscrews to reveal the silencer for his Beretta hand-gun
  • and a belt of 50 gold sovereigns slipped into the upper lining (p.145)

Play the game

‘It is perhaps the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure. But still it is odd that they play this game so well, for they are not natural conspirators.’ (p.55)

According to tradition, the Public School ethos taught its pupils to ‘play up, play up, and play the game.’ As we all know, the rivalry between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia in central Asia in the last decades of the 19th century was known as The Great Game. It was the background to Rudyard Kipling’s most successful novel, Kim, set among spies in north India. And throughout the Great War and on into the Imperial conflicts of the 1920s, ’30s and the Second War, upper-class Brits were taught to ‘play the game’, the archetypal Imperial game, of course, being cricket.

It comes as no great surprise, then, to note the importance of ‘the game’, of ‘game playing’, in the Bond books. After all the very first novel in the whole series entirely rotates around a complicated card game which requires the author to explain its rules in great detail along with the odds and how to gamble on it.

Similarly, Moonraker‘s first part is devoted to a long and detailed exposition of a game of bridge which Bond rigs in order to win and so humiliate his rich opponent, Hugo Drax. Similarly, Live and Let Die features a short but powerful scene at a gambling table in Las Vegas which again requires the author to give a detailed explanation of the game and its rules.

So it is pretty obvious that games are central to the Bond novels. And it is only a small step up to notice that Bond conceives of each separate assignment as a ‘game’ in the same spirit. When the downmarket hotel he’s checked into unexpectedly bumps him up to the best room in the place, Bond reflects they might be deferring to his acquaintance with Darko Kerim. Or maybe there’s something more behind it.

Bond decided not to care if there was. The game, whatever it was, had to be played out. If the change of rooms had been the opening gambit, so much the better. The game had to begin somewhere. (p.173)

And so, 70 pages later, once Tatiana has persuaded him to take her aboard the Orient Express but Bond is trying to assess whether she’s telling the truth or not,

Bond calmly admitted to himself that he had an insane desire to play the game out and see what it was all about. (p.258)

It is this devil-may-care whimsicality, this seeing the whole Cold War struggle as a kind of extended game of cricket, which sets the British apart from the Americans or the Russians, making them sometimes – in the spy novels of Le Carré or Deighton – seem laughable and absurdly amateurish. But in the more jingoistic lineage of John Buchan or James Bond, it is what gives our playboy heroes their effortless superiority.

He reflected briefly on the way the Russians ran their centres – with all the money and equipment in the world, while the Secret Service put against them a handful of adventurers, underpaid men, like this one, with his second-hand Rolls and his children to help him. (p.198)

The game-playing rhetoric becomes a little more interesting in chapter 23 in an extended conversation with Kerim. Kerim points out the way M and Bond are both alike in being gamblers; they are taking a risk on the girl and her story and are interested to find out what the game is about. Kerim contrasts their English adventurism with the Russian national game, chess, which the Russians play with ruthless professionalism:

These Russians are great chess players. When they wish to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly. The game is planned minutely, the gambits of the enemy are provided for. They are foreseen and countered. (p.271)

This of course reminds us of the scenes in Part One featuring Kronsteen, Russian world champion chess player who also happens to be head of planning for SMERSH, and who we see planning with Rosa Klebb every detail of the conspiracy to murder Bond.

Bond says: ‘All I ask is to go on with the game until we find out.’ But Kerim counters with his own position. ‘I was not brought up “to be a sport”‘, he says sarcastically about the well-known English addiction to playing with a straight bat etc.

‘This is not a game to me. This is business.’ (p.273)

And we have seen doe ourselves how well-organised Kerim’s operation is and how it extends to his own sons and nephews; it really is a business.

Now Kerim makes a further analogy. Bond is playing the game as if it was a game of billiards. He has hit the white ball with perfect accuracy at the red which will, with complete inevitability, go into the pocket. But what if an airplane crashes on the billiard hall or a gas main blows it up. All the rules of billiards continue to be true, but they are destroyed by the broader context. Thus Bond’s silly game playing – his childish wish to play things out and see what happens – is trumped by the complexity of the real world – by the infinite multiplicity of other games which overlap, impinge on, and trump the small, neat, logical one Bond thinks he is playing.

It’s not that either one is right, it’s that Fleming takes so much time talking about games, and games within games, which is fascinating.


Bond biographical details

Each book tells us a little more about our hero. In this one we learn that Bond is six feet tall (p.159). That Bond’s flat is not just off the King’s Road, it is in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road (p.123). His Scottish housekeeper, May, can never bring herself to say ‘sir’, but sometimes adds an ‘s’ to the end of her sentences. The only newspaper Bond reads is The Times (p.124).

The early section has the MGB officials reading out Bond’s full file, which includes the facts that he commenced work with the Service in 1938 and was awarded the CMG in 1953 (p.68).

In Diamonds Bond told Tiffany he was in effect ‘married’ to his boss, M. Here, he sits in M’s office and looks across ‘at the tranquil, lined sailor’s face that he loved, honoured and obeyed’, deliberately echoing the Anglican marriage service (p.134).

Interestingly, on the flight to Istanbul Bond reads The Mask of Dimitrios, often thought of as the best of Eric Ambler’s pre-war thrillers (p.144 and p.302) and which is set, or at least starts off, in Turkey. A very deliberate hommage.

We learn that the British Secret Service debriefs enemy agents at a secluded house nicknamed ‘the Cage’, near Guildford (p.269).


Credit

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming was published in 1957 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of the Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Moonraker by Ian Fleming (1955)

Moonraker is divided into 25 chapters, themselves grouped into three fast-moving parts:

  1. Monday (chapters 1 – 7)
  2. Tuesday-Wednesday (chapters 8-17)
  3. Thursday-Friday (chapters 18-25)

The tight time-frame and the solely English locations (London, the Drax rocket firing complex on the Kent coast, and the roads between) make this feel like a very domestic adventure. Fleming’s Othello.

Sir Hugo Drax

Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Mr Big in Live and Let Die, now Hugo Drax – in each novel Bond is up against an evil criminal mastermind. More interestingly, each one traces their origins to the Second World War: Le Chiffre was an unnamed inmate of Dachau Displaced Persons camp at the end of the war; Mr Big served with US Special Forces during the war; Drax was one among many men injured in the blowing-up of an Allied hospital by German commandos in 1945. Amnesiac, he responded to the name Hugo Drax when shown it, and has officially used that name since.

