The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Square Egg and Other Sketches by Saki (1924)

Eight amusing short pieces by Hector Hugh Munro (pen name Saki) who was shot dead by a sniper while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. These last few pieces were collected and published posthumously in 1924.

The Square Egg: a badger’s eye view of the mud war in the trenches

The first few pages are a humorous description of life in the First World War trenches, whose main points can be summarised as:

  • snuffling around in the mud is like being a badger
  • though engaged in a titanic struggle against one of the greatest armies in the world, the average soldier thinks about the enemy relatively little
  • the subject which does consume the soldier’s every waking minute is the mud and how to avoid it; now the narrator knows what it’s like to be one of those animals you see at the zoo wallowing in muddy enclosures
  • he describes the nature of the many estaminets just behind the front lines, a cross between coffee houses and bars, and the way they always manage to have small children running round and getting in the way

At which point the text morphs into an anecdote about a chap he met in such an estaminet, a shifty French bloke who talked to him about eggs, specifically the way he’s noticed one of the many hens kept by his aunt lays eggs with the hint of angles. Consider how, through a programme of selective breeding, one could eventually create hens which produce only square eggs! Well, this guy claims to have done just that!! (Saki’s narrator makes wry, sardonic references under his breath).

The shifty Frenchie then explains how he had set up a thriving square-egg business but then came the war, he has been sent to the Front and his aunt is now selling his square eggs without any special consideration about keeping the breeding line secure and keeping the money she owes him. Therefore he has decided to take her to court to stop her, but the law is so expensive, monsieur. So, could Saki please lend him a small sum towards his legal fees, 80 francs should do it! The whole thing is, in other words, a scam.

This was a mildly amusing story which confirmed my sense of how many Saki’ stories are set on farms or involve farmyard animals.

Birds of the Western Front

These texts written at the Front highlight, almost exaggerate, Saki’s characteristic upper class nonchalance; everything is cast into an ironical manner which, for example, amuses itself by making elaborate and ironic comparisons. Thus, since the war began:

Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night.

Crows and rooks have become habituated to shellfire and machine guns. Drolly, Saki describes observing a pair of crows fighting a pair of sparrowhawks while above them the same number of English and German airplanes were fighting. Nature red in tooth and claw. He observes that magpies have been bereft of the poplar trees they used to love to nest in, and so on with further observations about buzzards, kestrels, larks and a hen-chaffinch which he noticed unaccountably hanging around a wrecked woodland, even during the most intense bombardment.

He ends with the sardonic observation that English gamekeepers as a breed believe their precious gamebirds and pheasants and whatnot must be protected from the slightest disturbance. They should come to the Western Front and learn how hardy birds are in face of even the most ruinous disruption.

The Gala Programme: an unrecorded episode in Roman history

The scene shifts abruptly from the present war, jumping back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome.

It is the birthday of the Roman Emperor Placidus Superbus who has arrived at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the games, but just as the first entertainment is about to begin – a thrilling chariot race – hundreds of shouting women are lowered by ropes into the track and completely prevent the race taking place.

‘Who are these furies?’ the emperor demands. ‘The dreaded Suffragetae,’ his miserable Master of Ceremonies explains. The emperor has a brainwave. ‘Skip the chariot race,’ he tells the MC, ‘let’s go straight to part two, the combat of wild animals.’ And so a horde of beasts are let loose among the protesting women, to really very entertaining effect :).

Takes its place with the other 3 or 4 Saki stories entirely dedicated to commenting on / ridiculing the suffragettes.

The Infernal Parliament

Bavton Bidderdale (a typically Sakian preposterous name) dies, but the medical authorities contest the exact cause of death etc and so, although his soul has gone down to hell, the officials there keep it in a kind of limbo until the paperwork is sorted out.

While he’s waiting, the officials offer to show him round and suggest taking a tour of the infernal Parliament, a relatively new innovation. As he arrives the infernal Parliament is having a debate to lodge a formal complaint with the human race for describing events or activities as ‘devilish’ or ‘fiendish’ when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but entirely human.

Other details obviously mock contemporary parliamentary debates (and, in the final passage, mock a living playwright, possibly George Bernard Shaw) but these references are lost without some kind of annotation. You can see the comic intention but it would have more bite if included in my dream idea of an ‘Annotated Saki’.

The Achievement of the Cat

A wonderfully suave and ironical tribute to the qualities of the domestic cat:

It is, indeed, no small triumph to have combined the untrammelled liberty of primeval savagery with the luxury which only a highly developed civilization can command; to be lapped in the soft stuffs that commerce has gathered from the far ends of the world; to bask in the warmth that labour and industry have dragged from the bowels of the earth; to banquet on the dainties that wealth has bespoken for its table, and withal to be a free son of nature, a mighty hunter, a spiller of life-blood. This is the victory of the cat.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Not a story at all, but a straightforward description of how this city in west Russia, now referred to as Pskov, represents a kinder, quainter, more colourful and older Russia than the unpleasantly nouveau riche style of Petersburg. Sounds like it’s based on a real visit and the real views of Hector Munro who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, wrote a history of it.

Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

The last appearance of Clovis Sangrail, the witty, ironic, ‘languidly malicious’ young man who embodies key aspects of Saki’s droll, langorous, ironic humour.

This one is a short squib, a return to the format of his early Reginald ‘stories’, and amounts simply to a 2-page speech by Clovis, declaiming, fairly predictably, against the so-called Romance of business. In his view, business is deadly dull, which is why all the best adventures have been written about the young men who ran away from it:

The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn’t be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself.

The Comments of Moung Ka

Moung Ka is a wise man who lives by the banks of the River Irrawaddy (whichm, upon looking it up, I discover is the longest river in modern Burma).

The opening description of the landscape and birds where Moung Ka lives is a final reminder that, although people routinely describe Saki as a deliciously malicious critic of Edwardian upper class society, he was also obsessed with animals, and wrote a lot of vivid descriptions of landscapes and the wild animals living in them. A collection of excerpts titled ‘Saki’s nature and animal writing’ would be surprisingly extensive.

In the tall reed growth by the riverside grazing buffaloes showed in patches of dark slaty blue, like plums fallen amid long grass, and in the tamarind trees that shaded Moung Ka’s house the crows, restless, raucous-throated, and much-too-many, kept up their incessant afternoon din, saying over and over again all the things that crows have said since there were crows to say them.

Anyway, the story, such as it is, is another political satire. Old Moung Ka reads the paper which is brought up the river and then interprets its contents for his village followers. He comments on two related pieces of news. The recently announced division of Bengal by the (British-run) government of India has been cancelled. In 1905 Lord Curzon divided Bengal along sectarian lines, into a Hindu and Muslim province. The policy was a disaster, leading to an outburst of terrorism and sectarian violence and so was reversed in 1911. This is the news Moung Ka reads out to his followers.

And contrasts with the fact that the newspaper tells him that the United Kingdom itself is about to be partitioned. It isn’t explained what he means so it took me a moment to realise he must have been referring to the granting to Ireland of home rule, which led to vehement protests from Protestant Ulster and a serious crisis which dominated Edwardian politics from 1911 up to the outbreak of the Great War.

The very last joke in this, Saki’s very last published story, is a satirical and political one. Earlier Moung Ka had explained to his followers that Britain is what is called a Democracy. One of the followers doesn’t understand how come, if Britain is a Democracy, it can enact such a big and impactful decision  (the partitioning of Ireland) without consulting its people.

Moung Ka clarifies – and this, one imagines, is the point of the whole ‘story’ – that he didn’t say Britain was a democracy; he said Britain is what is called a democracy. The implication being that its alleged democracy is in fact a sham. The implication being that Saki is a Unionist and considers the prolonged political haggling about granting Ireland independence to be squalid and destructive.

There’s plenty of meat in this short text to chew over, it confirmed my sense of Saki as an unrepentant Unionist and conservative and anti-suffragette reactionary, and review in my mind the reactionary views which crop up periodically through the short stories and underpin the entire novel When William Came.

Then again, the world is more full than ever before of division, dispute and angry argument. For my part, I like to take leave of this long journey through Saki’s complete works by remembering the grazing water buffalo like plums fallen amid long grass, and the eternal crows in the tamarind trees.


Saki’s works

When William Came by Saki (1913)

Invasion literature

According to Wikipedia:

Invasion literature (also The Invasion Novel) is a literary genre that was popular in the period between 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914. The invasion novel was first recognised as a literary genre in the UK, and is generally said to have started with George Tomkyns Chesney’s novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, published in 1871, an account of a German invasion of England prompted by the recent Franco-Prussian War. Invasion literature played to national anxieties about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers and was very popular, not only in the UK. By 1914 the invasion literature genre included more than 400 novels and stories.

Examples of classic invasion literature which I’ve reviewed include:

H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds is, arguably, the high point of one aspect of the genre, playing to anxieties of terrestrial invasion but adding an entirely new layer of alien invasion onto it, an idea which has, obviously, spawned tens of thousands of copycat alien invasion fictions.

When William Came

When William Came is a relatively late example of invasion literature, being published as it was only a year before the outbreak of real war with Germany, in August 1914. The novel starts when the Germans, under Kaiser Wilhelm, have already invaded and conquered Britain, sometime in 1915 (see below for how the date is calculated).

The entire brief conflict is over by the time the main male protagonist , Murrey Yeovil, arrives back in his defeated homeland to observe the atmosphere of a London and England superficially unchanged but now under the control of the Kaiser, his German army and police.

Plot summary

At the age of 24, handsome youngish Murrey Yeovil inherited a fortune and has spent it journeying and adventuring to the back of beyond. Somewhere in Siberia he came down with marsh fever and was nursed by local tribesmen for weeks before he finally staggered to the nearest settlement, and eventually made it to a Finnish town where he rested & recovered, read the papers, and heard the news that Britain had been conquered in a lightning naval strike by Germany.

Chapter 1 The singing bird and the barometer

The novel opens with pretty Cicely Yeovil in her house in Berkshire Street, in fashionable West London, sitting in a swing chair and observing herself in a mirror. She is, we are to take it, an emblem of precisely the sort of self-centred narcissism rampant among England’s upper classes, which allowed Britain to be defeated.

Cicely is in the company of Ronnie Storr, a handsome man about town. They discuss the fact that she is expecting her husband, Murrey Yeovil, to arrive home today. He was in Russia when Germany invaded: ‘Somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Siberia, shooting and bird collecting, miles away from a railway or telegraph line’.

They speculate how Murrey will take to the German domination of things, and review the attitudes which their friends have taken to England having been invaded: from the tragical tone of many of London’s High Society who have either taken themselves off to their country retreats or left the country altogether, either for exile in Continental capitals such as Paris, or have fled to Britain’s colonies abroad which, a trifle illogically, have remained British. The most notable of these is the king, who has set up a new court in Delhi, jewel of the British Empire. Everyone (in the high society Saki is concerned with) refers to the German invasion by the euphemism ‘the fait accompli‘.

A servant announces the arrival of Tony Luton.

Tony Luton was a young man who had sprung from the people, and had taken care that there should be no recoil. He was scarcely twenty years of age, but a tightly packed chronicle of vicissitudes lay behind his sprightly insouciant appearance.

Tony has made a career as a singer of popular songs. He is one of a number of anticipations of the slim, clever form of Noel Coward (who was to become famous during the 1920s) which crop up throughout Saki’s fiction.

The threesome discuss the impending first night of a performer they all support, the daughter of a landed family, Gorla Mustelford, who has taken up ‘expressive dance’. When Tony announces that the Kaiser himself is going to attend the first night, Ronnie tells Cicely she simply must hold a first-night party for Gorla and she willingly agrees. They all agree she must invite Lady Shalem.

Grace, Lady Shalem, was a woman who had blossomed into sudden importance by constituting herself a sort of foster-mother to the fait accompli. At a moment when London was denuded of most of its aforetime social leaders she had seen her opportunity, and made the most of it… Lady Shalem, without being a beauty or a wit, or a grand lady in the traditional sense of the word, was in a fair way to becoming a power in the land.

Chapter 2 The homecoming

Murrey Yeovil arrives at Victoria station and is irked when the taxi driver speaks to him in German. He arrives home and Cicely is full of sympathy as she listens to more details of how he got fever in the back of beyond, was tended by tribesmen, eventually made it across Russia to a health resort in Finland where he stayed for weeks to recover his strength.

Murrey is still only three-quarters well again, his face is grey and sallow. He is upset by the post-conquest changes: ‘the alterations on stamps and coinage, the intrusive Teuton element, the alien uniforms cropping up everywhere, the new orientation of social life.’

Chapter 3 The Metskie Tsar

Yeovil goes to see his doctor, Dr Holham, and this is an opportunity for Saki to describe in detail what happened to him in Russia, from the marsh fever he came down with to the slow and shocking realisation of Britain’s defeat.

It’s also an opportunity for the doctor to fill him (and the reader) in on a more precise description of the sequence of events, namely: the war was triggered by a frontier incident in East Africa, then next thing we knew the Germans attacked on all fronts. Their ships combined with aircraft defeated ours. They had numerical superiority so could defeat us in several places simultaneously. The Germans hadn’t initially planned annexation, but, once they realised it was a possibility, Warum nicht? and so Britain has become a sort of Alsace-Lorraine. (The king has fled to Delhi and set up an alternative court. Not the first time, as the narrator dryly points out, there has been a king ‘across the water’.)

Dr Holham says the Liberal Party had been in power for ‘nearly a decade’ and so were widely blamed for the defeat. (Since the Liberals won a landslide victory in the 1906 election this places the fictional invasion in about 1915, two years into the book’s future.) Yeovil expresses his bluff, manly patriotism:

‘But, surely—a nation such as ours, a virile, highly-civilised nation with an age-long tradition of mastery behind it, cannot be held under for ever by a few thousand bayonets and machine guns. We must surely rise up one day and drive them out.’

But Dr Holham crushes him by describing how quickly the British abandoned thoughts of resistance: for everyday life must go on, people must eat, work, earn money, business must trade. The golf links are filling up again, sport is resuming.

The doctor then goes on to make a special case of London, explaining that London is to an unusual extent a cosmopolitan city, and its art world is intrinsically cosmopolitan and less patriotic than the rest of the country:

You must remember that many things in modern life, especially in the big cities, are not national but international. In the world of music and art and the drama, for instance, the foreign names are legion, they confront you at every turn, and some of our British devotees of such arts are more acclimatised to the ways of Munich or Moscow than they are familiar with the life, say, of Stirling or York. For years they have lived and thought and spoken in an atmosphere and jargon of denationalised culture—even those of them who have never left our shores. They would take pains to be intimately familiar with the domestic affairs and views of life of some Galician gipsy dramatist, and gravely quote and discuss his opinions on debts and mistresses and cookery, while they would shudder at ‘D’ye ken John Peel?’ as a piece of uncouth barbarity. You cannot expect a world of that sort to be permanently concerned or downcast because the Crown of Charlemagne takes its place now on the top of the Royal box in the theatres, or at the head of programmes at State concerts.

So, in this view, London’s art world and High Society is, by its nature, less patriotic than the rest of the country, or even unpatriotic. It’s quite a vicious claim for Saki to be making and all the more surprising because he made his entire career out of detailed depictions of precisely this class.

Saki’s antisemitism

So far, so cutting. But then, to my surprise, the two characters step over a line and transition from being anti-London to becoming overtly antisemitic.

‘And then there are the Jews.’
‘There are many in the land, or at least in London,’ said Yeovil.
‘There are even more of them now than there used to be,’ said Holham. ‘I am to a great extent a disliker of Jews myself, but I will be fair to them, and admit that those of them who were in any genuine sense British have remained British and have stuck by us loyally in our misfortune; all honour to them. But of the others, the men who by temperament and everything else were far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British, it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world, and became a cosmopolitan city. They had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before.’

This speech combines a number of antisemitic tropes:

Antisemitic trope 1: Jews everywhere

That the Jews were somehow everywhere, ‘many in the land’. Certainly the 1880s and 1890s had seen large-scale immigration of Jews to Britain fleeing from pogroms in Russia. Between 1880 and 1900 an estimated 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in London, mostly settling in the East End where competition for housing and work caused much ill feeling and gave rise to the nativist, anti-immigration party, the British Brothers League. It was lobbying by the League and a shrewd alliance with sympathetic MPs which led to the 1905 Aliens Act, which was the first attempt in British law to limit immigration.

But the rhetoric around Jewish immigration (astonishingly, hair-raisingly racist as it appears to modern sensibilities) exaggerated the impact that 150,000 people made on a filthy, over-crowded London whose population was already five million. If there was competition for sweatshop jobs and appalling housing conditions, these were present before the Jews arrived. These were English problems created by decades of English exploitation and neglect.

Antisemitic trope 2: Jews cosmopolitan

The second antisemitic trope is that the Jews are essentially ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘rootless’ and therefore intrinsically less patriotic or incapable of patriotism in the way that other ‘races’ are (the French ‘race’, the British ‘race’, the German ‘race’ etc); that they actively prefer London under enemy occupation as it is more like the continental capitals they are used to.

This is just a slur, a libel, which the doctor himself goes on to qualify as being untrue for most if not all British Jews. But that doesn’t stop him expressing it and Yeovil nodding sagely as if they’ve both made a penetratingly wise analysis of Edwardian society’s many ills.

Edwardian anxieties

Because that’s what’s at the root of the problem: Edwardian society’s profound anxiety about itself.

The Boer War and poverty The ruling classes and their cronies in the Press had been shocked by Britain’s poor showing in the Boer War, which should have been over in a few months but dragged on for two and a half painful years (1899 to 1902). They were shocked to discover the terrible state of the working class men rounded up from the slums of London, Birmingham and Glasgow and packed off to the distant Veldt where they were easily outclassed by the fit guerrilla fighters of the Boers. (The most quoted statistic is that, of the young men recruited for the war from the slums of Britain’s cities, as many as 40% were unfit for military service and suffered from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses.)

The decadence At the other end of the social scale there was an ongoing moral panic about the moral decline of the sons of the super-rich upper classes, what the antisemitic polemicist Arnold White called ‘bad smart society’ in his 1901 diatribe Empire and Efficiency. The worry that the British Empire would go the way of the Roman Empire, which everyone agreed had collapsed due to its moral decadence and self-indulgence. To every decent chap’s horror there were even artistic and literary movements which prided themselves on their ‘decadence.’

The Oscar Wilde trial (1895) gave the enemies of decadence a focal point and symbol with which to whip all these decadent tendencies, and try to enforce more martial virtues, the old Roman Republican virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice. But, as Saki’s own stories amply demonstrate, set as they are among fantastically decadent, orchidaceous young men and catty Society women, this campaign had a very limited impact. While the Germans were aggressively building up their fleet of Dreadnoughts, Imperialists of the Kipling brand warned of the dangers of attack, and called for a physical and moral revolution across the land, but Kipling’s tone is one of a prophet in the wilderness who becomes all the more anxious the more he is ignored.

Military rivalry In addition to the threat of moral collapse from within and armed threat from Europe, Edwardian England was faced with other seemingly intractable problems. Civil war was threatening in Ireland and the entire political class was taking sides over the conflict. An evermore militant trade union movement supported a Labour Party which was threatening to gain more MPs and overturn the duopoly of power between Conservatives and Liberals which had lasted over a century. Women of all classes were united in the surprisingly disruptive and divisive Suffragette Movement. And various colonies threatened rebellion and revolt, not least the jewel in the Crown, India, with its growing Indian National Congress  party, founded 1885.

Jews as scapegoats

The great advantage of having a scapegoat is that everything can be blamed on them. All the anxieties and resentments and furies of all the different classes and parties in Edwardian society could be focused on just one convenient figure – the ‘Jew’. Society becoming too luxurious and decadent? Blame it on the corrupt spirit of the Oriental Jew. Society too greedy and money-minded? Blame it on the Jewish banker. Society aflame with Socialist agitation? Blame it on the Jewish Socialists. The East End packed with filthy hovels? Blame it on Jewish immigration or rackrenting Jewish landords. Good, solid British culture being borne down in a welter of cosmopolitan art and radical theatre? Blame it on Jewish intellectuals and Jewish impresarios (later on, Saki goes to lengths to point out that the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties which features in the story is managed by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt, continuing his theme that cosmopolitan Jews run everything).

There was no social, political or cultural problem too large or too small which couldn’t be laid at the door of the scapegoat figure of ‘the Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the good, solid, traditional British blah blah blah values.

Against this backdrop Saki creates a fine, upstanding, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Aryan hero who is associated with clean, healthy living, either in the wild, among wolves on the distant steppes of Russia, or fox hunting across unspoilt Wessex. Murrey Yeovil’s structural role in the narrative is to act as a clean, upstanding contrast to cosmopolitan London and its moral corruption and idle, upper-class chatter, as described by his sidekick Dr Holham:

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience.’

It was psychologically easy for people like Saki or his characters to channel their ill-focused dislike of modern life, with all its rapid changes and stresses and anxieties, first onto The City, the embodiment of alienating Modernity, and then onto the figure which generations of antisemitic prejudice had created as somehow the embodiment of everything which was corrupting about modern urban life, ‘the Jew’.

Antisemitism as problem avoidance

Like all racist stereotypes, antisemitism allows the believer to avoid having to confront the intractably complex and difficult issues about his own society and his own relationship to it. Just possibly it was not foreigners who were responsible for the corruption and superficiality of London life, for mass poverty and slums, for high crime rates and the growth of radical socialist politics: maybe it was the British ruling class themselves who were responsible for creating this anxious and divided society. But you can see how an entire class would prefer not to look its own failure in the face, and much prefer to blame them, the others, the outsiders, the rich Jews, the poor Jews, the bankers, the Socialists, they’re all in it together, it’s a great Jewish conspiracy!

Antisemitism as a bonding force for antisemites

And like all socially shared stereotypes, antisemitism also allows its exponents to bond together, to cement friendships, to assert shared values, exactly as Yeovil and the doctor do in this chapter. There’s a particularly unpleasant and telling way in which the antisemites use periphrases to refer to Jews: referring to ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’, or people whose ancestors hale from ‘the Jordan valley’, or use cod Biblical phrases like the alleged fact that they are ‘many in the land’. The antisemites think they’re being so clever, so civilisé, using their fancy codes and crossword-clue style allusions to Jews. But they’re not; they’re being thick and racist. Antisemitism is a stupid person’s idea of ‘clever’.

Summary of discussion of antisemitism

To sum up: antisemitism is not actually the central theme of this book, it is ‘merely’ an unpleasantly recurring leitmotif, a subset of the bigger issue the text sets out to investigate, namely Britain’s moral, political, cultural and military collapse. But it has an impact on the modern reader out of proportion to its relatively minor presence in the text, because of the calamitous history which was to come later and which we, now, know so much about.

Considered as a fiction, it is fascinating to see how Saki shows that antisemitism has arisen in Murrey Yeovil’s character, how it derives from this simplistic city-country dichotomy, and how it has become horribly intertwined with notions of patriotism versus ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, corrupt town versus noble country and so on. Saki the novelist gives Murrey’s antisemitism a great psychological plausibility.

And it is always possible that Saki is pulling the basic fictional trick on us of fooling us into sympathising with, or taking seriously, a character who he himself despises. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like Murrey Yeovil really is the ‘hero’, albeit flawed, of this slender novel, and that his bitter resentment of Jews is included in the novel because Saki himself, at least in part, shared it.

And so I’m afraid the broad vein of antisemitism which runs through this novel has permanently tainted my enjoyment of all Saki’s other works. Anyway. Back to the plot summary:

Chapter 4 ‘Es ist verboten’

The morning after Yeovil’s long chat with the doctor, he comes downstairs to a scumptious breakfast prepared by servants (when did servants stop being a thing in England? The 1940s?). Cicely explains to Yeovil how many of their upper-class friends have either retreated to their country estates, or have moved to one of the colonies. (It is, on the face of it, an anomaly that the colonies continue to remain British, though this is directly addressed later on by a German character who says the Germans simply have no interest in winning or running them. All they want is the freedom to develop their own colonies, which they have now won.)

Yeovil goes for a walk through Hyde Park where he notices Teutonic changes: for example, the tea rooms have changed to a continental bar serving lager and coffee, a troop of shiny German cavaliers rides by, and a policeman gives him an on-the-spot fine for walking on the grass (as they do in Switzerland), warning him that walking on the grass is, under the new regime, ‘verboten’.

Chapter 5 L’art d’etre cousine

Cicely holds a lunch party to which come her sort-of boyfriend Ronnie Storr, as well as the insufferable chatterbox Joan Mardle. After idle chat, Joan moves on to discuss the law about the House of Lords. All titles will lapse unless the holder takes an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser.

Then to the issue of Gorla Mustelford and her first night of ‘suggestive dancing’ at the Caravansery Theatre. Interestingly, ‘suggestive’ doesn’t seem to have the meaning it has for us now i.e. sexual suggestiveness, for Gorla is doing a dance ‘suggestive of the life of a fern’, so it seems to mean something more like imitative or mimicking.

Joan Mardle has realised the Yeovils are poles apart on the great question of the day, which is whether to acquiesce in the German conquest or resist. Cicely insists she will throw a party for Gorla’s first night though, out of consideration for Murrey’s views, not at their home but at a restaurant.

Chapter 6 Herr von Kwarl

Portrait of an adviser to the government, Herr Von Kwarl, sat at his favourite table in the Brandenburg Café at the bottom of Regentstrasse (i.e. in Berlin), and discussing the Occupation with Herr Rebinok, the plump little Pomeranian banker. They play chess (with comically aggressive comments) then discuss the future of the Occupation. Von Kwarl dismisses the notion of Delhi assembling a coalition against them. No, the pressure point is the young generation of Brits: will they acquiesce or revolt? In particular, over German plans to introduce national service which Britain has never had before.

Chapter 7 The Lure

Cicely and Murrey have diametrically opposed reactions to the Occupation. She is given very persuasive arguments that the old values and ways must be maintained despite everything. She is a ‘gradualist’. She believes British values may come to infiltrate the German Empire, a kind of reverse takeover which may end up dictating the whole drift of German policy. Alternatively, there may come a moment in the future which is propitious to an armed uprising. But not now: for the moment, normal British life and values must be preserved. In particular she holds out to Murrey ‘the lure’ of the chapter’s title, which is that he should resume his place with the East Wessex Hunt, maintaining the best traditions of an independent England.

Among the small squires and yeoman farmers, doctors, country tradesmen, auctioneers and so forth who would gather at the covert-side and at the hunt breakfasts, there might be a local nucleus of revolt against the enslavement of the land, a discouraged and leaderless band waiting for some one to mould their resistance into effective shape and keep their loyalty to the old dynasty and the old national cause steadily burning.

Chapter 8 The First Night

The first night of Gorla Mustelford’s dance show, included on a mixed bill at the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties. ‘Everyone’ is there but the chapter is mainly a vehicle for Yeovil’s jaded reflections on London’s sell-out society with its ‘babble of tongues and shrill mechanical repartee.’ There is an unpleasantly antisemitic passage about the prevalence of Jews from many countries in the audience.

At first sight and first hearing the bulk of the audience seemed to comprise representatives of the chief European races in well-distributed proportions, but if one gave it closer consideration it could be seen that the distribution was geographically rather than ethnographically diversified. Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground. The lack of a fire burning on a national altar seemed to have drawn them by universal impulse to the congenial flare of the footlights, whether as artists, producers, impresarios, critics, agents, go-betweens, or merely as highly intelligent and fearsomely well-informed spectators. They were prominent in the chief seats, they were represented, more sparsely but still in fair numbers, in the cheaper places, and everywhere they were voluble, emphatic, sanguine or sceptical, prodigal of word and gesture, with eyes that seemed to miss nothing and acknowledge nothing, and a general restless dread of not being seen and noticed.

