Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2016)

‘This is Florida, the land of batshit, trigger-happy motherfuckers.’ (p.82)

Andrew Yancy

The most notable thing about Hiaasen’s 14th novel is that it is a direct sequel to his 13th, featuring the same protagonist (former Monroe County detective Andrew Yancy), the same girlfriend he ended that novel with (Dr Rosa Campesino), and the same running feud with the owners of the vacant lot next to his, on the island of Big Pine Key, who are threatening to build a mansion which will block out Yancy’s restful view of the sunset.

At the start of book 13 Yancy was kicked off the small Monroe County police force for assaulting the husband of his then-mistress. Bonnie Witt. The easy-going head of the Monroe police, Sonny Summers, had to drop Yancy after the press furore about the assault, but got him a job he cordially hates, as a health and safety or ‘roach’ inspector of local restaurants.

Yancy is ‘a tall, lean man with a baked-in Florida tan’ (p.134) in his early 40s. He is a regular smoker of dope, who sometimes does his job or gets involved in the novel’s various criminal escapades, half-stoned. Like other Hiaasen heroes he is too honest and blunt for his own good, ‘prone to an acid bluntness that produced poor results careerwise…’ (p.55)

As usual with Hiaasen, Yancy was soon joined by a blizzard of other characters, all of whom are given complicated backstories and then placed in ever-complexifying situations and interlinking storylines.

Buck Nance

The central thread which just about keeps all the complex storylines of this novel together concerns a popular reality TV show titled Bayou Brethren, about a family of rednecks who live and bicker on a chicken farm in the Florida panhandle.

The star of the show is one Buck Nance, a middle-aged redneck with a long salt-and-pepper beard, who runs the chicken farm and so has acquired the ironic nickname Captain Cock (p.58). He lords it over his brothers, has a tough bitching wife, Krystal, but is also screwing a ‘sex-crazed’ mistress with the porny name of Miracle, on the side. (It is a given in all Hiaasen novels, that American marriage entails infidelity.)

In reality, like everything in Hiaasen, the entire show is a meretricious fake and a scam. Buck’s real name is Matthew Romberg and he and his three brothers ( Bradley (TV name: Junior), Henry (TV name: Buddy) and Todd (TV name: Clee Roy, p.68) are actually from rural Wisconsin.

They were in an unsuccessful band named Grand Funk Romberg (a jokey riff on the actual American hard rock group, Grand Funk Railroad) when they were talent-spotted on account of their hick appearance and cast as the central characters in the new show (p.71). The brothers have had to be extensively coached in every aspect of the Florida redneck life which their adoring fans consider them to epitomise: the Cajun accent, the chewing tobacco, the down-home oaths and jokes, it’s all fake.

Lane is kidnapped

The novel opens with Buck’s agent, Lane Coolman, a no-nonsense, cynical New York talent agent working for Platinum Artists Management who owes his career and wages and expense account lifestyle to Buck’s success, arriving in Miami to supervise some ‘gigs’ Buck is scheduled to give. These ‘gigs’ consist of Buck sitting up on stage telling good ole boy stories and jokes while a guitarist noodles folk melodies behind him and Lane supports and whispers prompts from the wings.

Instead, as he drives from the airport to his hotel, Lane is kidnapped by the criminal Zeto (full name Juan Zeto-Fernandez) and his sexy, unhinged sidekick, Merry Mansfield. They use a technique known as ‘bump and grab’ whereby Merry bumps her (stolen) car into the rear of Lane’s hire car. When he pulls over and gets out to remonstrate, he notices her jeans are down to her knees and her knickers pulled down and she is shaving her pubic hair while she is driving. Merry is the Razor Girl of the book’s title.

Lane is speechless with astonishment and anger, as he watches Merry apologetically pull up her panties, then quickly becomes addled with lust. Thus, when Merry declares her car a write-off and asks if he can give her a lift to the nearest service station, Lane readily agrees. But when they get there, Zeto is waiting with a gun, climbs into the passenger seat and orders him to drive. He’s done gone and been kidnapped, the sucker.

Martin Trebeaux and beach renourishment

In fact, typically for Hiaasen’s comedies of accidents and misadventures, it turns out Zeto and Merry have grabbed the wrong guy. Zeto had been hired by a New York mobster, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola, from the Calzone crime family (p.139) to kidnap a crooked businessman named Martin Trebeaux, who was scheduled to drive a similar colour car along the same highway at the same time and looks similar to Lane. Oops.

Why was Trebeaux the intended target of a grab? This requires a bit of explanation. Trebeaux runs a big company resanding Florida beaches in a process known as ‘beach renourishment’. This is because global warming and rising sea levels are washing away lots of Florida’s luxury sandy beaches. Trebeaux’s company, Sedimental Journeys, rakes up tonnes of sand from just offshore and replenishes vanishing beaches.

So far, so reasonable. But Trebeaux is a crook. His company has been dogged by scandal. Firstly, the resanding process tends to muddy up the water and produce thousands of dead fish which wash up ashore, putting off the very tourists it’s meant to attract. Discovering this early on, Trebeaux moved his  sand dredging operation to the Bahamas, shipping the sand back to Miami. But it had the same environment-destroying impact in the island and when this was reported on the news and even prompted a BBC investigation, he was forced to shut it down, too (p.32).

Then Trebeaux took some bad advice from a contact who told him he could use sand from a ‘burrow pit’ (something I think we would call a gravel pit) on the edge of the Everglades. This Trebeaux proceeds to excavate and ship to the beach behind the Royal Pyrenees hotel. But the sand from this source turns out to be not only hard and sharp but to contain recycled asphalt and even broken glass! Soon after it is laid, tourists start cutting themselves to shreds and trade to the hotel plummets.

And this is where the mob comes in because the Royal Pyrenees hotel is owned by them and managed by their man, Dominick ‘Big Noogie’ Aeola. This is why Big Noogie had hired Zeto to kidnap Trebeaux. But Zeto screws up and kidnaps Lane, who quickly makes it clear he’s the wrong guy. Nonetheless, Zeto and Merry tie and gag Lane while they ponder what to do with him, Zeto casually weighing the pros and cons of killing him.

Long story short, after failing to bump Len off on a boat, Zeto reluctantly agrees to take him along with them when they have another go at bumping and grabbing the actual Martin Trebeaux the next day and, during the confusion, Lane manages to wriggle out the window of the car he’s being held in and run off, eventually finding a payphone and calling his boss in LA.

Buck’s disastrous gig

Now the important thing about Coolman being mistakenly kidnapped is that he provides a vital psychological support to his TV star Buck Nance when the latter does his ‘gigs’. Buck has a guitarist strumming along in the background but it is Lane’s reassuring presence just offstage that gets him through the gigs, giving him confidence beforehand and prompting him if he dries, as he tells good ole boy stories and jokes to his redneck audience.

So Buck turns up for his ‘gig’ at a bar called the Parched Pirate on Duvall Street in Key West and, without either the guitar player (whose absence is unexplained) or Lane (who we have seen being kidnapped en route to the gig) Buck’s set goes disastrously awry. Instead of the usual stories he panics, forgets his script and ad libs some off colour jokes from Wisconsin about blacks and then about gays. This turns out to be a terrible idea because the Parched Pirate is actually a gay hangout.

The upshot is there’s a riot, Buck is grabbed, beaten up, has his shirt ripped off and his long grey beard forcibly chopped off with scissors before he can flee for his life, ducking through a maze of back alleys and eventually hiding out in the tangled branches of a huge banyan tree where he stays, thoroughly razzled, for the entire night.

During the ruckus he has lost his wallet and his mobile phone and he looks like crap. He has been reduced to bum status.

Enter Yancy

Believe it or not, this is where Yancy comes in, because next day he’s called to a restaurant run by Irv Clipowski (‘a long-distance runner with a goatee which he dyed goosewhite’), which generally has good hygiene standards, but where they’ve found hanks of grey hair in the quinoa vat. The hair has apparently been chucked there overnight and the reader quickly realises it’s the remnants of Buck Nance’s beard, forcibly cut off him by an enraged crowd and chucked through an open window.

Yancy clears up the sample of rogue hair cuttings and orders the restaurant owners to do a thorough deep clean of their kitchen.

As it happens, later that day, Rogelio Burton, a friend of Yancy’s who’s still a detective on the Monroe police force, mentions that a big fuss has kicked off about this TV star, Buck Nance, who’s gone missing and when, that evening, Yancey watches a few old episodes of Bayou Brethren out of boredom, he suddenly realises the grey hair in the quinoa looks identical with Buck Nance’s grey beard in the TV show. Huh. A clue!

Now, Yancy is bored with his job and pissed off because his long-term girlfriend, smart Dr Rosa Campesino, formerly of the Miami morgue (her job when he met her), now working in a hospital emergency room, has abruptly announced that she’s going to Europe, to Norway, without him. It feels like a snub and they part at the airport on bad terms. At a loose end, on impulse, Yancy decides, what the hell, he’ll have a go at tracking down this missing TV star.

Fallout from Buck’s bad gig

Meanwhile, the president of Platinum Artists Management, John David Ampergrodt, known as Amp, is going nuts because Nance’s homophobic, racist jokes were recorded by some of his audience and immediately posted on YouTube. Not only that, but Buck’s unhinged girlfriend, Miracle, becomes convinced that the missing Buck has run off with some other woman and so hacks into the Bayou Brethren‘s Facebook page, adding a photo of Osama bin Laden and making it look like Buck is jokily comparing his own beard with the famous terrorist’s.

So Amp finds himself in the midst of a major PR disaster, when Zeto lets Lane rings up desperately begging for a ransom to be paid so that mad Zeto doesn’t waste him (while Zeto and Merry are still holding him). You can see why Amp doesn’t immediately believe Lane or grasp the seriousness of the situation. 12 hours later Lane rings from a roadside phone box to say he’s managed, as we’ve seen, to free himself from his kidnappers but, again, Amp is too distracted by the crisis in hand to take him seriously.

(There’s a running thread that Lane has a wife, Rachel, who is planning to divorce him and is currently ‘revenge fucking’ her way through all the men in Los Angeles, notably Lane’s boss John David Ampergrodt, who routinely meets her at the Wilshire Hotel for quick cunnilingus and boning sessions [p.144]. We are given graphic descriptions of comic moments when Amp has his head rammed firmly between Rachel’s parted thighs and is slurping away when his phone goes off with an important business call. The hard life of a Hollywood agent, eh. Lane has a divorce lawyer working for him and trying to discredit Rachel. The lawyer’s name is Smegg [p.278].)