So, all three are baddies with made-up names. And like the other two, Drax is also physically big, with exceptionally broad shoulders, big hands, a prognathous jaw with protruding teeth, and one eye larger than the other as a result of imperfect plastic surgery after the wartime bomb. Like the others, physically intimidating, and mishapenly ugly. ‘A bullying, boorish, loud-mouthed vulgarian’ (p.32)

Drax’s rise has been phenomenal. In just five years he made himself a multi-millionaire by cornering the market in various rare metals and commodities. Then returned to London in 1950 and began leading a high-profile playboy lifestyle, combining clubs, cards, horses, gambling, with charitable donations to hospitals, orphanages etc. Not a week went by without him appearing in the tabloids and he has become the People’s Darling, ‘Hugger’ Drax. In his most recent coup, he wrote to the new Queen (crowned in 1953) directly, offering the funding to design and build an atomic-powered missile which would secure Britain’s defences. Now, a year later, it is built and ready to be tested, the so-called ‘Moonraker’ rocket.

Part 1. Monday

But M plays cards with Drax at his very exclusive London club, Blades, and has noticed that Drax cheats at bridge. Would Bond mind coming along today, Monday, night, to have a first class dinner then make a pair to play Drax and his partner, Meyer, to confirm whether he is cheating, and maybe somehow warn him off. ‘We don’t want a scene, old boy; just to persuade him to be sensible.’

So we are treated to a luxurious description of Bond a) showering and preparing for a smart night out b) driving in his Bentley to Blades in St James’s c) joining M for dinner, and then i) Bond’s impression of meeting Drax in the flesh – described as a big, hairy, powerful, intimidating, bantering monster ii) of Bond watching Drax play bridge and realising how he is cheating – by dealing over his shiny silver cigarette case in whose reflection he momentarily sees each card he is dealing.

M explains the technique to the chairman of Blades, Lord Basildon, who is appalled at the scene and possible law suits which will follow any formal reprimand. Bond promises to save the day by beating Drax at his own game. Cue a sophisticated and amusing game of bridge, during which Bond pretends to get drunker and drunker before pulling his coup – namely using a sleight-of-hand to replace an entire deck of cards, just before it is due to be dealt, with one he has carefully prepared beforehand. This doctored set makes that Drax think he has an unbeatable hand lures him into gambling massive stakes, which Bond doubles and redoubles. (The novel includes a diagram of the four hands held by all the players and carefully explains how the deceit works.) Drax is humiliatingly defeated, left owing some £15,000 (p.57) – a colossal sum in 1955 – and furiously storms out of the club.

M and Basildon congratulate Bond who is exhilirated (and pleased to be suddenly fabulously rich) but eventually comes down off his benzedrine high, heading home to pass out.

Part 2. Tuesday-Wednesday

The next morning Bond has barely sloped into the office at the regulation hour of 10am (!) before M calls him upstairs. During their game last night, there was trouble at the Drax rocket complex near Dover. At the pub the workers are allowed to frequent, one of them drew a pistol, accused the Ministry of Supply’s security man at the complex – Major Tallon – of seducing his girlfriend, shot him dead, then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.

M has pulled a lot of strings to have Bond himself recommended as the replacement security man at the complex. The reader just has to swallow the massive improbability:

a) that Bond could be deployed even though MI6 have no jurisdiction within the UK and so, apparently, deploying Bond internally had to be signed off in person by the Prime Minister (p.100)
b) that Special Branch or MI5 would accept this
c) that Drax himself, humiliated beyond belief in front of London society just a few hours previously, would accept his humiliator into his operation as a key member of personnel

Bond is briefed by Assistant Commissioner Vallant of Scotland Yard on what happened in the pub, along with profiles of the murdered security man and the murderer/suicide, as well as a profile of Vallant’s operative at the base, a woman agent called Gala Brand, a Special Branch officer working undercover as Drax’s personal assistant. This is followed by a crash course on rocket engineering from Professor Train, ‘one of the greatest experts on guided missiles in the world’ (p.71), all gyroscopes, telemetry and Kepler ellipses.

So Bond motors down to the complex on the Kent coast, meets Drax and both of them agree to forget about the previous night while Drax gives him (and the reader) an extended tour of the facilities. We meet the 50 or so all-German rocket specialists, note along with Bond that they all have shaven heads but sport individual and odd moustaches (p.88) We meet Drax’s chief scientist, Dr Walter, along with his creepy ADC, Willy Krebs (p.79) – caricatures of a mad scientist and Peter Lorre, standing next to the red-haired ogre-ish figure of Drax.

And we meet the beautiful (and bosomy) Gala Brand, all tight lips and professionalism (p.81). The reader wonders how long that will last. Then we stand in the rocket silo looking at the immense fifty-yard-tall sleek silver Moonraker rocket, the rocket which will ensure ‘peace in our time’ by providing Britain with a perfect defence system.

In the early hours Bond breaks into the filing cabinet in the dead Major Tallon’s rooms and discovers security files on all 50 of the complex’s staff. a) They are all German b) they all have perfect records, far too clean and impeccable. He also finds an Admiralty map of the sea around Dover, with lines pressed into it converging on a point not very far offshore, and Tallon’s binoculars on the window ledge. Did Tallon climb up on the roof to get a sight of something unexplained offshore? What?

Next morning Drax suggests Bond and Gala go along the shoreline to check the exhaust vents for security. (The Moonraker rocket has been assembled in an underground silo built next to the white cliffs a little north of Dover. The idea is that, when it takes off, the flame from the rockets will thrust down into the silo, and be vented sideways through exhaust holes built into the side of the cliffs.) Bond and Gala take what is in effect a holiday stroll along the pebbles and sand at the foot of the cliffs, with the tide out, on a lovely sunny May day. So much so that Bond persuades her to strip off to her underwear (p.116) and they go skinny-dipping in the sea (God, it must have been freeeezing cold!).