This soon segues into Yeovil’s equally bitter meditations on other classes who have too-readily accepted occupation, but nonetheless, its rank antisemitism leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. Yeovil contrasts the English high society sellouts with the Bulgarian people who put up a fight against their oppressor and so are now (1913) independent (of the Ottoman Empire).

Thoughts about those who have sold out or accepted ‘the fait accompli’ focus on the figure of ambitious social climber Lady Shalem, who has kept London society going and whose husband will soon be rewarded with a Barony by a grateful Kaiser.

There is also a loud tiresome American. Saki clearly hates Americans cf. the honeymoon chapter in The Unbearable Bassington. They’re one more symptom of the ghastly modern world which he hates, along with motor cars and continental cafés and cosmopolitan Jews.

The ‘redoubtable von Kwarl’ makes a ‘visit of ceremony’ to Cicely’s box. Yes, she is very well in with the new ruling class, her husband observes, bitterly.

Chapter 9 An evening ‘to be remembered’

The narrator fiercely criticises Gorla Mustelford’s graceless, restless dancing and lambasts the superficiality of the audience. By contrast with the fine balance of his short stories, in this novel Saki’s contempt and almost hatred of the English upper classes is revealed in all its bile and anger.

The Kaiser arrives, slipping into his box with no fuss except that the entire theatre stops to stare. Yeovil is disgusted at their sycophancy.

And then the performance is over and everyone goes to the party Cicely has arranged at a restaurant where the narrator lets rip his contempt for the pretentious loudmouth prattle of ghastly London High Society, awful people shouting their banal opinions at the tops of their voices.

The narrative pans over various groups until arriving at the popular singer Tony Luton, who had himself performed at the evening’s gala, sweet-talking the elderly and very rich Gräfin von Tolb, who has taken up residence in Berkeley Square.

Chapter 10 Some reflections and a Te Deum

It is the day after the Mustelford first night and Cicely’s wildly successful party. The chapter shares with us Cicely’s strategic analysis of how the success of the party has positioned her within London’s new, post-conquest world. The friendship of Lady Shalem was important, but the patronage of the Gräfin is vital. She tries to be polite to Murrey over breakfast but he gets bitter when she asks if he has read about her supper-party. He makes another antisemitic remark.

‘There is a notice of it in two of the morning papers, with a list of those present,’ said Yeovil; ‘The conquering race seems to have been very well represented.’
‘Several races were represented,’ said Cicely; ‘a function of that sort, celebrating a dramatic first-night, was bound to be cosmopolitan. In fact, blending of races and nationalities is the tendency of the age we live in.’
‘The blending of races seems to have been consummated already in one of the individuals at your party,’ said Yeovil drily; ‘the name Mentieth-Mendlesohnn struck me as a particularly happy obliteration of racial landmarks.’
Cicely laughed.

It shows you how, for people of Yeovil and Saki’s ilk, the nations of the world were composed of clearly defined races, the Teuton, the Anglo-Saxon, the Latin, the Muslim, the Arab and so on. More controversially, they have a primitive feeling that miscegenation, or the marrying across racial lines, is unfortunate, and hence the joke about Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn, whose name shows she is a ‘cross’ between Scottish and Jewish ‘blood’. For some reason the very rootlessness of Jews, the way they have no fixed nation but crop up as citizens of many other nations, offends Yeovil and brings out these unpleasant cracks.

On a separate subject, considered as a fiction, it is a simple but effective idea to position a husband and wife with polar opposite views about the novel’s central issue, i.e. how to respond to the catastrophe of being conquered and humiliated; to have the differing attitudes to being conquered dramatised within a marriage, with the wife, in particular, worried that her plans to become force in London High Society, might be derailed by her begrudging husband.

Chapter 11 The tea shop

Yeovil goes for a walk down Piccadilly and into Burlington Arcade, whose entire west side of shops has been removed to make way for German-style café tables at which a very cosmopolitan mix of peoples and languages are drinking their coffees and syrups and listening to a band playing the latest transatlantic jingles.

From around the tightly-packed tables arose a babble of tongues, made up chiefly of German, a South American rendering of Spanish, and a North American rendering of English, with here and there the sharp shaken-out staccato of Japanese. A sleepy-looking boy, in a nondescript uniform, was wandering to and fro among the customers, offering for sale the Matin, New York Herald, Berliner Tageblatt, and a host of crudely coloured illustrated papers, embodying the hard-worked wit of a world-legion of comic artists. Yeovil hurried through the Arcade; it was not here, in this atmosphere of staring alien eyes and jangling tongues, that he wanted to read the news of the Imperial Aufklärung.

So, as I stated earlier, Yeovil’s animus against Jews is only a part of his broader revulsion against the entire mixed-up, multiracial, polyglot, cosmopolitan world which he hates.

Yeovil hurries through the Arcade, on through Hanover Square and then drops into a tea shop off Oxford Street. Here he gets talking to a pastor, a man with ‘a keen, clever, hard-lined face, the face of a man who, in an earlier stage of European history, might have been a warlike prior’, who explains that the working classes blame the defeat on the politicians and ruling classes, despite the fact it was they themselves who voted for peace-making politicians (i.e. the pacifist Liberal Party).

All morning Yeovil and everyone else has been expecting a Royal Proclamation announcing that the British will be compelled to perform the same military service as the Germans. It is a brutal humiliation, then, when the newsboys shout a special edition of the papers is hitting the streets, and the pastor grabs a copy and shares it with Yeovil to discover that: the Imperial Aufklärung is precisely the opposite. From now on no Britons will do military service, training, wear a uniform or be able to bear arms.

The martial trappings, the swaggering joy of life, the comradeship of camp and barracks, the hard discipline of drill yard and fatigue duty, the long sentry watches, the trench digging, forced marches, wounds, cold, hunger, makeshift hospitals, and the blood-wet laurels—these were not for them. Such things they might only guess at, or see on a cinema film, darkly; they belonged to the civilian nation.

In other words the Germans consider the British have proved themselves unworthy of bearing arms. It is the extreme of national humiliation.

Chapter 12 The travelling companions

Yeovil takes a train down through an idealised countryside to ‘Torywood’. It was plain from The Unbearable Bassington and becomes plainer still here, that Saki loathed the city and fetishised the idealised English countryside.

Tall grasses and meadow-weeds stood in deep shocks, field after field, between the leafy boundaries of hedge or coppice, thrusting themselves higher and higher till they touched the low sweeping branches of the trees that here and there overshadowed them. Broad streams, bordered with a heavy fringe of reed and sedge, went winding away into a green distance where woodland and meadowland seemed indefinitely prolonged; narrow streamlets, lost to view in the growth that they fostered, disclosed their presence merely by the water-weed that showed in a riband of rank verdure threading the mellower green of the fields.

On the stream banks moorhens walked with jerky confident steps, in the easy boldness of those who had a couple of other elements at their disposal in an emergency; more timorous partridges raced away from the apparition of the train, looking all leg and neck, like little forest elves fleeing from human encounter. And in the distance, over the tree line, a heron or two flapped with slow measured wing-beats and an air of being bent on an immeasurably longer journey than the train that hurtled so frantically along the rails.

Now and then the meadowland changed itself suddenly into orchard, with close-growing trees already showing the measure of their coming harvest, and then strawyard and farm buildings would slide into view; heavy dairy cattle, roan and skewbald and dappled, stood near the gates, drowsily resentful of insect stings, and bunched-up companies of ducks halted in seeming irresolution between the charms of the horse-pond and the alluring neighbourhood of the farm kitchen. Away by the banks of some rushing mill-stream, in a setting of copse and cornfield, a village might be guessed at, just a hint of red roof, grey wreathed chimney and old church tower as seen from the windows of the passing train, and over it all brooded a happy, settled calm, like the dreaming murmur of a trout-stream and the far-away cawing of rooks.

It was a land where it seemed as if it must be always summer and generally afternoon, a land where bees hummed among the wild thyme and in the flower beds of cottage gardens, where the harvest-mice rustled amid the corn and nettles, and the mill-race flowed cool and silent through water-weeds and dark tunnelled sluices, and made soft droning music with the wooden mill-wheel. And the music carried with it the wording of old undying rhymes, and sang of the jolly, uncaring, uncared-for miller, of the farmer who went riding upon his grey mare, of the mouse who lived beneath the merry mill-pin, of the sweet music on yonder green hill and the dancers all in yellow—the songs and fancies of a lingering olden time, when men took life as children take a long summer day, and went to bed at last with a simple trust in something they could not have explained.

On the train journey, very schematically Yeovil meets two ‘types’. The first is a visiting Hungarian who tuts about Britain’s fate, saying Britain grew soft: ‘great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness.’ The British lost faith in their Christian religion but were not virile enough to restore Paganism.

A word on paganism

Paganism and its embodiment in the great Greek nature god Pan, are threads which occasionally surface in Saki’s stories, notably the one specifically about Pan, The Music on the Hill, from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911). But a very strong feel for the countryside is present in many of his stories and both of the novels and this sometimes rises to the level of almost visionary or religious intensity, which is where the spirit of Pan comes in.

This blog post by John Coulthart gives a useful background to Pan in the art and literary world of the 1890s. At least five different things were involved. 1. The rejection by legions of sensitive artists and writers of the urban world of commerce and industry in preference for the unspoilt pagan countryside. 2. The sense that Christianity had become completely hollowed out as the vehicle for any kind of religious raptures or ecstatic visions. 3. Whereas many of these artists were the product of a century or more of the Classical literature which was taught in all private schools, giving rise to the cult of evermore exquisite classicism. 4. It was strongly tinged with homosexuality. Pan is a beautiful, svelte but wickedly immoral young man; in other words a fantasy object for many gay writers and artists, of which Oscar Wilde was one and Saki clearly another. The two occurrences of the word ‘pagan’ in this novel associate it with young, manly virility. The first one is here, in this passage, where the Hungarian train traveller tells Yeovil that true paganism is associated with a level of virile manliness which the English have lost:

‘I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants. They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number.’

And the second is when Yeovil witnesses some young German soldiers marching by, exciting and glamorous in their uniforms and virile young manliness:

A sudden roll of drums and crash of brass music filled the air. A company of Bavarian infantry went by, in all the pomp and circumstance of martial array and the joyous swing of rapid rhythmic movement. The street echoed and throbbed in the Englishman’s ears with the exultant pulse of youth and mastery set to loud Pagan music. (Chapter 11)

OK, there’s nothing overtly gay about either passage, but we know it is there. In fact ‘pagan’ could, in the right context, virtually be a codeword for gay.

5. Lastly, alas, I think there is also an antisemitic element to Saki’s paganism, too. In the sense that Saki appears to find the organised Christianity, the Church of England, of his day, risible, as, admittedly, many other writers of the time did too, and states his preference for full-blooded and virile paganism. But it’s only a small step from this position to identifying the really repressive part of Christianity as the Old Testament with its forbidding God Jehovah and his long list of prohibitions and his repressive attitude towards the clean, young, healthy male body worshipped by the Greeks – and from there it’s only a small further step to blame the Old Testament on ‘the Jews’ and – bang! – you can, once again, blame ‘the Jews’ for everything bad and repressive about society, and the antisemite is back on his familiar stomping ground.

Back to the plot

Back on the train, the Hungarian asks Murrey to compare and contrast the pusillanimous Brits with his own people, the Hungarians, who ‘live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them.’ Interestingly, by ‘race’ he doesn’t mean the modern notion of skin colour, but is clearly referring to Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, what we would think of as ‘nationalities’. These terms have changed their meaning over the last century. Anyway, his point is you always have to have your guard up and Britain let hers lapse.

The Hungarian gets out at the next station and is replaced by a big, red-faced English angler. This is a classic type of the pub bore and Yeovil gets angry when the bore booms on about Britain’s intrinsic superiority, a nation such as ours is bound to kick out the sausage-eaters, and so on. Not, replies Yeovil, without great effort and self-sacrifice. By the end of their short conversation Yeovil is filled with Kiplingesque contempt for the jingoist who is full of words with no understanding of the hard work and sacrificed involved.

And with that parting shot he [the jingoist] left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country’s enemies with his tongue. ‘England has never had any lack of patriots of that type,’ thought Yeovil sadly; ‘so many patriots and so little patriotism.’

Chapter 13 Torywood

Murrey has been taking the train down to the hilariously named ‘Torywood’, whose train station is, of course, the epitome of bucolic England. Yeovil is picked up by a dogcart, which gives him opportunity to vent his grumpy spleen about the horrid new invention of the motor car, which, of course, began its ruinous ascent in the Edwardian decade (see Wind In The Willows).

Torywood is the country seat of Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten. She has devoted her life to the maintenance of the county and the country which is described in woolly, Kiplingesque rhetoric.

In her town house or down at Torywood, with her writing-pad on her knee and the telephone at her elbow, or in personal counsel with some trusted colleague or persuasive argument with a halting adherent or half-convinced opponent, she had laboured on behalf of the poor and the ill-equipped, had fought for her idea of the Right, and above all, for the safety and sanity of her Fatherland. Spadework when necessary and leadership when called for, came alike within the scope of her activities, and not least of her achievements, though perhaps she hardly realised it, was the force of her example, a lone, indomitable fighter calling to the half-caring and the half-discouraged, to the laggard and the slow-moving.

This is a laughable portrait of the Tory fantasy of the benevolent aristocrat, conveniently eliding the centuries of oppression of rural workers which had brought her family to this happy state. Lady Greymarten is old and frail now, but she enjoins Yeovil to fight on. The contrast between old and fading but still unbowed gentility and the preening exuberance of ‘cosmopolitan’ London couldn’t be more clearly expressed:

Yeovil said good-bye to her as she stood there, a wan, shrunken shadow, yet with a greater strength and reality in her flickering life than those parrot men and women that fluttered and chattered through London drawing-rooms and theatre foyers.

It is clearly designed to bring tears of patriotism to your eyes, although it may bring tears of mocking laughter to the modern reader’s eye. If things are defined by contrast with what they are not, then the clean and healthy countryside needs there to be a corrupt and dirty city, to set itself against.

His own country had never seemed in his eyes so comfort-yielding and to-be-desired as it did now when it had passed into alien keeping and become a prison land as much as a homeland. London with its thin mockery of a Season, and its chattering horde of empty-hearted self-seekers, held no attraction for him, but the spell of English country life was weaving itself round him, now that the charm of the desert was receding into a mist of memories. The waning of pleasant autumn days in an English woodland, the whir of game birds in the clean harvested fields, the grey moist mornings in the saddle, with the magical cry of hounds coming up from some misty hollow, and then the delicious abandon of physical weariness in bathroom and bedroom after a long run, and the heavenly snatched hour of luxurious sleep, before stirring back to life and hunger, the coming of the dinner hour and the jollity of a well-chosen house-party.

Fantasy of English upper class, ‘timeless’, country life conveniently emptied of the its actual inhabitants, the farm workers and small town merchants and lawyers and increasing number of commuters. Fantasy.

Chapter 14 A perfectly glorious afternoon

We are plunged back into the subtle corruptions of London life, with Yeovil’s wife, Cicely, ensconced in the fashionable Anchorage restaurant, along with fashionable young Ronnie Storr, the musician who she refers to as her ‘lover’ and ‘boyfriend’. She has, apparently, had many during her marriage to Murrey.

They discuss in a languid Noel Coward sort of way how Tony is becoming too famous as a musician to remain her lover much longer. ‘You’ve got a charming young body and you’ve no soul, and that’s such a fascinating combination.’ He is giving a piano recital that afternoon and they go through a typical Saki list of London High Society who will be attending which, of course, includes some well-placed Germans.

Storr performs magnificently to the loud applause of the gentry and nobles present. But when the Duchess of Dreyshire asks Yeovil (now back in London) what he thinks, he replies by quoting a fierce piece of verse about patriotism, Boadicea, an Ode by William Cowper. To Murrey’s surprise, young working class Tony Luton takes up the refrain before himself storming out.

The flow of polite chatter resumes and Saki describes at length the chitter-chatter of the privileged, including Canon Mousepace, Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn, the popular novelist Rhapsodie Pantril, the Gräfin von Tolb, Leutnant von Gabelroth, Joan Mardle, the Landgraf.

Later, it was reported in the newspapers that the popular singer Tony Luton had turned down an offer by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt to renew his contract and had signed on instead with the Canadian merchant marine. The point being that he has quit the shallow world of ‘art’, the theatre and endless London gossip for a real job in the ‘real’ world. Which Saki approves with editorial heavy-handedness:

Perhaps after all there had been some shred of glory amid the trumpet triumph of that July afternoon.

Chapter 15 The intelligent anticipator of wants

Both of Yeovil’s old clubs have disappeared, one off the face of the earth, the other off to Delhi. He tries its replacement, the Cartwheel, which turns out to be as busy as Piccadilly Circus and with a distinct presence of ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen, wearing tartan waistcoats of the clans of their adoption, flitted restlessly between the tape machines and telephone boxes’. Another one of the many throwaway antisemitic remarks which litter the book.

Yeovil is about to turn round and leave when he is buttonholed by Hubert Herlton who has become a ‘fixer’, a putter together of buyer and seller, a sort of early version of the World War Two spiv. Hubert predicts that German immigration will slowly increase and more cities and towns develop a majority German population. Herlton is sharp enough to remember Yeovil is a hunting man and used to hunt in East Wessex, so briskly announces that he has a fine horse lined up for him, and a ‘hunting box’ or country base, complete with paddock and garden.

Yeovil points out a chap named Pitherby crossing the vestibule. Herlton reveals the Pitherby is set fair to acquire a barony and so has been laying a goodly stock of game to be hunted, in accord with his new status, and is buying off Herlton some Hereford cows, a swannery, a heronry, and a carp pond!

Chapter 16 Sunrise

A strange chapter, standing completely alone from the rest of the text, in which a Frenchman in what we take to be remote India, comes across an English woman bringing up her children in a remote isolated farmstead, where they can swim in the lake and shoot among the reeds. Her husband is dead and she is in exile from occupied England.

The chapter title is explained because, as the sun rises on the Frenchman talking to this woman, her children unfurl the Union Jack on a flagpole on a hill and everyone stops to salute it. Presumably this interlude exists to show the patriotic sacrifice that some people are prepared to make for good old England, and to compare and contrast this with the London society which is carrying on as if nothing has happened, even sucking up to their German conquerors.

Chapter 17 The event of the season

In a Turkish bath in Cork Street W1 a vapid young man Cornelian Valpy regales his fellow bathers with details of the frightfully clever ball held at Shalem House last night, where guests went as a character from history and their partners had to be their prevailing characteristics, such as George Washington and Truth.

It is a long roll call of the hypocritical Quisling high society we have been meeting throughout the novel: the Duchess of Dreyshire as Aholibah, Billy Carnset for her shadow, Unspeakable Depravity; Leutnant von Gabelroth as George Washington, Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient Candour; the loud-voiced Bessimer woman as the Goddess Juno, with Ronnie Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy; the author Pitherby dressed as Frederick the Great to promote his sycophantic biography of the German ruler, accompanied by an uninspiring-looking woman, supposed to represent Military Genius; Cornelian Valpy dressed as the Emperor Nero and Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.

Valpy has time to explain that Cicely Yeovil has found herself a new boyfriend, much prettier than her old one, Ronnie Storre. What he doesn’t realise is that Ronnie is in the Turkish bath, overhears this comment, and stalks out. The point of the chapter is to demonstrate London’s cesspit of narcissistic partying and vapid gossip.

Chapter 18 The dead who do not understand

November in the country, country wives putting up shutters and the fox which has been hunted but not caught, retreats into the depths of a spinney as the hunters return to their kennels and stables. We are in the country so, of course, it is Yeovil we find riding home exhausted by a good day’s hunting.

So far, so stereotypes, but there is a smidgeon of interesting psychology in the way that, having been vaunted as the man who hates the fait accompli and loathes the facile acceptance of the new conquerors by his wife and her smart set, and was told by Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten to ‘fight on’… actually, he rather likes the life of a country squire, he likes the hunting:

The pleasures of the chase, well-provided for in every detail, and dovetailed in with the assured luxury of a well-ordered, well-staffed establishment, were exactly what he wanted and exactly what his life down here afforded him. He was experiencing, too, that passionate recurring devotion to an old loved scene that comes at times to men who have travelled far and willingly up and down the world. He was very much at home… Horse and hound-craft, harvest, game broods, the planting and felling of timber, the rearing and selling of stock, the letting of grasslands, the care of fisheries, the up-keep of markets and fairs, they were the things that immediately mattered.

In other words he is tempted to forget all about the ‘good fight’ and relapse into a life of rural contentment. He is tempted.

Except that it’s gotten late, night is drawing on and when Yeovil stops at a pub to enquire directions he discovers he’s a long way from home. The publican tells him there’s a young man with a motor car in the bar heading in his direction, why not stable his horse here for the night and get a lift? Yeovil says yes, then is mortified to discover the motorist is one of ‘them’, Leutnant von Gabelroth, who had, by a wild coincidence, been present at the musical afternoon at Berkshire Street.

The drive takes them past a village church where Yeovil’s ancestors are buried and he is so ashamed that he turns his head in the opposite direction. That is the meaning of the chapter’s title. In Yeovil’s mind, his dead, his ancestors, will not understand his betrayal of their country.

Thus, after being dropped at his spacious and comfortable country house, having had a lovely bath and a fine dinner in the company of the local doctor, at the end of a perfect day, Yeovil is alone with his thoughts and the guilty self-accusation that he is somehow betraying his country, his race and his ancestors.

Here, installed under his own roof-tree, with as good horseflesh in his stable as man could desire, with sport lying almost at his door, with his wife ready to come down and help him to entertain his neighbours, Murrey Yeovil had found the life that he wanted—and was accursed in his own eyes. He argued with himself, and palliated and explained, but he knew why he had turned his eyes away that evening from the little graveyard under the trees; one cannot explain things to the dead.

Chapter 19 The little foxes

It is May, ten months after Yeovil’s return from Siberia, and his wife Cicely is enjoying luncheon in the Park in company of her latest toyboy, Larry Meadowfield. They are there because there is to be a Grand Parade of boy scouts. This organisation has been given all manner of privileges by the Kaiser. Via the usual selection of Quislings and collaborators – Cicely Yeovil, Gräfin von Tolb, Joan Mardle, Sir Leonard Pitherby, Lady Bailquist, Herr Rebinok, the little Pomeranian banker – we learn that there is trouble brewing in the Balkans and so it is all the more important that the grand parade of boy scouts pledges its allegiance to the Kaiser who is waiting, with his son and foreign dignitaries, on a specially erected stage.

But the boy scouts do not come, the crowd starts whistling and booing in mockery and an unnamed young man with a worn grey face (Murrey Yeovil) realises that although he himself might have made a shameful peace with the new regime, hundreds of thousands of the younger generation have not, and will fight on.

In thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.

So the novel ends on this rousing patriotic note of defiance.


Thoughts

1. Is it even a novel?

When you first read that the subject matter of When William Came is a fictional German invasion of Edwardian England, you wonder whether it will be action-packed, whether there will be fighting, that it might be a ‘thriller’. In the event, it is none of these things. It is a study in the psychology of defeat and one which, in its mannered superficiality, and in comparison with accounts of the disasters which were to follow in the rest of the twentieth century, would be easy to overlook or dismiss as trivial.

In terms of structure, it was a simple but effective idea to divide the psychology of defeat into two broad streams or strategies and to allot one to a husband and one to a wife, so that the different paths of acquiescence can interplay with domestic psychology, and with ‘gender identity’: the woman’s approach, the man’s approach. Makes it more rich and complicated, or, perhaps, less simple-minded.

Even less original is the notion of dividing the responses to enemy occupation into a broadly Town and a ‘Country’ response, given that this is one of the oldest dichotomies in world literature. But Saki’s intimate knowledge of High Society and his malicious wit make the London scenes deliciously satirical; and his less well-known but deep love of the English countryside gives the rural scenes a sumptuously sensual depth.

Above all, he really can write, creating long, luscious sentences ripe with description, which build into huge paragraphs which, especially in the rural scenes, have an almost physical impact on the senses.

The pale light of a November afternoon faded rapidly into the dusk of a November evening. Far over the countryside housewives put up their cottage shutters, lit their lamps, and made the customary remark that the days were drawing in. In barn yards and poultry-runs the greediest pullets made a final tour of inspection, picking up the stray remaining morsels of the evening meal, and then, with much scrambling and squawking, sought the places on the roosting-pole that they thought should belong to them. Labourers working in yard and field began to turn their thoughts homeward or tavernward as the case might be. And through the cold squelching slush of a water-logged meadow a weary, bedraggled, but unbeaten fox stiffly picked his way, climbed a high bramble-grown bank, and flung himself into the sheltering labyrinth of a stretching tangle of woods.

2. Nationhood and patriotism

From a historical point of view, the book is an interesting stroll round the different ways notions of patriotism, race and identity were discussed in 1913 England. One of the most striking things, for me, was philological: Saki uses the word ‘race’ not in our modern sense of ethnicity and skin colour but more as we nowadays say ‘nation’. Thus he talks about the French race, the Italian race, the British race, ‘our’ race, and so on. It seems to have been a much more specific and much more clearly defined idea.

For Saki, or for his characters Yeovil and Dr Holham, each race must remain, in some sense, pure and undefiled by mixing with foreigners (hence the running joke about a character named Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn who exists solely to demonstrate the perceived incongruity of a Jew marrying a Scot; it’s worth remembering that Saki, real name Hector Munro, was himself of Scottish descent).

This is more than what we mean today by racism, because it isn’t defined by skin colour; it’s a deeper sense that every nation has its unique culture, language and traditions and that these are weakened when they are blended into a mongrel mix. Hence Yeovil and Holham’s shared dislike of London’s cosmopolitanism, as evidenced in the ‘Munich or Moscow’ speech I quoted earlier.

On this interpretation, cosmopolitanism creates a fake metropolitan culture which neglects national traditions in preference for the magpie highlights of international art and culture. (Interesting to reflect how this negative view of London as an international city cut off from the rest of the country, hotbed of a cosmopolitan liberal elite, has persisted through the past 110 years, and is generally agreed to have been an issue in the drawn-out Brexit debate and then to have played a part in Labour’s shattering defeat in the 2019 general election.)

London is seen as being in some sense unfaithful to its own native traditions; its cosmopolitanism is a form of betrayal.

3. Jaundiced view of London High Society

One of the things that comes over most strongly throughout the book is Saki’s real hatred of the vapid, pleasure-seeking, shallow, unpatriotic and narcissistic London upper classes.

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience. If they were not herded together in a corner of western London, watching each other with restless intelligent eyes, they would be herded together at Brighton or Dieppe, doing the same thing.’

Again and again he criticises this class’s smallness, its incestuousness, and its smug, narcissistic self-congratulation. In a sense the entire premise of the plot, that the Germans will easily defeat us if it comes to a fight, can be seen as an extended slap in the face for these people and this culture which utterly failed to appreciate that there is a Real World of never-ending conflict and competition out there, and you need to be armed and ready to defend yourself against it. It was Kipling’s warning, rephrased in Saki’s very different, mordant and ironic style, but with the same sense of urgency.