Pause for breath

So: what’s going to happen to Martin Trebeaux, who by now Zeto and Merry have successfully kidnapped? Where’s Buck Nance hiding out and what’s going to happen to him, now beaten up, penniless and beardless? Will Yancy manage to find Buck or will he get dragged into the whole Zeto-Merry-Trebeaux storyline? Will there be a happy resolution to Yancy and Rosa Campesino’s relationship, which seems to have fallen on hard times? Stay tuned, folks.

Main plot developments

There are so many complicated plot ramifications and complexifications it’s hard to keep track. Here are the highlights:

Zeto electrocutes himself trying to adjust the plug on the cable to an electric car he’s stolen, so he’s out of the story quite early on.

Trebeaux is handed over to Big Noogie who, with a hardass assistant (‘the man with the ivory toothpick’), attaches surgical clamps to Trebeaux’s ‘nutsack’ (scrotum) and then dangles him from a local railway bridge until Trebeaux admits the sand he rebeached the Grand Pyrenees with was sub-standard and promises to do everything in his power to fix it.

Merry astonishes Lane by bumping into Lane a few days after he escaped from her and Zeto and calmly asking if she can move into his motel room with him. Merry is a splendid fictional creation, a constant fount of unexpected and unpredictable behaviour. She refuses to conform to any conventions, kidnapping someone one minute then wanting to be their friend. She concocts extravagant and hilarious lies at the drop of a hat. After a brief period with Lane she then arrives on Yancy’s doorstep (see below). There’s a funny piece of dialogue where she explains to Yancy that she doesn’t regard herself as a criminal at all, but more of a performance artist (p.93).

Brock and Deb I need to mention Yancy’s neighbours. After he drove away the property developer who was trying to build on the lot adjacent to his house in the previous novel, the lot has now been purchased by a shyster lawyer, Brock Richardson, and his good-looking spoiled fiancée, Debbie. As with the previous owner, Yancy embarks on a campaign to drive them away, which includes drunkenly firing his rifle at beer bottles he lobs into the air close to the border fence when Brock and Deb are around. In a later gag he gets a buddy of his that he plays poker with to pretend to be a state archaeologist and ‘discover’ ancient teeth on the site, which he claims must have belonged to the Calusa native Americans who occupied this land thousands of years ago. The fake archaeologist immediately declares that all building works will have to be suspended while the site is fully excavated, much to Brock’s fury (p.177).

Pitrolux Worth mentioning that one of the book’s dozen or so storylines focuses on Brock’s role as the lawyer for a series of class actions he’s managing against a new wonder-product named ‘Pitrolux’. This is a combination underarm deoderant which also cures erectile dysfunction i.e. gives men boners which last for hours. Despite what he knows about its ill effects, Brock himself starts taking Pitrolux and his rock-hard, everlasting erections rekindle his love life with Debs, until he starts to suffer from the same side effects as all his clients, namely a) the erections won’t go away, last for hours and become really painful, and b) the growth of unsightly skin tags or polyps in the shape of tiny penises in his armpit, which Debs discovers and freak her out.

The diamond ring A simple incident occurs early on which turns out to become central to the plot. Yancy spies Deb poking around in the as-yet-unbuilt-on plot. He jumps over the fence and aggressively questions her. Turns out she has lost the massive engagement ring Brock gave her which cost him $200,000. She’s pissed off because it was slightly too big for her finger, Brock having originally bought it for an earlier, tubbier fiancée. Yancy pretends to help until Debs gets fed up and leaves, at which point Yancy picks it up from where it was lying concealed in long grass.

Yancy stores the monster ring in a tub of hummus in his fridge and what happens is, through various coincidences, a series of bad guys hear about the missing ring and come to pay Yancy visits. Thus, at one point Trebeaux and Richardson meet by complete accident in a bar and both mouth off about their woes. But when Richardson mentions the missing $200,000 ring, and that he thinks Yancy has stolen it, Trebeaux passes the news along to Big Noogie in a bid to impress his new mafioso boss.

Big Noogie immediately decides the ring will be just perfect for his son to give to his fiancée, and sends a couple of hard men round to Yancy’s to intimidate or, if necessary, torture its whereabouts out of him. They only have to start slashing up Yancy’s sofa before Yancy gives in and hands it over.

Merry moves in By this point half a dozen other things have happened. For a start, when Lane moves out of his motel into a smarter hotel, Merry has nowhere to stay and so turns up on Yancy’s doortstep. To his own surprise he takes a keen liking to her, for her independent, free-spirited sassiness. She’s great fun, an outrageous liar and flirt and fantasist. Some of her extended riffs are very funny and help to make this, at least in the first half, arguably Hiaasen’s funniest novel (for example, page 166).

‘You don’t know what to do with me, do you? I love that!’ (p.257)

There’s also broad comedy when Yancy’s estranged girlfriend, Dr Campesino, phones from Oslo and every time it seems, by bad luck, to be Merry who answers the phone. One time by bursting into the bathroom where Yancy is having a shower so that she answers the call from Rosa but then hands it over to an obviously naked Yancy (p.148). Yancy finds this (understandably) difficult to explain and Rosa for her part announces that she wants to stay in Norway.

Comedic though the shape of this storyline is, it contains a very serious social point. Rosa has worked all her life in either the Miami morgue or Miami emergency ward and she’s had enough. She’s snapped. She’s had a sort of breakdown. She just can’t face the sound of endless police sirens from morning to night, and she can’t face any more the task of patching up children – children – with extensive gunshot wounds. On one of their long, difficult calls Rosa tells Yancy how many murders there have been in Oslo that year. The answer: one. Two farmers got into a drunken fight and one hit the other with a shovel a bit harder than he meant to. Guns are illegal in Norway, so there is no gun crime, compared to:

a place as ethnically diverse and gun crazy as Florida. (p.298)

It’s a serious point about the stupidity of America’s gun laws and its out-of-control epidemic of violence and I read it on the same day there was a mass shooting in the very same Miami Rosa is talking about, Hiaasen’s Miami.

‘These people [the Norwegians] have evolved in a positive direction,’ Rosa said. ‘Americans are heading the other direction.’ (p.377)

Anyway, the fact that Merry seems to have moved in with him explains why she is present when Big Noogie’s goons arrive and why she helps to persuade Yancy to give in and hand over the diamond. Mind you, Yancy is easily persuaded because he is, at the time, lying on his sofa recovering from a bad knife wound to the gut. Knife wound?

Yes, because there is an entirely separate plotline which only really gets going in the middle of the book but then comes to dominate it. This rotates around a redneck cretin named Benjamin ‘Blister’ Krill who is a fanatical fan of the Bayou Brethren, so fanatical that he has a massive tattoo inked across his shoulders reading HAIL CAPTAIN COCK.

When Buck climbs down from the banyan tree the morning after the riot in the bar he sets about shoplifting a new shirt and hat and shades etc. But Blister Krill recognises his hero and tries to engage him in conversation. When Buck repeatedly rebuffs him (p.200), idiot Blister gets furious, whips out his knife and frogmarches Buck through the tourist crowds in Key West, out to the dock and onto a little put-put boat which he drives out to a knackered old boat he owns, a cabin cruiser named Wet Nurse. Here he handcuffs Buck to a bunk in the cabin until he learns some manners.

From this point onwards Blister becomes a sort of daemon ex machina, the wild card driving the plot. Things escalate when Blister, inspired by the kind of racist language Buck used at his ill-fated gig and which has triggered an outpouring of redneck bigotry across the internet, spots a foreign-looking guy on the tacky touristy Conch Train which weaves through Old Key West, goes up to him and starts yelling Islamophobic abuse.

This poor man, Abdul-Halim Shamoon, is from New York where he has a family and children and runs a harmless electronics retail shop (p.126). He’s loaded up on tacky souvenirs which he’s planning to take home for the kids when a rough redneck confronts him and starts spitting insults in his face. So Shamoon tries to get off the train while it’s still moving but falls awkwardly onto a tacky porcelain gewgaw he’s bought which pierces his sternum and punctures his aorta. There and then he bleeds to death all over his tropical tourist shirt and souvenir knick-knacks. Blister runs off into the crowd.

Hiaasen’s early novels feature some outrageously grotesquely violent incidents, such as the hitman who gets a dead pitbull attached to his arm in Double Whammy and the angry New Yorker who crucifies a crooked property developer to a satellite dish in Stormy Weather. Later novels try but, I think, generally fail to match the first fine careless insanity of these early incidents. Having Shamoon fall on some tourist gewgaws and bleed to death isn’t outrageous enough to be blackly funny. Instead it feels genuinely tragic and sad.

Anyway, Blister runs off, but some bystanders provide identification of sorts and the ‘murder’ of Shamoom gets mixed up with the ongoing disappearance of TV star Buck Nance in a whole load of complicated and twisted ways.

Yancy, bored and hoping to impress his ex-boss by solving the crime, picks up various clues which lead him to Blister in his crappy apartment, where he’s barely begun questioning him (with absolutely no authority; he is no longer a detective and the head of Monroe’s Police force has emphatically told him to stop interfering) when Blister takes a ‘spazzy’ swipe at him with a knife, not stabbing him but raking a cut across his stomach.

Luckily enough Yancy was accompanied by Merry, who manhandled him out the apartment, into their car and ran all the red lights to get home to a hospital ER in 6 minutes.

Being the tough guy hero of a thriller / obstinate failed cop and stoner (take your pick) Yancy refuses to stay in hospital overnight after he’s been stitched up, and insists on going home where he can lie on his own sofa and get pleasantly stoned while Merry tends to him. Which is precisely the moment Big Noogie’s hoods choose to arrive and threaten to turn over his house till they find the $200,000 engagement ring.

Complicated, isn’t it? There’s a lot more. Blister then kidnaps Lane Coolman as well as Buck and ends up with both of them handcuffed to bunks in the cabin of his rancid old motor yacht. The only way the two men can persuade Blister to let them go is with a plan which goes beyond any bounds of sanity or probability: the three concoct the idea that Blister will join the cast of Bayou Brethren as Buck’s long lost brother. It’s Blister’s idea, and he comes up with a long and extravagant backstory to justify his sudden appearance in the show. Lane is one tough, cynical agent and, despite having been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bunk in a rancid old boat, he can actually see Blister’s plot twist working.

The result is that Blister releases them from their handcuffs, takes them back to the mainland, Lane calls Amp at the agency’s office in Los Angeles, pitches the story and, to the reader’s increasing disbelief, Amp flies out to meet the (by now genuinely psychopathic and dangerous) Blister in person.

This storyline now spins way out of control leading to a scene where Blister is taken for a spin in Amp’s private jet along with his common law wife, Mona, and Lane and Buck as they drink champagne and discuss the finer points of the contract he’s going to be signed to. All is going well until Amp’s big black bodyguard, Prawney, makes a grab for Blister’s Glock semi-automatic which he’s been carrying round for the past hundred pages. The gun goes off, shooting Prawney through the cheeks and in the chest. Amp orders the pilot to turn the plane round and land back in Key West. Well, as business meetings go, that wasn’t a great success.