He cheekily surges up out of the water to put his arms round her and kiss her, much to her mixed feelings, before scooting off to scan the defences from seaward, thinking seriously about security, and then finding a lobster in a shallow pool, which he shows her. Eventually they end up, salty and happy, lying against the foot of the cliffs. Which is when there is a detonation and a huge slab of the top of the cliffs come plummeting down on top of them. When Bond regains consciousness he is lying on top of Gala – who he had moved quickly to cover and protect with his own body – badly cut and bruised but still alive, and just about able to move his right arm, everything else pinned under fallen rock. With this he eventually makes a breathing space and then an escape hole and, after some time, scoops and burrows and tunnels their way free. They were saved by being so close to the cliff bottom. The really big blocks of chalk which would have squashed them flat fell further out; they were just pinned by smaller rubble.

Dazed, cut and bleeding and bruised, they both throw up, then bathe in the sea, struggle back into the clothes they’d left further down the beach, back up paths to the cliff-top and motor to a nearby pub where they freshen up and eat. Later that night, when they arrive back at the complex, flash their security passes, park the Bentley, then enter the main house in the complex, they find Drax, Krebs and Walter merrily laughing and drinking over dinner. There is a cartoon moment of astonishment as they walk in, all three baddies pausing with forks half way to their mouths. Then Drax is on his feet and full of concern. Amazingly, there is still doubt in Bond’s mind about whether they are trying to kill him, but he goes to bed (after a long bath and self-treatment with antiseptics for the cuts) realising that Drax’s table was only set for three. They weren’t expecting them. Drax tried to kill them. But why? He is the nation’s saviour, a patriotic hero. He is clearly utterly devoted to the Moonraker project. And Bond is on his side. So what possible threat can he be?

Part 3. Thursday-Friday

The threat becomes shockingly clear the next day when Drax drives up to London with Gala and Krebs; he has to make a final presentation to Government Ministers before the launch on Friday. All this time Gala has been instructed to take a daily record of the firing figures, ranges and aims, to pass on to Drax. She has become aware that soon after she does this, Krebs goes into a private meeting with Drax and discusses a completely different set of figures. On the car journey up to London, Gala in the passenger seat casually plumps her overcoat down next to Drax, and waits for the right moment to pick his pocket of the notebook which he is never without. She then makes a girly plea to stop at the nearest pub so she can have a pee. In the ladies’ room she reads Drax’s notebook and the horrible truth dawns.

All the trajectories and figures have been altered by 90 degrees, making the target zone for the Moonraker’s first flight from Dover, not the wide open wastes of the North Sea, but…. London! In a flash she realises the entire Moonraker is a dastardly enemy plan to bomb London and with a nose not full of measuring instruments but… an atomic bomb! In a horrible vision she sees London reduced to an atomic waste and herself just one of many million blackened charred potato crisps which used to be human beings (p.137).

Back in the car she tries to slip the notebook back into Drax’s pocket but is caught by Krebs, who has been watching from the back seat. He shows Drax what she has been doing. Well, well, well. They knock her unconscious and drive on to London. Here they park at Drax’s flat in Ebury Street, just west of Buckingham Palace. When Gala regains consciousness it is in a room full of radio transmitters and generators. She realises with horror that this is the homing signal the Moonraker will be aimed at. An atomic bomb going off here, in the heart of London, the casualties will be in the millions! Drax is out meeting British officials which gives Krebs the opportunity to interrogate her, then unbutton her blouse and torture her in undescribed but typically sadistic Fleming style.

Meanwhile, Bond has also motored back to London to report to M, and then await Gala for dinner in Regents Street. When she doesn’t appear, he rings Vallance who says she has also failed to appear for her meeting with him. Worried, Bond motors over to Blades, to find Drax’s Mercedes parked outside. Soon Drax gets into it and Bond tails him back to the house in Ebury Street, parks, walks round the corner in time to see the two men carrying an unconscious-looking body into the Mercedes. So he jumps back into the Bentley and there begins a car chase from Ebury Street, London, to Dover, down empty night-time A roads. Fleming lets rip with his fondness for fast cars and the sheer pleasure of driving very fast. Both cars seem to hit 90 miles an hour; weren’t there speed limits in those days?

Outside Maidstone, a fast sports car – an Alfa-Romeo supercharged straight-eight – comes up outside Bond with his lights off as a kind of joke. Bond watches the prankster drive by him and pull the same trick on Drax. Only Krebs has realised that they are being followed and told Drax, and when a fast car with bright lights appears just by them, Drax rams it off the road where it goes flying and spinning and Bond watches the driver – no seatbelt or other protection – hurtled spread-eagled to his death (p.149). Now Bond (rather late in the day, you might think) is confirmed in his enmity. He is dealing with a killer.

Bond is still in hot pursuit as Drax comes up behind one of Bowaters’ huge eight-wheeled AEC Diesel carriers carrying 14 tons of rolled newsprint. In a daring stunt Drax pulls up alongside it while his creature, Krebs, jumps onto the back and uses a knife to cut through the restraining ropes. Enormous rolls of paper as huge and hard as boulders roll off the back and fill the A road just as Bond turns the corner. Crash. Drax drives back to recover Bond’s body, thrown clear, bloodied but unconscious. (His Bentley comes in for nearly as much punishment as Bond, having been written off in Casino Royale and now again, here.)

They chuck Bond in the back with the girl and drive on to the complex, where Krebs takes them at gunpoint into Drax’s office. Here they are both tied securely to chairs with copper wire. (Bond was tied to a chair and tortured in Casino Royale, then tied to a chair and tortured – had his little finger deliberately broken – in Live and Let Die.) Now Krebs lights a blowtorch and comes to sit very close to Gala, as Drax begins his interrogation. Wisely, Bond tells him everything and a disappointed Krebs puts the blowtorch back on the table.

In chapter 22 Drax does what all cartoon baddies want to do, which is explain his complete life story and motivation to Bond. Yes, he is a German, a fanatical Nazi. He and his team had planted a bomb at the Allied hospital in captured British Army uniforms when he was strafed by an aircraft from his own side, picked up and taken to the hospital for treatment which promptly blew up. In the rubble he agreed his identity was this ‘Hugo Drax’ and allowed himself to be healed and processed by the Allies just as the war ended. Returning to England he murdered a Jew and used his money to start trading in rare commodities abroad. After making a fortune he returned to England and deluded the poor, stupid, snobbish British into believing he was a world-beating patriot. Then came the idea of building a rocket to destroy London; he was helped by Allies who were employing German scientists in West Germany, and building the missile was fairly easy. But – he reveals – the nuclear warhead was supplied by the Russians who delivered it by submarine to the complex’s channel jetty. This is what Tallon saw, which is why he had to be eliminated.