4. Antisemitism

I’ve said enough earlier, but Munro’s antisemitism is a blot or stain on this book which also casts a long shadow over all his other works. It is interesting to see how antisemitism can be derived so simply from the postulates listed above, almost like a mathematical formula:

  • each nation or race should remain pure and true to its traditions
  • big cities are places where cosmopolitan elites deny and mock their national traditions, go soft, and indulge in evermore luxury and decadence
  • this is not only ‘immoral’ but leads to the fatal neglect of army and navy, leading to military defeat, France in 1870, England in this novel
  • ‘Jews’ are the most ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘rootless’ elements in modern urban society
  • ‘therefore’ these ‘rootless’ ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews are the greatest threats to the nation

A twisted logic whereby all these anxieties about national safety and resentments at the heedlessness of the rich and fury at everything you don’t like about the modern world can be focused onto the convenient and defenceless figure of the ‘Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the values listed above.

And how narrowing the focus onto this convenient scapegoat lets the antisemite off the hook of having to confront the real causes of England’s unease: the centuries of exploitation of her own deeply immiserated working classes, the Victorian century of ever-wider conquest and exploitation of peoples right around the world. Edwardian England was racked with social and political issues:

  • the rise of militant trade unions and the new Labour Party
  • the suffragettes
  • rebellion in Ireland
  • revolt across much of the Empire, not least the jewel in the Crown, India

But none of this is mentioned in the novel. Instead, and standing in for them, we have his sick obsession with ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’ and their untoward prominence in show business. How stupid. How entirely inadequate to the complexities of the time.

When William Came made me realise that antisemitism is a way for people to refuse to face up to the uncomfortable facts about their own country and society and social failings. It is a stupid ‘solution’ for stupid people who aren’t capable of grasping, defining or analysing the genuinely difficult questions  their society needs to address. It is a cop-out. Antisemitism is an explanation for idiots.

A note on spelling antisemitism

I checked online to find out whether to use a capital S in antisemitism and discovered that I shouldn’t be using the hyphenated form of either the thing or the person. The advice of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is to use the forms ‘antisemitism’ and ‘antisemite’, so that’s what I’ve done here and will do in future.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth… (The Unbearable Bassington)

In 1908, Hector Hugh Munro gave up foreign reporting and returned to London. Throughout his career as a foreign correspondent he had also been publishing short fictional squibs under the pen-name Saki, sometimes rising to the level of ‘short stories’, often little more than humorous anecdotes or dialogues set among London’s upper classes. From time to time they were brought together in book form.

The Chronicles of Clovis was Saki’s third such collection of very short stories and scenes. As the title suggests, most (though not all) of the stories feature the character of Clovis Sangrail, a world-weary, spoiled, selfish and cynical upper-class young man with a malicious sense of humour.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

Clovis, and his friend Reginald, who we know from Saki’s previous stories, are young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in shocking their conventional, stuffy elders. In fact the pair are interchangeable and Clovis performs precisely the same role of sardonic chorus or witty interlocutor to an older, conventional lady, easily shocked by his cynical quips, that Reginald did in the earlier texts. Clovis’s favourite interlocutor is named ‘the Baroness’. Another recurring character is a minor foil or confidante named Bertie van Tahn.

Clovis and Reginald take the upper-class arrogance, privilege and entitlement which has drummed into them at expensive public schools and to turn it against the older generation which had put them through the ordeal, delighting in shocking them not so much with deeds – for our heroes rarely lower themselves to actually doing anything – but with outré and unconventional attitudes, with their extreme cynicism or modish insouciance.

The stories portray a society which put a premium on decorum and good manners, on ‘good breeding’, but which bridled at too much intelligence or cleverness – all of whose boundaries and borders Saki relished driving a coach and horses through.

Mind you, it is inaccurate to say that it’s only Clovis and Reginald who bait their straightlaced peers, because the narrator does too. In fact Clovis appears in fewer than half the stories and it is the narrator who most of the time makes the cruellest jibes and weaves the most extended insults:

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured collie at a time when everyone else kept nothing but Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

The joke is not so much at Lady Isobel’s expense but at that of her family and, more generally, at the kind of society she moves in. It is partly the implication that ‘understanding’ Yeats’s poems is as eccentric as sleeping in a hammock. It is partly the comic notion that it is so exceptional that a denial has to be issued by the family. There are multiple levels of mockery in just that one sentence.

(In the story The Quest Clovis himself is portrayed as lazing in a hammock and it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect what an utterly suitable piece of household furniture a hammock is for Clovis and his character of drawling, ironic inactivity.)

Some people think that satire changes things, in which case you might say that Saki’s stories were designed to ‘satirise’ and ‘scandalise’ Edwardian high society. But I think it’s nearer the mark to start from the opposite premise – that satire changes nothing but merely amuses those being satirised. Compare and contrast the immensely popular Alex cartoon strip which started in 1987 and mocks the greed and heartlessness of City bankers and is… immensely popular with City bankers. In the same way Saki’s stories have been immensely popular from his day to ours because people enjoy recognising themselves, or a part of themselves, or a part of themselves they wish they had. Everyone always thinks it’s someone else who is being mocked.

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

In the story Wratislaw, two very upper-class European ladies, the shrewd Gräfin and the rather dim Baroness Sophie, are in conversation, exchanging the expected bon mots and cynical witticisms:

‘Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?’

The Gräfin is trying to marry off her objectionable son, Wratlislav, to the Baroness’s dim daughter, Elsa, a proposal to which the Baroness says:

‘I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.’
‘A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.’

From this little exchange we can extract several of the premises which underlie Saki’s humour:

1. Nobody in this pampered upper class is ‘miserable’; or if they are, nobody else understands the concept because everyone is basically sorted for all their earthly needs. Extremes of want or emotion are unheard of and so are little more than conversational toys, empty words.

2. In any case, one of the key markers of being an aristocrat is not to take anything seriously: remember the general sitting astride a horse close to the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo? There was an approaching rumble, a loud bang and the general remarked: ‘By Jove, Sir, I believe they’ve shot my leg orf.’ The Duke of Wellington looks over and remarks: ‘By Jove, Sir, so they have.’ This was the attitude of sublime and lofty nonchalance which characterised the English upper classes from the 18th century through to the public schoolboys I met at university.

3. And the extremest way of demonstrating one’s aristocratic nonchalance (like insouciance, a French word) is to take what servants and earnest middle-class types think of as ‘serious’ emotions, conditions and attitudes and to pointedly equate them with the lightest, most frivolous subjects imaginable, generally ‘female’ subjects such as fashion, clothes and, in this instance, hairdo. The utter inability to take anything seriously is demonstrated by the deliberately casual, mocking equation of lifelong emotional misery with someone’s hair colour. Exactly the same attitude recurs in The Story of St. Vespaluus:

Vespaluus…was the best looking, and the best horseman and javelin- thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous ‘had I but known you were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph in audacity.

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

4. So the central aspect of the lofty insouciance which Saki both epitomises and satirises is to mock anyone who is ever serious about anything. This attitude had been brought to a pitch of perfection by Oscar Wilde a generation earlier:

  • ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.’ (Lord Darlington in The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • ‘We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ (Letter to Robert Ross)

Therefore, the notion that an unhappy Elsa might compensate for her unhappy marriage by ‘doing good among the poor’ is a) designed to show how absurd the very notion of someone from her class ‘doing good among the poor’ is; and therefore b) how charity can can only possibly be explained as a harmless diversion for unhappy, upper-class women.

Camp and homosexuality

This extravagantly, ostentatiously, teasingly and mockingly anti-serious attitude, the valorising of the trivial, the mocking dismissal of anything earnest or serious, would evolve, by the 1960s, into the quality known as ‘camp’, heavily associated with a certain type of homosexuality. (See Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp).

In this regard, it might be worth noting, here, the series of descriptions of improbably beautiful young men, all svelte and soignés, who trail through these stories. Here’s Vespaluus:

‘He was quite the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.’
‘It sounds like a description of what you imagine yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,’ said the Baroness.

And Pan:

Across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes.

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

Naked and wet, asprawl in the sun. Pretty sexy, eh? Critics from Saki’s day to ours have wondered whether not only the male sensuality but also the extra element of malice, and the occasional turn to the macabre in Saki’s stories, in some way derives from Munro’s (necessarily repressed) homosexuality.

All that said, this stylised mockery of anything serious was also, of course, celebrated by many entirely ‘straight’ authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Evelyn Waugh, in the name alone of Lord Peter Wimsy, in the tone of detached ironic humour which characterises the books of Jerome K Jerome. Is it, I wonder, a particularly English quality?

Childhood unhappiness

Personally, I don’t think Saki’s sexuality is that important. Personally, I think the key fact in Munro’s biography is that he was sent away from his parents at a young age, sent from a warm and loving home in British Burma all the way back to cold and miserable England where he was looked after by strict and stern guardians while he attended a series of miserable boarding schools.

Kipling underwent a similarly miserable childhood and the result was a lifetime of works marked by often very unpleasant sadism. (On one level, Kipling’s notorious ‘racism’ is merely a sub-set of his larger, more out-of-control anger against all kinds of people.)

Same here. I think the grimmer and more macabre Saki stories are Munro’s revenge on the cruel world which gave him such a miserable childhood. Hence the air of malice around ‘aunts’, all of them avatars of the strict, Bible-thumping governess who looked after young Hector. The same repressed anger, arguably comes out, in a displaced kind of way, in the misfortunes of the children in so many of the stories, who are routinely eaten or blown up.

The atmosphere of lonely, solitary childhood tyrannised by a punitive guardian portrayed in the story Sredni Vashtar seems to me the clue to all his works (that is, if you look for clues, if you are interested in biographical keys). Or you could just enjoy the stories’ sly elegance and outrageous storylines.


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

The Baroness tells Clovis about the time she was out hunting to hounds with Constance Broddle when they got lost but, hearing some hounds barking, discovered they’d got separated from the main pack and were now surrounding a creature at bay which, when the women held the hounds back, turned out to be a hyena! A hyena? Yes, it has escaped from the menagerie of Lord Pabham, whose grounds are nearby.

The Baroness liberates it from the hounds and they ride off to try and find the road home, with the hyena trotting faithfully behind. On an upper-class whim the Baroness names the hyena Esmé. They come across a gypsy waif playing in the path, pass by, the hyena drops back, then they hear a cry and see the hyena has the child in its jaws. They scold and shout and try to whip it and the Baroness throws her sandwich box, to no avail. The hyena drops behind the trotting women, there’s a crescendo and screaming and then an ominous silence and the hyena reappears with a satisfied smile on its face. The Baroness’s companion is horrified as they emerge into a road and make their way home.

It is dark and there is the sound of a motor car roaring up, a thud and a yell and when they catch up, a motorist has hit and killed the hyena. He is a jolly pukka young chap and he apologises most sincerely to the ladies and calls his chauffeur to fetch a spade and they bury the beast, under the impression it is a dog. With admirable sang-froid, the Baroness claims it is indeed a prize pedigree hound. She gives the driver her address. Some time later he sends her a brooch with the name of the ‘dog’ engraved on it.

What then clinches the utter heartlessness and amoral insouciance of the character, is that she sells the brooch for a tidy profit. Nothing means anything to these people except the game of ‘appearances’ and ‘manners’.

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

Not a story, more a meandering scene with Clovis arriving at the supper table, polishing off some oysters while waxing lyrical about their selflessness to his host, then segueing into a discussion of his mother’s two previous marriages and how he rustled up an old Empire Johnny to be her third husband.

3. Tobermory (C)

At Lady Blemley’s house-party at ‘the Towers’, rather boring Mr. Cornelius Appin turns out to have made the stupefying achievement of teaching the house cat, Tobermory, how to talk. Not only that but Tobermory drawls, with the exaggerated languid tones of the effete upper classes. That’s satire 1.

Satire 2 is that the cat immediately starts spilling the beans about the ‘goings on’ among the humans and, more viciously, repeating exactly what they say about each other behind each others’ backs which is, of course, often malicious and wounding. General panic.

Tobermory spots the neighbours’ cat out the window and scarpers after it. Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley agree the cat must immediately be put down. Dinner is a tense affair, as is breakfast, but spirits lift when Tobermory’s corpse is found in a flowerbed. As to Mr Cornelius Appin, some weeks later he is reported gored to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo which he had been teaching German irregular verbs.

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

Mrs Packletide’s life is dominated by rivalry with Loona Bimberton. Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, so Mrs Packletide decides she is going to bag herself a tiger!

I think she must already be in India because she pays the headman of a local village to tether a goat in order to lure a rather elderly and ailing tiger for her to shoot. Mrs P hides in a tree with her paid companion, Miss Mebbin, and soon enough the tiger shows up. A single gunshot rings out and the tiger rolls over dead but, on closer inspection, it appears it was the harmless the goat which was shot and the tiger simply died of a heart attack at the loud noise!

The natives take their 1,000 rupees and swear to silence and thus Mrs Packletide returns to London in triumph, makes the tigerskin the centre of her Curzon Street apartment, gives endless parties where it is the centre of conversation, sends a tiger claw brooch to her rival, Loona Bimberton, even has a wild animal fancy dress party, where Clovis makes a fleeting appearance.

Until, that is, her ‘companion’, penny-conscious Miss Mebbin, blackmails her, threatening to reveal the truth (the old tiger died of a heart attack) unless Mrs Packletide buys her a nice little cottage near Dorking.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting. ‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

Saki is full of sly details. The thing that made me smile most in this story was that Miss Mebbin names her country cottage ‘Les Fauves’, a jokey reference to the recent French art movement which was given that name in 1905, so quite a modish reference at that.

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

Clovis and his mother, Mrs Sangrail, are staying with Lady Bastaple. Mrs S asks Lady Bastaple if she can keep Clovis on for a further 6 days while she, Mrs S, travels north to stay with the MacGregors. She offers to let Mrs Bastaple off her bridge debt of 49 shillings.

6. The Background (C)

A delirious and bizarre story about a modest commercial traveller, Henri Deplis, who comes into a legacy and decides to spend 600 francs on having a massive picture of the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back by the premier tattooist in Italy, Andreas Pincini. Pincini dies and Deplis thinks he is let off payment but Pincini’s widow pursues him by which point Deplis no longer has 600 francs left to pay her. After some bad-tempered haggling, the widow donates the picture to the municipality of Bergamo, thus making Deplis’ back into state property. The result is that he is unable, as a state property, to leave Italy, an unusual legal situation which is worked through in delirious detail.

7. Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep

A satire on the Suffragettes. It is set in a hypothetical future, in the second decade of the twentieth century after a Great Plague has devastated England, and Hermann the Irascible, nicknamed the Wise, sits on the British throne. One of the recurrent problems he faces is the vociferous and violent Votes For Women movement. Hermann comes up with a comic solution. He suggests a bill to make voting for women compulsory with a £10 fine for failing to vote, and then adds a long list of elections and elected officials which women are now compelled to vote in:

Every woman between the ages of twenty-one and seventy will be obliged to vote, not only at elections for Parliament, county councils, district boards, parish councils, and municipalities, but for coroners, school inspectors, churchwardens, curators of museums, sanitary authorities, police-court interpreters, swimming-bath instructors, contractors, choir-masters, market superintendents, art-school teachers, cathedral vergers, and other local functionaries whose names I will add as they occur to me. All these offices will become elective, and failure to vote at any election falling within her area of residence will involve the female elector in a penalty of £10. Absence, unsupported by an adequate medical certificate, will not be accepted as an excuse.

Of course this transforms voting into an intolerable burden for most women: working women are spending half the week traipsing to and from voting booths, while rich women find their holiday plans wrecked as they are continually being called back to vote for their local cathedral verger or what not, and quickly run up fines of multiples of £10.

Eventually the burden of voting becomes so extreme that it gives rise to a No-Votes-For-Women League  to which Saki maliciously and hilariously attributes all the self-righteousness, inflammatory rhetoric and violence of the original Suffragette Movement. The No-Votes-For-Women League goes one better and invents ‘the Great Weep’ being the systematic crying by women at gatherings large and small.

Eventually, making a great show of making a great concession, Hermann the Wise signs into law a bill depriving women of the right to vote and everyone is happy. And greatly amused.

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

This is one of Saki’s most famous stories because it is so compact and fluent and beautifully designed. On the train down to be guest at a house party, Clovis overhears two friends chatting, one lamenting that he has got very set in his ways, the other recommending that he shake his life up a bit and have what he calls ‘an unrest-cure’. Clovis’s ears prick up, he makes a note of the conventional man’s name and address (J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”

He then sends this man a telegram saying ‘the bishop’ is coming to stay, preceded by his private secretary – this is of course Clovis, who proceeds to shock and amaze timid Mr Huffle by announcing that the bishop and a general who will be joining him are planning to round up all the Jews in the neighbourhood and massacre them! Mr Huddle is speechless, his sister responds with a migraine:

It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival.

The ‘plan’ which Clovis unfolds becomes steadily more outrageous. He explains they are going to invite all the Jews from the neighbourhood and murder them one by one. He explains the house is now surrounded by a hidden ring of boy scouts who will shoot anyone who leaves! Indeed an eminent Jew arrives soon after in his motor car and is hustled quickly upstairs by the terrified brother and sister. Things go on like this for a bit while Clovis lounges in Huddle’s library smoking one of his excellent cigars, before quietly slipping away. None of it was true. It was an entire fiction.

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

Stringham is a politician. He makes a joke in Parliament which enlivens a boring debate. His wife disapproves. He’s never made a joke before. She comments to her mother. Stringham makes another joke, which his wife doesn’t get. Over the next few weeks Stringham makes several more. Then a catty ‘friend’, Gertrude Upton, points out that these are all well-known quips by Lady Isobel, the implication being that Stringham is seeing quite a lot of Lady Isobel.

So far so gently mocking the boringness of politicians, the straightlacedness of their families and so on. So it comes as a shock when the last few lines tell us that Eleanor Stringham killed herself with an overdose of chloral. Does he… does Saki mean that she killed herself because the jokes implied her husband was having an affair?

10. Sredni Vashtar

Conradin is a sickly boy looked after by his disapproving cousin and guardian in a strict and tedious house which has driven him mad with resentment and frustration, which makes him sick ‘under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom’.

Mrs. de Ropp was the ground-plan on which he based and detested all respectability.

One day the local butcher boy brings him a large polecat-ferret in return for all the silver Conradin has saved up and he hides his cage in the garden shed and develops a private religion based round the fierce animal which he gives the made-up name of Sredni Vashtar.

More and more mystified by Conradin’s regular visits to the shed, Mrs de Ropp one day ransacks his bedroom for the key, orders Conradin to stay in his bedroom, from whose window he watches her go to the shed, unlock it, and enter in. He fervently prays to his god, prays for death and destruction. The minutes pass and the dread witch doesn’t return. Then, with wonder, he sees his god slink out of the shed with dark red strains round its jaws, undulate down to the stream, take a drink, and disappear into the undergrowth. Conradin’s dream has come true. His god has answered his prayers. No more repressive aunt.

11. Adrian (C)

Adrian is a working class lad from Bethnal Green where his mum is a laundress.

One can discourage too much history in one’s family, but one cannot always prevent geography.

He is taken up by the hugely posh Lucas who treats him to dinner at places like the Ritz or Carlton. His aunt Mrs Mebberley hears about this protege and decides to take him off on a tour of Europe.

‘I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.’

She takes him to an Alpine resort. Here he flourishes but not in the way expected. He turns out to be quite a wild youth. Where he grew up breaking any cutlery was a crime. Among posh people he discovers that, done at the right time and place, it wins kudos.

Lucas hears about Adrian’s increasingly outrageous exploits via the pen of Clovis who is ‘moving as a satellite in the Mebberley constellation.’ One is that Adrian abducts the ugly Grobmayer child and dressed it as a pig in an evening’s drama performance till it wailed, revealed its identity and the parents were furious. But his masterpiece was swapping all the room numbers on an entire landing and especially affixing the ‘Bathroom’ sign to the door of old Frau Hofrath Schilling who was thereupon terrified out of her wits by a succession of half-dressed visitors.

12. The Chaplet (C)

It was a gala evening at the Grand Sybaris Hotel, and a special dinner was being served in the Amethyst dining-hall. The great chef Monsieur Aristide Saucourt has slaved over his masterpiece dish, Canetons à la mode d’Amblève. But just as it is served to the foreign philistine guests, the very average orchestra strikes up the strains of the dull and obvious tune, The Chaplet and, in their relief at recognising a tune amid a lot of other rather more ‘modern’ music, many of the diners stop to listen, to applaud, tinkering with the famous dish or letting it grow cold! So M. Saucourt in a fury seizes the conductor and plunges him head first into a large tureen of boiling soup!

13. The Quest (C)

Clovis is staying at the Villa Elsinore when there is a disaster: Mrs Momeby misplaces little diddums baby Erik. The household is in an uproar. Only Clovis lazing in a hammock is more concerned about which sauce cook is preparing to accompany the asparagus while outraging everyone with his calm suggestion that maybe the little darling has been eaten by an escaped hyena.

A neighbour calls, Rose-Marie Gilpet who is a devout Christian Scientist and therefore believes there is no such thing as illness and also that we all think positively the lost child will appear. She goes to search the road again and lo and behold finds an abandoned baby there who she restores to the bosom of her family amid tears and celebrations. Which makes it embarrassing when the real Erik is discovered hiding in the garden roller. So who is the imposter? Then arrives the nursemaid from the Villa Charlottenburg across the way to reclaim darling little Percy who had gone missing. Mystery solved and Clovis is off to see the cook about the asparagus sauce.

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

What you might call a ‘grim’ story, like the apparent suicide of Eleanor Stringham. In this one Lady Barbara has a son who is a pusillanimous coward, Lester Slaggby. They go to say in a small Germanic resort, learn from the local Burgomeister that the Prince is paying a visit, a local couple suggest that a touching gesture would be for their little 4-year-old to be dressed up and give the Prince the gift of an Easter egg filled with his favourite food, plovers’ eggs. Lester helps to train the little mite and on the big day is gesturing the child towards the Prince sat on his dais when, looking round for the proud parents, he sees them stepping hastily into a cab and, in a flash, realises the egg is filled with a bomb. Lester does the one great brave deed of his life and runs to catch up with the child, grabs the egg planning to throw it far, yells to everyone the one word ‘Bomb!’ but is astonished when the little brat holds onto it with obsessive grip. Then it blows up. The story cuts to some time later and makes the simple point that Lady Barbara is now blind.

So it had been sort of funny up till that point and then becomes bitterly tragic. The note of languid insouciance I mentioned earlier, the Oscar Wilde tone of whimsical detachment, doesn’t apply here. Possibly a conductor being drowned in a tureen of soup is sort of funny. But a woman committing suicide from profound misery or being blinded… not so funny.

16. Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped (C)

Mark Spayley is a commercial artist, he creates advertising posters and is on a piddling £200 per annum. He nervously asks for the hand in marriage of Leonore, the daughter of the vastly successful businessman, Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’. What neither he nor anyone else knows is Dullamy’s business empire is about to crash, which is why he accepts Spayley’s offer and suggests a surprisingly quick wedding. Dullamy doesn’t reveal about the looming crash but does lament that his new product, Pipenta, has been a failure. Now he’s his son-in-law to be, Mark offers to help out. In short order he has changed the product’s name to Filboid Studge and created a vast poster showing lost souls in hell clamouring for an opportunity to eat the delicious food, with a big strapline: a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”

This campaign is surprisingly successful and Filboid Studge becomes a runaway success, which the narrator describes with a few waspish asides about the power of advertising (this was 1908). Dullamy’s fortune is restored and he, of course, breaks off his daughter’s engagement to Spayley and sells her to a much more appropriate beau.

17. The Music on the Hill

Clever Sylvia Seltoun has not only inveigled Mortimer Seltoun into marriage, but to abandon ‘Town’ with its delights and friends, a relocate to his country seat, Yessney.

She looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you encouraged it overmuch

Here she becomes aware of some kind of presence in the woods, a fleeting golden thing, and is oppressed by a feeling of being watched in among the desolate farm buildings. Boring Mortimer astonishes her by revealing that he believes in the great god Pan and for warning her when she takes some grapes which had been left to a beautiful statuette of the god in a remote clearing. In revenge, the laughing, malicious youth diverts a hunted stag so that it gores Sylvia to death. Maybe a life in Town wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

The title refers to the several occasions on which Sylvia heard remote and eerie music, ‘a low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute’, coming from somewhere on the hills around her husband’s manor house.

This story takes its place alongside other Edwardian invocations of Pan, to be found in Peter Pan, the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter in Wind In The Willows and The Story of a Panic by E.M. Foster to name only the most obvious. (Pan in popular culture.) Why? The end of the 19th century saw a kind of rarefied, aestheticised classicism, the paintings of the Olympians, and this seems to have overlapped with the florescence of the children’s story during the Edwardian decade. Pan represents a melding of the two.

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

Clovis tells ‘the Baroness’ a long cock and bull story set in the early Middle Ages when ‘when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess’.

Bad-tempered King Hkrikros has no children but a number of nephews among whom his favourite is elegant, sporty young Vespaluus. The king wants to nominate him as his heir but then discovers that Vespaluus is a Christian. Damn. The king is a fervent pagan who devotedly maintains ‘the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace.’

The king hires the Royal Librarian, who has time on his hands, to go cut branches and switches from the woods and give young Vespaluus a sound thrashing. Doesn’t change his mind. Then he has the boy locked up in a tower without food and water though the guards take pity on him and sneak in grub.

But when he’s released in time for the great summer games Vespaluus refuses to take part in the ritual worship of the sacred snakes and the king’s patience snaps. He arranges him to be stung to death by the royal bees. However, the bee-keeper loves Vespaluus (everyone does) and so spends a laboursome night before the scheduled punishment pulling out all the bee stings. So that when crowds of pagans assemble to watch the ritual stinging-to-death of Vespaluus everyone is astonished to see him covered in bees and writhing yet emerging unscathed. It is a miracle! He must be a saint!

The furious king berates his librarian but before he can do any more harm himself dies of an apoplectic fit. At which point Vespaluus is crowned king and, assuming his Christian faith, the entire Court sets about getting itself baptised, neighbouring Christian powers make approaches, the pagan rites begin to be deprecated.

But the punchline is that Vespaluus isn’t a Christian at all. He is a devout pagan and worships the same sacred snakes as the king. Then why on earth, the Chamberlain asks him, did he pose as a Christian and cause himself and everyone else so much bother?

‘I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.’

He is a classic Wildean fop, loving pranks and mocking the earnest.

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

The Baroness and Clovis again. As usual Clovis tells her a bitchy or spiteful or droll anecdote. This time it’s about an aunt who unexpectedly comes into some money, at which point she is drooled over by her nieces, the Brimley Bomefields, namely Christine, Veronique and another. The nieces are horrified when they learn that the aunt, getting on in years, proposes to leave her fortune to a nephew of hers, named Roger. So Veronique comes up with a cunning plan which is to catch Roger out, gambling or somehow frittering his money away. Every year he goes on holiday to northern France so the nieces persuade the aunt to go on holiday to Dieppe. But, in a comic reversal, while they’re waiting to catch Roger at the tables it is the aunt who has a casual flutter (on the old mechanical game named Les Petits Chevaux) gets bitten by the gambling bug, and turns into a gambling addict, while Roger bumps into them from time to time says, knowingly, that he realises the aunt is just a front for the nieces, who are running a gambling syndicate. Infuriatingly, they eventually give up and straggle home with a reputation for headaches and a permanently depressed look. Which is how Clovis and the Baroness saw them in ‘the Park’ and which prompted the anecdote in the first place.

20. The Peace Offering (C)

Clovis and the Baroness again. She asks him to help with a theatrical production to soothe her local county society who have been rather ruptured by a bitterly contested election. As satire, Clovis suggests they write a Greek tragedy on the theme of the Return of Agamemnon and then proceeds to explain who all the characters are to the Baroness who is cheerfully ignorant and philistine.