Trebeaux and Juvenile

Now he’s come all this way south to sort out the sand situation, Big Noogie likes it in Key West. After Trebeaux had been hung off the bridge and made the wise decision to co-operate fully with the mob, he’d been flown to New York to meet the heads of the Calzone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse i.e. took over his company wholesale (p.139). On the way Trebeaux had introduced Noogie to a scam he’d never heard of before, which was to get hold of a dog and dress it in a hazard jacket and pretend to be disabled so as to blag a better seat on the plane. Americans appear to call this a ‘service dog’ (p.410). When they fly back to Key West together, Trebeaux wants nothing more to do with the dog and the Noogie finds himself looking after it and slowly getting to like going for regular walks through the tourist crowds of Old Key West and along the beach. Yes, life here is nice and relaxing.

Anyway, Trebeaux is still orientating himself in his dangerous new situation vis-a-vis the mafia, and is unpacking in his hotel room when there’s a knock on the door and Big Noogie’s mistress, a big florid flake nicknamed Juveline (a name she acquired when a New York cop couldn’t spell ‘juvenile’ on her arrest sheet) walks into his room and asks whether he fancies a mind-blowing fuck. Trebeaux says yes and they go for it. Soon she has become his mistress, two-timing the Big Noogie.

Trebeaux knows this is a very bad idea but is turned on by the sheer outrageousness of the situation and they keep having regular sex, Juveline explaining that Big Noogie is such a big, fat, middle-aged guy that he isn’t that interested in it. Also, Noogie doesn’t get jealous if she disappears for days on end to her relatives’ houses or shopping and such, which gives her plenty of opportunity to be unfaithful.

This plotline reaches a peak when Trebeaux tries to pull a scam on the Big Noogie, bullshitting that he has heavyweight connections in Havana Cuba who will do a deal to supply world-class pink sand from Cuban beaches to make the Royal Pyrenees beach the envy of Florida. Unwisely, Trebeaux lets Juveline talk him into taking her on the 2-day jaunt to Havana.

Only trouble is that Juveline talks in her sleep and one night cries out ‘Harder, Marty, harder’, much to the surprise of Big Noogie lying next to her, who instantly realises what’s going on (p.389). Thus, when Trebeaux has landed and made himself at home in Havana, and goes to meet Juveline off a later flight, it is not Juveline he sees walking through passport control but the same hardman who applied the surgical clamps to his nutsack and helped dangle him off the bridge. Ah. Oh. Bad. In fact Trebeaux’s body is discovered a few days later, buried on a beach. So, that’s the end of him, then.

Funny

Razor Girls may well be Hiaasen’s funniest novel, meaning the one which made me laugh out loud the most. For two reasons: Yancy develops a really buddy-buddy routine with fellow detective Rogelio, which leads to lots of snappy repartee:

YANCY: ‘The human bloodhound is what they call me.’
ROGERIO: ‘A pain in the sphincter is what they call you.’ (p.87)

OK, so it’s not Oscar Wilde, but in the context of a fast-moving, American crime comedy caper, and in the context of the sustained backchat between the pair, it’s good, it works.

But the main reason is for the indefatigably unpredictable behaviour of fantasist and survivor Merry Mansfield. Almost everything she says and does is wonderfully confident, bluff and canny. Unquenchably amoral. At several points Yancy realises it would be wise to tell her to move out and make a break with her, but she’s just so much fun to have around.

It was hard to picture an even-keeled relationship with a person who took her last name from a  dead movie star and and crashed automobiles half-naked for a living. (p.284)

Men

Once again, as in many previous Hiaasen novels, the entire male sex comes in for sustained criticism, yet again, for their pitiful addiction to sex. Flash most men some boob or a whiff of your panties and they turn into drooling slaves. Most of this comes from the mouth if Merry, inventor of the shaving pubes scam, who has the lowest possible opinion of pathetic men.

  • Merry said, ‘Men. I swear.’ (p.44)
  • ‘Men are so pitiful.’ (p.93)
  • ‘his poor little pecker…’ (p.119)
  • ‘You men.’ (p.134)
  • He said, ‘Yeah, I know. Us men, we’re pitiful.’ ‘Totally, Andrew.’ (p.190)
  • ‘Men, I swear.’ (p.285)
  • She had had ‘a lifetime of being disappointed by men.’ (p.360)
  • ‘Men are the worst.’ (p.364)
  • ‘Men are so freakin’ predictable.’ (p.415)

One touch on the pecker and men become ‘immune to rational thought’ (p.388). I wonder if Hiaasen made the same kind of sustained criticism of women or Jews or blacks or Muslims, whether his liberal readers would take it all in good spirit and laughingly accept the sustained barrage of negative stereotypes.

American slang

Hiaasen’s novels are notable not only for their very dense plots, overflowing with colourful characters and garish incidents, but for the aggressive ‘attitude’ of the narrator himself, who freely uses street slang and swearwords to describe his characters and their doings, and liberally sprinkles the text with those handy terms for things and actions which Americans just seem to have and we Brits don’t. I found this novel particularly rich in new terminology, in fact I became addicted to collecting them.