And now he is poised on the edge of triumph and huge revenge for the Reich and his fallen Fatherland. Bond goads him into a fury and Drax beats him almost unconscious before leaving, announcing that this office and they will be incinerated tomorrow (Friday) when the Moonraker is launched. Bond provoked him because he wanted him to forget about his cigarette lighter. In a precarious feat, Bond inches his chair over to the table, pumps the blowtorch handle with his teeth, then picks up the lighter with his teeth, rasps the flint and ignites the blowtorch. Not without burning his nose and forehead. Again using his teeth he directs it at the copper wire restraining Gala’s hands, unavoidably burning her, too (p.166). But once she is free, she releases them both and they have a shower in the bathroom adjoining Drax’s office.

What now? Bond can see no other way than that he should somehow ignite the fuel in the rocket and blow it up. And himself. But Gala has a better plan. She has been taking down the gyro readings and map bearings for a year. Why not switch the gyro bearings on the Moonraker back to make it actually fly towards its intended destination in the middle of the North Sea?

Agreed. But first they must hide from Drax’s goons. They make a fake rope and dangle it down one of the escape chutes, but then climb up into one of the 50 or so air vents. (The exact layout of the missile silo and adjoining office is quite hard to visualise). Hours later Drax, Walter and Krebs appear to make the final corrections to the missile and suddenly notice Bond and Gala’s absence.

Much shouting and ordering of search parties, then Drax tells his men to use the steam pump to scour each of the vents. Gala and Bond brace themselves, covering as much of their skin as possible, using shirts and clothing, and they hear it getting closer and closer until a burst of scalding steam floods them for a few agonising seconds, then moves on to the next vent, leaving their bodies tingling in agony and blisters beginning to form all over their skin (p.174).

Soon the men have gone because the time for the historic launch is coming and Drax must go to meet government officials. A huge crowd of adoring public has turned out and the BBC are broadcasting live. Bond and Gala slip back down the concrete exhaust vent (further cutting themselves on exposed steel rods). Now comes the heroic part. Bond climbs up the gantry to the nose cone of the rocket and redirects its gyros and technical gismos so it will not target London but fly into the North Sea. He re-attaches all the wires, reseals the nose cone -shinnies down – patience, patience – then joins Gala in Drax’s stainless steel, sealed office. Here they lock all the doors and themselves in the shower and turn the water on and block their ears with soap against the blast, but the narrative very excitingly gives us the countdown from Ten, while Bond and Gala try to control their fear and panic. Then there is the loudest explosion ever, a devastating roar, the shower water turns burning hot, the world shakes and they pass out.

Moments later they regain consciousness on the floor – they are still alive! – and then scrabble for the radio. It is via the radio – in best rattling yarn style – that they hear the BBC announcer describe the lift-off of the Moonraker and its rapid disappearance into the clear blue sky. To everyone’s surprise a submarine has surfaced by the jetty and is taking the German workers on board, presumably to take them to the target sight (we know it is the Russian submarine come to take away the Germans) and Drax – after a violent and vengeful speech which confuses the BBC man, also takes the lift to the jetty and boards the submarine.

Cut to another BBC announcer near the test site who describes a) the approach of the submarine, whose presence has got the Royal Navy puzzled, it seems to be steaming directly into the target area (we know this is because Drax thinks this is the safest place to be); and b) then describes the instantaneous arrival of the Moonraker missile and a colossal explosion at the test site, causing the beginning of a mushroom cloud and an enormous tidal wave which rushes towards him, ‘Oh my God!’ and – … the transmission is cut off (p.181).

Epilogue

Chapter 25 cuts to Bond, heavily bandaged, using a cane and in great pain, back in M’s office where this whole affair began so innocently just 5 days earlier. The Russian sub carrying the Germans and Drax was vaporised. But so were several Royal Navy ships, and the BBC announcer’s vessel, and the coastal defences of Holland were breached. M explains there will be the mother of all cover-ups, and we and Bond listen as he works through the improbable details. Then M takes a phone call in his office and Bond listens while he says Yes sir, No sir, Thank you very much sir etc. It is, of course, the Prime Minister phoning in person to thank him and convey his thanks to Bond.

M then tells Bond he and Gala are to get out of the country for at least a month, so they’re not linked to the calamity and help the Press put two and two together. Down on the eighth floor, in his office, is the present of a new Beretta pistol and the keys to a brand new 1953 Bentley Mark VI. Bond tells the test driver to have it delivered to the Dover docks where he’ll collect it. His next appointment is to meet Gala in St James’s Park. He is already imagining in detail the romantic trip he’ll take with her from Calais down to the Loire and then heading south, exploring beautiful little French villages during the day and each others’ bodies at night.

However, she turns up at the rendezvous (opposite the island in St James’s Park) with her fiancé. They’re getting married tomorrow. Bond forces a smile, congratulates her, shakes her hand. Then walks away with no smile in his cold grey-blue eyes.


Thoughts

The first two novels had pulp elements but there was lots in them which felt authentic, had grit and traction – the epic game of baccarat, swimming off the coast of France, Vesper’s tragic dilemma; the New York skyscape, the clubs of Harlem, the scenery of Jamaica, the underwater odyssey out to Surprise Isle.

From start to finish Moonraker feels more preposterous than its predecessors. The whole one-man-builds-a-ballistic-missile-for-a-grateful-nation storyline doesn’t persuade. The entire scientific staff made up of Germans with silly moustaches is, well, silly. The ogre Drax, with his henchman Warner and the repellent creature Krebs are – as Fleming himself acknowledges – caricatures. The schoolboy mentality comes out in an overt comment Bond makes to Gala as they discuss his plan to ignite the rocket in the silo, thus saving London but himself being blown to smithereens.