They then cast the play with local worthies, each stupider than the next. But the crux is the rivalry which breaks out between the Baroness, playing Clytemnestra and Clovis, who gives himself the minor but beautifully costumed role of the charioteer. When the Baroness pinches some of his best lines, Clovis plots his revenge. He coaches the dimwit playing Cassandra in a special speech and, on the grand night, with all of local county society assembled, when Clytemnestra goes off to make a costume change, Cassandra steps forward and delivers the speech Clovis has written for her… denouncing the great and the good in the audience as ‘corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians[who] continue to infest and poison our local council…’ By the time the Baroness returns onstage it is to find everyone calling for their coach and leaving.

In a way the Baroness did succeed in healing local divisions… by uniting everyone who was anyone in condemning her ‘outrageously bad taste and tactlessness’.

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

Crefton Lockyer has gone for a rest cure and break from hectic city life by renting a room in an isolated farm. Little does he expect to discover that is the epicentre of a bitter rival between two local witches who cast spells on each other. These aren’t the florid witches of Hollywood, but uncanny and ancient crones and the spells in question amount to little more than preventing the kettle in the farm from boiling and rendering the ducks which in the hated rival’s little pool from being able to swim.

So, small stakes but this is one of the longer of the stories in the collection and the interest is in the spooky and threatening atmosphere which Saki conjures. It’s interesting because Rudyard Kipling, in his Sussex phase, wrote similar stories about village crones.

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

Clovis is with his aunt when the latter spots a tiresome young man approaching who she is at pains to avoid because he’s probably heard she’s arranging a luncheon with ‘the Princess’ and will cling leechlike till he’s invited. The aunt makes a run for it leaving Clovis to deal with the young man who introduces himself as Tarrington. Unfortunately Clovis has determined to reply to every question and conversation gambit with irrelevancies and supercilious twitting, until the poor young man, defeated, beats a hasty retreat.

23. The Hounds of Fate

A tragedy, something like a ghost story or a rural tragedy slightly in the manner of Thomas Hardy. Martin Stoner has failed in everything and is down to his last few coins, tramping through muddy country lanes towards the sea with the vague purpose of throwing himself in, as night draws in and it starts to rain and he sees the lights of a farmhouse, he finds himself walking up the path and knocking on the door.

To his amazement the door opens and he is welcomed in by the old retained as ‘Master Tom’, back from Australia. He is given food and then shelter for the night, and given his old room, and his horse is saddled for him, all the time Stoner carries on the masquerade of impersonating this ‘Master Tom’. Slowly it emerges that Tom fled to Australia after some local scandal but try as he might, he can’t get the old retainer (named George) to spell it out.

Then one day old George hurries to find him and tells Stoner that Michael Ley is back in the village and bound on taking his revenge. At a guess, I speculate that Tom ravished Ley’s sister, who killed herself and that’s why he fled and Ley is now determined to take revenge. Old George gives Stoner three sovereigns and tells him to go hide out in the nearest town till Ley has gone away, when he’ll be able to return.

Three sovereigns is a lot of money for a former beggar, and Stoner goes his way rejoicing to have brass in pocket, reconciling himself to moving on from the Tom persona as easily as he adopted it. Easy come, easy go. But at that point Michael Ley steps out from the shadow of an old oak tree, a shotgun in his hand and implacable hatred in his eyes.

24. The Recessional (C)

Clovis is in a Turkish bath with his buddy, Bertie van Tahn, but equipped with a fountain pen and notebook. What is he doing? Well, Mrs. Packletide’s great enemy and rival Loona Bimberton has just had a Coronation Ode accepted by the ‘New Infancy’ magazine and Mrs P is spitting blood. Since she has helped him out so many times, financially, Clovis offers to compose a rival poem, and here he is, composing away like mad. The result is dire:

‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.'”

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

Lady Susan is holding a house party and the guests are betting on the big race. Trouble is Lady Susan sternly disapproves of everything, especially horse racing. The guests have to retreat to the far end of the garden where they discovery that Motkin, Lady Susan’s butler, has a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. The butler goes off to see this relation and that evening, over dinner, secretively passes on the name of the top tip to each of the guests as he circulates with the sherry.

However, the hot favourite loses, as all the guests assembled in the hall the next morning discover when a telegram arrives, and Lady Susan is delighted because, for the first time in her life she has bet on a race, and her bet won!

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

Mrs Riversedge is hosting guests including Clovis and his aunt, Mrs Troyle. Mrs Troyle announces that another guest, meek and shy Septimus Brope, appears to be wooing her maid, Florinda. She has overheard him chanting her name (‘I love you Florrie’) and the other day picked up a piece of paper he had dropped with a note to meet him down by the old yew tree. Mrs Troyle wouldn’t mind but her maid is the only person on earth who understands her hair.

The other ladies are scandalised and also surprised, as mild-mannered Mr Brope scratches a living editing the ‘Cathedral Monthly and being enormously learned about memorial brasses and transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern liturgy.

Clovis is the one who solves the mystery when the two men are left alone in the smoking room after dinner. He discovers that Brope makes money on the side by writing the lyrics for trashy popular songs, and is struggling to write one for a hypothetical subject named Florrie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs Troyle’s maid (who is actually named Florinda).

Clovis promises to not only keep his secret but help him writing his ditties. In fact he proposes a characteristically Clovisian twist: why not try lyrics which slam the woman in question. And sure enough a month later a new song is taking the music halls by storm in which the singer threatens to throw his Florrie into a quarry!

All Clovis requires in return is to accompany Brope on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent.

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

The Duke of Scaw is religious but not quite in the traditional sense. He is discussing politics and social reform with his friend, Belturbet, speculating how easy it would be to replace the existing bunch of disappointing politicians with something more malleable. Why not with angels? Don’t be silly, says his friend. Piqued, the Duke replies:

‘I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms.’

And this he does. The rest of the story describes how he converts various leading politicians, the archbishop of Canterbury and top industrialists into various animals and creates their doppelgangers from angels. Suddenly politicians agree and businessmen adopt caring policies. Imagine the confusion of the country, but that is as nothing to the confusion of their wives!

The conceit is developed at some length with very thinly veiled, jokey references to contemporary politicians including David Lloyd-George, Lord Rosebery and so on. Eventually one of the animals the Duke of Scaw has consigned the soul of one of these politicians to, a bad-tempered black swan, grabs Scaw as he is walking through St James Park, drags him into the lake and drowns him. Whereupon the angel-politicians disappear, replaced by their human counterparts, and business resumes as usual.

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

This is an eerie story about a man whose personality changes to reflect that of his pets. It opens with him being beaky-nosed and repetitive as his parrot. His brother brings him a pet monkey and he swiftly becomes as malicious and disruptive as his pet. When that dies, his brother buys him a tortoise and now Groby Lington potters slowly around his garden in slow motion. It has many comic details but the overall impression is of the tale’s strangeness.


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

Remember that Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab (now Sittwe), British Burma, which was then part of British India, and that Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife, Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of a Rear Admiral  – and that he then himself went on to serve in the Indian Police Force. He was steeped, in other words, in the traditions and discourse of the British Empire. So what must his parents have made of his determined ridiculing of it and its stiff-upper-lipped maintainers?

He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimising earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.

The Recessional sounds as if it’s going to be a parody or skit on Kipling’s famous poem of the same name but is nothing of the sort. Saki cannot write verse. Still, the thought was there.

Studied heartlessness

Specially regarding children who are either revealed as heartless brutes (The Strategist) or discussed with utter heartlessness by their parents (The Baker’s Dozen) or are eaten (Ernest-Gabriel and Esmé) or blown to smithereens (The Easter Egg).

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often.

It is not the attitudes as such which are reprehensible, they are fictional, they can be taken in the reader’s stride. It is the shallowness and lack of feeling which Saki is mocking.

Christianity

It almost goes without saying that everyone in these stories has been brought up to treat Christianity as the accepted ‘thing’. Saki’s satire aims at the way none of these conventional Christians show any understanding or putting into practice of its moral teachings. Wherever possible members of the cloth are mocked (as they were in so many 18th century novels, through Trollope, Waugh, every chaplain in every public school in fiction).

More than that, Christianity offers a massive opportunity for satire whereby the manners of the gentleman can be contrasted with Christian morality, with the satirical intention that, in Victorian and Edwardian society, manners and appearance were more important than conventional Christian morality. It is a central part of the macabre comedy of The Unrest Cure that the person said to be panning the massacre of the Jews is the local bishop, whose character Saki then delights in twisting into his own style of gruesome amorality.

‘The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.’ (The Unrest Cure)

Culture

Rather like Christianity, most of these upper-class types profess an interest in culture without actually understanding it at all. Painting and music are the two areas Saki picks on, with Reginald making the standard joke that the purpose of the Royal Academy is not to look at the pictures but to look at, and mingle with, other high society types. It is a recurring joke that the English understand a work of art so long as there is a good descriptive title to aid their understanding.

In the same spirit the British upper classes are portrayed as nervously philistine when it comes to music.

Thither [to the Amethyst dining-hall] came in shoals the intensely musical and the almost intensely musical, who are very many, and in still greater numbers the merely musical, who know how Tchaikowsky’s name is pronounced and can recognise several of Chopin’s nocturnes if you give them due warning; these eat in the nervous, detached manner of roebuck feeding in the open, and keep anxious ears cocked towards the orchestra for the first hint of a recognisable melody.

‘Ah, yes, Pagliacci,’ they murmur, as the opening strains follow hot upon the soup, and if no contradiction is forthcoming from any better-informed quarter they break forth into subdued humming by way of supplementing the efforts of the musicians. Sometimes the melody starts on level terms with the soup, in which case the banqueters contrive somehow to hum between the spoonfuls; the facial expression of enthusiasts who are punctuating potage St. Germain with Pagliacci is not beautiful, but it should be seen by those who are bent on observing all sides of life. One cannot discount the unpleasant things of this world merely by looking the other way.

And:

‘Hark!’ said most of the diners, ‘he is playing “The Chaplet.”‘ They knew it was “The Chaplet” because they had heard it played at luncheon and afternoon tea, and at supper the night before, and had not had time to forget.

Money / greed

Saki is funny about the miserly such as Laploshka or the paid companion, Miss Mebbin, in Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, who resents even centimes unnecessarily spent, or Lady Bastaple (‘Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love.’)

Aunts

Tell me about the Brimley Bomefields.’
‘Well,’ said Clovis, ‘the beginning of their tragedy was that they found an aunt.’


Related links

Saki’s works

Reginald by Saki (1904)

Hector

Hector Hugh Munro was born in 1870 in Burma, then still part of the British Empire. He was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and Mary Frances Mercer, daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer. Her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, later became a famous novelist under the pen-name ‘Dornford Yates’. So a posh and bookish family.

His mother died when Hector was just two and he, along with his siblings, was sent to Devon to be raised by their grandmother and aunts in a strict and puritanical household. As a result, eccentric or mean aunts loom large in Saki’s fiction and often come to a sticky end.

Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt. (The Chronicles of Clovis)

Hector was tutored by governesses until sent to boarding school in Bedford. When his father retired from Burma, he returned to England and took Hector and his sister on tours of fashionable European spas and resorts, which also crop up in Saki’s stories.

In 1893 Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma. Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.

Back in England Hector developed a new career as a journalist and began writing for newspapers like the Westminster Gazette, the Daily Express, the Morning Post, and magazines such as the Bystander and Outlook.

In 1900 he published a serious historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire. From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday on 22 January 1905) and Paris. He then gave up foreign reporting and settled in London.

Saki

In 1904 Hector published a slender volume of stories and sketches under the pen name ‘Saki’. Nobody is certain where this comes from: it could be a reference to the cup-bearer in the popular Victorian poem, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Or it might be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name. Or it might be that his stories are laced with dry sarcasm. Or maybe he just liked the sound of the word.

Reginald

Saki’s first volume, Reginald, is extremely short, comprising twenty short texts of barely two pages each, which had all been first published as snippets in the Westminster Gazette. They are not really stories: each one is more like a topic on which we hear the divine fop, dandy and man-about-town, Reginald, giving his langorous, witty opinions, sometimes to the unnamed narrator, sometimes in dialogue with ‘the Duchess’ or just ‘the Other’, sometimes in plain declamatory prose.

The only thing Reginald cares about is his appearance. He fusses about ties and buttonholes. Even the thought of holding extended conversations exhausts the poor dear. He delights in scandalising aunts and a recurrent character, The Duchess, with deliberately paradoxical and unconventional opinions.

After a few hours in the company of the camp and calculating frivolousness of young Reginald, it comes as no surprise to learn that Saki was gay. Reginald’s character, style and flow of witty epigrams is saturated in the persona and style of Oscar Wilde.

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

By far the best, the funniest, and the most complete sketch is The Woman Who Told The Truth which contains probably his most quoted line: ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.’

The brief pieces are titled:

1. Reginald

The unnamed narrator takes Reginald to an upper-class garden party where he scandalises everyone he comes in contact with, teaching the children how to make cocktails, mocking the Colonel’s story of how he introduced golf to India, discussing a scandalous French novel with the Archdeacon’s wife. By the time the narrator catches up with him:

I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.

The narrator plays his trump card by telling Reginald a sea-mist is coming in. Reginald sits bolt upright and agrees to beat a hasty retreat to their carriage, for fear that the mist might undo the elaborate curl of hair over his right eyebrow.

2. Reginald on Christmas Presents

Why people are so lamentably bad at giving presents. Really, there ought to be special training in the art of gift-giving:

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious.

3. Reginald on the Academy

Meaning the Royal Academy of Art, for which Reginald affects a fashionable disdain, its sole purpose being to have something to talk about to the tedious country cousins when they come up to Town. As to the actual pictures:

‘The pictures are all right, in their way; after all, one can always look at them if one is bored with one’s surroundings, or wants to avoid an imminent acquaintance.’

In his continual effort to scandalise with unexpected paradox, Reginald reminds the reader of a slightly cut-price Oscar Wilde:

‘What were you talking about? Oh, pictures. Personally, I rather like them; they are so refreshingly real and probable, they take one away from the unrealities of life.’

4. Reginald at the Theatre

A dialogue between Reginald and the Duchess, in which she asks the questions and he supplies the punchlines:

‘Of course you are quite irreligious?’
‘Oh, by no means. The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediæval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.’

Which leads into the Duchess’s earnest defence of the British Empire and Reginald’s debonaire mockery of it.

5. Reginald’s Peace Poem

A mockery of poetry as Reginald explains how he’s setting about writing a poem for peace.

‘You must have angels in a Peace poem and I know dreadfully little about their habits.’

6. Reginald’s Choir Treat

The vicar’s grown-up daughter in the village where Reginald’s unworldly family still live, is encouraged to undertake his moral reformation. Obviously she fails when it comes to verbal exchanges and so shifts tack and asks him to help with the village children’s choir. Unfortunately, she then takes to her bed with a cold. With a glint in his eye, Reginald leads the children to a stream, gets them to strip off and bathe, then decorate each other with flowers, and process mostly naked through the village leading a goat, in a delightful homage to the pagan world. Nude Greek paganism.

7. Reginald on Worries

To my mind, education is an absurdly over-rated affair. At least, one never took it very seriously at school, where everything was done to bring it prominently under one’s notice. Anything that is worth knowing one practically teaches oneself, and the rest obtrudes itself sooner or later.

8. Reginald on House-Parties

One never gets to know one’s hosts and one’s hosts never get to know you and if they do then quite often, as in the unfortunate affair of the peacock, they take a decided turn against you.

So I got up the next morning at early dawn—I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night…

9. Reginald at the Carlton

Discussing travel with the Duchess:

‘And, after all, they charge so much for excess luggage on some of those foreign lines that it’s really an economy to leave one’s reputation behind one occasionally.’

As usual, even in comedy, these old stories reveal that some social issues are with us forever.

‘And the youngest daughter, who was intended for the American marriage market, has developed political tendencies, and writes pamphlets about the housing of the poor. Of course it’s a most important question, and I devote a good deal of time to it myself in the mornings.’

10. Reginald on Besetting Sins (The Woman Who Told The Truth)

There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the habit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree. She had no children—otherwise it might have been different. It began with little things, for no particular reason except that her life was a rather empty one, and it is so easy to slip into the habit of telling the truth in little matters…

This ironical inversion of the usual values is conceived and delivered with style and aplomb. And talking of how some things never change, Southern trains were, apparently, as proverbial for their lateness in 1900 as they are in 2020.

The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.

11. Reginald’s Drama

Reginald plans a play which would open with the sound and scent of wolves wafted across the footlight such as to make nervous Lady Whortleberry scream, It would then become a tragedy such as that of the mismatched Mudge-Jervises, where he was always absent at sports and she was always absent doing Good Works for the Poor, and when they did finally meet up after 18 months of marriage, they discovered they had nothing in common. If and when the characters could think of nothing brilliant to say about marriage or the War Office, they could open a window and listen to the howling of the wolves. ‘But that would be very seldom.’

This harping on about wolves is one of the first appearances of the large wild animals which would become the signature note of his most effective stories.

12. Reginald on Tariffs

Talking about tariffs, the lift-boy, who reads extensively between the landings, says it won’t do to tax raw commodities. What, exactly, is a raw commodity? Mrs. Van Challaby says men are raw commodities till you marry them.

13. Reginald’s Christmas Revel

Reginald describes a perfectly beastly Christmas he spent as a house guest at the Babswolds’ once, where he took his revenge by playing a particularly corking practical joke.

I don’t like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early on the morrow. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she would have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady’s door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been an historic battlefield.

14. Reginald’s Rubaiyat

Reginald outrages the Duchess with steadily more outlandish versions of verses he composes for her album.

15. The Innocence of Reginald

Reginald announces he is going to write ‘a book of personal reminiscences’ and leave nothing out, which prompts an absolute panic among his acquaintance. It prompts a prolonged argument with Miriam Klopstock all the way through a play at His Majesty’s Theatre.

She leaned back and snorted, ‘You’re not the boy I took you for,’ as though she were an eagle arriving at Olympus with the wrong Ganymede.

Bons mots

Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.

‘People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.’

‘To have reached thirty,’ said Reginald, ‘is to have failed in life.’

‘I agree with you.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with.’

No really provident woman lunches regularly with her husband if she wishes to burst upon him as a revelation at dinner. He must have time to forget; an afternoon is not enough.

‘Lift-boys always have agèd mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.’

‘There are certain fixed rules that one observes for one’s own comfort. For instance, never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’

‘I always say beauty is only sin deep.’

‘You promised you would never mention it; don’t you ever keep a promise?’ When people had stopped glaring in our direction, I replied that I’d as soon think of keeping white mice.

‘Her frocks are built in Paris, but she wears them with a strong English accent. So public-spirited of
her. I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she’s so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.’

‘A woman who leaves her cook never wholly recovers her position in Society.’

‘I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.’

Saki and Kipling

A few years ago I read most of Kipling’s works and was interested to see him referenced a couple of times in these brief skits. As the son of an Imperial official, born in India and sent to prep school in Devon and forced to stay with uncongenial ‘carers’, Hector’s early life was eerily similar to Kipling’s and they were only five years apart in age (Kipling born 1865, Saki 1870).

And yet Saki was of a completely different temperament and instead of respecting the older writer, he enjoys satirising him and his earnest embodiment of Imperial values.

Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.

In Reginald at the theatre the Duchess tries to provoke the sceptical Reginald into admitting that, despite his pose of elaborate cynicism, he at least believes in patriotism. What’s interesting is the way she expresses herself in Kiplingesque clichés and quotes.

‘But there are other things,’ she continued, ‘which I suppose are to a certain extent sacred even to you. Patriotism, for instance, and Empire, and Imperial responsibility, and blood-is-thicker-than-water, and all that sort of thing… Oh, well, “dominion over palm and pine,” you know,’ quoted
the Duchess hopefully; ‘of course we mustn’t forget that we’re all part of the great Anglo-Saxon Empire.’

In among her jumble of platitudes she is quoting Kipling’s most eminent poem, Recessional

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

It’s interesting evidence of the way Kipling’s phrases had penetrated the culture; the way in which a sub-Kipling Imperial worldview was just part of the respectable mindset of the day.

Elsewhere, Reginald jokes about a couple who lived very happily apart, him serving overseas, until they accidentally met one day and discovered they profoundly disagreed on ‘the Fiscal Question’ (a reference, I think, to Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform designed to bind the British Empire together into one trading bloc) and so are divorcing and trying to agree custody of the Persian cats. Reginald is considering turning the story into a drama mockingly titled ‘The Price They Paid For Empire’. In other words, part of the comedy derives from deliberately ridiculing and belittling everything Kipling held dear.

Elsewhere Saki elaborately guys Kipling’s genuinely creepy horror story, At The End of The Passage, when Reginald sneaks off from an after-dinner party game of charades to go and gamble with the servants, later giving his excuse that he was at the end of the passage. ‘I never did like Kipling,’ comments his hostess, Mrs Babwold, so it is assumed that not only the characters but the reader will recognise that phrase, the end of the passage, as the title of a Kipling story.

There are quite a few references to ‘the war’ – for example, the peace poem Reginald is composing relates to the ongoing conflict, and elsewhere he jokes:

‘And nowadays there are always the Johannesbourgeois, who bring a Cape-to-Cairo atmosphere with them — what may be called the Rand Manner, I suppose.’

In a play on ‘the Grand manner’. These are all references to the Boer War (1899 to 1902) and show that Saki’s stories are very aware of their times, are more full of topical and contemporary references than people think.

‘There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?’
‘If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.’

In its studied frivolity and its awareness of contemporary British politics and international affairs, Saki’s stories are a kind of antidote to everything earnest and manly about Kipling and his circle of Imperial visionaries.

Saki and Oscar Wilde

It’s easy to accuse Saki of being a poor man’s Oscar Wilde and it feels like Reginald owes more or less everything to the dandies of Wilde’s plays and Dorian Grey, except that most of his bon mots are not quite as polished and silvery as Wilde’s. Wilde is an incomparable prose stylist, Saki a lot less so.

Also Saki, despite appearance to the contrary, is firmly embedded in his times, as the references to the Boer War or Tariff Reform suggest, a topicality which becomes dominant in his invasion novel, When William Came. Completely different from Wilde who set his stories in an upper class fairyland. Saki’s stories always have this element of topicality about them.

But this was just the very start of his career. Soon it was to become clear that Saki’s real métier wasn’t wit alone, but the macabre and gruesome dressed as comedy. The Reginald strain remains, and some later stories still consist entirely of dandyish wit, but the best ones are known for the bizarre inclusion of wild animals and the black comedy of bullying aunts coming to grisly ends.


Related links

Saki’s works

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

The purpling corpse of Uric Burns still hung from the bridge abutment. Photographers clambered around like coked-up marmosets.
(Squeeze Me, page 186)

I suspect that the outstanding feature of this novel was intended to be the extended mockery of President Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania Trump, who both appear as speaking characters, the former blustering at press conferences or failing to get it up with his mistress, the latter relieving the boredom of her gilded cage by having an affair with her Secret Service bodyguard, on one memorable occasion emerging dripping naked from her bath and ordering her to **** her.

However, two things militate against the book being quite the excoriating sensation Hiaasen and his editors may have planned:

  1. Trump has finally gone, as of January 2021, and it’s surprising – but then again, maybe not – how quickly we’ve stopped giving a damn about him.
  2. Trump has been trumped by the small matter of a worldwide pandemic which has rocked every aspect of our societies, and shows no signs of going away.

Presumably Hiaasen was putting the finishing touches to this novel in spring 2020 when the pandemic first arrived. He’s been canny enough to slip references to it into the narrative but it doesn’t affect the plot at all, indeed, it would be difficult to see how you could have a comedy thriller set during a lockdown. But somehow even the fleeting references to COVID (pages 8, 29, 56, 105) are enough to drag the reader out of Hiaasen’s grotesque fantasy-land and into our all-too-real present.

Plot summary

As usual, as soon as you open a Hiaasen novel the reader is bombarded with a host of characters, each with their own complex backstories and history, who are brought together by a a premise, by one specific incident, the more garish and grotesque the better, whose ramifications rumble on and spread out and ensnare everyone in comic (and sometimes very violent) consequences for just shy of 400 pages.

Angie Armstrong

Angela ‘Angie’ Armstrong runs a wild animal control company ‘Discreet Captures’ i.e. if you’ve got a wild raccoon in your kitchen or a bear blunders into your garden, Angie’s the woman you call to sort it out. She’s five foot three tall and her Army father taught her to address all males as ‘sir’. She was married for a while to Dustin, 21 years older and a good-looking life coach (p.44). However, Dustin didn’t like critters at all, which put a strain on the marriage, then Angie caught him being unfaithful (as happens in most Hiaasen marriages), in this case with an equestrian named Alexandria, so they divorced. She still keeps in touch with Dustin’s son, grown-up, reasonable Joel, who comes to stay every other weekend. Angie’s latest boyfriend is a Merrill Lynch banker named Jesse, who gets casually dumped fairly early on (p.106).

Angie got a job as a wildlife officer with the state of Florida but blew this when out on patrol she saw a drunken slob deliberately run his airboat over a grazing deer. Angie motored straight over and arrested the ‘fuckstick’ (p.37) who continued to insult and abuse her so intensely that she fed his left arm into the maw of a tame alligator named Lola. Yes. Angie takes no nonsense.

The case went to court where she learned the fuckstick’s name was Pruitt. He was fined but Angie was sent to Gadsden prison for 14 months for use of excessive force and discharged from state service. Now, every day at 6pm, Pruitt phones up from a different payphone and breathes revolting threats and abuse down the phone. Angie gives sardonic replies and drives him mad by never losing her temper and referring to him as ‘sir’ throughout.

Angie is, in other words, the latest in a line of tough Hiaasen heroines such as Merry Mansfield in Razor Girl, Honey Santana in Nature Girl, Jolayne Lucks in Lucky You or Erin in Strip Tease.

The Burmese python

Late one night Angie gets a call from Tripp Teabull, manager of the Lipid Estate in Palm Beach. This is a huge mansion complete with ballroom, manicured grounds and ornamental lake where very up-scale parties, receptions and fund raisers are held. Costs quarter of a million to hire for the night without catering.

Teabull is calling because the head gardener, Mauricio, and his crew have discovered an eighteen-foot-long Burmese python lazing in the branches of one of the trees in the grounds with a big lump half way down it. As so often, Hiaasen pauses the narrative for a few pages to give a background explanation of an aspect of his novel, in this case the genuine proliferation of Burmese pythons in South Florida: they were originally bought as pets but managed to escape into the wild, whose tropical climate suits them perfectly.

The novel opens on the night of a big right-wing political fundraiser being given at the Lipid Estate and attended by the usual set of South Florida millionaires, their wives and widows. It opens just at the moment when one of a circle of rich widows, 72-year-old Katherine ‘Kiki’ Pew Fitzsimmons has gone missing, leaving only a cocktail glass and one shoe down by the lake.

Little old lady missing? Huge python with a suggestive bulge in its gut? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to instantly suspect the two are connected.

So Angie is called out to the Estate and charged with getting rid of the python without using a gun or anything which might scare the super-rich guests up in the main house. After some faffing she decapitates the python with a razor sharp machete and gets some of the estate’s bigger guys to roll it up into a coil, stuff it into a box along with ice, put the head in a separate (smaller) box, and carry them to her pickup truck.