  • app = short for appetiser. ‘His calamari app.’
  • baggie = a brand of plastic bag, Yancy uses them for stashing mank he finds on his restaurant inspections, such as rodent ‘scat’
  • baked = stoned
  • to ball = to fuck cf. to bone. ‘Is she still balling that dickface Drucker?’ (p.370)
  • to bang = to fuck, cf, to ball, to bone. ‘Don’t bang a stranger.’ (p.404)
  • bank = big money. ‘You saved the agency some serious bank.’ (p.63)
  • a beat-down = a severe beating. ‘So I can cancel your beat-down?’ (p.414)
  • berserk-o = adjective meaning wild, crazy. ‘The beserk-o side of the place [Miami] was basically all you saw, if you were a cop or a coroner.’ (p.190)
  • to bitch someone out = nag someone, generally a woman bitching out a man (p.252)
  • blow smoke = to bullshit, make something up. ‘… that didn’t mean Trebeaux wasn’t blowing smoke.’ (p.182)
  • to bone = to fuck
  • bonehead = ‘A stubborn, thickheaded and determined person that doesn’t think things through before acting upon them’
  • boner = erection (p.374)
  • to brace = to meet, to confront (p.393)
  • a bumblefuck = insult
  • Bumfuck = generic term for inconsequential settlement in the middle of nowhere, as in Bumfuck Wisconsin or any of the other anonymous mid-Western states.
  • a bump and grab = a type of criminal scam: one crim bumps their car into the back of the victims car; when the victim stops, they’re hijacked / kidnapped
  • to bus tables = to be a waiter
  • buy the farm = to die. ‘… a biker who’d bought the farm at Mile Marker 19.’ (p.304)
  • buzzed = adjective meaning ‘stoned’
  • to can = to fire. ‘No wonder the sheriff canned your ass.’ (p.188)
  • chunk-muffin  = fat person (p.36)
  • cockhead = variation on dickhead, an idiot, an annoying or vexatious person (p.367)
  • cold one = a beer (p.306)
  • cooch = pussy, fanny, vulva. ‘…shaving cream all over her cooch…’ (p.260)
  • to crack the blinds = of closed blinds, to prise them apart to spy through them (p.327)
  • courtesy fuck = a guy buys a woman dinner, chocolates etc, she owes him a courtesy fuck
  • cracker = term of contempt for poor whites, particularly of Georgia and Florida, dating back to the American Revolution, and derives from the cracked corn which was their staple diet
  • to dick around = to waste time (p.309)
  • dickface = loser, idiot (p.370)
  • dickweed = an asshole or idiot so pernicious they are like a weed (p.384)
  • dirtbag = person who is committed to an alternative lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other social norms i.e. washing
  • to do = have sex with. ‘I’d do her.’
  • Dogpatch = name of a fictional poor rural community in the U.S., especially in the South, whose inhabitants are unsophisticated and have little education. Hence its use as an adjective: ‘A Dogpatch moniker like Clee Roy should have stuck in his head.’ (p.188)
  • a doobie or doob = a joint, cannabis cigarette (p.328)
  • dopp kit = small bag made for transporting toiletries in a convenient and portable manner
  • douche, short for douche bag = ‘a dick, an asshole, a jerk, whose crass behaviour has led them to be compared to a cleansing product for vaginas.’
  • a dust bunny = ball of dust and fluff (p.326)
  • dweeb = abbreviation of ‘dick with eyebrows’, implying the person is a walking penis
  • flake = an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through (p.311)
  • four-top = table for four in a diner
  • to frog = to punch someone in the upper arm or chest with the middle knuckle partially extended to inflict a sharp concentrated blow
  • fry cartons = generic name for the kind of flimsy, grease-stained cardboard cartons you get takeaway fast food in
  • fuckwhistle = idiot, moron, one who lacks the most basic common sense to make correct decisions
  • fuckweasel = person who behaves in a sneaky manner to create favourable circumstances for themselves at the expense of others
  • gank = to steal. ‘I think the asshole who lives next door might’ve ganked it.’ (p.181)
  • gas up = fill a car with petrol (p.346)
  • goatfuck = a monumental screwup. (p.410)
  • goober = term of affection for a lovable, silly, lighthearted person: ‘…a crew from ET [was] interviewing some sunburned goober’ (p.97)
  • googan = a person wearing trendy sports clothing that is completely clueless in the ways of fishing
  • goomah = a mafioso’s mistress
  • grab-ass = the act of wrestling or chasing another person with the intention to touch or squeeze that person’s butt
  • a grow house = a room or rooms or larger space where marijuana plants are grown (p.245)
  • a hardass = someone who takes no shit off anyone, someone who expects to get their own way and won’t take no for an answer; dominating (p.364)
  • hard chargers = party animals. ‘Rogelio didn’t screw around on his wife, never stayed out late with the hard chargers.’ (p.82)
  • hardcore = adjective meaning serious, intense, relentless. ‘This judge is hardcore.’ (p.370)
  • honcho = a person in charge of some group or function. ‘The network honchos…’ (p.247)
  • horn, on the = on the phone
  • horndog = a guy or girl that is always horny. ‘He couldn’t rule out the possibility that he was a hopelessly shallow horndog.’ (p.284)
  • iced = adjective meaning killed or completed, depending on context. ‘I’ll have [the contract] iced by the next time we walk.’ (p.238)
  • an innie = belly buttons come in two shapes, innies and outies
  • to jack = ​jack something or somebody (for something) to steal something from somebody, especially something small or of low value (p.322)
  • jackoff = a stupid, irritating, or contemptible person
  • jag = ‘To “be on a jag” or “go on a jag” means to be completely unrestrained, whether you’re on a drinking jag or a crying jag.’
  • jazzed = expression of extreme happiness. ‘I am totally jazzed to hear your voice.’ (p.238)
  • jewels = penis and testicles. ‘I mean she’ll kill me, cut off my fuckin’ jewels and kill me all over again.’ (p.90)
  • jizz = semen (p.268)
  • Johnson = penis (p.374)
  • junk = cock and balls. ‘Next she made him dunk his junk in a bucket of ice cubes…’ (p.287)
  • landing zone = woman’s genitals (p.331)
  • look fly = look smart, well presented (p.359)
  • mash = press hard. ‘He mashed the Lobby button half a dozen times…’ (p.309)
  • meathead = overmuscular man, too much time at the gym, can’t string a sentence together (p.292)
  • meat hog = muscle i.e. goons i.e. hired enforcers (p.322)
  • mick = Irish (noun or adjective) (p.373)
  • mo-fo = adjective, short for ‘motherfucking’, suggesting ‘big’ (p.180)
  • a mope = a person of any race or culture who presents themselves as uneducated and possibly criminal either by behaviour or clothes
  • a mouthbreather = a retard: someone so stupid they never learned to breathe through their nose
  • nooner = a sex session during a lunch break or around noon; made famous by Al Bundy of ‘Married with Children’. ‘She promised him that she was done with payback nooners at the Wlshire.’ (p.409)
  • nosebleed heels = heels so high your head is in the upper atmosphere, hence the nosebleed
  • a numbnut = someone who is a constant source of trouble, an individual who screws up, or constant makes mistakes
  • nut sack = scrotum; male characters in Hiaasen novels are always getting something bad happen to their nut sacks, in this novel Trebeaux has some surgical clamps (hemostats) attached to his balls
  • nuts = testicles
  • on the lam = on the run, very old slang
  • a peckerwood = used by Afro-Americans to describe a rural white southerner, usually poor, undereducated or otherwise ignorant and bigoted (p.381)
  • to peel out = to drive or go away. ‘Yancy grinned at the sight of the Taurus peeling out.’ (p.190)
  • to peel rubber = to accelerate an automobile very rapidly (p.364)
  • piece = gun (p.370)
  • poon = woman’s genitals. Short for ‘poontang‘, ditto (p.308)
  • a pop tab = the flip top on drink cans
  • to pop a tent = to have an erection that shows through your trousers, or erects a bedsheet
  • pussy hound = ‘a dude who’s main goal in life is balling ladies.’
  • rearview, to put someone in your rearview = get over someone, move on (p.302)
  • rebar = reinforcing steel used as rods in concrete.
  • revenge fuck = joins mercy fuck, courtesy fuck and sportfucking as categories of fuck. ‘Rachel was the undoubted queen of the revenge fuck in a town with many contenders for the title.’ (p.42)
  • the root prong = of a tooth (p.178)
  • salvor = ‘a person engaged in salvage of a ship or items lost at sea’
  • sawbuck = $10
  • scat = poo; ‘rodent scat’ (p.84)
  • schlep = noun: a long and tiresome journey; verb: to make a long and tiresome journey. Yiddish (p.373)
  • to screak = to make a harsh shrill noise : screech
  • shit-bird = a completely useless individual who is unaware of their own complete uselessness
  • shit-heel = adjective. ‘…his shit-heel brothers…’ (p.221)
  • shitkicker = insult
  • shitstick = insult
  • shitsucker = insult
  • shitweasel = person who is sly, sneaky, and opportunistic; someone who is looking to slip their way into a shitty situation and make it even shittier
  • a shucker = someone who shucks oysters, clams, corn, walnuts etc out of their shells
  • sick = adjective meaning really good, cool or very impressive
  • a slim jim = a tool used to open doors on cars, by ‘pulling up’ the lock within the door, hence the verb, to slim jim a car. ‘… content in mid-life to be slim-jimming cars…’ (p.275)
  • slut puppy = person who uses their adorable looks to attract a partner or partners for a casual sexual encounter
  • to snitch out = to betray. ‘A million bucks says you wouldn’t never snitch out your wife.’ (p.358)
  • to spazz out = sudden, fast movement(s); to go mental (p.373)
  • spazzy = adjective meaning clumsy or inept, with an overtone of demented or mad. ‘Benny Krill had made one spazzy swing with the blade…’ (p.192)
  • to stare down = verb: to look fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away
  • a stare-down = noun: the act of looking fixedly at someone in a hostile or intimidating way till they look away (p.386)
  • stoner = someone who regularly smokes marijuana: there are many different types of stoner
  • swag = merchandise. ‘He promised to donate a truckload of Brethren swag to an auction benefiting the local kids’ baseball league…’ (p.248).
  • tanked = stoned
  • tank suit = a woman’s one-piece swimsuit with high-cut legs. Merry wears one (p.300)
  • a thundercunt = that much more cunty than an ordinary cunt. ‘She’s a major thundercunt.’ (p.62)
  • toot = to snort, generally cocaine (p.329)
  • to tune up = to give someone an attitude adjustment by beating their ass. ‘… the man who’d just tuned up Rick and Rod…’ (p.275)
  • a tweaker = a methamphetamine addict; derives from ‘tweak’ which is a slang name for methamphetamine’. ‘Mr Nance isn’t just some homeless tweaker.’ (p.47)
  • unspooled = adjective meaning unhinged, bonkers
  • weed = marijuana aka grass
  • a whack job = a nutcase, a lunatic
  • to whale at something = to hit something forcefully and repeatedly
  • to whorehop = to go from one (loose) woman to another, regardless of consequences (p.61)
  • to wig out = ‘to suddenly become unnecessarily worried, anxious, upset, or paranoid most often while under the influence of an intoxicating substance, especially marijuana’
  • wild-ass = adjective meaning crazy. ‘The van driver figured out they were being tailed, and made a wild-ass turn off Flagler Avenue.’ (p.362)
  • wood = an erect penis; thus ‘to get wood’, ‘to have wood’. Brock Richardson: ‘Never waste good wood.’ (p.288)

Englishisms

In among the blizzard of Americanisms I was struck by a handful of times Hiaasen uses what I think of as very English terms, such as nitwit (p.361) and thick (p.215). I wonder whether he was deliberately trying to include as much novel slang as possible in this book i.e. it has a conscious philological interest over and above the storyline.

Once again I note that the woman riding cowboy style is Hiaasen’s (fictional) sexual position of choice, Merry riding Yancy (p.254) just as Dr Rosa Campasino rode him on the morgue dissection table and, later, in his bath. Appropriate for the general ‘girls on top, men are pitiful’ theme of so many of his novels.

Handy phrases

  • Sonny Summers wasn’t the sharpest tack on the corkboard. (p.47)
  • ‘Not my circus, not my monkey.’ (p.185)

Credit

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2016. All references are to the 2019 Vintage Crime 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)

Spook Country by William Gibson (2007)

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself.
(Spook Country page 174)

The Sprawl trilogy

Gibson’s first three novels made up the Sprawl trilogy (1984 to 1988), science fiction stories set 50 or so years in the future (Gibson is on record as saying he thinks Neuromancer is set in 2035) in a society dominated by huge urban conurbations (the entire East Coast of America has ceased to be made up of distinct cities and is one endless dome-covered megacity known as the ‘Sprawl’). This future society is drenched in digital tech where hackers can plug their brains directly into the vast matrix of digital data flows. The narratives of all three Sprawl novels unfold grippingly complex plots, told in adrenaline-fuelled, cyberpunk prose, leading up to the revelations that these vast rivers of data are reaching an omega point whereby the combined power of the worldwide web is arriving at a transformational moment when it will gain full self-consciousness (exactly as the Skynet defence system does in the contemporaneous Terminator franchise of movies).

The Bridge Trilogy

Gibson’s next three novels formed the Bridge trilogy (1993 to 1999), set a more modest 20 or so years in the future, around 2010 or so, after a cataclysmic earthquake has struck California causing the state to be split in two. They take their name from the Golden Gate bridge which was so badly damaged in the quake that it was abandoned as a means of transport and was quickly squatted by all manner of lowlifes, the poor and marginalised, who turned it into a futuristic favela made up of home-made building units, streets and shops suspended from the bridge’s steel coils, a vivid and striking recurring image.

Against this backdrop were set the intertwining stories of Gibson’s quirky characters: a tough security guard down on his luck, a sexy bicycle courier, a mentally challenged digital ninja who spots patterns in the endless flow of data around the internet, a rock star who marries an entirely digital cyber-woman, a deaf and dumb street kid, a silent Taoist assassin. The techie ends of the plots involved digital headsets and some internet technology but there was a lot less of it than in the Sprawl novels and, similarly, the prose was still zippy and tight, but less densely street cool than in the earlier trilogy.

The Blue Ant trilogy

Then came the Blue Ant Trilogy (2003 to 2010) of which this novel is the middle instalment. These complete Gibson’s ‘retreat from the future’ and are set in the contemporary world, each one set more or less the year before they were published, so roughly 2002, 2006 and 2009 respectively.

I thought Blue Ant was going to refer to something cryptic and obscure and cool and so was very disappointed to discover it’s just the name of the secretive (fictional) advertising agency run by super-clever, super-rich philosopher-businessman, Hubertus Bigend. When I first read that name it struck me that Gibson was taking the piss out of his legions of fans and devotees in the book world, taunting them to swallow such a preposterous moniker. At that point, my willing suspension of disbelief in Gibson’s fiction snapped and I realised several things:

Irritating features

1. A little like J.G. Ballard in his final phase, Gibson has ceased being a writer of inspiringly visionary science fiction and has become the author of slick, very well-made but ultimately pretty traditional thrillers, with a bit of pop culture window dressing to tickle the style magazines, i.e:

Women

The protagonists are mostly young women (Cayce Pollard in book 1 of this trilogy, Hollis Henry in books 2 and 3).

Paint it black

Everyone wears black, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, black shades, black underpants, black jeans, black socks, black shoes, because black is cool, daddy-o. Groovy, man. Dig your black shades, baby.

Ethnic characters

There’s a lot of ethnic minorities involved, gesturing at our modern multicultural, cosmopolitan societies although, noticeably a) nearly all of them are East Asian – I mean Japanese or Chinese – with very few, if any people, of colour, and b) none of the lead characters are not Caucasian. In this, as in so many other ways, despite the superficial gloss, pretty traditionalist.

Digital

There’s still quite a lot of hi-tech digital gadgetry but it’s got more and more meh. Also, instead of being a prophet, his books have started to be wrong and misleading when it comes to the digital world. He is writing quite limited ideas of virtual art but this was overtaken even as Gibson wrote his books by the far more revolutionary impact of smartphones and social media.