‘The boy stood on the burning deck. I’ve wanted to copy him since I was five.’ Bond (p.169)

The combination of absurdly over-the-top stakes (London being obliterated; the Prime Minister giving personal permission and then personal thanks to our hero), along with shiny rockets and secret bases, has more in common with the cartoon tone of the movies, which are on a uniformly dumbed-down, adolescent level, than the sometimes more penetrating texts. It feels like the gateway to stupid.

Almost the only part of the novel which had, I thought, any real feeling, were the last few pages in which Bond sketched out a realistic motoring tour of rural France, and then had his fantasies crushed by the announcement of Gala’s marriage. These had a genuine note of bitterness.


Bond’s biography

Bond’s office is on the 8th floor of the Secret Service building overlooking Regents Park. He has a beautiful secretary, ‘Lil’ (Loelia Ponsonby) a County and Kensington gel. (We learn that her biological clock is ticking and she needs to decide whether to take a Service husband, whether to quit altogether to marry someone in a sensible job, or – as seems to be happening – to stay on, becoming a spinster, ‘married to the job’).

We get a physical overview of Bond in chapter 4:

And what would a casual observer think of him, ‘Commander James Bond, GMG, RNVSR’, also ‘something at the Ministry of Defence’, the rather saturnine young man in his middle thirties sitting opposite the Admiral? Something a bit cold and dangerous in that face. Looks pretty fit. May have been attached to Templer in Malaya. Or Nairobi. Mau Mau work. Tough-looking customer. (p.28)

Later on Fleming takes us inside the mind of Gala Brand as she muses about the arrogant young Secret Service man who’s just arrived at the base. She notes the comma of black hair falling over the right eye, and compares him to the popular entertainer Hoagy Carmichael (p.100), but with a cruel mouth and cold eyes.

We learn that only three men in the Service have earned the double 00 prefix to their Service numbers (‘the only three men in the Service whose duties included assassination’):

  • 008 (‘Bill’), just escaped from the Eastern bloc
  • o11, missing in Singapore

For the first time we hear about the elderly Scottish housekeeper, May, who looks after Bond’s small but comfortable flat off King’s Road, Chelsea (p.10). He tells us that agents are taken off field work at age 45, and that he has 8 years left to go, making Bond 37 years old.

When M invites him to his club, Blades, we learn that his full title is Admiral Sir M- M-, and that his first name is Miles (p.35).

Bond’s food

For lunch in the MI6 canteen Bond has a grilled sole, a large mixed salad with his own dressing laced with mustard, some Brie cheese and toast and half a carafe of white Bordeaux (p.22).

The dinner at Blades is a set piece: Bond has smoked salmon, lamb cutlets with peas and new potatoes, asparagus with Béarnaise sauce, and a slice of pineapple for dessert; M has caviar, devilled kidney and bacon, peas and new potatoes, with strawberries in kirsch for dessert (p.37). The waiter suggests a marrow bone as a special treat. Bond shows M his habit of scattering a little black pepper on the ice-cold vodka to sink to the bottom any impure residues (p.39)

Breakfast at a diner in Dover – scrambled eggs, bacon and plenty of coffee (p.96).

Recovering from being half-buried by chalk under the Dover cliffs, Bond and Gala go to the Granville hotel for a bath and freshen up, before drinking brandies-and-sodas followed by delicious fried soles and Welsh rarebit and coffee (p.124). The recommended dinner for after you’ve been buried in a landfall.


Credit

Moonraker by Ian Fleming was published in 1955 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1989 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1955

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)

‘So it is convenient that you should die together. That will happen, in an appropriate fashion,’ the Big Man looked at his watch, ‘in two and a half hours’ time. At six o’clock,’ he added, ‘give or take a few minutes.’
‘Let’s give those minutes,’ said Bond. ‘I enjoy my life.’ (p.225)

Luxury

He certainly does. The first hundred pages or so introduce the powerful themes of America, and of black culture in America, but what struck me all over again is the importance of sensual living and luxury in the Bond persona. In fact the opening sentence is ‘There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent’ (p.1). This is the kind of classy sensualism a whole generation of spy writers reacted against, but it is terrifically enjoyable to be in Bond’s skin. He arrives at New York airport, is whisked through Customs to ‘the best hotel in New York, the St Regis’. Here he enjoys the spaciousness of the rooms, has his characteristic sense-heightening cold shower, meets Felix Leiter his friend from CIA, and, along with their FBI contact, Dexter, eat a hearty American dinner – soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch.

(This was still the age of rationing in Britain, which got worse after the end of the Second World War and didn’t actually end until July 1954, ie after this book was published. Therefore, Bond’s luxury meals, whether in France (in Casino Royale) or New York hamburgers, as here, were objects of the wildest fantasy to all his British readers.)

Given half a chance he is always naked. In the final, holiday, section of Casino Royale there is nothing he likes better than walking down to the beach, stripping off and piling into the cold bracing water. In his luxury hotels, after a trademark cold shower, he pads around the rooms collecting stuff, opening letters, assembling his thoughts. Continually we are in the mind of a tremendously alert, alive, clever but above all sensual personality.

Sensual enjoyment

He enjoys his bracing morning cold shower – he enjoys breakfast the next morning – his usual half a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice, three scrambled eggs and strong coffee. He enjoys tapping out the first cigarette of the day and staring out the window of his luxury hotel. On page 39 there’s a fine description of Bond watching sun set over New York and the lights on the skyscrapers coming on till it looks like a ‘golden honeycomb’. The cold wind blowing outside lends his snug room ‘still more warmth and security and luxury‘. For a moment he remembers the bitter weather of London in February, the hissing gas fire at MI6 headquarters, and the crappy food advertised on boards outside his local pub. Then climbs into the fine clean sheets of his hotel and stretches ‘luxuriously‘.

Bond has escaped the narrow confines, horrible weather, the poverty and privations of Britain, and through these texts we escape with him. And sometimes, for all the supposed maturity and sophistication of his persona, Bond lets slip the enthusiasm of an overgrown schoolboy.

He loved trains and he looked forward with excitement to the rest of the journey. (p.100)

There’s a similar Brit-Yank comparison as Bond reads the romantic names on freight cars in sidings – Lacawanna, Chesapeake, Seaboard Fruit Express – and compares them with the names of home: British Railways 😦

Bond liked fast cars and he liked driving them. (p.134)

For all the bombs and shooting and torture and intimidation, these are books about a man who enjoys life.