Then she drives it to the storage units (Safe’n’Sound) where she stores dead animals on ice before she’s got enough to make a full load and it’s worth driving a hundred miles west into the wilderness where she’s developed a secret burial ground for them. More respectful, and causes less questions, than just dumping them in the garbage.

Uric and the Prince

Job done, right? However, shortly afterwards Angie’s apartment is burglarised, the crims taking her checkbook and laptop. This, we discover, is at the behest of none other than Teabull, the Lipid Estate manager. Terrified that the python really ate the old millionairess Kiki, he wants to totally get rid of the evidence and so commissioned a couple of lowlifes, Uric Burns, and his assistant, ‘a dull-eyed fuckwit’ (p.48) who insists on being called Prince Paladin (real name is Keever Bracco, p.83) to find out where Angie stores her dead animals and to steal back the python corpse and safely dispose of it where cops will never find it.

These two dumb gimps stole Angie’s laptop in order to find out what storage depot Angie uses, in order to break into that and steal the python, but they are so immensely dim that after driving round all night, they report right back to the Lipid estate to ask Teabull where to take it. The latter is understandably  furious since the whole purpose of the heist was to remove the snake as far as humanly possible from the Lipid Estate and here they are, having brought it right back and risking maximum incrimination!

Teabull hurriedly gives the crooks details of a new construction site going up out west, which is still having the foundations laid, with big holes being filled with cement. Teabull pulls a favour with the site foreman, Jackson, buying his crew lunch at a local restaurant so that the site is empty at just the right time for Uric and the Prince to rock up and excavate a hole in the soggy cement. But when they open the boot to bury the snake they find it has thoroughly defrosted and not only that, it has kind of unzipped to reveal a little old lady folded up inside its gut. After they’ve stopped throwing up, the pair bury the lady in the hole in the concrete but there isn’t time to find a new bit of fresh cement and dig a hole in it, before the crew start arriving back from lunch so the two dimwits drive off at speed with a decomposing python in their boot.

However, there’s a detail. Uric is quicker to stop leaning away and throwing up when they first open the boot than his accomplice Prince Paladin and so spots that the decaying lady is wearing big diamond earrings and a necklace of conch pearls. He grabs them while the Prince is still puking. But in trying to get the pearl necklace off, Uric snaps it and a number of pearls roll free into the boot.

Second unfortunate thing is that, when the crims drive off at speed they, hit one of those railway lines crossing the road and embedded in it, which gives the car enough of a big bump to spring the boot open with the result that the snake corpse goes flying out along with some of the incriminating pearls…

Fay Riptoad

Back to Kiki’s rich friends. It is a minor riff but quite funny the way Hiaasen characterises the really rich whose circle old Kiki inhabited by showing that everyone belongs to this or that eminent family the source of whose wealth is humorously signposted along with their surname. Thus Kiki was the grand-daughter of Dallas Austin Pew ‘of the aerosol Pews’; her first husband was Huff Cornbright, ‘of the anti-freeze and real estate Cornbrights’; after Huff drowned while fishing, she remarried Mott Fitzsimmons ‘of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses’; and she is good friends with Fay Alex Riptoad ‘of the compost and iron ore Riptoads’. (The same gag is repeated again on page 122).

This latter lady, Fay Alex, is head of the POTUS Pussies, shrill ageing cheerleaders for ‘the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief’ (p.8). Being tremendously bossy, on the night Kiki goes missing, Fay takes it on herself to phone and summon the local Palm Beach chief of police, Jerry Crosby (backstory p.53) and insisting that he drop everything to search for her missing friend. Luckily Jerry has developed ample skills at handling the very rich without losing his temper.

Enter the First Lady

Now, I hear you ask, where does the president’s wife come into all this? Well, she is travelling in the usual ten-car motorcade from the president’s residence, the ironically named Casa Bellicosa, when it draws to a halt because the car in front has come across a decapitated python lying across the road. Yep, the First Lady’s motorcade has come across the very same snake corpse which flew out the boot as Uric and the Prince fled the building site where they’d buried Kiki only a few minutes earlier.

In other words, Tripp Teabull wanted the python disposed of as discreetly as possible but instead, due to Uric’s incompetence, it has come to the attention of the President’s wife and the US Secret Service.

The president’s wife’s bodyguards and secret agents swarm everywhere talking into their lapel radios like they do in the movies, before establishing it’s just a weird coincidence rather than some kind of terrorist threat. But one thing leads to another and the security forces identify Angie Armstrong as a leading animal wrangler in the locality. With the result that the Secret Service calls her in to deal with the snake corpse and she is, understandably puzzled, that she is dealing with the very snake corpse she had safely stashed in the storage depot a day earlier. At this point she tells the authorities all about how her apartment was burgled and then her storage area broken into and the snake being stolen, and they all ask themselves: Why?

So this is how Angie finds herself being interviewed by Special Agent Paul Ryskamp, who’s tasked by the Feds with following up on the weird incident which delayed the First Lady’s motorcade. He’s a nice guy. She’s a nice girl. Can you see where this is heading?

Diego Beltrán

So far, so macabre and gruesome and satirical. Things take a notably more serious turn when we discover that on the very same night that a drunk, stoned Kiki was eaten by a giant python, a small people smuggling boat hit the beach not far away, carrying illegal immigrants from Central America including one Diego Beltrán who is to become a dominant figure in the narrative.

As it happens, Diego has already been resident in the States where he had a visa to stay while he completed a degree, so he’s well educated and fluent in English and duly returned to his native Honduras. But life didn’t work out back home, so now here he is, having paid to be smuggled back into the States, along with 20 other illegals.

After they’re dumped on the beach, the passengers all split up. Diego is tramping along a highway when he discovers, at the place a rail line crosses it, something gleaming down in the groove of the track and picks up a shiny conch pearl, obviously one of the pearls from Kiki’s necklace. It is a fateful moment.

Diego goes on to get a low-paid manual job but a few days later is picked up in a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When he’s taken to the police station and turns out his pockets, everyone sees the conch pearl. It is listed and reported, and this triggers a match with missing person Kiki Fitzsimmons, who is reported as last seen wearing diamond earrings and a conch pearl necklace.

So before he knows it, Diego has been accused by the cops of murdering Kiki. Not only that but, because the python corpse held up the First Lady’s motorcade, the FBI get involved, too. Not only that, but the name of this suspect and the fact that he’s an illegal have been quickly gathered by the poisonous Fay Riptoad and passed on, via her close contacts, to the dim, racist, know-nothing, knee-jerk ‘commander in chief’ and, to the horror of all the good reasonable people in the book (namely Angie,  local police chief Jerry Crosby and Paul Ryskamp) the C-in-C delivers an ad lib speech from his golf course, where he singles out the murder of his ‘good friend’ Kiki Fitzsimmons by illegal immigrant Diego Beltrán as just the kind of dire threat from foreigners and criminals which America is facing. ‘That’s why we gotta build a wall, folks, to keep these murderers and rapists out of our beautiful country’ etc.

Within hours an angry mob of C-in-C supporters has assembled outside the Palm Beach County jailhouse where Diego is being held, egged on by right-wing talk-show radio hosts, demanding his immediate lynching or hanging. His name is quickly converted into a slogan chanted by the mob and repeated in the media: ‘No More Diegos!’

This barely needs any commentary. It is intended to be scalding satire on the stupidity and bigoted xenophobia of the moronic president and his base.

Uric and the Prince are identified

Angie, Jerry and Paul had each in their ways been quietly following up on identifying the crooks who burgled Angie and stole the python. They have got as far as identifying Uric and the Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco from various photos and CCTV footage.

Now there is a further plot development because, when a reward is offered for any news about Kiki, not too bright Uric decides he’ll claim it, so he calls the anonymous crime hotline and reveals where the body of Kiki is buried in the recently laid concrete of a new housing development and also accuses the Prince of carrying out the crime.

When Kiki’s body is then found, it confirms Uric’s story, and closed circuit TV from the site confirms the make of car the crims used, and also shows it driving off at speed. A related camera at the railway crossing shows clear as day how this same car momentarily jumped into the air as it hit the rail bump, the boot flew open and a massive snake corpse flew out.

The good guys form a team

Angie is the link between Jerry the police chief and Paul the FBI agent and by about page 200 she invites them both to a bar for a meal where they meet and form a kind of team. By now they have pretty much all the evidence they need to piece together the sequence of events:

  • python swallows Kiki
  • Angie kills python and takes it to storage on ice
  • Teabull commissions Uric and the Prince to break into Angie’s apartment, find the name of the storage site, break into that and steal the python
  • they go to bury it at the building site but discover Kiki’s body inside the snake, bury that and run out of time to dig a separate body for the snake so drive off at speed
  • when they hit the rail line the boot flies open and the snake flies out but they carry on driving
  • minutes later the First Lady’s motorcade arrives and is halted while the Feds check out the weird dead snake, then eventually move on
  • Angie is called for a second time to dispose of the snake and is brought into contact with the authorities
  • that night Diego Beltrán is walking along the same road when he spots a conch pearl amid the rails
  • a few days later he’s picked up by the authorities as an illegal and the pearl is discovered, connecting him to Kiki
  • somehow the connection between dead Kiki, the pearls and an illegal immigrant is leaked to the President who immediately shapes it to his anti-immigrant narrative and he gives an extempore speech in which he blames Diego for Kiki’s murder
  • a crowd assembles outside the Palm Beach County Gaol where he’s being held, the story goes all over the national press and Diego becomes a symptom of everything evil and wicked which is threatening the US of A

Angie, Jerry and Paul are agonisingly aware that Diego is completely innocent, but the thing has now got so big and so inflamed that it’s going to be hard if not impossible to shift the narrative, and risky for the two lawmen to get involved. Difficult for individuals to go up against the full force of the Presidential propaganda machine and his attack media. The whole thing has spiralled into, as Angie puts it: ‘a five-star clusterfuck’ (p.153).

Donald and Melania Trump

I knew Trump was referenced in the book but I was curious to see how Hiaasen would handle it. Initially he is a peripheral figure, satirically referred to throughout as ‘the commander in chief’. Presumably it is for legal purposes that he is never referred to by name. His Miami home is jokily referred to as ‘Casa Bellicosa’. Some of his (fictional tweets) are quote verbatim, full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

It is a winning piece of satire that the rich old ladies have formed a club named the POTUS Pussies, referencing the commander-in-chief’s famous quote about grabbing pussy. He is referred to as crude and blustering, as ‘that dysfunctional hump in the White House’ (p.189) – all in all, par for the course, by the standards of American liberals who subjected Trump to four years of scathing criticism.

Then about half way through the novel things change when the Trump figure directly intervenes in the Diego case. Things change from being generalised satire about his crude blustering character to becoming a concrete demonstration of what his rabble-rousing xenophobia means for a real individual, a real person whose life is being wrecked. The commander-in-chief figure changes from being merely pathetic to becoming positively malevolent.

In the earlier parts of the book there are more scenes featuring Melania Trump, riding in the motorcade, prowling her private apartments at the Casa Bellicosa, bored and horny.

I wonder whether it was for legal reasons that neither of them are named. The president is referred to as  the president or commander-in-chief, never by name. Indeed, early on Hiaasen adopts the comic strategy of referring to both of them by the codewords assigned to them by the Secret Service.

Thus Melania is never named, but referred to throughout as Mockingbird, her codename, a curiously poignant name. The president’s codeword is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds mighty. With typical ignorance he asks if he can visit a zoo to see some real-life mastodons but nobody is brave enough to tell him that mastodons, a generic term for woolly mammoths and suchlike, died out during the last ice age.

We see Mockingbird in her car, interacting with her dishy bodyguard, named ‘Keith Josephson’ (which is actually a pseudonym assigned him by the service; his birth name was Ahmet Youssef which, understandably, the Service want to keep concealed from the xenophobic commander in chief, p.86, another piece of satire on the president’s idiotic xenophobia. Youssef’s full backstory is given on pages 281 to 283).

Possibly the most scandalous thing in the book is that Mockingbird is described as having an affair with Youssef/Keith. We first realise this when she insists he hands her a towel as she emerges naked from a luxury bath, and she then orders him to **** her. Then we get used to her ordering him to service her at short notice in a variety of luxury locations. But as the story progresses we realise he, Keith/Youssef, is genuinely in love with her, genuinely thinks she is different with him, even after people start to talk and rumours about them to circulate.

Trump insults

The funny thing is that Donald Trump had already been referenced in a number of earlier Hiaasen novels, way before he showed any political ambitions, as an epitome of American over-wealthy  narcissism. It’s an epic irony that the man Hiaasen had been mocking for decades as an embodiment of American shallowness ended up becoming 45th President of the United States. The fact it happened is beyond satire and what it says about contemporary American society needs no comment.

The president, according to those who know him best:

  • has no memory
  • has feet like moist loaves
  • is a ‘fat toad’ (p.248)
  • is ‘paranoid, draft-dodging, whore hopping…’ (p.261)
  • is described as ‘Presidential Shitweasel’ (p.300) and ‘the climate-denier-in-chief’ (p.301) by Skink
  • is an ‘ignorant clown’ – Ryskval (p.369)
  • is a ‘lying puke-bucket’ – Angie (p.371)

He has a mistress, Suzy Spooner (p.293), a chunky pole dancer who calls herself a nutritionist. We meet the poor woman on several occasions, desperately helping the president to adopt a sex position which can work round his bloated gut and the fact he can no longer sustain an erection. It is typical Hiaasen/typical America, that Suzy is at the same time hawking round New York publishers a kiss-and-tell memoir in which she compares the President’s gonads to ‘dessicated chickpeas’ and describes how he snorts like a wildebeest when he climaxes (pages 293 and 294).

The president struggles mightily to have a bowel motion, emerging from the can puffing and panting, and then struggles to get a hold of his belt buckle ‘below the rolling sea of his gut’ (p.313). He’s portrayed as being fully aware of the ‘phoney Facebook ads’ paid for by his supporters (p.314). When he forgets that her dog died over a year ago, Mockingbird simply calls him ‘such a dick’ (p.315).

Tut tut. Not very respectful.

Plot developments

Uric proves what a scumbag he is by murdering his assistant, the dim-witted Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco, weighingt down his body and dumping it in a canal near where he dumped the stolen car they drove the snake around in. This is a rookie crim error, meaning both are soon discovered by the cops.

Uric’s anxiety about the cops’ discovery is itself short-lived as he himself is swiftly bumped off by a hitman hired by the Lipid Estate manager Teabull, who is quickly emerging as the daemon ex machina of the plot.

Rather unprofessionally, Uric’s body is hanged from a suspension bridge along with a suicide note in which he claims complete responsibility for killing Kiki, stealing her jewels and then murdering his accomplice – this is Teabull’s pathetic attempt to get the whole damn story shut down. To little avail. When ‘our team’ of Angie, Jerry and Paul hear about it and read the note they realise how fake it is.

The paranoid rich i.e. Fay Alex Riptoad et al, and their attack dog media, soon embellish the Diego situation to have him being a member of the fearsome DBC-88, the ‘Diego Border Cartel’. Nobody knows what 88 means but it sounds scary (p.221). It is an example of the general fictionalisation of American life in which malicious rumours instantly become poisonous political fact.

To complete his tidy-up strategy, Teabull hires an arsonist to lure Angie in her truck to a fake call-out in a remote location as the sun is setting, and the guy lobs a firebomb in the back of her truck. Both she and Joel who she’d taken along, scramble out of the truck which melts down and is a write-off. But this doesn’t put Angie off, was never likely to.

In the event all Teabull’s efforts come to naught as he is sacked from his job at the Lipid Estate as the media furore around Diego snowballs. A TV station runs an entirely fictitious ‘reconstruction’ of the night Diego and his dastardly accomplices supposedly broke into the estate and abducted little old Kiki,  an entirely fictional recreation which leads to just about every rich charity cancelling its bookings at the Lipid mansion, hence Teabull’s sacking. It is also another example of the fictionalisation of American journalism, the triumph of fakery over news.

Mockingbird’s affair with her Secret Service man becomes increasingly intense. His superior, the same Paul Ryskamp who is beginning an affair with Angie, learns about Keith and the First Lady and warns him off, and steps are taken to reassign him, but Mockingbird intervenes to keep him around as her lover. She and the President never even touch each other, let alone sleep together. Anyway, he’s screwing Suzi Spooner so Mockingbird has no moral qualms.

The return of Skink

But the big revelation of the last third of the novel is the Return of Skink, yes everybody, Skink! Skink is back! And his trusty helper and minder, Jim Tile, an old man now, who walks with a cane and lives at the Rainbow of Life Senior Centre. It’s Jim who gets in touch with Angie Armstrong, tells her he sat in back during her court case for mutilating Pruitt on behalf of a friend who admired her style i.e. the old eco-vigilante and ex-governor, once known as Clinton Tyree, who has for a long time now (well, ever since Hiaasen’s second novel), gone under the pseudonym Skink.

Jim gives Angie a map to Skink’s secret base deep in the Everglades and she hires a flatboater to take her out there. Just to keep up his quota of outlandish concepts, Hiaasen tells us that in the empty  eye socket where Skink usually sports a glass eye, he is currently incubating an iguana egg. This doesn’t faze Angie, used to all kinds of weird critter situations, so she passes the Skink test.

He then offers her some roadkill coyote for dinner, which is standard. But we discover he has a new habit: he is continually micro-dosing himself with acid to stave off boredom and despair, and he has slipped a little into her rum.

Which explains why, when Skink takes her into his snake enclosure, Angie finds them glowing with fiery red eyes and changing colour. Snake enclosure? Yes. For it is Skink who has been collecting king-sized pythons and deploying them in Presidential hangouts. He was responsible for deploying mega pythons into: a vanload of the President’s favourite key lime pies; the First Lady’s favourite fashion boutique, plus 2 or 3 other random locations. Did he deploy the monster python which ate Kiki?

Anyway, his obsession with giant pythons explains why Skink’s camp is among trees from which hang hundreds of long dried snakeskins, which the pythons have shed. Half way through their meeting, Angie realises that Skink not only took interest in her trial but paid for her defence lawyer. So he has deep involvement with her going back some way. With that revelation, he shoos Angie back to the shore of the island where the airboat driver has returned to collect her, and she stumbles, dazed, back towards civilisation after this trippy encounter with Hiaasen’s great anti-hero.

The novel heads towards the traditional Big Climax, which is the so-called Commander’s Ball, hosted by Mastodon at the Casa Bellicosa. Seems pretty obvious Skink has got something big planned, like releasing all the pythons he’s been collecting.

Meanwhile, back in what you could call the dirty realist end of the plot, Diego, still in prison, foils one attack by a white supremacist, but is then badly stabbed and beaten up by some ‘Aryan Brothers’. (Look them up. American prisons are full of white supremacist groups. No wonder our media admire America so much: so much to copy, so much to learn from.)

Diego is hospitalised, his plight is dire, a friendly Hispanic tells him there’s a ten grand bounty on his head, eleven if they cut off his ‘nut sack’. His defence lawyers quit because they’ve been receiving death threats. The gaol guards are also threatened and/or tired of the extra hassle of protecting him. They include a new leather belt in his next laundry delivery. One of them gives him a full bottle of sleeping pills. These are not-too-subtle hints that he kill himself. Thus the fate of illegals in the US ‘justice’ system’ i.e. hounded to death.

The President’s Ball

Well, the President’s Ball does serve as the climax to the novel alright, though, to tell the truth, it is a little underwhelming. Highlights are:

1. Throughout the novel there’s been a running thread about the President’s tanning sunbed, and the guys who service and clean it. In the days leading up to the ball there are some unexplained malfunctions so it is no real surprise when it goes badly wrong just hours before the big event, turning the President’s face aubergine purple and burning his hair. With the result that he appears on the stage and delivers a big speech hiding his face behind the only thing they could rustle up at short notice – a Bakongo tribal fertility mask!!!! (p.350) More clearly than ever, you can see how Hiaasen goes way beyond ‘satire’ into a realm of lunatic farce.

2. Mastodon addresses his puzzled millionaire guests from behind his African mask but, when he turns to introduce his lovely wife, she isn’t there – and this is because she is in her private rooms having wild sex with Special Agent Keith/Youssef (in a tiny detail, she is riding him cowgirl style, the position which I’ve noticed, is favoured by all of Hiaasen’s strong, independent female protagonists)

3. As we might have predicted, a massive Burmese python does turn up in the grounds of the Casa Bellicosa, where it disturbs the most repellent of the POTUS Pussies, the cohort of super-rich widow supporters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fay Alex Riptoad. Unfortunately the python interruption occurs just as she is having the front of her expensive dress unbuttoned by an over-sexed guest, Stanleigh Cobo, who thinks he’s ingested a heroic amount of erection-inducing narwhal horn (a long story about erectile dysfunction and the lengths the rich will go to in order to secure cures).

Secret Agent Paul Ryskval had made sure to invite Angie Armstrong to the ball and so, when Fay’s screams attract all the guests, Angie takes centre stage, the only one with the balls and expertise to confront the huge swaying python and Angie suddenly realises that it is tripping. Skink is dosing his giant pythons with LSD.

Still, in the end, Angie manages to decapitate this one like the last one, although her pretty ball dress does get covered in spraying blood in the process. Once the body is taken away by ground staff, and the guests wander off gossiping, Angie goes to the ladies loo to have a good cry. When she comes out, gentlemanly special agent Ryskamp tells her how fabulous she looks and how brave she was. Which cheers her up, a bit.

Angie and the First Lady

The president addressing the crowd in an African mask and a tripping python menacing his chief cheerleader just as she is being undressed for sex, this ought to be funny, and it reads fairly funny in summary, but in practice, somehow, I found it a bit inevitable and, I’m afraid, under-whelming. Maybe I’ve read too many Hiaasens and know what to expect.

But if the doomed gala ball turns out to be a bit of a damp squib, maybe what follows at the end of the evening is the real climax of the plot. Angie is still at the ball and slips a message to the First Lady asking to see her. Mockingbird is curious to meet the woman who dealt with the giant snake and so agrees, and the two women meet on the seawall of the Casa Bellicosa (well, accompanied at a distance by all her security men).

Here Angie explains that a) she knows all about Mockingbird’s affair with Keith, and b) that Keith is a Muslim, which would play terribly with the C-in-C’s supporter, and c) she knows all about the President’s affair with the pole dancer, d) who is writing a no-holds-barred memoir about her affair with the President.

She, Angie, will blow all this wide open, leak it all to the press, ruin everyone’s lives, unless Mockingbird uses her influence, and this threat, to get the President to give Diego Beltrán a full pardon and fast track his appeal for political asylum.

Which is what Mockingbird proceeds to do, encountering the President as he stumbles out of a state room where he just tried and miserably failed to take the pole dancer from behind. Mockingbird makes plain she will blow the whole gaff, expose their sham marriage and list his many affairs to the press unless he releases Diego. So Mastodon caves in.

I hadn’t mentioned that Jim Tile had used some old connections to get invited to the president’s ball, dressing snappily and toting a stylish cane. Right at the end of the evening, after she has had her seawall meeting, he accompanies Angie out onto the steps of the mansion as chauffeur-driven cars line up to collect the super-rich. Jim climbs into one which, she suddenly realises, is driven by Skink. She races after it, flags it down, and is amazed at Skink’s stylish appearance. He has washed and combed his hair and put on a suit specially.

I thought the funniest thing in the entire book was the fact that the iguana whose egg he had been carrying in his empty eye socket has now hatched.

Skink smiled down at the breast pocket of his suit jacket. A little bright green head was peeking out. ‘We’re working on our manners,’ Skink whispered. (p.378)

It’s almost the only moment of gentleness. There’s plenty of humour elsewhere in the book, but it’s of the savage, violent, macabre or super-cynical fuckstick variety. This was one tiny moment of humanity. Thank you, Skink.

It’s quickly over though because when Angie asks what that loud banging is, Skink explains it’s her stalker, Pruitt, stashed in the boot of the car. Skink is going to take him out to the wilderness to teach him ‘how to be at one with nature’. That’s comedy, too, but of the more tough-minded, cruel variety.

Epilogue

Diego Beltrán is freed on orders from the president, is smuggled out the back of the gaol, given a wig and fake moustache and transported north to New Jersey.

Turns out that Skink unleashed not one but a host of monster pythons at a number of other charity balls on the same night. Police chief Jerry Crosby drove round to all of the events, shooting them dead, but was filmed doing so, clips which made their way onto YouTube and killed the Florida hospitality sector stone dead. Why have a party in Florida if a python might eat your guests? The industry’s anger falls on the chief and he quits before he’s fired.

Mockingbird has Youssef acknowledged as her lover, but still kept on by the Secret Service because she blackmails the Secret Service bosses with her knowledge of a hushed-up drug orgy among the agents.

On the last pages Angie hires an airboat and skims out through the Everglades to visit Skink in his new base. No more snakes, he transported them all north to freedom. And Pruitt? Skink attached an electronic tracking collar round his neck and set him free in the wilderness. He’s still alive, somewhere.

And then the punchline to the whole story: the huge Burmese python which ate Kiki Fitzsimmons? Turns out it wasn’t Skink’s idea. He didn’t set it loose on the Lipid Estate. It made its own way there. It was a normal, free python doing its own thing. Nothing to do with Skink, the incident only gave him the inspiration for his later battle plan. Angie laughs with relief, Skink is off the hook and takes none of the blame.

THE END.

The environment

This is the first novel in his long career where Hiaasen seems to have given up on saving the environment which is, I think, the appropriate response. The fight to save the environment has been decisively lost. Eco-systems around the world, along with the countless species they contain, are being exterminated on a daily basis. Global warming is only one aspect of the man-made destruction of the environment, of all environments, going on all the time, everywhere, as Angie mournfully reflects:

It didn’t seem to matter who was in power – nothing got better in the besieged, breathtaking world she cared about most. The Everglades would never be the lush unbroken river it once was; the shallows of Florida Bay would never be as pure and sparkling with fish; the bleached dying reefs of the Keys would never bloom fully back to life. Being overrun and exploited was the historical fate of places so rare and beautiful…

The President of the United States was a soulless imbecile who hated the outdoors but, in Angie’s view, at this point Teddy Roosevelt himself couldn’t turn the tide if he came back from the dead. All the treasured wilderness that had been sacrificed at the altar of growth was gone for all time. More disappeared every day; nothing ever changed except the speed of destruction, and only because there were fewer pristine pieces to sell off, carve up and pave. (p.318)

Fruity and novel language

Hiaasen’s characters swear freely and so does the narrator. ‘Fuckstick’, ‘shitbird’, ‘cockhead’ and ‘Señor Fuckwhistle’ (p.258) being some of the nicer expressions characters use about each other. Here are some other samples of state-of-the-art Yankee slang:

  • Prince was flipping through channels like a gacked-up chimp. (p.74)
  • ‘The Feds cut your time ’cause you flipped. You rat-fucked your friends.’ (p.74) = betrayed.
  • ‘Hit the shower, bro’. You smell like a fucking grow house.’ (p.173) I think ‘grow house’ means the kind of indoors greenhouse space used to grow marijuana.
  • Uric ended up paying the Prince the full three hundred he wanted, which he ended up spending on chronic. (p.173) ‘Among cannabis consumers, chronic can be used as slang for marijuana itself, but many users reserve the term for particularly potent strains of the plant’ (Dictionary.com)
  • nutsack = scrotum
  • knuckle bump, aka fist bump
  • ‘I got a dope new truck’ (p.214) – where ‘dope’ presumably means cool, neat, great.
  • ‘I can’t take a chance that he hasn’t suddenly stripped his gears.’ (p.242) presumably meaning lost it, gone mad, gone psycho.
  • Two white-clad Brits stood in wait while the driver, whose name was Guppo, backed up the gaily painted Betancourt Pastries chariot. (p.247) ‘Stood in wait’?
  • One day Nutter was approached in the chow line by an inmate who said a group of patriots on the outside was offering serious bank for the death of Diego Beltrán. (p.254) = big money
  • A buzz kill = something which destroys the mood, specially a romantic mood around sex (p.280)
  • Studly = like a stud, as in ‘a studly lover’ (p.326)
  • Reamed = getting reamed, being reamed = a strong telling-off (p.33)
  • Rails = lines of cocaine (p.366)
  • Toasted = stoned (p.380)

Fleabag

I was surprised when Hiaasen has his sympathetic protagonist, Angie, in a spare evening, catch an episode of Fleabag, the award-winning British TV series. He also has a character, the one-handed psycho Pruitt, reference Game of Thrones, specifically the one-handed character Jaime Lannister (p.257). Gotta keep up with the popular culture, I suppose.