In both Spook Country and Zero History the lead character, Hollis Henry, is researching and writing about a small group of ‘cutting edge’ artists who are creating holographic art works which exist in public spaces, on street corners, but can only be seen by people wearing the right hi-tech headgear. It’s called ‘locative’ art. Well, that never caught on, compared to Facebook, twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok and so on. The central revolution of social media is how mass it is, how many people have taken up, with plenty of anti-social and negative effects. None of this is anticipated in Gibson’s books.

Instead he is a) working on a very outdated cultural model that new developments will come among a tiny cohort of avant-garde artists and b) much more telling is the fact that the ‘locative artist’ Hollis first meets and interviews, Alberto Corrales, has gone to this enormous time and effort in order to create 3D holographic images of…. Jim Morrison and River Phoenix, the latter an image of Phoenix’s body lying dead of a drugs overdose outside the ‘legendary’ Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. In other words, fantastically dated and retro. Creating 3D images of dead rock gods and movie stars struck me as the opposite of cutting edge.

Rock music

I find it almost unbelievable how tiresome, dated and crappy Gibson’s obsession with rock music and rock bands is: characters constantly reference Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison as if they released their latest discs last week instead of having been dead for half a century. But far more important in terms of making the books almost unreadable is the fact that the central character of the second two novels, Hollis Henry, was actually in a rock band – she is the ex-singer of a now-defunct fictional rock band called The Curfew.

We learn next to nothing about how the Curfew actually omposed their songs or recorded or performed them because Gibson isn’t actually interested in music at all. As someone who plays piano and guitar and has played bass in various bands, I know something about these processes and feel embarrassed for Gibson as he fills his books with would-be ‘cool’ insights about the world of rock music and the practicalities of music making, which feel as they’re copied from the pages of naff style magazines from the 1980s.

There is nothing, nothing, about the actual music. No description of the chord structures, the guitar or piano or bass sound, the tempos or dynamics of any of the songs, the challenge of performing highly produced music live, nothing. If you are actually interested in rock music (as I am) these books are a desert, a black hole of zero information on the subject.

Instead rock music is used by Gibson as a marker of hip, of cool. It allows the characters to make endless ‘cool’ references, to be hip to drugs, man, and bleat about the traumas of being endlessly ‘on the road’ and smashing up hotels and having immense fights and then ‘breaking up the band’, man.

This isn’t an incidental detail, it’s central to the other characters Hollis meets and interacts with. During the novel she taps up the other members of ‘the band’: guitarist Reg Inchmale, drummer Heidi Hyde, and makes countless wistful references to Jimmy Carlyle, the bassist who managed to kill himself from a heroin overdose, his death bringing the band to an end.

It’s bad enough having to meet the ‘wise’ and dependable Inchmale and the super-angry, over-emotional Heidi Hyde in Spook Country but when all three characters are relocated to London in Zero History we have the added indignity of meeting other members of the ‘rock elite’ from other crappy, made-up bands, who are all as insufferably ‘cool’ as each other and all know all about the local ‘scene’, man.

You’d learn more about the dynamics of an actual band and actual music-making from watching Spinal Tap. Or The Blues Brothers in which actual music is actually performed. No music is performed in any of these books. God forbid. It would upset the hang of the characters’ black designer jackets.

Disappointing lack of insight into the present

Concurrently, Gibson has ceased writing about the future. Step by step each trilogy has retreated from the future and now Gibson is just writing about… the present, just like ten thousand other novelists and columnists.

The first two novels in the Blue Ant trilogy heavily referenced the big events of their day, namely 9/11 (2001) and the war in Iraq (2003). This should be riveting to someone like me, a close follower of contemporary politics, but, very disappointingly, Gibson’s novels have almost nothing to say about international or domestic politics or contemporary society. Contemporary society is a consumer paradise and, behind the scenes, it’s a bit corrupt, seem to be his big discoveries.

By now there are no ideas at all in his novels, which are really showcases for a 50-something’s Dad ideas of ‘cool’ – rock bands and rock chicks wearing black t-shirts and black leather jackets and black shades, impressing each other with snazzy gadgets, flying round the world on Hubertus Bigend’s bottomless expense accounts, on wild goose chases which have a disappointing tendency to fizzle out at the end.

The trouble with writing a ‘neat, up-to-the-minute spy thriller’ (as the London newspaper Metro described Spook Country when it first came out) is that neat, up-to-the-minute spy thrillers quickly go out of date. Who wants yesterday’s papers?

For example, Gibson seems proud of the way some of the characters ‘Google’ something on the internet, as if that’s a super-early use of the verb. His lead character is shown hacking into other people’s wifi rooters, as if how to do that is a big discovery. Bigend gives his employees bolt-on scramblers to attach to their phones. A central element in the plot is people using iPods as containers for contraband information. 14 years later this all seems very, meh, very yawn.

In interviews Gibson said the novel is set in the spring of 2006, before the financial crash and, more importantly, before the advent of Facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media programs. It is, therefore, a novel which claims to be with-it and futuristic, but now reads like a relic from an antiquated, pre-social media world.

The plot

As usual with all Gibson’s novels, there are three distinct storylines each featuring small groups of characters, appearing in self-contained, alternating chapters. For over half the novel these separate storylines appear to have nothing in common, so part of the book’s entertainment value is wondering how they will eventually impinge and collide, and being on the qui vive for the clues the author drops as he slowly weaves them together.

1. Hollis Henry

Hollis Henry is a young freelance woman journalist who’s been engaged by a magazine named Node, a fictional European version of the real-world tech magazine Wired (p.39) (so you have to have a feel for what Wired is about to fully place her. It is worth noting that Gibson has been a regular contributor to Wired magazine and featured on its cover in its first year, 1994 so he knows whereof he writes, and his writing in general confirms me in my suspicion that I never need to read a magazine like Wired.)

Hollis’s job is to write a piece about a digital artist named Alberto Corrales who uses ‘locative’ technology to create cutting-edge digital artworks in Los Angeles (you put on a headset and see 3-D versions of the corpses of famous Hollywood characters in various downtown locations).

Hollis was a member of the ‘legendary’ fictional band, The Curfew, alongside band drummer Heidi Hyde, guitarist Reg Inchmale and bassist Jimmy Carlyle, which impresses the people she meets, including the ‘locative artist’ Corrales, as well as the owner of Node, advertising guru Hubertus Bigend.

2. Tito

Tito is aged 22 (p.11) and Alejandro (aged 30) are cousins, part of an extended family of immigrants to America.

‘They’re one of the smallest organised crime families operating in the United States. Maybe literally a family. Illegal facilitators, mainly smuggling. But a kind of boutique operation, very pricey. Mara Salvatrucha looks like UPS in comparison. They’re Cuban-Chinese and they’re probably all illegals.’ (p.230)

Tito lives in a crappy apartment in Manhattan. They are refugees from Havana, Cuba where, improbably, their grandfather seems to have been something to do with the KGB (p.72). Their aunt, Juana, is a devout believer in Afro-Cuban pagan gods of Santería, with numerous incense-laden shrines to them in her apartment.

It’s only a third of the way into the novel that we come to realise that both Tito and Alejandro are well-trained operatives in a Russian spy methodology. They have been raised in the way of the systema, the Russkie name for cutting-edge spycraft. It slowly emerges that they are following the orders of someone referred to simply as ‘the old man’ (we never learn his name but we do learn that ‘he looked a little like William Burroughs, minus the bohemian substrate’ (p.296), a characteristically dated, Beatnik reference.)

3. Milgrim

Milgrim (no indication whether this is his first name or last name) is an unusually literate drug addict who is fluent in Russian, and in particular an Anglicised form of Russian which is referred to as Volapük by the shady secret operative, Brown, who has sort of kidnapped Milgrim and keeps him dosed up with the prescription tranquiliser he’s addicted to, Ativan. (Milgrim’s drug dealer when was at liberty was Dennis Birdwell, p.100)

Having no money of his own, and being utterly dependent on the daily doses of drugs which Brown allows him, Milgrim is forced to tag along while Brown plants listening devices on what he refers to as an IF (short for Illegal Facilitator, page 17). Early on we learn that the apartment Brown is going to the effort of bugging, and the figure he is spying on from a camouflaged van full of surveillance equipment, is none other than Tito the Cuban refugee. Why? That’s precisely the question the reader is meant to ask, and which draws us into the ensuing 350 pages of tangled plot.

The MacGuffin

The pointless goal

According to Wikipedia:

“In fiction, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock, and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.”

In most of Gibson’s novel there is some secret which brings together the 3 or 4 separate groups of characters, in an elaborate interweaving of storylines towards whose revelatory climax the narrative hurtles with ever-increasing speed.

The incessant travelling

Something which isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia article is that the MacGuffin often requires an extraordinary amount of travelling to find it. This is as true of the Holy Grail in the original medieval Arthurian legends as it is of, say, the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark or the endless driving and traipsing around Los Angeles required by Philip Marlowe, at the more humdrum end of the spectrum.

In hundreds of thousands of other narratives like these, the seekers after the MacGuffin must travel far and wide and undergo various perils in order to track it down.

And so it is that, in the second half of this novel, the three sets of characters make substantial journeys across America to arrive at the slightly unusual location for the denouement of the plot, Vancouver docks.

1. Tito and the old man are taken from New York by van to a private airfield, and flown in a plane which stops numerous times to refuel en route at remote rural locations across America, arriving on an island where they pick up a jeep concealed in brush, drive to the coast and are in turn collected by a boat which transports them by sea into Canada.

2. Hollis and Odile fly from Los Angeles to Vancouver, are greeted by a Blue Ant functionary who drives them to the astonishingly luxurious Blue Any apartment, complete with free cars and a hover bed.

3. Milgrim and Brown go by train from New York’s Penn station to a safe house in Philadelphia and then by swish Jetstream private jet to an island from where they are taken by boat across the border into Canada.

Trains and boats and planes. The extent of this gee-whiz travel and the fact that everything is paid for and pre-planned is one aspect of the novel’s fantasy escapism. How lovely to have someone lay on all this expensive travel without a moment’s hassle.

The mastermind paymaster

I still think naming the impresario who sets this and the previous novel in motion Hubertus Bigend is Gibson making a calculated snub to his readers. It is both a joke for those with the right sense of humour, but also a not-very-subtle way of saying, ‘If you suckers’ll buy this guy’s preposterous name, you’ll buy anything.’

The idea of this character is that Bigend is a fabulously rich, fabulously successful advertising guru, who is interested in off-the-wall activities which lead him into realms far outside advertising accounts, partly out of pure curiosity which he is rich enough to indulge, and partly because it helps maintain his ‘edge’ (Daddy-o) and sometimes inspires ideas for new campaigns. This motivation supposedly explains why Bigend is prepared to provide bottomless funding for the two sassy young women protagonists of Pattern Recognition and Spook Country…

(To justify the idea that the wild goose chases in these novels do have some kind of practical payoff, we learn on page 108 of this novel that the outcome of Cayce Pollard’s prolonged search for the video footage being released snippet by snippet in the previous book, Pattern Recognition, was that Bigend developed a thing called ‘Trope Slope… our virtual pitchman platform’ (p.108). I wonder if this is intended to sound as lame as it does. Maybe a similarly global quest featuring mysterious video footage was necessary to develop Tesco’s strapline, ‘Every little helps’.)