The set-up

Valuable historic gold coins are being fenced on the New York market and FBI investigations have traced them back to a suspected hoard of treasure, which is now being distributed by an extensive network embedded in America’s black community. At the centre sits Mr Big, an extraordinarily clever, powerful, ruthless black man, who runs most of the organised crime in the black community. (Big is an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia.) But this isn’t all: Big was recruited by the Soviets while on US army service in the south of France during the war. At his briefing (pp.13-18), M tells Bond that Mr Big is not just a Soviet agent, but an agent of SMERSH (a conjunction of the Russian words SMERt SHpionam, meaning Death to Spies) the very organisation we saw Bond vowing to dedicate his life to attacking and destroying at the end of Casino Royale.

Black culture

Since the book was written by an upper-class Englishman over 60 years ago, it would be amazing if it escaped accusations of racism, which probably occur on every page, starting with the way he writes ‘negro’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African American’, or whatever is the current appropriate term. If we accept that Fleming’s text is a million miles away from our modern enlightened attitudes, the interesting thing is actually how far out of his way he goes to sympathise with black people and praise them. He has M say ‘the negro races’ are beginning to produce ‘geniuses in all the professions’ (p.18) and when Felix Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem nightspots, Leiter goes out of his way to praise black creativity, and is himself a passionate devotee of jazz music.

Bond at no point despises blacks for being blacks: the opposite; he is impressed, even awed, at the cleverness and efficiency of the network of fear and control Mr Big has created (p.22) and, once he is in their clutches, at its efficiency and thoroughness. And he respects the knowledge and expertise of Quarrel, the fisherman who briefs him before his final perilous underwater swim.

The ten pages or so where Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem read very much like actual research notes. It would be interesting to know how close it is to any actual visit Fleming made. Certainly the prose conveys a tremendous sense of the energy and excitement of the bars and clubs of Harlem, and the tension for a white man entering a community which is mostly polite and respectful, but not very pleased to see him.

Voodoo

But not only is Mr Big a) head of America’s black organised crime b) which he is running to aid the Russians and c) an agent of the special execution branch, SMERSH – he is also d) the head of the organised voodoo cult in the States. On pages 25 to 29 Fleming quotes liberally from the intense and vivid descriptions of voodoo rituals given in The Travellers Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, based on the latter’s trip round the Caribbean at the end of the 1940s. Mr Big cultivates the rumour of being ‘the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness’ (p.21 and p.110).

In the 1973 movie the Voodoo is much more prominent and Bond actually witnesses Voodoo ceremonies. In the book it is mostly in the background, explained as a tool Mr Big uses to keep his underlings in thrall. There is a powerful sequence as Bond gets to know Solitaire (chapter 11) where we see into her thoughts and she despairs of ever getting this calm, confident, sensible, civilised white man to understand what it was like to be brought up in poverty, in illiterate, superstition-riddled Haiti, to be inducted into the all-pervasive cults so that no matter where you go or how adult you think you are, you can never escape your childhood terrors.

The plot

1. New York

Bond arrives in New York with a mission to track down Mr Big and shut down the gold treasure-funded Soviet operation he’s running. He liaises with Felix Leiter from the CIA and FBI man Hampton. Leiter takes him up to Harlem for a tour of bars and clubs and to soak up black culture. The pair are tracked by Mr Big’s sophisticated network of street-level informants as soon as they enter his territory, and at the final nightclub of the tour are kidnapped (by the admittedly gimmicky trick of having the table they’re sitting in disappear down through a trapdoor during a blackout in the stage act – a very sensual voodoo strip-tease).

Bond is escorted into the company of Mr Big who is an outsize, misshapen giant of a man, and a cold calculating intellect. He introduces Solitaire, ‘one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen’ (p.69) although, in keeping with Bond’s S&M vibe, she has ‘high cheekbones and a wide, sensual mouth which held a hint of cruelty’ (p.70).

Mr Big keeps Solitaire as a sort of slave because she has special telepathic powers and can read the Tarot cards. One day he will marry her but not yet, as sex ruins her powers – hence the name ‘Solitaire’ (her actual name is Simone Latrelle p.102). Improbably, Bond and Solitaire are instantly attracted and she a) leans forward to show him her cleavage (earning the rebuke of a flick of his whip over her shoulders from Mr Big) b) shows him the Tarot cards of the Prince and Princess kissing. A pretty blatant come-on.

As in Casino Royale, Bond is tied to a chair and tortured, in this case having the little finger of his left hand deliberately broken by a henchman named Tee-Hee. Mr Big says he is going to let him live for the simple reason that killing him would just cause tiresome botherment from the authorities. So Big tells his henchman to rough Bond up and dump him in Central Park. He is dismissed. In the corridor to the garage Bond jumps TeeHee, punching him to the ground, then kicking him in the groin before pushing him down a flight of stairs to his death. Taking TeeHee’s gun, he bursts into the garage, shooting dead the driver of the waiting car and another henchman, then makes a tyre-screeching escape.

Back at the hotel, Bond discovers that Leiter also escaped relatively unharmed by forming a bond with the black henchman instructed to seriously hurt him over a shared passion for jazz, resulting in a few punches and being dumped outside his hotel. But Mr Big is kicking up a fuss with the authorities, claiming his men have been attacked and murdered by a white intruder. Leiter will try and calm down the FBI and the cops, but it’s time to leave town.

2. On the train

So Bond catches the long distance train south to St Petersburg in Florida, as this is where FBI information says Mr Big’s cruiser – the Secatur – regularly docks on its trips over from the Caribbean. 1. Improbably, Bond gets a phone call at his hotel from Solitaire, in fear of her life and wanting to run away with him. Bond weighs the odds, decides to trust her, and gives him details of the train. She meets him there and they travel down masquerading as a married couple. 2. But Mr Big’s men have spotted them and are on their trail. The kindly black steward, Baldwin, warns Bond, who slips off the train with Solitaire at a midnight stop at a junction in the middle of nowhere. Not before time, because a few hours later the train is hijacked on a bit of deserted track, and some of Mr Big’s men a) riddle Bond’s sleeping compartment with bullets before b) throwing a hand grenade in it (killing the unfortunate Baldwin thus creating a) a sense of pathos b) emphasising that Mr B kills his own race, too.)