Credit

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020. All references are to the 2021 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (2013)

Sonny Summers looked up, blinking like a toad in a puddle of piss.
(Bad Monkey, page 186)

Hiaasen’s thirteenth novel opens with the usual daunting barrage of information about a challengingly large number of characters and their often complex and detailed backstories, all quickly introduced in the first 40 or 50 pages, before the usual, ever-escalating sequence of farcical, satirical and often very violent complications kicks in.

The setup

Andrew Yancy (backstory p.33) is a 6-foot-two, middle-aged cop, working for small time Monroe County which, when you look it up, is a small jurisdiction far out at the westernmost point of the Florida Keys and whose county seat is Key West.

Yancy used to work up in glamorous Miami but was forced to take retirement after he drunkenly exposed the crooked machinations of a corrupt fellow cop, Sergeant Johnny Mendez, who was running a scam whereby he backdated arrests for crimes for which rewards had been posted, in order to crookedly claim the rewards. Partly because of the way Yancy denounced him (in a drunk phone call from a bar), partly because of cop solidarity, Mendez was exonerated and it was Yancy who was forced to resign (p.16). So although he’s a cop, he’s also the victim of a miscarriage of justice, sort of.

Yancy is not a clean-cut hero, he is a dope-smoking hard case. His current girlfriend is Bonnie Witt, who’s still married to her husband of 14 years, Dr Clifford Witt. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Yancy has recently seriously assaulted Clifford. Yancy was cleaning his car with one of those hand-held mini-hoovers, on a public street, when Clifford and Bonnie happened to walk by and Yancy clearly heard Clifford insulting and cussing Bonnie. Being a headstrong, impulsive guy, Yancy leapt out of his car and chased a screaming Clifford down the street, till he tackled him to the ground, tore down his trousers, and shoved the hoover attachment up his ass. Yes. It’s played for laughs, but quite violent laughs.

Clifford was Yancy’s dermatologist, that’s how he got to meet and seduce Bonnie. Now Clifford is threatening to take Yancy to court and Bonnie wants Yancy to cut one of those plea bargain deals which you always get in American cop TV shows and movies. The local state attorney is Billy Dickinson who wants to avoid a scandal. Yancy’s attorney at the public defender’s office is called Montenegro.

When a severed arm is hauled out the sea off Key West by two honeymooners from Wisconsin, James and Louisa Mayberry, who are on Captain Keith Fitzpatrick‘s hireboat, the arm is handed over to the local police force which is run by the sheriff of Monroe County, a none-too-bright good old boy named Sonny Summers.

Summers is in thrall to the Florida Keys tourist industry and the last thing he wants is publicity about severed arms, so Summers tells one of his detectives, Rogelio Burton, to ring up his old pal, Yancy, and instruct him to take the arm (in an icebox) up to Miami and use his old contacts to persuade the authorities there that the murder happened off their beaches and so falls within their jurisdiction. The Monroe County forensic examiner, Dr Lee Rawlings has done an initial post mortem, but the boys up in Miami will do a better one.

So, with the hope it will get him back in Monroe’s good books, Yancy reluctantly drives the 90 minutes up Interstate One to Miami where he gets an assistant medical examiner, Dr Rosa Campesino, to examine the arm. She finds a small shark tooth in it but resolutely refuses to accept responsibility or notify the Miami police. Yancy is stuck with the arm and will have to take it back to Monroe County.

Taking advantage of being back on his old home turf, Yancy parks his car outside Johnny Mendez’s home for a bit, toying with hanging the severed arm from the rear view mirror of the creep who got him fired, but then thinks better of it, reluctantly turns and motors back to the Keys.

Here he keeps the arm on ice while he has Bonnie over, cooks for her and goes to bed where she gives more details about the plea bargain she wants to arrange for his assault case. They have sex. Afterwards she springs the surprise that she, Bonnie, is herself a fugitive from justice, her real name is Plover Chase, she was a schoolteacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she was accused of extorting sex from a 15-year-old (boy) pupil, Cody, in exchange for giving him A grades. She fled to Florida before her trial,  saw that Clifford’s medical practice was advertising for a secretary, she got the job and seduced him into marriage. Huh. Yancy had no idea.

Yancy’s lawyer tells him that his boss, the prosecutor and the sheriff have arranged a deal so Yancy goes to see his boss, Sonny, to find out what it is. Sonny tells him Dr Witt has agreed to drop all charges  so long as Yancy quits the police force – but it’s OK, because he, Sonny, has found Yancy a new job as… a restaurant inspector! To replace the previous county food inspector, Randolph Nilsson, who died of… food poisoning!! He is given a food inspector instructor, Tommy Lombardo (p.75). Yancy is not happy at all.

It will become a running joke that the most unhygienic restaurant Yancy has to inspect in his new job is called Stoney’s Crab Palace and run by a shifty, apologetic man named Brennan. There are recurrent scenes where Yancy visits and keeps on finding cockroaches in the kitchen and a rat in the freezer. When anyone exasperates him, Yancy always tells them to go eat at Stoney’s Crab Palace, and a bit later we hear, regular as clockwork, that they’re in hospital with food poisoning, ha ha.

It’s also humorous that doing the food inspection job quickly gives Yancy a phobia about eating out, or eating anything prepared by others, and it is a running gag that he loses weight throughout the book as a result.

Pause for thought

All that information – the names and interlocking relationships of 16 or 17 characters, plus snippets of plot and event – is conveyed in just the first 33 densely-packed pages (though I’ve added a few snippets we pick up later on).

  1. It’s a lot to process, and the rest of the narrative continues at the same level of fact packedness.
  2. Reflecting on this made me realise that maybe facts are what Hiaasen has instead of psychology. Hiaasen’s characters are sketched out with quick decisive strokes, but they have no depth. We learn a lot of facts about them but the more we learn, the more the details of their backstories read like corporate dossiers or police files. For example, we keep on learning more and more about Bonnie but she never really gels, as a character.

More people, more events, more information

The severed arm turns out to belong to one Nick Stripling, in his 40s, who had a criminal record for car crash insurance fraud. When, after a week or so, his wife turns up making enquiries, claiming she’s been away in Paris, the DNA from the arm matches the missing man’s DNA, so it’s a positive ID.

Yancy’s boss sends this widow, Eve Stripling, out to Yancy’s house to collect her husband’s severed arm (which Yancy has been keeping in a deep freeze). He hands it over, reasonably professional and polite etc, but as he investigates further, Yancy learns this dead guy, Nick Stripling, had most recently been making money in a Medicare scooter scam, crookedly getting hold of old and vulnerable people’s Medicare accounts, then making fake claims on them, and extracting money from Medicare for the alleged purchase of all kinds of medication and equipment, without the actual patients ever knowing anything about it. Later we discover he’s made over $11 million through this scam.

(Hiaasen has form with disability scams. Compare Stripling’s with the scams run by Mick Stranahan’s creep brother-in-law, Kipper Garth, who was injured in a Skin Tight but not as much as he pretends, and now makes a living sitting in a wheelchair doing TV ads wheedling money out of people disabled in crashes and accidents. Soon as the cameras are off, he stands up and walks round right as rain.)

Yancy attends Nick’s funeral and meets his estranged, sweary daughter Caitlin Cox (and husband Simon, ramrod straight ex-military). Caitlins doesn’t mince her words, furiously claiming her mother is a ‘cunt’ and killed her father. Well, that opens a whole new perspective on the case.

Neville, the Dragon Queen and Andros island

In a separate storyline, we meet Neville Stafford who is a poor old black dude, aged 64 (p.214) who lives on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Neville has lived all his life in the family home on the beach, Green Beach, but now his estranged half-sister, who lives in faraway Canada, is selling it to some white guy named simply Christopher, who plans to build the usual complex of condominiums and leisure facilities, which he is going to name ‘The Curly Tail Lane Resort’.

Neville goes to visit the Dragon Queen, an impressively scrawny, dirty, smelly, scary drunk woman, to ask her to put a voodoo spell on this ‘Christopher’.

Neville has a pet capuchin monkey which he won at a dominoes game from a man who claims he appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Neville has renamed the monkey Driggs and has overfed him on fried food, a bad diet for any animal, making the monkey sick so all its hair has fallen out. It chatters and bites and poops freely. It is the bad monkey of the title. Later on, in a comic touch, it is given a full backstory, as full as any of the human characters gets, with a jokily thorough account of his showbiz forebears, his own biography and character (chapter 23).

Yancy starts an affair with Rosa

Back with Yancy and the main storyline, Bonnie announces that she is moving away because hubby Clifford wants to move north (he still has no idea his wife is having an affair with Yancy). She says goodbye to Yancy and disappears from his life. Weeks go by and Yancy misses her. He phones her a couple of times, and on one phone call she explains that her husband, Dr Cliff, has taken to masturbating while part hanging himself by his belt or with a plastic bag over his head, the latest sex fashion for autoerotic asphyxiation (p.170). Cliff doesn’t invite her to take part, so she’s feeling horny and unsatisfied. But she is hundreds of miles away.

Yancy rings up the dishy Miami pathologist, Dr Rosa Campasino, they meet for lunch and start an affair. On the second or third date they swap details of their ex-spouses, as much-divorced Americans do. Yancy was married to Celia who, after three years or so of marriage, wanted to move north but he didn’t want to leave Florida where he was born and raised, so that was the end of that. Dr Rosa was married to a guy called Daniel till she bought him surfing lessons which led to him having an illicit affair with a lissom 29-year-old paddleboard instructor and, she then discovers, several other women, too (p.130). American Marriage, an institution respected around the world.

The first mate is hit

One evening Yancy meets at a bar with Captain Fitzpatrick, the hireboat captain, to ask him questions about the fishing trip when the arm was hooked. In the same bar is a young drunk dude shouting and bragging with a bottle blonde on his arm. The captain tells Yancy it’s Charlie Phinney, until recently his first mate who, after the arm trip, abruptly quit his job, having come into some money. Suspicious.

No sooner have Charlie and his babe left the bar than shots ring out. Yancy runs outside to discover Charlie shot dead on the pavement, his blonde girlfriend in hysterics, and a scooter zooming off down the road. Upon questioning the girlfriend reveals she is called Madeline and works in a shop that sells very rude t-shirts, owned, she claims, by the Russian mafia, managed by a shifty dud named Prestov.

Over the next hundred pages Yancy becomes convinced that Eve Stripling is having an affair with another man, with the very same ‘Christopher’ who is building the new development on the beach on Andros, that she and her lover killed her husband, hacked off his arm, then paid Charlie to hook it to the fishing line of the honeymoon couple from the north. The whole thing was a scam to make the authorities think Nick died in a boat accident and was eaten up by sharks, so they’ll sign off on his death, forget about it, and his widow can cash her dead husband’s $2 million life insurance.

Long-running feud with a property developer

There’s another running gag, that a short irritable guy from New York, Evan Shook, has invested heavily in buying the plot of land next to Yancy’s house (in the little settlement of Big Pine) and is building a monster mansion there with a view to selling it to out-of-towners. The new mansion is way too large for the area (Shook has clearly bribed the authorities), blocks Yancy’s view of the sunset, and has obliterated stands of trees where sometimes, in the fresh dawn, Yancy used to see the distinctive Keys deer come shyly, nibbling trees or grass. Now the area has been de-natured, levelled and is a building site. Yancy loathes and hates the development and Shook.

It becomes a running gag that each time Shook arranges for a prospective buyer to come and look over the half-built property, Yancy arranges something gruesome to meet them.

  • First it’s the body of a big, fat, dead raccoon which he found dead on the highway and carefully places in the half-built living room. Yuk.
  • Then he pays the local pest guy, Miguel, to install a huge bee hive in one of the bedrooms, which the hapless developer upsets with the result that a cloud of furious bees chase him and the prospective buyers off the property.
  • Then it’s Yancy himself who holes up in one of the empty closets after being attacked, beaten and thrown into the nearby canal by a mystery attacker, an assault from which he only barely escapes with his life. When Shook and the latest potential buyers find him, dripping wet and half naked hiding in one of the closets the next morning, Yancy explains his sorry appearance by claiming to have been attacked by one of the packs of savage feral dogs which prowl the neighbourhood which, understandably, puts the buyers off.
  • A few days later and fully recovered, Yancy late one night rigs up a voodoo / Santería shrine in the half-built house, complete with bones and feathers and blood daubings (p.172). This successfully prevents most of the labourers, who are illegal migrants from the Caribbean, from entering the site the next morning.
  • Next Yancy tells Bonnie and her tubby lover Cody (when they turn up half way through the story) that they can camp out in the half-built house, to Shook’s predictable outrage when he discovers them squatting in his property (p.205). It becomes a very funny running feud and Shook’s ever-increasing outrage, anger and frustration with Yancy is very amusing.

By halfway through the book it’s pretty obvious that Eve Stripling did indeed conspire with the little-seen man named Christopher Grunion (we discover his full name on page 166) to murder her husband, and chop off the body to try and prove it was a sailing accident, and then paid hapless young Christopher to hook up the severed arm.

Dr O’Peele is whacked

‘They’ also bump off the drunkard doctor, Dr Gomez O’Peele, who had been connected with Stripling. O’Peele is found dead with a single bullet to the head with the gun in his hand and the cops categorise the latter as suicide, but Yancy had interviewed him just the day before and forced O’Peele to admit that he knew about Stripling’s Medicare fraud. At this point, Yancy thinks Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling must have learned that Yancy had interviewed O’Peele and suspected that he’d given too much away, maybe even the fact that they’d had Stripling murdered: and that’s why he was bumped off, so he couldn’t be arrested, questioned by the police and so on. Yancy feels partly responsible.

Yancy is attacked

He’s got this far in his investigation, in between his day job of inspecting restaurants, and in between sexy encounters with new lover Dr Campasino, when someone attacks Yancy as he is innocently putting his bin out: whacks him with something heavy upside his head, drags him unconscious to the nearby canal and chucks him in. The cold water wakes Yancy who is savvy enough to pretend to sink to the bottom and then to swim, his lungs bursting, across to the mangroves on the other side of the canal and very carefully surface and not move. The killer surveys the dark water for a while, goes to search Yancy’s house, then departs. It’s after this incident that Yancy decides not to return to his house that night in case the attacker returns and instead holes up in Shook’s half-built mansion next door… where he is found next morning by Shook and his latest set of prospective buyers.

Bonnie returns, with boy friend

Yancy tries to persuade sheriff Summers to let him rejoin the police department as a detective and follow up the case. Summers refuses. Out of the blue Bonnie reappears. Bored of her autoasphyxiating husband she set out on a mission to find the teenage boy who she seduced at school, found him and even though he has matured from a handsome 15 year-old to a balding, stupid fatso, she hooks up with him and the pair have driven down to the Keys and expect Yancy to put them up! As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate already!

The Oklahoma detective

In fact Bonnie comes trailing trouble because a detective from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation turns up, one John Wesley Weiderman, a comically strict, literal, unimaginative and dutiful copper, who is on the trail of the errant Plover Chase aka Bonnie due to her jumping bail all those years ago. Much fun is had with him, starting with Yancy jokingly recommending he have dinner at Stoney’s Crab Palace after which, predictably, he comes down with bad food poisoning, and for the rest of the novel he turns up like a bad penny, at inopportune moments.

Claspers and Egg

Back in the Bahamas we meet a new character, K.J. Claspers (p.202). He used to fly planes smuggling cocaine in from South America. Nowadays, he’s middle aged and flies charter planes around Florida and the Bahamas. At the moment he’s on a retainer from this Christopher Grunion and Eve Stripling, and their goon, the big black hired muscle christened Carter Ecclestone (p.320) but universally referred to as Egg (p.203). When, late one night, Neville climbs over the chain link fence protecting the building site where his family home used to be, Egg appears out of nowhere and badly beats him up.

In fact, to his amazement, Neville discovers that this big chunky bouncer is now shagging the scrawny scarey Dragon Queen. She has a mysterious ability to seduce men, even Egg doesn’t know why he’s with her, specially when she takes to riding around in an electric wheelchair, followed by a small cohort of moaning, swaying devotees. And then she successfully takes Neville’s monkey, the bad monkey of the title, away from him.

Pause for thought 2

This summary has only taken us up to about half way through the plot. In other words, about the same amount of event and character occurs in the second half as I’ve summarised so far, including the one Big Revelation which is central to the plot.

It’s far too much for me to attempt to summarise, but the comic strands – increasing mayhem caused by the increasingly unhinged Bonnie, the comic thread of poor Evan Shook’s half-built house being subjected to endless humiliations by Yancy, Neville’s terror at the Dragon Queen’s increasingly outlandish antics – are brilliantly juxtaposed with the Yancy’s serious investigation into Stripling’s murder, and the other murders which seem to have followed from it. Dr Campasino becomes an increasingly willing assistant and the novel climaxes when they both take a few days off work and fly to Andros to track down for themselves the mysterious ‘Christopher’ figure who seems to be at the centre of all the different plot strands.

It is then that the novel turns quite a lot darker, with the kind of savage and macabre violence which is Hiaasen’s trademark. In a nutshell, the bad guys kidnap Rosa who is being threatened with rape just before the good guys manage to track her down and rescue her. Meanwhile Yancy finds himself staring down the barrel of a sawn-off shotgun and being told he knows far too much to be allowed to live.

And the book reaches its climax just as a tropical hurricane hits the island where all the characters have assembled (although it must be said, the storm is a bit of a disappointment, it blows a few roofs off, knocks over electricity poles and scatters debris round the streets, but isn’t the devastating apocalypse which the reader was secretly hoping for).

For once I won’t summarise the sequence of events leading up to the Big Revelation, nor what the revelation reveals. I’ve given you enough information to guess, or you could read it for yourself.

Are these books thrillers?

Somewhere I’ve read that Hiaasen’s novels are categorised as thrillers, albeit comedy thrillers. I suppose that’s the least bad categorisation, but I think the reader rarely feels much sense of suspense or danger. There’s certainly little or no suspense concerning ‘whodunnit’. Both the ‘good’ guy and the ‘bad’ guys are identified very early on and we can be 100% sure that the good guy will survive and triumph (albeit after navigating some perils and getting beaten up or even shot) and that the bad guys will come to a gruesome and grotesque end.

I suppose Hiaasen’s novels have thriller elements (a crime and a detective and a few violent murders) but these seem secondary compared to the comic incidents, farcically complicated plots and continual stream of ironic reversals, pratfalls, twists and turns and misadventures. The reader reads on not so much to find out the nature of the crime – more often than not we watch the crimes taking place in real time and know exactly who did them – we read on to discover what wickedly grotesque turn of events Hiaasen can dish up next.

Explicit sex

I suppose the sex been there from the start of his career, but in the novels from the Noughties, it feels like the sex in Hiaasen books has become more prominent and more crudely explicit. In Star Island out-of-control pop star Cherry Bunterman sits on Abbott’s thigh and presses her hot pudenda down against him so that he feels her hot ‘wedge’ pushing against his leg. That struck me as unusually explicit and porny.

On page 27 of this book, Yancy is described with his head between Bonnie’s legs, but it isn’t left at that. Bonnie has recently shaved her pubes and so Yancy finds himself rubbing ‘his chin back and forth across her pale stubble’ (p.27).

Later, Yancy and Dr Rosa have sex in the morgue where she works, on one of the stainless steel dissection tables. As so often in Hiaasen, the woman takes the dominant position, hitching up her coat (she’s wearing nothing underneath) straddling and riding him (p.164). Later on, Neville will eavesdrop on the thug Egg being straddled and ridden by the bony drunken voodoo queen (p.236). Near the end of the book Dr Rosa and Yancy have a bath and, again, she straddles and rides him (p.387). The woman riding cowgirl position is definitely Hiaasen’s sexual position of choice (in his fictions). Later, after they’ve flown to Andros, in the hotel, Yancy goes down on Dr Rosa (p.238) while humming Yellow Submarine. I’m sure there is more sex and more explicitly described, than in the first novels from the 1980s. When it’s between characters we are meant to be rooting for (Yancy and Dr Rosa) it is described in reasonably sensitive and sort of loving terms. But elsewhere, sex is portrayed (as I commented in my last review) as having become equivalent to a commercial transaction.

It so happened that one of the most feared divorce lawyers in the tri-state region would be attending that night’s fund-raiser, and Evan Shook’s wife said she planned to fuck him and then hire him. (p.346)

Just hiring him wouldn’t be enough. I understand that Hiaasen’s novels are documentaries or sociological surveys, they are savage farces in which everything is meant to be cranked up and exaggerated. I also understand that sex has always played a central role in the genre of farce because sex is humanity’s weakest point, the fact that human beings have sex lives completely undermines all attempts to portray ourselves as sensible, mature and rational beings.

But all that understood, there is still something particularly rotten and corrupt about the way so many secondary characters in Hiaasen use sex purely as a transaction, our of boredom, to get their way, and have stripped it of any psychological significance whatever.

The American opioid epidemic

Once upon a time, back in the golden 1960s, there was a brief moment when ‘drugs’ were portrayed as an escape from humdrum, boring, bourgeois lifestyles. But 50 years later, they are universally available, widely taken, and the new wave of highly addictive painkillers has made junkies of large numbers of otherwise traditional and respectable people in the Great American Opioid Epidemic.

Hiaasen knows all about this and makes Bonnie’s offensively self-righteous husband an immoral quack who is adding his halfpennyworth to the misery of millions.

Dr Clifford Witt had recently retired from the practice of medicine, having invested in a chain of lucrative storefront pain clinics that dispensed Percocets and Vicodins by the bucket to a new wave of American redneck junkies. (p.20)

Americanisms

In another review I’ve pointed out how, across the 35 years of Hiaasen’s publishing career, you can watch the American language mutate and evolve. One aspect of this is the words which have been shortened, like carry bag where we’d say carri-er bag, swim trunks where we’d say swim-ming trunks, high strung where we’d say high-ly strung. Maybe making words shorter is the lexical equivalent of fast food.

In other places, I enjoyed collecting instances of new words or new uses for existing words:

  • a bounce house = bouncey castle
  • a bumblefuck = idiot
  • frosted = to be angry
  • a fuckstick = idiot
  • a goober = a peanut, a fool (p.221)
  • jazzed = pleased (p.400)
  • a mook = a stupid or incompetent person
  • a mope = noun meaning ‘A person of lower socio-economic status that leeches off the greater good of society, is lazy and is normally involved in some sort of criminal activity’.
  • to be stoked = interested (p.333)
  • ‘The sheriff’s wigging’ = very concerned, going spare (p.190)
  • ‘Sheriff Summers was a chronic stickler and worrywart’

Which,

Talking of Hiaasen’s use of English, this book contains a grammatical form I’ve never seen before, the novel use of ‘which’. ‘Which’ can be used several ways (as an interrogative starting a question) but the relevant usage here is when it is used to introduce a relative clause, as in, ‘The dog which bit me’, where which obviously refers back to the noun ‘dog’ in order to enable the description of what it did.

This use of ‘which’ takes its traditional function and then kind of supercharges and elides it. It’s associated with the Christopher Grunion character who uses it as a speedy shorthand to just pick up conversations. I assume it’s a verbal tic Hiaasen has noticed and transcribed, it’s an odd but powerful usage.

There followed an animated discussion that ricocheted between the subjects of urgent medical care and Eve’s gross culpability for Stripling being ambushed. Which, the guy who attacked him? Nick had no goddam idea who it was. (p.319)

Where ‘which’ means something like ‘Who was he, was the guy who attacked him?’ but is quicker.

He couldn’t stop railing about what had happened. Which, what are the odds of getting randomly stabbed in your own back yard during a hurricane? (p.320)

Where ‘which’ isn’t really needed at all, it’s a verbal tic.

Or he could pack up and run. Purchase a new identity, find another place to hide and start over as an international fugitive. Which, talk about exhausting. (p.322)

See what I mean? It’s difficult to concoct a direct translation into standard English, but you can see what he’s doing – using ‘which’ as an all-purpose way of connecting one thought to another,

But all he could talk about was hunting down Yancy before he could escape. Which, no way was that shithead going to sneak out of Andros today. (p.324)

Say the world ‘outlaw’ and everyone thinks bank robber, but did Dillinger cut off a limb to trick the FBI into thinking he was dead? No, sir, he went to the movies and got shot full of lead. Which, these days any fuckwit with a ballpoint pen and a Halloween mask could rob a bank.

I suppose the standard usage would be to replace ‘which’ in this example with ‘whereas’, but Grunion is clearly not a chap who fusses about his parts of speech. He uses ‘which’ indiscriminately to yank together bits of thought process.

Stripling wondered aloud if the stealth urinator was the same man he’d caught snooping outside the house, the old black guy he’d run off with the shotgun. Which, who’d be crazy enough to come back after somebody fired a twelve-gauge over their head? (p.352)

‘Quit being an asshole, Nicky. You weren’t in the medical care business, you were in the stealing business.’ Which, he would have run over her ungrateful ass with the Rollie except the motor didn’t work because Egg had removed the battery to lighten the vehicle for pushing. (p.354)

Yes, in these last two examples the use of ‘which’ is not grammatically necessary, and when it’s used it’s generally incorrectly, in the wrong grammatical way – but it does have the effect of picking up the thought and jumping to the next one, regardless. In many ways I enjoyed this unusual but effective usage more than a lot of the plot.


Credit

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen (2002)

The pros and cons of a first person narrator

Well, this is an oddity, a Carl Hiaasen novel told in the first person. His previous eight comedy crime novels were all told in the voice of a gung-ho, whip-smart, third-person narrator. This one is a departure and an experiment and I didn’t like it nearly as much.

At a stroke it makes you realise a big part of the appeal of Hiaasen’s novels is their relatively large cast of the characters, all engaged on half a dozen different storylines, and a lot of the fun and dynamic comes from the way a third-person narrator can cut at will from one scene and storyline to another. This has two obvious results: 1. it means there’s constant change and variety, giving the reader a sense of dynamism and energy; and 2. it means the scenes he cuts to can be at their best and juiciest moments; the less interesting lead-up to them, or aftermath of them, can be dealt with by an overarching narrator with a few sentences of explanation.

By contrast 1. it’s quite surprising to realise just how boring it is to be trapped in the consciousness of one first-person narrator. Instead of flitting from scene and encountering all manner of outrageous characters and improbable events, you are confined to just the one person’s point of view. 2. Being stuck with one person means that, almost by definition, only so much can plausibly happen.

Not only do you quickly get fed up of that person’s voice and restless at being confined to just the one point of view, but, in terms of ‘events’, a lot less happen in a first-person narrative, because the person you’re following only has so many hours in the day, can only be in one place at a time, can only be drinking in one bar, chatting to a girl in his flat, driving his car or sitting at work, at any one moment. Whereas an omniscient narrator can describe half a dozen characters all doing completely different things at any given point in time.