So there’s this elaborate justification woven around Bigend’s character and business practices but, at the end of the day, this is just the basic James Bond setup. Whatever fake passport and fake identity and flash gadgets and fast cars and plane tickets Bond requires to do his job, he is given. It’s exactly the same with the two women freelancers working for Bigend – they want it, they get it, and they fly off somewhere exotic.

In fact the novel contains a number of conscious echoes of James Bond and his world of glamour, gadgets and girls. Bigend’s enabler, the person Cayce or Hollis ring up to get plane tickets or a new car or laptop or whatever, is another supremely capable young woman, in this case named Pamela Mainwaring. She appears in all three novels in the trilogy as Bigend’s super-efficient fixer and she’s basically an updated version of Miss Moneypenney.

That Gibson realises at various points that he is, in effect, writing a Bond novel for the 2000s, Bond with a laptop, is acknowledged in several explicit Bond references, on pages 160, 166 and 344.

Personally, the idea of slightly puzzled agents in the field reporting back to an avuncular, all-seeing older man, who works from a series of secret locations equipped with vast screens, maps of the relevant cities and advanced tracking technology, reminded me of the Man from UNCLE TV series, and the mastermind paymaster figure of Alexander Waverly played by the lovely Leo G. Carroll. Despite all the shiny prose style and laptops, Gibson’s novels feel, deep down, that dated.

The payoff – spoiler alert!

In the end the entire plot turns out to be about Iraq and corrupt United States government money.

A hundred pages or so into the text we learn that Tito is being ‘run’ by an old unnamed man, who claims to have known Tito and Alejandro’s grandfather back in Havana. This, combined with lots of references to the KGB, and a couple of mentions of the surprising fact that Tito and Alejandro learned their ‘tradecraft’, their systema, from a Viet Cong-era Vietnamese operative, these are all, I think, deliberate red herrings dropped by Gibson to suggest that the plot is all some spooky global conspiracy involving the successor to the KGB, the scarey FSB. But no, in the end…

The old guy who is in charge of the entire scam which lies at the heart of the story, is just a retired US secret service guy who is pissed off at the grotesque amounts of US government money being wasted and siphoned off in Iraq (all explained in chapter 71).

(In fact, I later find out, ‘the old man’ is referenced in this novel’s sequel, Zero History, and one of his operatives there suggests that he is motivated ‘by some sort of seething Swiftian rage that he can only express through perverse, fiendishly complex exploits, resembling Surrealist gestes.’ Something like the Situationist ethic so beloved of media and literature students, and dating back, like so much in Gibson’s worldview, to the 1960s. [Zero History, chapter 51].)

Hacked off at the way billions of US dollars are being poured into the bottomless pit of Iraq and wondering what to do about it, ‘the old man’ and others like him have got wind of a particular shipping container containing $100 million in cash which had been sent off to Iraq by sea. However, something in the Iraq situation changed and the container got rerouted, then delayed and then cleverly ‘lost’ by the bad guys who wanted to steal it.

By ‘bad guys’ Gibson does not appear to mean Iraqis or Russians, but the kind of ‘rogue element’ within the US’s many security services and military operations who feature in movies like the Bourne series, bad guys based deep in the heart of Langley or the Pentagon or wherever. The plot then, once you get it straight, appears to be the very, very tired one of rotten apples inside the US Administration itself.

(It’s one of the many disappointing things about Gibson, once the facade of supercool hi-tech gadgetry is stripped away, that there is so much to say and think and write about how the sudden eruption [as it seemed to people who hadn’t been following it for years] of Islamic fundamentalism in 9/11, a decisive event which for years afterwards appeared to have tilted the entire world of geopolitics, security and culture on its side, but that Gibson has next to nothing to say about it. He has infinitely more to say about the minutiae of made-up rock bands and long-dead rock gods and fashion brands than about the fascinatingly shifting sands of international affairs. I find this deeply bathetic and disappointing.)

Anyway, the unnamed, retired, pissed-off ex-US secret service guy knows people who’ve hacked into the $100 million container’s tracking beeper, and so knows that it’s arrived in Vancouver, Canada. So he devises a scam and takes Tito in a plane across the States from New York to Vancouver, picking up a super-competent operative, an Englishman named Garreth (why not?) along the way.

After umpteen long-distance flights and boat trips this trio finally hole up in an arty loft conversion near the docks in Vancouver where they know from the tracker that the sky-blue container containing the swag has been unloaded, presumably to be shifted across the border into the States at some time.

They have hired this loft conversion because it gives an unimpeded view of the container across the way in the fenced-off dock area. That evening Garreth makes a big deal out of setting up one of those supercool sniper rifles with a tripod and telephoto lens which feature in every spy thriller of this type, up in this loft conversion, and fires nine bullets in a row along the bottom of the container.

Why? Because these are no ordinary bullets, they contain radioactive caesium stolen from a hospital or some similar cock and bull source. The idea is that the radioactivity will irradiate the entire container full of hundred dollar bills and make it impossible for the money smugglers to offload, launder or in any way use the stolen loot.

That’s it, that’s the scam, the MacGuffin and the climax to the novel. Why did the old man go to 360 pages worth of elaborate ruses to achieve this pretty simple goal? As he himself admits to Hollis, it’s a trivial amount in the grand scheme of things, but it makes him feel better. It doesn’t change anything in the real world, it just pisses of some super-criminals and makes the old man feel better.

See what I mean by Gibson’s novels having a tendency to hurtle in their supercharged prose towards a Grand Conclusion which is…er… a bit disappointing.

And Tito? He’s been brought along because if the container had a set of neat bulletholes in it officials would become suspicious. Tito’s role is to be smuggled into the waterfront container port on the same evening as the radioactive bullet shooting, with a coil of rope under his shirt and a hard hat to fit in with all the other stevedores, and to make his way among the milling dock workers till he’s just below the target container as Garreth shoots his 9 magic bullets… Then Tito’s job is to swarm up the side of the containers (the target one is the top one of a pile of three) and use a rope harness suspended from the top of the container to abseil carefully along the row of bulletholes and plug them each with a set of small, supermagnetic metal disks he’s been given for the job. Then slip back down, loosen the rope with a whiplash movement of the wrist, dump it and all other incriminating gear in a ‘dumpster’, scramble over the barbed wire and so to safety.

Actually into the arms of a rock band who happen to have been passing by (the docks are right in the city so there are roads running alongside the perimeter) and, when Tito says he can play keyboards, drive him off for a beer and a jam with the band. Seriously. You begin to wonder if Gibson’s obsession with rock bands might be a recognised mental disorder.

And Hollis Henry? Her assignment to interview the ‘locative’ artist (who creates holograms of dead celebs in Los Angeles streets) had led her to the hyper-secretive tech wizard, the man who actually enables and produces these holograms, one Bobby Chombo, ‘an expert in geospatial technologies’.

Hubertus Bigend, who has by now introduced himself to Hollis so she knows exactly who she’s working for and what he’s looking for (namely, intellectual thrills), explains to Bigend that it is Chombo he really wants to meet and/or work with. But only days after Corrales takes Hollis to Chombo’s pad to meet him for the first time, the paranoid genius disappears along with all his kit leaving an empty loftspace.

Where has he gone? Well, Vancouver, where he’s been summoned by the ‘old man’ supervising the scam. How does Hollis discover that’s where he’s gone? Well at the start of the story Hollis is staying with Odile:

‘A curator from Paris who specialises in locative art’ (p.251)

Gibson concocts a ridiculous coincidence whereby Odile turns out to know Chombo’s sister, Sarah Ferguson, who one day phones her to say she’s just seen her brother, Chombo, in their home town Vancouver (chapter 62), news which Odile passes onto Hollis. Pretty convenient coincidence!

When Hollis tells Hubertus that’s where this reclusive tech guru has gone, he immediately authorises whatever she needs, plane or train or automobile, to get her to Vancouver, so off she flies with Odile tagging along.

And a a day or two later, Hollis has only just tracked down Chombo’s new location to a building down a back alley in Vancouver when she is spotted and swept inside by calm omni-competent Garreth, and into the briefing meeting being given by the old man to Tito and Garreth. Because, as luck (or the conveniences of thriller fiction) would have it, Hollis has stumbled on their secret hideout only hours before they are scheduled to go on the big radioactive shoot.

Just about the one real divergence from action thriller clichés is that, rather than just ‘waste her’ as the bad guys would in any number of the shockingly brutal American thrillers we’re nowadays used to, these guys make Hollis feel right at home, order her takeaway pizza (while they have curry) and ask if she’d like to come along and witness the climax of the whole story.

Which, as an aspiring journalist, she willingly does, going along to the hired space opposite the docks, watching Garreth set up his super-duper gun, fire the radioactive bullets, dismantle the gun, and returning with him to the others. At which point they simply let her walk away once she’s given her word she won’t tell anyone. And she doesn’t. Aren’t people nice? What a lovely story!

And Brown and Milgrim? In the middle of the story they are involved in a complex red herring / distraction / bit of cooked-up plot surrounding iPods. The unnamed old man has known for some time that Brown, a disaffected member of some other branch of the vast and many-headed US security services, has been on their tail. So the old man has concocted a preposterously complicated red herring whereby Tito or others in his ‘family’ send iPods packed with geospatial information about the whereabouts of the $100 million container, carefully coded amid reams of harmless music so as to appear highly secret and terribly important, to a poste restante address in San Juan, before being forwarded on to another, secret location.

Brown and his people have been taken in by this elaborate ruse and are willing to go to any lengths to get hold of what are, in fact, completely worthless iPods. Not only that but Hubertus Bigend was also taken in by this elaborate and completely irrelevant red herring, and we the readers are also forced to put a lot of energy into piecing it together until we’re told, towards the end of the book, that it was all an elaborate waste of time. Completing a Sudoku puzzle would be more rewarding.

But Brown is told by his controller about the other team (old man, Tito and Garreth) making for Vancouver and so he drags drug-addicted Milgrim with him on a long complicated journey by train to a safe house in Philadelphia, then by plane on to somewhere else, ending up at an island on the US-Canada border, and then finally arriving in Vancouver itself.

Here, by another incredibly far-fetched coincidence which the narrative tries to gloss over, they are driving along in their rented SUV when they, by complete coincidence, accidentally see Tito walking along the road. He is in fact on his way, as the reader knows, towards the Vancouver docks because this is the evening when the radioactive shooting will take place.