3. St Petersburg, Florida

When Bond and Solitaire arrive on the following train, four hours later, and rendezvous with Leiter at the hotel out on Treasure Island’, a resort outside Petersburg, Leiter is amazed and relieved to see Bond; surprised he has Solitaire with him; and fills him in on the assassination attempt and all the hysteria it’s caused with the authorities.

Leiter and Bond decide to go out to the dock where the Secatur generally puts in, owned by the Ourobouros Worm and Bait company, and encounter its harsh owner, ‘the Robber’, who shoots a pelican dead with a rifle he casually swings past Bond and Leiter’s bellies, before warning them off trespassing.

When they get back to the hotel it is to find that Solitaire has been kidnapped by Mr Big’s men. Leiter jumps into action, getting the authorities to put out an all-points bulletin etc. They go to a diner, eat rotten food and go to bed feeling bitter at having left her defenceless. When Bond wakes he has overslept and finds a hand written message from Leiter saying he’s gotten up early to go back to the Worm Company. Barely has he read it before there’s a call from a local hospital: a Mr Leiter is asking for him. Bond hurries off in a taxi only to find no record of the doctor or Leiter at the hospital. Feeling sick, he hurries back to the hotel to discover from the landlady that an ambulance has been and delivered Mr Leiter on a stretcher to his room.

Here Bond discovers Leiter’s body swathed in bloody bandages. He calls police and doctors and the CIA and then London. The doctor says Leiter has been very badly mauled, probably by a big fish, probably a shark. He’s lost one arm altogether and his left leg below the knee, and might not survive. The ambulance departs. The investigating police depart. A call comes from Leiter’s superior in the CIA saying maybe it’s time for Bond to move on to the Caribbean arm of the investigation. Bond agrees and books tickets, but…

That night Bond breaks into the Oourobouros Worm Company warehouse and confirms his suspicions. Concealed in the sand at the bottom of the aquaria holding the various exotic fishes, are the gold coins. This is how they’re smuggled into the country. No sooner has he made the discovery than the floodlights go on and shots are fired at him. There follows a spectacular shootout among the precious water tanks, which involves most of them being smashed or knocked over. Eventually, having run out of bullets, Bond feigns an injury, limps up to The Robber and, distracting him for a fraction of a second by dropping the gold coin he’d found, manages to punch and kick him to the floor. He then pushes him back towards the concealed trap door, the same one The Robber lured Felix over, which swings open and drops The Robber with a blood-curdling scream into the open water tank below, where a big bad shark is waiting to eat him alive.

Bond brushes himself down, and departs, drives down to the highway towards the airport, checks into a cheap motel, showers, cleans his teeth and gargles with mouthwash and passes out in the bed. Next day he catches a flight to Jamaica (a fascinating couple of pages of travelogue from Fleming, describing flying over the jungle of central Florida, stopping over at Nassau, the modest lights of Havana; his attitude to America is mixed, the scenes in New York had opened with much admiration for its beauty and energy, but by the end he is glad to see the back of Eldollarado, ‘a land where litter and junk are so much a part of the landscape’ (p.154), where most of the food served in most of the towns and diners, is junk).

It is also striking that, when the plane hits turbulence, Bond is afraid. There is an intense account (pp.170-172) of his thoughts as he works through what would happen to him and his fellow passengers if the engines failed or the fuselage was split open. Not all the pretty handwashes or luxury duty free would save them from plummeting 15,000 feet to create messy holes in the ground or simply disappear beneath the waves. He has to think of his destiny in the hands of imponderable stars. All of life is a risk. He’s made it this far. You must enjoy every possible minute.

You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. (p.171)

As the flight lands he unclenches his hands and wipes the sweat from his brow…

4. Jamaica

He’s met by Strangways, head of the Service in the Caribbean. (35, ex Lieutenant-Commander in the RNVR, black patch over one eye – p.173). Strangways fills him in on the background: rumour always had it that Captain Morgan the British pirate used the Isle of Surprise, on the south coast of Jamaica as his base. When Morgan was finally hauled off to London for trial in the 1680s he must have left a vast treasure trove but no-one ever found it. Then a few months ago a local fisherman went missing out in Shark Bay (where Surprise lies) and shortly afterwards a smart yacht appeared full of American blacks. The supposition is that the fisherman found the treasure somewhere, went to Mr Big in New York with the news, was dumped in the Hudson River in a concrete overcoat, then Mr Big used his money and international lawyer contacts to buy the island. Shortly afterwards the yacht Secatur arrived, his men created a jetty and cut steps up the side of the rock to the plateau at the top, and began carrying in glass vitrines for aquariums. They then began buying rare, exotic or poisonous fish from local fishermen and settled down into a routine of loading sand-bottomed, fish-filled vitrines into the Secatur on its regular visits, which it ferried back to the Ourbouros warehouse in Florida (the one we saw Bond shooting up a few chapters previously). Smuggling – as Bond now knows – the gold coins in the sand at the bottom of the cases.

Bond is introduced to Quarrel a Cayman Islander fisherman who is going to be his instructor and trainer. They bond instantly, forming a relationship of complete trust as between a Scottish laird and his retainer (p.181). Surprise is within sight of the mainland, but Quarrel and Bond head off to a settlement way up the coast, in Manatee Bay, where Bond can train and learn about underwater wildlife and hazards in the Caribbean. Every morning he swims a mile up the beach and runs back, then settles down to Quarrel’s instruction about local fish, especially the fearsome sharks and barracudas. Strangways tells Bond he’s sent several locals across to investigate the island but their bodies always washed up back on the mainland half-eaten by barracuda. Scary.

Bond is lean and fit when Strangways calls by to tell them Mr Big’s yacht is due in any day. They move operations back to a rented colonial house – Beau Regard – in the settlement overlooking the Isle. Bond takes delivery of a frogman’s wetsuit crafted by ‘Q’ division (p.195), a heavy limpet mine with a selection of timed fuses, a commando dagger and a harpoon gun.