Therefore an author who chooses to tell their story from a first-person narrator’s point of view has to work quite hard to overcome these built-in obstacles – especially if, like Hiaasen, their previous novels have been spectacularly effective examples of how to create multi-character, multi-scene narratives.

Thinking about it, a first-person narrative must compensate for the loss of narrative breadth with an increase of narrative depth. In other words, a first-person narrative needs more psychological interest: if you’re going to be stuck inside one person’s head for 400 pages, it better be a pretty interesting head.

Hiaasen works hard at it but the way he does so graphically exposes his weakness as a writer, because he doesn’t really do psychological depth; what he tends to do instead is psychological quirks and kinks, and that’s precisely what is on florid display here.

Hiaasen gives his narrator a number of quirks and hangups and obsessions (see below) which are very entertaining, but they are no replacement for the greater depth of psychological complexity the reader is used to from first person accounts.

And he makes another big formal decision which is to write the whole thing in the present tense, an obvious bid to give the narrative more immediacy, and yet… as a result of this one central decision (to be a first-person narrative) Basket Case lacks the panoramic vistas, the range of background fact, the variety of incident and the fast pace of his other novels.

That said, it’s still a Carl Hiaasen novel, he writes his usual super-snappy description and dialogue, and his story features the usual variety of scumbags and amoral users, with a host of other characters, large and small and consistently diverting. So it’s still a gripping, easy and very entertaining read. He is a very skillful writer, an arranger of complex plots, an inventor of all manner of interesting characters, a writer of snappy descriptions and pithy dialogue. It’s a very good book. Just not as good as the others.

Jack Tagger

Jack Tagger Junior is a journalist (p.20). He works for the Union-Register newspaper. He’s 46 (p.39) and will turn 47 in a week (p.200). He’s worked for a number of papers in his time, and came to the Union-Register to work on the news desk. But then the Union-Register was sold by its owner, Macarthur Polk, to the Maggad-Feist Publishing Group for $47 million (p.69), and in the press conference to announce the deal, Tagger was foolish enough to insult the new CEO, smooth yuppie Race Maggad III (‘a money-grubbing yupster twit,’ p.214), on the record, in front of numerous TV cameras (p.70).

He didn’t get fired, Maggad was too canny of public relations to cause a fuss. Instead Jack was relegated to the obituary department, stripped of all investigative powers and reduced to churning out an obituary a day, under the watchful eye of the relatively inexperienced editor, Emma Cole (p.235), aged just 27, who he despises for her callow youth. (It is, as soon as you process this, almost inevitable that they end up having an affair.)

One of the quirks Hiaasen gives Tagger is that he is obsessed with the ages the famous have died at. Whoever he meets, he asks their age and instantly knows the names of the great and the good who died at that age: Bob Marley and F. Scott Fitzgerald (dead aged 44), Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe (40) and, from his own age group, George Orwell, John F. Kennedy and Oscar Wilde, all died aged 46 (p.222).

Over and above this oddity, Hiaasen gives Jack a neurosis about the age his birth father died at, which he doesn’t know because his dad walked out on him and his mum when he was 3. Jack endlessly bugs his mom to know what age his dad died (p.88) and his stepfather died (p.151). He has a morbid obsession that he’s fated to die at the same age.

When you write this obsession out in black and white you can see how contrived it is, but it is made into a massive part of Jack’s character. His ex, Anne Candilla, says part of the reason she left him was because of his endless monologues about age, because of his uneasy the dreams, the midnight monologues, the actuarial charts of people’s life expectancies taped to the fridge (p.223).

Jack has a recurring nightmare of his dad turning up looking like he did in an old photo and the exact same age as Jack now, and then Jack sees himself chasing his dad across a golf course, tackling him to the ground and his dad suddenly being dead and rotting before his eyes. This recurring dream which used to wake him up sweating next to ex-girlfriend Anne, is described on pages 348 to 349.

Jack is not, in other words, a bland and neutral narrator, he is quite a fruit loop himself.

I’m not the most reliable authority on who’s normal and who’s well adjusted. (p.244)

The obsession with the dead helps explain why the last woman he slept with was Karen Penski, mainly because she has a job in the local morgue and overflows with details and anecdotes about the dead, in which Tagger is morbidly interested.

The mysterious death of James Bradley Stomarti

Unlike its lead character, the setup of the novel is fairly straightforward. One day Tagger is commissioned to write the obituary of James Bradley Stomarti, who found fame as the songwriter and singer with the ‘legendary’ rock group ‘Jimmy Stoma and the Slut Puppies’.

Stomarti has just drowned on a scuba dive in the Bahamas, so Tagger digs up the address of his widow, ‘Cleo Rio‘, phones to make an interview, drives over to her condo to interview her, she cries, gives a description of the tragic dive (she was sunning herself on the boat, Jimmy went down with his best friend and band keyboardist, Jay Burns, the pair got separated, Jimmy must have gotten confused and his air run out). And Cleo is the main source of the quotes Tagger then uses for the long, competent obituary which he then writes and is published next day in his newspaper, the Union-Register.

But slowly details crop up which indicate all is not as simple as it seems. The dead man’s sister, Janet Thrush, laughs down the phone when he describes his trip to Cleo, as if the whole thing was a setup. Some backing singers he meets when he attends Stomarti’s funeral tell him Jimmy was working on an album when he died, directly contradicting his widow’s claim that he had severed all ties with the music industry (p.75). A few days later national papers publish obituaries of the singer and the description Cleo gives of the fatal dive are significantly different from what she told Tagger.

The sister, Janet, invites Tagger out to the crematorium to look at Jimmy’s embalmed body ahead of the  funeral service and they take the opportunity to unbutton his shirt and discover to their surprise that the body bears no marks of an autopsy (p.46). Why not?

So, it is a murder mystery, with the first-person narrator stumbling into a situation which is much more complex and shady than it first appears and uncovering various dirty secrets. In other words, it is one of Raymond Chandler’s countless descendants.

In the course of his investigations Tagger meets:

  • Janet Thrush (p.40), Stomarti’s sister who makes a living dressing up in sexy outfits on webcam and slowly stripping while male customers pay (p.82)
  • Cynthia Jane, 23, Stomarti’s wife who goes by the stage name of Cleo Rio (backstory p.123) and outrages everyone who attends the funeral by taking the opportunity to strum an acoustic guitar and sing her latest single, very badly (p.76). Tagger quickly realises she is having an affair with a tall, handsome guy who uses a strong cologne, who he later finds out is a record producer named Loréal
  • Jerry, Cleo Rio’s tough skinhead minder
  • Emma Cole, 27, Jack’s editor at the Union-Register, who he resents for being young, inexperienced and not a good writer, who he has some ill-defined mission to ‘rescue’ from the newspaper business (pages 214, 304), but who he, rather inevitably, ends up sleeping with
  • the paper’s tough managing editor, Abkazion
  • Juan, Jack’s best friend at the Union-Register, a sports journalist who tried to prevent Jack getting demoted from the investigative team, who now jokily calls him ‘Obituary boy’ and regularly drops round to Jack’s fourth floor apartment after work for beer and TV. Juan has his own florid backstory in that he and his family escaped from Cuba along with thirty others on a shrimp boat; when some criminals on the boat took his older sister aside to rape her, Juan stabbed two of them to death, something which still gives him bad dreams (p.255)
  • Anne Candilla, Jack’s most recent girlfriend who dumped him leaving him really, really upset about her
  • Carla Candilla (p.153) grown-up daughter of Anne who works in a photo shop where she makes illegal copies of any sexy photos the customers have included in their rolls, and adds them to a portfolio. Carla likes Jack and enjoys shocking him with her sexual candour and colourful language about blowjobs and tongue studs and bondage (‘Who’s polishing your knob, Jack?’), and so is a useful contact with yoof culture, which is important in a novel which is about a rock star and his would-be rock star wife
  • Jack regularly talks to his mom on the phone. She is now married to Dave, an out and out racist who goes ballistic when a black man is proposed for membership of his golf club (p.258)
  • Macarthur Polk, son of the founder of the Union-Register, who sold it to a big corporation, thus earning the enmity of the paper’s staff. Emma assigns Tagger to go and interview the old man (aged 88) who is wasting away in hospital, preparatory for writing his obituary, but Jack and the ornery old dude ended up getting along pretty well, and they end up making a Big Deal, see below (chapter 11)
  • Jay Burns, keyboard player with the Slut Puppies, the last man to see Jimmy alive, who Tagger approaches at the funeral and agrees to do an interview. But when Tagger looks him up on Jimmy’s old yacht, the Rio Rio, a very stoned and drunk Burns unaccountably attacks him and they have a real fight, whacking each other in the face, until Tagger more or less comes out on top, and the pair stagger up on deck to get some air (chapter 12). Burns’s body later turns up, he’s been murdered and the cops, as in all these American noir-style thrillers, initially think Tagger had something to do with it

As you might expect, sooner or later someone breaks into Jack’s apartment, that always happens in novels, movies, TV programmes like this. He and the masked intruder have an epic fight, rolling round on the floor till Jack grabs the three-foot iguana lizard he keeps in his freezer and so is hard as a rock  (obviously, this has its own little backstory) and whacks the (masked) burglar with it, who staggers to his feet and runs off, but not before swiping Tagger’s laptop.

The fight means that Jack appears throughout the rest of the narrative with a ripe collection of cuts and bruises on his face and legs. The narrators of all thrillers since Raymond Chandler are required to be beaten up and appear next morning to their womenfolk who gasp, ‘Jack, you look awful! What happened?’ which is the hero’s cue to play the whole thing down in a bluff, manly way. ‘Shucks, honey, just guy stuff, you wouldn’t understand.’ All these clichés of the genre are present and correct in this novel.

Hiaasen knows he’s channeling Raymond Chandler (just like William Gibson knows he’s channeling James Bond in his novels) so much so that even the characters realise they’re in a Chandler novel. At one point Jack’s friend, Juan, tells him to ‘quit playing [Philip] Marlow’ (p.199) i.e. Raymond Chandler’s famous private eye.

This plot synopsis takes us up to a little over a third the way through this 30-chapter, 400-page-long book. As you can imagine, there continues to be a steady drip-drip of clues throughout the book, but there are also two big recurring themes.

The newspaper business

One is a number of descriptions of the offices of a modern newspaper, at various hours of day and night and over the weekend, about the hard realities of modern newspapers, how they are being gutted by corporate owners more interested in advertising revenue than journalism, and yet what an important social function journalism performs (pages 186, 267, 300, 328, 410, 416).

Obviously these atmospheric descriptions are based on Hiaasen’s own first-hand experience as an award-winning journalist and they are interesting bits of social history or sociological observation in their own right. But they are also an important part of the storyline about the newspaper’s owner handing Tagger a controlling interest in its future (see below). Out of this storyline spin numerous thoughts and reflections about the role and current state of newspaper journalism (as of 2002).

The big snore: rock music in 50-something men’s fiction

The second theme is rock music, not surprisingly as the suspected murder victim is a rock musician.

As anyone who’s read my reviews of William Gibson knows, I went right off his novels as they became increasingly obsessed with crappy-sounding fictional rock bands and the worlds of contemporary fashion and advertising. The older Gibson got, the more he got addicted to making references to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, managing to turn himself from a really cool pioneer of cyberpunk into an old dad droning on about the Doors and the Rolling Stones.

Well, same here. Hiaasen was turning 50 as this book was published and it displays all the symptoms of Dad Rock. His hero, Jack, still adulates the Rolling Stones as if it’s 1972 not 2002. He admires the district attorney because he’s got a photo of the Stones on his wall signed by Keith Richards (p.310). He has an argument with a woman he’s just stripped to have sex with because he wants to hear the Stones track ‘Ventilator Blues’ off Exile on Main Street (1972) while they have sex and she really doesn’t want to (p.251).

I put a Stones record on the stereo because you can’t go wrong with the Stones. (p.63)

Oh yes you can. By the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s the Rolling Stones were the soundtrack of choice for bankers and oligarchs, driving round in their Porsches, twanging their red braces, blagging $1,000 a seat corporate boxes at stadium concerts, and somehow managing to persuade themselves they were still ‘street fighting men’.

On page 74, when Hiaasen starts describing the different members of his fictional band, the Slut Puppies. When he came to ‘the band’s notoriously moody lead guitarist, Peter P. Proust’, who was stabbed to death a few years earlier, it felt almost identical to the half dozen times I read in William Gibson’s tediously flashy, corporate ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, about the ‘legendary’ rock band The Curfew (which features in all three of those novels) whose ‘legendary’ bassist, Jimmy Carlyle, died of a fatal heroin overdose.

The way these fictional bands consist of the super-traditional fourpiece, and the way one of these four has died an untimely end, is identical in both novels. And both writers were writing about traditional four-piece rock bands in the 2000s, as if rap, rave, drum and bass, hip hop, techno, trance, garage and grunge and grime had never happened. These are the kind of people who iron their jeans, fret about their pensions… but still think they are in some way ‘streetfighting men’.

It’s in this rather tiresome spirit that the title of the book, Basket Case, is itself one of the ‘tracks’ of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies’ hit album, Floating Hospice (p.347).

Music references litter to the book, including mention of Little Richard, Billy Preston, Led Zeppelin and Bob Seger (p.207), James Taylor (p.261), Derek and the Dominoes (p.345), Neil Young (p.380) and Paul McCartney (p.391). Jack’s laptop (which gets stolen) has a Grateful Dead decal on it (p.271), Jack gives his district attorney contact tickets to a Bruce Springsteen gig (p.311).

You could argue that these are all the interests of a fictional character. a) Same difference. Still feels very Dad Rock (or, by now, in 2021, Grandad Rock). b) all Hiaasen’s other heroes have the same taste, popping a Neil Young of Creedance Clearwater Revival song on their record decks as if the past 50 years of music never happened.

The rest of the plot (spoilers)

Jack follows the man he saw at Cleo Rio’s apartment to a nightclub (named Jizz; Hiaasen likes taking the mickey out of nightclubs; the one in Sick Puppy is named Pubes).

Jack approaches him as a journalist and gets his name, Loréal, and the fact that he’s a record producer, claiming to be producing Cleo’s album although, when Jack does some research, he discovers he’s never produced an album in his life.

After being beaten up by the guy who broke into his apartment, Jack makes it round to Emma’s apartment and she puts him up on the sofa, applies ice to his cuts and bruises and, to both their surprise, gives him a soft kiss goodnight. Ah. Shagging on the horizon.

He and Emma then learn that Guy Burns, who he had the fight on the boat with, has been found dead, apparently so drugged up that he laid down behind a garbage truck which promptly rolled over his head. Hmm. It’s possible, but Emma and Jack think it sounds suspicious.

Next day, Jack calls in on young gutter-mouthed Carla and is gutted to hear that her mother (his former lover, Anne) is about to marry a British spy novelist named Derek Grenoble. (Is this some obscure joke about John le Carré? Is it a sly reference to the fact that le Carré’s most famous character, Smiley, is separated from a wife named Anne, for whom he still carries a torch?)

Back in the newspaper office, Tagger has an aggressive confrontation with Race Maggad III, reprising the argument which got him relegated to the obituaries desk.

Jack takes Emma to the Rio Rio boat, now sealed off by police tape following Guy Burns’s death, but they climbed through that and gave the boat a thorough search. Hidden in the fake bottom of an oxygen diving cylinder they discover a portable hard drive. So we all now come round to suspecting that the burglars are after the hard drive.

What is on the hard drive?

My guess is it’s the tapes of James Stomarti’s final album and his ‘wife’, Cleo Rio a) had him bumped off and b) now wants the tapes and has hired goons to get hold of them. Her motive is simple: to dub her voice over Jimmy’s tapes and claim they’re all hers and be a big star and make lots of money. That’s my theory as of half way through the book.

When Tagger takes Emma to meet Janet Thrush he is upset to discover her front door has been forced open and the studio room where she strips for pervey webcammers has been completely trashed. She is nowhere to be seen and there’s a pool of dried blood on the front carpet. They call 911 then leave quickly, but both are traumatised.

Tagger meets with Polk’s lawyer, Charles Chickle (p.229) who confirms what Polk told him in the hospital, namely that he hates Race Maggad III even worse than Tagger does and, having heard that Tagger publicly insulted him, has decided to make Tagger administrator of the shares he still owns in the Register’s parent company. Tagger’s sole job will be not to sell them to Maggad but to stymie everything the Maggad-run board proposes, and to generally piss Maggad off for the rest of his life. For this task, he will be paid $100,000 a year. Tagger is amazed at the offer.

Juan takes Tagger to meet a young 12-year-old black kid computer whizzkid named Dominic Dominguez who opens up the hard drive and, lo and behold, it is music, it’s a whole load of studio recordings, each instrument with a separate track, some of them final mixes, some still being assembled (chapter 12).

Emma Cole drops by with her toothbrush. She’s decided she wants sex. What a woman wants, a woman gets. So they have sex. In fact they have sex three times through the course of the evening and early hours. Life is great in novels. They are now an investigative team and an item.

Next thing we know Jack’n’Emma learn that the Slut Puppies bassist, Tito Negraponte has been shot, though not fatally, at his Los Angeles home.

‘Somebody’s killing off the Slut Puppies!’ (p.281)

Emma gets funds for Jack to fly to Los Angeles to interview Tito in his hospital bed, tells him everything he knows, and in return Tito, stoned on painkillers, confirms Jack’s hunch that it’s Cleo behind everything. She wants one particular track off the album, Shipwrecked Heart, which she’s going to put her vocals on and issue as a single. And she needs to get the master tapes a) to learn the song b) to remix it c) to make sure no-one else has it or can release it to prove she’s ripping off her dead husband.

That, in a nutshell, is the motor for the plot.

Jack breaks back into Janet’s house and cuts a swatch from the blood-stained carpet and swipes a used tampax from the bin, takes them to a forensics guy who owes him a favour and who rings back a few days later with the result. Yes, the blood on the carpet matches the blood on the tampon. It’s Janet’s blood. Jack is crushed. He didn’t have any designs on her but he really liked her. Now looks like she’s been murdered.

But then someone calls the cops on a bad line claiming to be Janet and that the wreckage was caused by an ex-boyfriend who went postal. Jack fears it’s a fake call and the reader is left to stew for 30 or 40 pages, fearing, like Jack, that nice Janet has been wasted.

And this causes deliberate confusion when Jerry, Cleo Rio’s hitman, phones up and tells Jack they’ve got her and want to do an exchange, to exchange her for the hard drive. Jack’s obsession with Janet means it takes stupid Jack a score of pages to realise that who ‘they’ have kidnapped is not Janet but Emma!!

Meanwhile Janet has not been murdered. Turns out she had rung and left messages on Jack’s answer-machine a couple of times stating that it was her who called the cops and the story is true: a jealous boyfriend really did trash her place and hit her. She ran off and is staying with friends in the south, bit bruised but basically OK. But Jack didn’t pick up these answerphone messages till a lot later.

Meanwhile – the bad guys have got Emma and they contact Jack with the details of how to get her back.

He is told to take a call at a payphone at the end of a pier by the sea (where Jack gets chatting to a 92-year-old who’s out there fishing and explains his strategy for avoiding death!).

The pier-end call tells him to go that evening to the nightclub named ‘Jizz’ (which keeps being the setting for meetings throughout the novel).

Here Jack meets with Cleo, Jerry and Loréal, is typically aggressive and insulting, is slapped upside his head a few times, but makes every effort to a) make it clear Janet knows nothing and is not a danger to the bad guys, b) emphasise that quite a few people know the truth including Tito, the backing singers and so on, and will put pieces together if he goes missing. So they oughtn’t to bump him off.

But he promises to bring the hard drive wherever they want and they part.

That night Jack can’t sleep, stays up all night tinkering with an old guitar he played in college, drags his ass to work the next day. The bad guys eventually call and give Jack a long set of instructions for hiring a boat, a GPS system and meeting them smack bang in the middle of the huge Lake Okeechobee.

Juan calls by his desk and Jack tells him the terrible news (Emma has been kidnapped by the guys he’s been investigating; he’s got to hand over the hard drive in exchange for her; he’s been told to do so in the middle of Lake Okeechobee) so Juan says he’ll come along and help out.

Then there’s a kicker. Just as he’s about to  leave, the Managing Editor of the paper, Abkazion, comes up to him, tells him old man Polk just passed away this morning. Magad wants Jack to write the obituary, Polk wanted Jack to write the obituary, Abkazion now demands that he write the obituary, and Jack knows the offer of the job as Polk’s executor and manager of the decisive shares, along with the $100,000 salary are dependent on him writing the obituary, that evening, to make the next day’s front page (p.355).

But he can’t. He has to drive to Lake Okeechobee and save Emma. Right away. And he can’t tell Abkazion the real reason or it will endanger Emma’s life.

Abkazion rants and raves and then is dumbstruck when Jack doesn’t relent. Jack gathers up all his notes and dumps them on the desk of timid Evan, a lowly intern, who’s helped out with a few other details of the plot. ‘This is your big change, kid,’ Jack tells Evan, like Harrison Ford in a movie, then runs off.

Jack and Juan do the 3 hour drive up to Lake Okeechobee at record speed (listening, inevitably, to the Rolling Stones), hire a boat from a sceptical rental guy (from Ernie Bo Tump’s Bass Camp), use the GPS to motor out into the dead middle of the lake, and then wait around being bitten by mosquitoes. It is night-time, it is pitch black.

They hear the enormous whacking sound of a huge airboat. Soon it comes within sight of Jack and Juan, steered by Jerry while Loréal minds Emma who has a sack over head sitting passively in a chair. It’s important to understand what an airboat is in order to  follow what happens next.

An airboat (Credit: Wikipedia)

From the description it sounds like a bigger version of the above. What follows is: Jerry demands the hard drive; Jack says, ‘Not till you throw away your gun’ and holds the hard drive over the side of their hire boat and starts counting down. Reluctantly Jerry tosses his gun which Jack hears splash in the lake. Jack insists they hand Emma down into the hire boat. Once she’s safe he throws the hard drive up at Jerry and Juan hits the motor and they speed off.

However, the bad guys’ airboat can go many times faster than them and their outboard is clogging up with weeds bringing them almost to a standstill, certainly unable to escape. They hear the airboat approaching from the side as if to ram over their boat, aiming to smash it to matchsticks.

Juan advises everyone to jump off but Jack stands up in the stern, ramrod straight and fires off every bullet in the little .38 handgun he was loaned by Carla last time he saw her. It’s unlikely the bullets hit anyone but it’s enough to scare Jerry into taking evasive action. They hear a great swash as the airboat passes close to them, but then… a crash and a scream!

Once they’ve got the outboard working again, our guys putter over towards the noise to discover the cause of the crash and scream. What happened is the airboat, in making its abrupt swerve to avoid Jack’s shooting, hit reeds, ground to a halt and upended.

Juan and Jack use the little spotlight fixed to the hire boat to make out that Jerry was thrown backwards and, when the airboat upended, the huge spinning propeller which drives these things cut his head off, which went flying with a splash into the lake. Loréal managed to keep his place at the front  of the boat but his long stylish ponytail dangled down into the fast-moving propeller, got tangled round  it, dragging him down down down until the machine’s torque ripped his scalp off. Yuk.

Our guys size all this up, then turn and putter calmly back south, back to the boat hire place and their car, and slowly carefully drive traumatised Emma back to safety.

Epilogue

They make it back to Jack’s apartment in the early hours. Emma sleeps like a log then rises and cooks Jack a lumberjack breakfast. Over brekkie they check out that morning’s edition of the Union-Register and Jack is astonished to find that the Polk obituary did get written in the end, is front page and, most surprising of all, appears under his byline, even though obviously written by young Evan.

He and Emma feel bad about this because of their journalistic scruples, but I hardly think the reader gives a monkey’s. Anyway, they ring up Evan and he sheepishly admits that, given the Big Opportunity, he froze with fear and it was the seasoned editor, Abkazion, who knocked it out in 20 minutes. Their consciences are absolved.

By the way, a running thread has been that his ex is not only marrying this cheap spy novelist, Derek Grenoble, but is doing so on Jack’s birthday. Now cheeky young Carla phones up to tell them what a lame pukefest the wedding was, featuring a terrible 3-page poem which Derek wrote Anne.

And Jack gets a birthday card from his mother which finally includes the obituary of his dad who a) died aged 46 – it is Jack’s birthday, he is 47, so he has outlived the jinx – and b) the obituary describes him as a penniless waterfront entertainer who made tips from crowds by being able to juggle anything, even pets, and died after drunkenly climbing up a tree to retrieve a raccoon and falling to his death when a branch broke. So not some big shot mystery man; a drunk street entertainer. Oh well.

Next day Jack meets up with Janet, who has rung him to tell him she’s back, for muffins and coffee.

She confirms that, on the night of her disappearance, she was getting changed into her SWAT outfit when the front door was broken open and two dudes started ransacking the place. Jack identifies them from her description as Jerry and Loréal. Janet got mad and burst into the hall in full SWAT outfit brandishing a (plastic) semi-automatic, which was enough to make them run out. Then she ran in the other direction and caught a cab to a friend’s house. As to the blood on the carpet, they guys had trashed her big studio lights and she trod on some glass. Bled like a hippo. Otherwise unharmed. Ah.

Not only that. Janet then leads Emma and Jack to the grave of a certain Eugene Marvin Brandt. Who? Why? She explains.

She reveals that this guy’s corpse was in the crematorium viewing room at the same time as Jimmy’s and, when everyone had left, she switched the tags. That is: Eugene got cremated while Jimmy now lies buried in this plot under Brandt’s headstone.

Jack is delighted. Now a proper autopsy can be performed! Jack sends the state prosecutor an anonymous message with the result that Jimmy’s body is dug up and the forensic scientists show his stomach was full of now fewer than 20 Benelyn tablets which Cleo Rio had crushed up and mixed into his clam chowder just before he made the fatal dive. Jimmy would have passed out and drowned.

There’s enough evidence for the prosecutor to charge Cleo with murder, to bring in various witnesses who’d seen the couple bitterly arguing, to give as motive the fact that she wanted to steal his best song to further her own career. After a three-week trial, Cleo is convicted and sentenced to 20 years.

Then Jack has a very satisfying meeting with Race Maggad III in his new role as trustee of Polk Macarthur’s shares in Maggad-Feist publishing. Jack tells a furious Maggad he will sell back Polk’s shares in Maggad-Feist on one condition – that they sell the Union-Register to Polk’s widow, the tough nurse who tended him in his last days, Ellen who he knows will look after and protect it.

Maggad is eventually forced to do this, and Ellen becomes the paper’s first female publisher., Her first act is to hire a load of news reporters and restore the paper to its former reporting strength. Given the careful explanations Hiaasen has given us throughout the novel about the financial pressures undermining old-style reporting and newspapers, this is in many ways the book’s real happy ending.

The final scene shows Jack taking Emma out to the pier where he took the goons’ phone call what seems like months ago, and they bump into old Ike the fisherman, the guy Jack chatted to while waiting for the bad guys’ phone call and who proudly tells them he’s just turned 93.

As they turn to go Ike catches a huge tarpon, nearly getting dragged over the safety rail and into the sea, till Jack and Emma grab hold of him. Jack can’t help thinking what his obituary would say and so the book ends with the two subjects closest to Hiaasen’s heart, fishing and journalism.

Thoughts

It has breadth, doesn’t it? Like all Hiaasen’s novels it ramifies out to feature about 20 named characters, many of whom have their own backstories described in some detail. And the first-person narrator is fleshed out with his obsession about dates, his love of newspapers, his oddities (the iguana in his deep freeze), his loving relationship with his mother who used to take him fishing as a boy, his still carrying a torch for the lovely Anne, and so on.