In a flash, the easily-angered Brown floors the accelerator and tries to run Tito down, but the boy is agile and leaps out of the way, while Brown rams his rental car into a fire hydrant and injures himself. Brown is limping around on the sidewalk as they hear the sirens of approaching police cars but when he calls Milgrim (who was in the car with him) to heel, Milgrim, for the first time in the novel, simply says ‘No’. In the confusion of the crash he had simply reached over to Brown’s briefcase, for once unattended, and helped himself to a substantial supply of the tranquilisers he’s addicted to (brand name Rize), grabs the coat Brown had supplied him and an envelope full of hundred dollar bills they’ve been using as petty cash, and simply walks off in the opposite direction.

There’s a bit more: Milgrim stumbles into the empty loft space soon after Garreth had fired his shots from it, (watched by Hollis) and discovers Hollis’s handbag which she had carelessly left behind, steals her money and phone, dumps the rest. That’s the last we hear of this strange and attractive character, Milgrim…

Meanwhile Hollis has made it back to her hotel in one piece and her old bandmate Reg Inchmale turns up for coffee and conversation. In a sudden switch of focus, Hubertus loses all interest in the locative art and now makes Hollis and Inchmale a massive offer if they’ll re-record their greatest hit but with new lyrics, for a Chinese car commercial he’s doing…

But basically it’s a happy ending. No-one gets killed, hardly anyone really gets hurt, more or less everyone gets what they want. These My Little Pony happy endings are an unexpected feature of Gibson’s fiction.


Things which drive me nuts about William Gibson’s later novels

Young women protagonists

This and its predecessor, Pattern Recognition, both have young female lead protagonists. So, come to think of it, did some of the Bridge and Sprawl novels. Presumably this is intended to be very liberated and modern and manga, but I find Gibson’s impersonations of women significantly younger than him (half his age, in this book) a bit creepy.

In this novel the lead character is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist who discovers that she (like the young freelance fashion expert, Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition) is working for a company owned by advertising guru, Hubertus Bigend, himself a creepy, domineering character who takes Holly for a long car ride without explaining where they’re going, making her considerably anxious, exactly as he did to Cayce Pollard in the previous book.

It feels very close to an abduction, and although Gibson moves to neutralise him (Hollis describes him as ‘like a monstrously intelligent giant baby’) episodes like the creepy car drive made me envision Bigend as looking and behaving like Harvey Weinstein.

Dad rock

This lead woman character, Hollis Henry used to be the singer in a rock band (oh dear) named The Curfew, yawn, which had a female drummer (like the Velvet Underground, like Talking Heads). Gibson hasn’t grasped the obvious truth that all fictional rock bands sound stupid. This rock band background goes on to become a central theme of the book, as various people she meets are bowled over to be meeting the Hollis Henry, singer with the Curfew. But this is not impressive, I found it tiresome.

Leading off this central premise are other creaky old ‘rock’ references. One of Alberto Corrales’s virtual reality artworks is of Jim Morrison, which gives rise to a little flurry of learnèd analysis of the appeal of The Doors (1967 to 1971) and the band’s internal dynamics (Ray and Robbie, man, how they managed to keep the surly old drunk in line, man).

There’s many more laboured rock references: half a page of ponderous humour about rock stars having big noses in the Pete Townsend-Keith Moon tradition (p.56).

He mentions Kurt Cobain, not bad going considering Kurt killed himself in 1994 only 13 years before the novel was published, although that is getting on for 30 years ago from today’s perspective (p.63).

More typical is the reference to a Grateful Dead concert (p.323). And Gibson namechecks Anton Corbijn (p.85), superfamous rock photographer of the 1970s and 80s (and, his Wikipedia entry tells us, ‘creative director behind the visual output of Depeche Mode and U2’) who is also thanked in the Author’s Thanks at the back of the book and so is, presumably, a buddy of Gibson’s.

Presumably this is all meant to press the buttons of ageing rock fans (U2! Depeche Mode! Jim Morrison! The Grateful Dead!) Gibson was pushing 60 when this book was published and it shows: all these Rolling Stone-type references feel incredibly dated and old.

It’s a tremendous irony that Gibson is marketed as a prophet of the future and yet so many of his cultural references are to a dusty old era of rock music from forty and fifty years ago.

Black

Gibson is obsessed with the colour black, everything is coloured black, black leather jackets, black jeans, black socks, black pants, black shades, black Range Rover, black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, black leather pork pie hat, black-painted plastic spyhole covers, black conference table, black thigh-length leather coat, black wool watch cap, black knit skull caps, black, button-studded leather, a black Passat, black trash bags, heavy duty black masking tape, high-topped black shoes, loose black cotton shirt, black shirt and tie, black Oxford shoes, black vinyl hanger bag, black three-button jacket, black leather wallet, black nylon carryall, Bigend’s magnetic bed is a perfect black square supported by braided cables of black metal, a black Zodiac boat, made of black inflated tubes, a hard black floor and a black outboard motor, black plastic Pelican case, black-framed sunglasses, black filter-mask, a large black pickup, a black t-shirt under a black jacket, black tripod, black climbing rope, black respirator, black badge case, spring-loaded black flap, black tanks, black bungees, black lens cap, black SUVs, bulky black-clad special forces officers, black doors, black houses, black streets (blacktop), black sky, and some heavy-duty, enormous black dudes in New York (chapter 41), because big black guys in this kind of white man fan fiction are, well, just cool cf Live and Let Die, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and every blaxploitation movie ever made.

A few other colours occasionally make an appearance but the relentless foregrounding of black everything gives the text a laughably old rock journalist chic, black shades, man, black leather, man, just like the Velvet Underground, man, characters wear black coats, black leather jackets, black t-shirts, drive black cars up to the jet black facade of fashionable bars (the Viper Rooms where River Phoenix died). Sooo achingly cool if you’re a child of the 60s and 70s but otherwise… so lame.

Brand namechecking

Almost as big as Gibson’s Dad rock and his infatuation with all things black, is Gibson’s obsessive brand namedropping.

Gibson is described as a pioneer, and he certainly was in his first half dozen novels, set as they are in gripping sci fi futures. But by the time of Hubertus Bigend he had settled into producing pretty mainstream Yank thrillers with a twist or two of digitech gimmicks, and one of the most tedious aspects of your modern American thriller is their obsession with brands, their compulsive need to know exactly what brand of car, gun, phone, jacket, handbag, jet, or phone etc which every character is toting, driving, flying, wearing or dialling. Thus in just the first 30 pages or so we have references to:

a Philip Starck elevator, Bluetooth, Adidas trainers, a classic VW beetle, iPod, Red Wing boots, counterfeit Prada, the Ikea couch, the Casio keyboard, Paul Stuart overcoat, Ziploc bag, Yohji Yamamoto, Tower Records, Virgin records, Chesterfield cigarettes,  Hamburger Hamlet, Schwabs, Aeron chairs, Lacoste golf shirt, Nyquil, Marlboro cigarettes, winkle-picker Keds shoes, faux Oakley keds, Adidas GSC9s, Starbucks, Cuisinart

The names of umpteen cars are reeled off: Passat, Econoline, Grand Cherokee Laredo Jeep, Ford Taurus, Phaeton, Ford. The planes include a vintage 1985 Cessna Golden Eagle described in some detail (p.221). There’s even careful brand naming of the Zodiac motorboat which Brown hires to take him and Milgrim up to Vancouver.

One way of viewing this obsessive naming of branded products is as an extension of the basic thriller idea of competence. The classic thriller hero, from Philip Marlowe to Jack Reacher, is not only physically strong and resourceful but knows everything – he is an expert at guns, cars and the ways of the underworld, can explain what’s going on to all the sidekicks and dames he picks up along the journey, is savvy and streetwise in ways you and I, dear suburban reader, can only gawp at in admiration.

The modern thriller’s obsession with brand names is, from one perspective, just an extension of that expertise, of that whip-smart super-awareness, into the over-saturated world of American consumer capitalism. The modern thriller narrator can name and identify any brand of anything. It is part of his omnicompetence.

That said, an equal and opposite way of interpreting it might be as satire on the super-saturation of American life with brands and endless adverts; a satire on the way that 21st century American culture is nothing but products, and American citizens are increasingly secondary to the master brands they purchase. A world in which human beings are the disposable appendages of the brands which now own their lives: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram et al.

At some point early in the history of The Thriller this brand obsession may have been an innovative device for positioning both narrator and characters and the action itself, for quickly describing and placing them in the evermore complex mid-twentieth century society. But in Gibson’s hands the obsessive iteration of brand names becomes really irritating. It’s like being stuck inside a ten-hour-long ad break, like being locked up for a week in an American shopping mall lined with huge glass windows full of lifeless models demonstrating an endless array of glossy, vacuous products. Gibson knows this. At one point he refers to:

another concourse of heavily trademarked commerce (p.367)

But nowadays this brand obsession doesn’t convey anything at all except the complete lack of depth in American life, which has slowly and steadily become almost entirely about surfaces. Even in politics, anything resembling ‘ideas’ is being squeezed out of public life, until all that matters is appearances. Are you black or white? Are you a man or a woman? These seem to be almost the only two issues left in American political or cultural life. It represents the triumph of surfaces and the death of depth. ‘If you’re white you can’t understand…’, ‘if you’re a man you can’t understand…’ Until eventually there is nothing left beneath the surface of the American mind except people squabbling about their ‘identities’. Until it’s just Kim Kardashian in culture and Black Lives Matter in politics. All ideas are annihilated in a world of appearances.

And thus it is that, although he lost the 2020 Presidential election, the certifiable dunce Donald Trump actually increased his vote. Mind-boggling evidence that America has become a nation of dunces, but dunces who know their brands to a T, who can spot the difference between a Prada and a Ted Baker and a Gucci handbag, or an Alfa Romeo Stelvio, a Jaguar I-PACE or a Toyota Highlander Hybrid, at a hundred paces.

For me the obsession of American thrillers with ‘brands’ and products long ago lost any rationale in terms of either authorial ‘competence’ or biting satire, and simply became one more extension of the empty world of style magazines and TV makeover shows. It represents an apotheosis of empty-headed consumerism, the kind of mindless consumption which is eating up the planet and turning Yanks into the tens of millions of depthless cretins who voted for Donald Trump. Twice. Gibson is aware of it, the drowning consumerism of American society. There’s a little dialogue between Brown and Milgrim:

‘People say Americans are materialistic, do you know why?’ ‘Why?’ asked Milgrim… ‘Because they have better stuff,’ Brown replied. (p.256)

So you can see why Gibson’s brand obsession is a big problem for me. In interviews he claims to be ‘analysing’ or ‘critiquing’ contemporary society but, for me, his books are just another embodiment of flashy, empty American shallowdom. Completely in thrall to designer labels, ageing rock references and flashy digital gimmicks, Gibson’s novels are part of the problem, not the solution.