Suddenly he loathed and feared the sea and everything in it. (p.199)

Bond had shown genuine fear when his plane was caught in turbulence. Now, just as vividly, he imagines the million lives of the slimy things which he will be passing among as he sets out to swim to the island. Not just the obvious sharks and barracudas, but a million tiny prickly poisonous creatures who don’t want him there, who are waiting to tear, poison, rip, sting and eat him. Strangways, Quarrel and Bond watch through binoculars as the Secatur docks and various black gang members go about their tasks before Mr Big himself appears and goes ashore.

That evening he takes a Benzedrine tablet, climbs into his wetsuit, checks the air tanks, takes harpoon and dagger and disappears into the water. The fairly short underwater journey is vividly described. The main event is his feet are suddenly gripped by an octopus hidden under a rock which starts immediately dragging him beneath it. The limpet mine attached to his chest makes it impossible to get a clear aim, till he is being pulled right into the darkness and another tentacle is gripping the harpoon gun when he fires. Immediately there is a squirt of black ink into the seawater and he is released. He presses on through the reef surrounding the island, and then into clear underwater sand where suddenly he is punched in the shoulder and horrified to see red blood in the water around him. A barracuda has bitten a chunk out of his shoulder, taking wetsuit, flesh and muscle. Panicking at the thought of the other predator fish which will be here in seconds, and of being savaged to death, Bond hurtles towards a large rock and realises there is some kind of entrance behind it.

Padding along the sloping sand he emerges into an underwater chamber to find himself surrounded by men with knives and guns, and Mr Big sitting at an accounting table in a huge cave, awaiting him. They saw the black ink from the octopus and then his trail of bubbles.

Big takes him upstairs and into a narrow corridor lined with shackles. God knows how many poor victims of Captain Morgan’s rule wasted and died here. And here he is reunited with Solitaire, dark-eyed, tearful, she’s lost weight but appears otherwise unharmed. Mr Big has his men tie Solitaire and Bond to the shackles and then explains passionlessly and scientifically how he is going to kill them in a cunning and appropriate manner: they will be tied together and then attached by rope to the paravane the yacht tows behind it: the yacht will sail through the gap in the reef by which it enters and exits the lagoon, then turn to one side so the rope pulling them is dragged across the top of the razor-sharp coral. The yacht will pick up speed and Bond and Solitaire will be hauled for yards and yards over the reef until their bodies are cut to ribbons. Once out in the open sea, their bodies will become bait for sharks and barracuda, eaten alive, then dead, till there is no evidence left, and he will sail calmly back to Florida.

He locks the door and leaves Bond to work through the terrifying scenarios and reassure Solitaire as best he can. Fleming leaves no stone unturned in his lingering on the gruesome details. Bond can only hope the limpet mine will go off after they’ve set sail – so it kills the bad guys – but before their bodies hit the coral. Otherwise, he determines to use his strength to drown Solitaire then try to drown himself. These are the kind of desperate, deadly thoughts going through his mind, when – hours later – Big’s men come to fetch him.

Bond and Solitaire are tied together and by a strong rope to the paravane, as promised and slowly lazily the yacht sets off for the gap in the reef, with the couple towed behind them. Fleming ratchets up the tension as high as possible, writing so intensely as to overcome your knowledge that Bond (obviously) survives, and instead placing you in a vividly described, intensely physical moment.

Fortunately, the limpet mine does blow up at exactly the right moment, Bond and Solitaire are lifted by the blast into the air before hitting the water again and beginning to sink. It takes all Bond’s strength to get onto his back (to keep the unconscious Solitaire out of the water) and paddle with the little movement in his hands and feet, backwards towards the reef where his feet scrabble about – lacerating feet, calves and thighs – before he finds a relatively secure position to slowly, painfully lie back, so they are both out of the water.

From this vantage point he surveys the wreck of the Secatur, which has in fact mostly disappeared, except for hunks of flesh and a carpet of dead fish floating on the surface. And then he notices Mr Big, who has somehow survived the blast, desperately swimming towards the safety of the reef, and nearly making it when – crunch! – he is bitten by a barracuda, then another, thrashing and screaming bloodily in the water until he is  finished off by a shark.

And now Quarrel is racing towards him in a canoe followed by other fishermen. In the brief last pages, Bond bathes the girl then puts her to bed, then is himself bathed in antiseptic by Strangways, before being sent off to hospital. Bandages and recovery. A telegram of congratulations from M, pragmatically ordering Strangways and Bond to claim the treasure for HM Government (and his cash-strapped department). And giving him two weeks leave in the idyllic house by the sea, for him and Solitaire to recover and then consummate their passion. Which, presumably, they do.


Bond’s biography

Bond still lives in a flat in Chelsea (as we know Fleming did from 1934 to 1945). He still works for the British Secret Service (based in ‘the big, grey building near Regents Park’ p.87), whose boss is ‘M’, whose personal secretary is ‘the desirable Miss Moneypenny’ (p.13). For the first time we hear Bond use the cover name the Service uses for agents abroad, Universal Exports (p.87).

Bond is still a Double O, meaning ‘you have had to kill a man during the course of some assignment’ (p.68). In a revealing phrase, Fleming lets Bond’s S&M mentality transfer over to his boss when he calls M from New York.

‘Yes?’ said the cold voice that Bond loved and obeyed. (p.87)

He still cherishes his 1933 4.5 litre grey Bentley convertible with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger (p.11). He has the comma of black hair hanging above his right eyebrow, the thin vertical scar down his right cheek, and grey-blue eyes with their coldness and hint of anger (p.25). Q branch has grafted skin from his forearm over the Russian letter carved into his right hand by the SMERSH operative who unintentionally saved his life towards the end of Casino Royale. (No mention is made of the intense damage to his body, especially his private parts, during that novel; all is magically healed.) Felix Leiter is still tall and thin with a ‘mop of straw-coloured hair’ (p.41), though less so after he is half-eaten by a shark. Will he reappear mauled and crippled, in later adventures?

The title is given in dialogue with the FBI agent Dexter in chapter 4:

‘And don’t go stirring up any trouble for us. This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr Big is “live and let live”‘.
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s “live and let die”.’


Credit

Live and Let Die was published in 1954 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1954

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

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

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

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

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

1. Silence in Prague

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

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

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

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

2. Rue Delesseux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Iron Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Renaissance Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Poste Restante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Overlapping characters

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

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

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

Sensuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

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

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