All the usual elements are here and neatly assembled into a cleverly constructed plot. But… for the reasons explained at the start, it lacks the ability to move at speed between characters which is a key aspect of Hiaasen’s novels, and the quirks and oddities Hiaasen ladles onto Jack don’t really compensate for the lack of real psychological depth.

One liners

‘Derek is a good guy. He’s fun, he’s affectionate, he doesn’t take life so damn seriously…’
‘You’ve just described a beagle, not a husband.’ (p.221)

‘Maybe I hit ’em with a shot.’
‘Right, Jack. And maybe one day hamsters will sing opera.’ (p.372)


Credit

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen was published by Macmillan in 2001. All references are to the 2002 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (1999)

Florida:

  • a state owned and operated by banks, builders and real estate developers… (p.262)
  • where developers and bankers bought the politicians who ran the government. The state was urbanising itself faster than any other place on the planet, faster than any other place in the history of man. Each day 450 acres of wild forest disappeared beneath bulldozers across Florida… (p.281)

I think the scale of the corruption and greed which characterises American economic, financial and political life is difficult for English people to really grasp. Just as the state communism of the Soviet bloc penetrated every level of society and deep into people’s souls, so America’s hyper-developed consumer capitalism shapes and colours every aspect of American lives. They are surrounded by branding and products and bombarded via every conceivable medium with messages ramming home the idea that the only values which count are commercial values.

This is an ostensibly comic novel, and it is often very funny, savagely, sometimes brutally funny; but its depiction of corruption and philistine greed at every level of American society is worked out in great detail and is terrifyingly plausible. Nothing happens which isn’t motivated by power, money or lust.

Pork was the essential nutrient of politics. Somebody always made money, even from the most noble-sounding of tax-supported endeavours. (p.50)

The Toad Island property development

At the heart of this novel, as of so many of the other Hiaasen stories, is a crooked property deal: on the north-west coast of Florida is an unspoilt island named Toad Island because of the proliferation of tiny, orange-backed toads which swarm over it. As always, the plot is complicated, falling into half a dozen distinct but complexly inter-related storylines, which follow the tangled activities of about 15 or so characters:

Robert Clapley

Robert Clapley is a crooked property developer. Aged 35, he has ‘Yuppie ex-smuggler written all over him’ (p.39). He has bought up Toad Island and plans to turn it into yet another shiny resort development, complete with 16-story condos, a golf course, beachfront restaurants etc. He wants to Americanise i.e. ruin it. It will be renamed Shearwater Island.

Ordinarily Clapley would fund a development with laundered drug money from cocaine and marijuana imports, which is what he did with his previous project, laundering the money through a Dutch holding company (p.313). But the Shearwater Island development is his most ambitious and so he’s been forced to seek funding from legitimate sources (well, banks, if you consider most international banks legitimate businesses, instead of fronts for money laundering activities of drug cartels, Russian billionaires, Arab sheikhs and African dictators).

In order to enforce his interests and persuade people to do what he wants, Clapley employs Mr Gash, a stocky sadist who wears a houndstooth suit and has spiky English punk hair. At one stage he ties up someone Mr Clapley isn’t happy with and forces a live rat into their mouth. Later on, he tries to murder the hero and rape the heroine. He is not a nice man.

Because almost everyone in a Hiaasen novel is a grotesque, a caricature, an extreme, Mr Gash is given a grotesque hobby. He has used underworld connections to get hold of bootleg tapes of 911 emergency calls, i.e. the phone calls people make at extreme moments just before they die. So far, so sick, but, being Hiaasen, Mr Gash has taken this much further and mashed up the tapes with classical music. Thus he enjoys driving round with his sound system cranked up full, listening to the screams down the phone of a man whose wife tied him to a bed then set his hair on fire, then rang 911 so his last minutes of agony could be recorded — all set to elegant Mozart music.

Speaking of the grotesque and extreme, Robert Clapley, the yuppie, ex-drug smuggling property developer is not only a crook, he has a bizarre kink. Sure, he takes drugs and screws hookers, that comes as standard; but recently he was introduced to two statuesque dolly birds from Eastern Europe, Katya and Tish, and has personally arranged their visas so they can stay on in the Land of the Free and enjoy his seafront apartment, jacuzzi and cocaine. But Clapley has a secret passion: when he was a boy he played with his sisters’ Barbie dolls and developed a sexual fetish for them. He carries Barbies round in his pockets, even when he’s terrorising customers. Now he has conceived the idea of surgically altering the two Slav girls so that they both end up looking like Barbies. If they want to stay in the US of A, the girls have to agree. As Clapley reasonably explains:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Governor Artemus

Clapley has for many years made donations to the funds of Florida’s governor, handsome former-Toyota car salesman, Dick Artemus, which is why, in exchange for a promise of more donations, Artemus has included the $27.7 million cost of replacing the rackety old wooden bridge from the mainland to Toad Island with a 4-lane modern concrete bridge, in his latest budget (p.58). It is one among many items in the annual budget which he can present as ‘modernising’ and ‘developing’ the state, but which are being undertaken entirely to benefit donors, in this case his good friend and political supporter, Robert Capley.

The Toad Island development is being constructed by the prestigious engineering firm of Roothaus and Son (p.40). They’re employing as project supervisor Karl Krimmler. All Hiaasen’s characters are given extensive backstories which are carefully interspersed throughout the text to give the narratives pace and variety. Thus, later in the novel we are told that Krimmler has hated nature ever since his kid brother popped an angry chipmunk down his pants. Ever since, he has wanted to take revenge on the natural world and nothing pleases him more than watching huge earth-moving machinery chopping down forests and filling in ponds and massacring thousands of pesky little orange toads.

So Krimmler doesn’t get on very well with Dr Stephen Brinkman, a biologist fresh out of Cornell Graduate School, who’s taken a $41,000-a-year job with Roothaus as their ‘environmental specialist’ (p.41) which basically means he has to ensure the site of any development is clear of any endangered species or other critters on the various state or federal lists of protected species or habitats, so that Krimmler’s land-razing teams can crack on. Later in the novel, the hitman Mr Gash will shoot dead Brinkman and bury him with a digger.

Willie Vasquez-Washington

But getting the funding of the Toad Island bridge onto Dick Artemus’s budget is only the first step. The budget itself has to be passed by the state legislature and in particular the influential House Appropriations Committee. Chair of this vital committee is Willie Vasquez-Washington, who keeps colleagues unsure whether he has black, Hispanic or native American blood (in order to intimidate them  with his minority credentials and/or secure a rake-off from state funding supposedly targeted at ‘minorities’).

Willie will only pass the governor’s budget through the committee if he receives a slice of the action. To be precise, he demands that $9 million be found from somewhere to build a community centre in part of his electoral district. It will be called the Willie Vasquez-Washington Memorial Outreach Centre. It will get him good coverage in the local press and secure votes from genuinely grateful families. But also:

  • Willie will get himself appointed executive director at an annual salary of $49,500 plus medical benefits and free car
  • the company of a good friend of his will secure the $200,000 dry-walling contract
  • the company run by the husband of his campaign manager will get the contract to supply 24-hour security guards
  • and Willie’s deadbeat brother just happens to own a rundown grocery store in part of the buildings which will need to be demolished to make way for the centre and which will be bought by the developers for 5 or 6 times its actual value

Thus Hiaasen builds up a detailed and persuasive picture of the graft, corruption and pork barrel politicking which surround every property development in Florida and whose ongoing net result is the devastation of the natural environment.

Nils Fishback

Meanwhile, there are some people living on Toad Island, 207 in all. They are sort of led by Nils Fishback, himself a failed architect and developer, who lost a lot of money buying up Toad Island real estate the last time someone promised to develop it 8 or so years ago. When that project went bankrupt, Fishback was stuck with numerous lots of unwanted land and adopted a man-of-the-people environmentalist pose, barefoot, brown as a nut and bandanna-ed.

It is Fishback who constitutes himself unofficial mayor of the island’s thin population and leads a half-hearted environmental opposition to the development. But of course he, like everyone else, has his price. Fishback demands from Clapley $510,000 based on an inflated valuation of the bum lots he bought years ago and in exchange he’ll use his influence to make sure the other inhabitants of the island acquiesce in the development (p.56).

See how it works? Pork for everyone. Everyone taking a cut, everyone spending all their time considering all the angles and how to maximise their revenue.

Palmer Stoat

And sitting at the centre of this complex web of financial and political matrices is a man named Palmer Stoat for Stoat is one of the two or three most important, influential and rich political fixers in the state of Florida (p.6) or, as Hiaasen puts it, in ‘the swamp of teeming greed known as Florida’ (p.380).

In this swamp, Stoat is a ‘big time lobbyist’, ‘adept at smoothing over problems among self-important shitheads’ (p.380).

It is Stoat who holds series of unofficial meetings with the governor, with Clapley, with Willie Vasquez-Washington, on golf courses or in strip clubs, and conveys the terms and conditions of the various deals which are required, the pay-offs, the back-handers, advises how to manage the press, the politicians, guides all parties through the paths of corruption, and so on.

More than any of Hiaasen’s previous novels, this one goes deep into the actual mechanics of back-handers, with detailed lists of how other elements in the governor’s budget sound and look good but are, in every case, designed to benefit party donors or members of the families of key players in local politics and business. Nothing is innocent. Nothing is pure.

And this obsessive centrality of money poisons not only politics and business but every aspect of human psychology and relations. The novel goes to great lengths to show how almost all personal relationships and almost every single conversation is based on The Deal. Even marriage, long, long ago in America, became a deal, between a woman wanting money and security and a man wanting a trophy wife, a bimbo on his arm to attend all those important social functions. Even casual relationships between men and women are shown to be full of calculation. When we hear about Twilly’s former relationships or Desie Stoat former partners, they are all couched in the language of The Deal: in this relationship he got this and she got that, then they discovered the deal wasn’t working out so they went to lawyers to annul the contract.

Lawyers infest American civic life partly because people regard other people instrumentally, as means to an end, like the pair of lowlifes in the previous novel, Lucky You, who spent 450 pages continually assessing whether it was worth carrying on being partnered with the other one or whether, what the hell, it was more cost effective just to shoot their partner and have done with it. There is no remnant of what used, laughably, to be called ‘humanity’ in any of them.

In novels (and movies) like this it feels like Americans have long, long ago lost the ability to think of other Americans as people. Everyone is a connection to be exploited, a partner to be used, until a better contact, job opportunity or ‘mark’ to be conned comes along.

The trigger

So that’s the setup, that’s the background. Factually dense and complicated, isn’t it, like most Hiaasen novels. You can tell he was a journalist because a) he has an awesome insight into the precise mechanisms of corruption in all these different spheres and b) he conveys it with tremendous brevity and precision. And you can tell he’s American because it’s all done in zippy, slangy, swearword-ridden prose.

You want to know about the actual plot? OK, well, it starts casually enough. Into this complex nexus of relationships comes Twilly Spree. Twilly is an unemployed 26-year-old college dropout who’s inherited enough money not to have to work and has long-standing anger management issues, not least regarding littering and despoiling the environment (anger issues which derive from his own father’s job as a property developer, systematically spoiling the coastline of Florida with property developments, pp.31 to 34).

This is why when Twilly’s driving behind a swish Land Rover and observes a load of MacDonalds wrappers being chucked out of its window, he sees red and tails the Rover back to an impressive luxury home, the home of none other than… Palmer Stoat.

Twilly watches from outside while Stoat gets changed and his wife – the stunningly good-looking 32-and-a-half-year-old Desie (p.327) – dress up for a meal at an Italian restaurant. They drive there in the wife’s convertible BMW, tailed at a distance by Twilly. Once they’re safely inside Twilly approaches the crew of a garbage truck working nearby and asks if he can borrow it for an hour for $3,000. They instantly agree and go off to a topless dancing joint (to chat up an ‘exotic dancer’ named Tia) while Twilly drives the truck to the posh Italian restaurant and dumps the garbage truck’s entire contents over Desie’s BMW, leaving it buried under several tonnes of stinking waste.

This is just the beginning, the opening salvo in the long farrago of farcical mayhem and comic complications which unravel across the next 500 pages (Sick Puppy is Hiaasen’s longest novel).

Plot highlights

Turns out Stoat has a big black friendly labrador he names Boodle (apparently American slang for ‘bribe’). Twilly breaks into Stoat’s house and kidnaps the dog. When he discovers Boodle is on medication, he goes back to burglarise Stoat’s house the following night (waiting till Stoat’s driven off accompanied by a woman) but finds Mrs Stoat waiting for him with a gun (the woman in the car was the maid).

After a moment or two of tension Twilly easily takes the gun off Desie and then, to his amazement, Desie announces that she wants to go with him, insists on going with him (to the motel where’s he’s keeping the happy doggy), and they slowly, over the next hundred pages or so they become an item.

(Many of Hiaasen’s central love affairs start this way, with one or other partner kidnapping the other or holding them up or generally breaking the law, in the same way that, after a while, I realised a lot of them feature one or more kidnapping.)

At this point Twilly simply wants Stoat to stop being a litterbug and chucking rubbish out his car. It’s only when Desie moves in with him that Twilly discovers the much bigger story about Stoat’s role in the upcoming devastation of a pretty, unspoilt island up on the coast. At that point Twilly broadens his horizons into blackmailing Stoat to use his connections to cancel the project: the blackmail is, cancel the project or I kill your dog.

Such is Stoat’s attachment to his big labrador that he sets out to do just that, leading to a raft of complications. Robert Clapley really doesn’t like the news of the cancellation, which is why he comes round with Mr Gash who ties up Stoat in his own house and inserts a live rat in his mouth. After a few uncomfortable moments Gash lets Stoat and he is at pains to clarify to Clapley that the project isn’t cancelled, merely delayed till his dog is returned, then it will all be revived again.

It explains why Clapley, once he understands that a dognapping is behind the complications, commissions Mr Gash to track down and kill the dognapper. This quest takes Mr Gash some time. In its early phase it leads him to the suspended workings on Toad Island where Gash encounters a very drunk Dr Brinkman. Drunk enough to think he can take out the stranger with a gun but when he takes a swing at Gash with a storm lantern, Gash calmly shoots him dead.

Shootout on the beach

And it’s here, on the island, several hundred pages of complicated discussions, meetings, and plot twists later, that there takes place probably the climactic scene. For it is here that Mr Gash finally discovers Twilly and Desie who’ve driven up to it in a big ranch wagon, with the dog (who Twilly, incidentally, early on insisted on renaming ‘McGuinn’). Mr Gash shoots Twilly who falls to the sand (the wagon is parked on the island’s beach) then forces Desie to strip at gunpoint and tries to rape her. His rape attempt is interrupted when the big labrador throws himself on Mr Gash’s naked back and calmly takes his neck in his teeth which leads to a bizarre, macabre and comical tableau.

The return of Skink

Anyway, all this is to ignore what might, to many Hiaasen fans, be the most significant thing about the book which is The Return of Skink! For the current governor, Dick Artemus, decides he needs the help of the legendary former governor of Florida, one of its most famous (fictional) sons, Clinton Tyree, who quit politics back in the 1980s to become a back-to-nature eco-vigilante. True to the basic principle that all human interactions in the book are exploitative, Artemus blackmails Skink into using his special skills to track down the damn dognapper and get the Toad Island project back on track.

Just to recap a bit: In order to explain why the project needs to be suspended, Stoat has had to tell both Clapley and the governor that his dog has been kidnapped and given as many details as he can about the kid who’s done it, and who he’s glimpsed a couple of times.

As mentioned, Clapley’s response is to commission Mr Gash to find and kill Twilly, but the governor’s is to blackmail Skink into coming out of the backwoods, find Twilly and bring him to the law.

Skink’s brother

But how does Artemus blackmail Skink? Well, for the first time in the series we are told that Skink has a brother; for while Clinton Tyree was being a hero in Vietnam, his brother Doyle was also serving in Nam but had a drunk idea to go fishing one night in enemy-occupied territory, and the sergeant driving the jeep managed to crash it and was killed outright while Doyle was badly injured.

Doyle was invalided out of the army but then had a nervous breakdown because of the guilt (pp.258 to 260). When he became governor, Clint used his position to swing a sinecure for his brother, to get him a job as ‘keeper’ of a fully automated lighthouse where he could hide himself away. (See? Everyone, absolutely everyone, even idealist Skink, uses their position and power to benefit themselves or friends and family. That’s what power is for in America.)

How does governor Artemus find the legendarily elusive Skink? He summons Jim Tile, the black state trooper everyone knows is Skink’s friend, and gets him to deliver a letter explaining to Skink that he has to find Twilly before the bad guys, or the current governor will expel Doyle from his safe lighthouse crib.

(Governor Artemus discovered the story of Skink and Doyle thanks to the diligent researches of his super-efficient personal assistant, Lisa June Peterson, the only one of his PAs who he doesn’t try to screw because she’s so damn good at her job and who, despite having given away the secret of Doyle’s existence, is in fact a keen fan of Skink. When Skink finally arrives at the governor’s mansion, Lisa June gets on well with Skink and, after a few conversations tells him she’s planning to write his biography. Hmm. I wonder whether she’ll become a recurring character.)

Anyway, this explains why, in parallel to Mr Gash’s attempts to track down Twilly, Desie and McGuinn, Skink is carrying out his own researches and how the two plotlines lead up to the climactic scene on the beach on Toad Island.

As you recall, Mr Gash follows the station wagon, sneaks up on it and when Twilly makes a move on him, shoots him, then tries to rape Desie, then has to fight off the bloody labrador which has jumped on his back because he thinks it’s all a boisterous game.

At which point Skink walks out of the undergrowth and interrupts proceedings, himself toting a gun. When Mr Gash goes to draw on him, Skink shoots his kneecap off and then fires another bullet through Mr Gash’s cheek, severing his tongue. While Desie is putting her clothes back on, Skink carries Mr Gash to the half-begun construction site, fires up an earth mover, and drives it forward till its caterpillar tracks have rolled over Mr Gash’s bottom half, pinning him in the mud. Mr Gash is still alive, though, and able to scream tongueless abuse while Skink turns and walks away, leaving him to die.

(In one last, gruesome touch, Mr Gash has just enough energy to get his cell phone out of his pocket and calls 911, only to be unable to communicate his situation because his tongue has been shot away. But his call will be recorded, just like the calls of all the other dying people he used to so enjoy listening to.)

Rhino horn and a wildlife park

There’s more, though, quite a lot more. Hiaasen has given Stoat a number of florid hobbies or interests. The simplest one is a taste for fine cigars, so that the novel repeatedly finds him in an expensive cigar store-cum-bar, puffing on a $300 dollar Havana. (There’s also a running gag that Stoat keeps quoting classic rock song titles but getting them slightly wrong, for example telling his wife he’s had ‘a tough day’s night,’ quoting that old Beach Boys’s song, ‘Wouldn’t it be great’, and so on.)

Much more lurid is Stoat’s hobby of shooting African wildlife at a semi-legal private zoo, the Wilderness Veldt Plantation. The grotesque comedy derives from the way most of the animals in this so-called safari park are at the bitter end of their lives and can barely stand up, let alone bound anywhere. In fact the novel actually opens with the scene of Stoat at the Plantation and shooting a rhinoceros which is so knackered it is utterly stationary.

Stoat wants the rhino’s head professionally stuffed so it can join all the other stuffed animal heads on the wall of his snug. (In a scene near the start of the book, Twilly sneaks into Stoat’s empty house and prises the glass eyes out of all the stuffed heads hanging on the wall of his snug and arranges them in a pentangle on his desk, in order to freak him out.)

But Stoat discovers from the sleazeball, Durgess, who runs the Plantation and organises these corporate ‘shoots’, that rhino’s horn is extremely valuable because of its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. To be precise, its abilities to give men rock-hard erections.

So Stoat sends away for the dead rhino’s horn to be converted to powder. The idea is that you sprinkle the horn powder into your drink on the evening you plan a big sex session. Thus Stoat becomes ever-more excited at the prospect of giving himself impressive erections with which to impale the florid array of mistresses and call girls he is routinely unfaithful to his wife with. (This helps explain why, faced with an idealistic and obviously nice young man in her kitchen, Desie on impulse decides she wants to run away from lying, thieving, cheating scumbag Stoat.)

When Clapley is livid that the Toad Island project is being put on hold till Stoat can pay off the dognapper and get his damn dog back, Stoat tries to appease him by offering him some of the recently arrived rhino horn powder. It helps appease Clapley and forestalls any further insertions of live rats into Stoat’s mouth.

But foolishly, instead of taking a light dusting of it in his drink, as he’s supposed to, Clapley gives the horn dust to the Barbie girls, who snort it like coke and go bananas, leading to a 24-hour orgy which trashes his bedroom. Next thing he knows, Clapley is on the phone to Stoat saying the girls refuse to have sex with him unless he can supply more magic rhino dust. Where can he get some more? Now?

So this pressure from Clapley forces Stoat to call up the wildlife guy, Durgess, and demand that he set up another big game shoot. We then follow Durgess as he and his ‘Supervisor of Game’, Asa Lando (p.337), scour the crappier wildlife parks of America and beyond in a bid to rustle up some half-decent ‘wild animals’. Like everything else in Hiaasen’s Florida, the Plantation is a scam, built on multiple other scams.

Eventually Durgess and Lando manage to buy an ancient and decrepit rhino which can barely stand, and have it flown to their park in readiness for a visit by Stoat and Clapley. Stoat has decided to make the event into a Big Day Out and bring together all the interested parties in the Toad Island ‘development’. So he’s invited along governor Dick Artemus and the corrupt vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Willie Vasquez-Washington – and this will provide the farcically violent climax of the novel.

(In a telling detail, Hiaasen tells us the land on which the park is now sited used to be owned by genuine citrus farmers, who sold it to the Plantation which is, in fact, co-owned by a Tokyo-based fish cartel and a Miami swimsuit designer named Minton Tweeze [p.446]. It is yet another example of the way some kind of ancient agricultural authenticity has given way to the modern corporate world characterised by a) international finance and b) shallow lifestyle emptiness. The Plantation pretends to recreate big game Africa while in fact being an abandoned citrus plantation on which its crooked owners tie down decrepit zoo-bred animals so they can be shot at by overpaid executives and drug dealers who take seven shots to hit an inanimate animal tied to a stake twenty yards in front of them. It is beyond pitiful.)

So as the novel approaches its climax, Stoat and Clapley and the governor and Willie stay up late the  night before ‘the hunt’ in the Plantation’s hunting lodge, getting drunk and telling ‘pussy stories’.

But unbeknown to them, Skink and Twilly have tailed them. Oops. This won’t end well. That night, at the other end of the park, Skink and Twilly break in through the plantation’s barbed wire fence, bringing with them binoculars, guns and camouflage outfits. They’re here to try and sabotage the Toad Island deal although, as they smoke a joint round a small campfire and roast roadkill (Skink’s habitual diet), neither of them knows exactly how.

The big game shoot fiasco

In the event, the farcical climax works out like this: next day dawns and the hunting party of Stoat and Clapley and governor Dick Artemus and Willie Vasquez-Washington head out, led by Durgess, accompanied by Asa, and with two of governor Dick’s bodyguards in tow towards the pitifully decrepit old rhino, which Durgess and Asa have carefully tied down to metal stakes to render as utterly undangerous as possible. Of course they are all armed to the teeth with all kinds of heavy duty rifles, and are watched through binoculars by Skink and Twilly, hiding at a distance.

What nobody expects to happen is that, when the wind blows the scent of the rhino towards Skink and Twilly’s hiding place, it over-excites the big, friendly labrador, Boodle/MacGuinn, who breaks free from his lead and goes running down the hill towards the fantastic smells emitted by the necrotic rhinoceros, which it bounds and leaps around.

At first the rhino ignores the barking labrador, right up till the moment MacGuinn bites the rhino’s tail. At that point it lumbers to its feet and sets off in a charge towards the most open piece of terrain – which is precisely where the four hunters, 2 bodyguards and two guides are standing.

In its first pass, while the other six men run away, Stoat and Clapley line up either side of the rhino’s path and, as it goes to run between them, they both fire simultaneously: Stoat manages to miss the rhino at point blank range, but Clapley’s bullet hits and smashes Stoat’s rifle, whose wooden butt explodes, mashing up most of the shoulder it was resting against (p.470). But that’s only part one.

For the enraged rhino then returns and spears Clapley on the horn he so wants, and then crushes Stoat to death. It is a scene of mayhem and catastrophe. Once the rhino has vacated the scene, Skink calmly strolls down from his hiding place in the nearby hill and reclaims MacGuin.

Tying up loose ends

And that is the gruesome and farcical climax of the novel. In the last 15 or so pages various loose ends are tied up:

Skink visits his brother holed up in the lighthouse. Doyle really is a basket case and can’t bring himself to open the door despite Skink banging on it and begging. All Skink wants to tell him is his position there is assured for all time. Skink now has enough on governor Artemus to end his career. (Threat, exploitation, power.)

Stoat is buried and we are shown the very mixed feelings of Desie who feels guilty about in some way triggering the sequence of events which led to his death.

To keep him quiet about what he’s seen (and photographed) Governor Artemus accepts Vasquez-Washington’s demand for the funds and so a new high school is built and named in his Willie’s honour.

Clapley’s two girls had already abandoned him when he couldn’t supply any more rhino powder and are now making careers in porn movies.

The novel ends with Twilly giving Skink a lift across the state back towards the outback, before intending to head back home, a chastened young man. But on the way they find themselves behind a car containing a foursome of young drunk litter louts chucking beer bottles and lit cigarettes out the window, and Skink looks at Twilly and Twilly looks at Skink, and they decide to take these young people need a lesson in environmental awareness! I.e. Skink emerges triumphant.

Dog’s eye view

In all this summary I haven’t found space to mention that a lot of the book is devoted to seeing events through the dog’s eyes. We don’t get doggy stream of consciousness, but the dog’s perceptions and ‘thought processes’ are described in detail at countless points throughout the story. Admittedly, these amount to about three ideas: going for a walk, fascinating smells, and food, but Hiaasen conveys very effectively the fun of owning a big, bounding healthy dog. Rather like the love of fishing which resonates through his novels, the reader assumes the vividness of the descriptions of McGuinn’s tail-wagging energy and liveliness reflect Hiaasen’s own interests and sympathies. The doggy passages go a long way to redeeming the sex mania and addiction and greed and corruption which characterise almost all of the human characters.

One-line summary

Possibly, I’m not quite sure – it would be fun to argue its merits vis-a-vis all the others in the series – but possibly this is the best Carl Hiaasen novel up to this point. It certainly feels like the most complex, combining gruesome violence with really in-depth analysis of American corruption, along with moments of real feeling, like Desie’s complex emotions at wanting to leave her scumbag husband and the genuinely moving scene where Skink reassures his profoundly disturbed brother that he’s going to be alright, and the recurring descriptions of the labrador’s boundless doggy enthusiasm and excitement.

It’s an astonishing achievement to combine so many different affects, from journalistic insight, to outrageous gruesomeness, to genuinely touching moments, along with hundreds of cynically hilarious scenes and plot developments, all in the covers of one novel. It’s like eating a box of fireworks.

Jaded sayings

‘Tract homes and shopping malls and trailer parks as far as the eye can see. More people, more homes, more roads, more houses. More, more, more, more, more, more, more…’ (p.414)

‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of real estate commissions.’ (p.442)


Credit

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999. All references are to the 2001 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)
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