The odd good thing about Gibson’s later novels

Gibson’s command of language

Gibson still has a wonderful way with words, although he has got noticeably less zingy as the years have gone by. Still, there are plenty of places where he makes the English language turn on a sixpence, expressing neat insights with tremendous style.

  • Odile shrugged, in that complexly French way that seemed to require a slightly different skeletal structure. (p.222)
  • Nature, for Milgrim, had always had a way of being too big for comfort. (p.263)

Although he is not above what you might call fairly obvious druggy jokes in the manner of Tom Wolfe:

The sky had a Turner-on-crack intensity… (p.154)

And, above all, his consistent thing is using language to suggest edges, spaces of the mind, perceptions on the periphery, weird angles just on the edge of consciousness or perception. These crop up regularly and are very pleasurable. Thus when our heroes arrive at the huge warehouse loft where they’re going to set up the sniper rifle, Hollis notices:

It generated white noise, this place, she guessed, on some confusingly vast scale. Iron ambients, perceived in the bone. (p.329)

Interesting word, ‘ambients’. Gibson takes a lot of trouble to make his prose special, to find the phrases to express the peripheral insights he is trying to capture and he does capture this, these fleeting perceptions, with dazzling fluency, and this effort and prose achievement should be celebrated. At the end of the adventure Hollis returns to Bigend’s enormous apartment in Vancouver with its huge windows overlooking the bay:

She went upstairs. Dawn was well under way, lots of it… (p.350)

He can throw this kind of thing around with apparent ease, every page has generous doses of stylish phrasing. But, imho, the zingy style doesn’t make up for the disappointingly lame content.

Medieval mysticism

Milgrim is a drug addict and steals things but he is also a university graduate who once had a respectable career as a Russia translator before he became addicted to prescription drugs. He is, in other words, a perfect invention for a book like this, a man who combines lowlife street drug knowledge with extravagant flights of scholarly fancy.

Milgrim’s adbductor, Brown, gives him an overcoat to wear which has been stolen from somewhere and in it Milgrim unexpectedly finds a dog-eared copy of a serious history book about Christian heresies and millenarian sects of the Middle Ages. This is an unlikely subject to find in a techno-thriller. But this pretext gives Gibson no end of scope to have Milgrim get thoroughly stoned and have all manner of psychedelic fantasies or make long fantastical associations about weird and wonderful religious leaders and colourful practices. Sometimes Milgrim dreams of specific named medieval millenarians, or has waking visions of Hieronymus Bosch-style scenes. It lends the novel a pleasing patina of literacy and depth.

Kidnap psychology

In fact, arguably the best thing about the novel is the description of the peculiar bond between Brown, the renegade security operative, and Milgrim the drug-wrecked Russian translator he not so much abducts as rescues and then keeps like a stray dog. Brown feeds and doses Milgrim with his pills and orders him to carry out (pretty innocuous) tasks, like translating the occasional text they’ve intercepted being sent to or from Tito, or accompanying him to change the battery in the listening device he has (very amateurishly) hidden in Tito’s New York apartment.

All that stuff, the spook stuff, is a bit crap compared to either the Master of Spy Glamour (James Bond) or of Shabby Espionage (John le Carré). What is good and is almost worth reading the novel for in its own right, is the peculiar, undefined and shifting nature of the strange master and servant or kidnapper and abductee psychology which runs through the Brown-Milgrim storyline. This is unusual, unexpected, strange and worth the read.

The Orishas

Another notable strand or flavour in the book is the fact that Tito and Alejandro’s ‘aunt’, who brought them to New York from Havana when they were babies, Aunt Juana, worships a set of occult Cuban gods. They are referred to as the Orishas, who are deities in the Santería religion (named deities include Ochun, Babalaye, He Who Opens The Way, p.70, Orunmila, Elleggua, p.94).

There’s more detail on page 163. Oshosi gives Tito power in chapter 42. Oshosi saves Tito from Brown’s car ramming in chapter 75. Ochun helps him dangle from the harness beside the contained and seal the bullet openings in chapter 77.

Looking it up online we learn that the gods of the Santería religion are ultimately derived from the beliefs of the black slaves who were brought over from Africa to Cuba and, forbidden to practice their own beliefs, were forced to superimpose them onto the permitted icons and figures of Christianity. Thus in this belief system, shrines may contain images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary but these are ‘fronts’ for the older pagan gods.

What makes this more than local ‘colour’ is that at key moment in the book – namely when Tito is sent into Vancouver docks to patch up the bullet holes in the container – the text suggests that the Orishas literally take over his body and mind, giving him reflexes which keep him out of danger and a sense of purpose which guarantees the job will be done.

This is weird and powerful, although it actually has precedents in Gibson’s work. Something very similar happened with the voodoo spirits which appear in the second and third Sprawl novels, as somehow voodoo embodiments of the personas of pure data flow within the web. In both that and this novel, the irruption of voodoo gods into the mind of the protagonists doesn’t really make any sense but is nonetheless very compelling, as a weird, uncanny experience for all concerned.

No sex, no violence

Given the rather harsh things I’ve said about Gibson’s addiction to brands and the way the narrator’s omnicompetence with brands and travel arrangements and scrambled phone lines and surveillance technology and safe houses makes him sound exactly like every other contemporary thriller writer… one big thing certainly does distinguish Gibson’s thrillers from the competition, and it’s not the use of cutting-edge ‘locative’ or ‘geospatial’ technology. It’s the almost complete absence of sex and violent death in his books.

Actually, really high-end thrillers as a genre generally underplay sex. Characters may have sex, but it is rarely described, in fact most thrillers draw a Victorian veil over the act itself. Does Jack Reacher have much sex, I can’t remember. This, I guess, is because sex or, shall we say, making love, is generally quite a slow sensuous affair which can leave both participants feeling mellow and blissed out. Well, that is precisely the opposite of the jittery, hard-edged tone most modern thrillers strive to achieve. It would be like having a big ad break in the middle of an action movie. It would last just long enough to undermine the edgy atmosphere, the sense of constant threat, and the fast-moving action. Hence – surprising absence of sex.

What makes it more notable in Gibson’s novels is his penchant for female protagonists which sort of, at moments, might lead you to expect a flash of boob or some such sexual reference. But no nothing like that, nothing tasteless or porny ever, ever happens in a Gibson novel. He never refers to the sexuality of his women protagonists.

Instead, Chevette Washington in the Bridge trilogy, Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recognition and Hollis Henry in Spook Country function just like robots, like androids. They don’t seem to have any of the emotions I associate with women, or indeed people generally (love, compassion, empathy, fear, worry) nor any of the bodily functions experienced with female biology; they don’t seem to have periods, stomach cramps, any of the other physical conditions which women of my acquaintance experience.

At most they briefly pee or shower but this is referred to in, at most, a sentence before they dress quickly and efficiently and get on with the action. Gibson’s female protagonists are curiously sexless. It’s like reading the adventures of a shop window mannekin.

Ditto the violence. Nobody gets killed during the narrative of Pattern Recognition and nobody gets killed in this novel, either. It’s remarkable how, for a modern thriller writer, Gibson manages to keep the body count right down. He maintains a constant sense of threat and anticipation and yet… almost nobody actually gets hurt in a Gibson novel, nobody at all in this one.

It’s one more thing which gives them their distinctive flavour, along with the sexless women, the voodoo gods, the tangential psychology of many of the characters, the obsession with Dad Rock and flashy brands, and the consistently disappointing climaxes when the hurtling tension of 350 pages give way to a happy ending, in which no-one is hurt and more or less everyone gets what they wanted:

  • Tito and Garreth and ‘the old man’ successfully pull off their job
  • Milgrim walks free from bondage to Brown
  • Hollis gets enough detail to write her magazine story about ‘locative art’
  • and Hubertus, never really sure what he wanted except the thrill of the chase into unknown areas of the matrix, appears to be satisfied and swiftly moves on to ask Hollis and Inchmale to record a version of their only hit single which he can use on an ad for a Chinese car

So everyone is home in time for tea and an early night. In the end, it’s an oddly comforting book, in its politics-free, product-obsessed, shiny, sexless way.


Credit

Spook Country by William Gibson was published by Putnam’s in 2007. All references are to the 2011 Penguin paperback edition. I bought it new off Amazon but it wasn’t too badly damaged, only the back cover covered in marks and the last 15 or so pages bent and folded.

Other William Gibson reviews

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


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Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Raúl Cañibano: Chronicles of an Island @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Downstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery is the print shop, whose function is to put on displays of work by contemporary or modern photographers in quality prints which are for sale. The print room is currently hosting the first UK solo exhibition for Raúl Cañibano, one of Cuba’s most famous and prolific photographers.

Malecón series: Havana, 1994 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The room contains fifteen of Cañibano’s prints (more are available to view on request) and they’re all marvellous.

Cañibano is a people’s photographer, down and dirty among peasants and workers. There’s no studio work or models or posing. He works in black and white capturing the grit and feel of life for ordinary, generally pretty poor, Cubans.

Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

So first of all I responded to them as gritty images of the labour and enjoyments of the Cuban working classes. Only slowly did certain patterns or approaches to emerge.

There are two obvious tricks or techniques he uses. The first is the use of multiple levels. In the photo above there are, pretty obviously four levels: the old guy’s face right up close to the lens, the guy on the right swinging an axe, the horse in the middle distance, and then the mountains on the horizon. You could say these multiple levels draw you into the image, but they also emphasis the photos’ artificiality: an odd combination of the naturalistic and the heavily contrived.

Secondly,  there is Cañibano’s use of shadows. In the photo below the shadow of the woman washing her hair is reasonable enough. But the shadow of the horse and rider is unexpected, suggesting all sorts of interesting stuff going on outside the frame, and adding an air of mystery, of almost symbolic power, to the image.

Vinales, Cuba, 2013 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

What Cañibano’s use of both shadows and the multiple levels or depths do is to disrupt the predictability of the images. To disconcert and decentre them.

By comparison, behind the sales desk in the Print Room are photos from previous exhibitions, including some by the great Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bravo’s compositions tend to have a lovely flat, calm and classical feel. They are artfully composed.

The Daughter of the Dancers (1933) by Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Comparing the Bravo images with Cañibano’s brings out the dynamism not only of the Cuban’s subjects (all his people are generally doing things) but the dynamism of the compositions themselves, starting with the two elements mentioned above – the multiple levels and the shadows. His people are doing things, but the image is doing things as well.

Another favourite disruptive element in Cañibano’s photos is translucent fabrics. Sometimes kids are wrapping it round themselves for fun, or making a cape out of it. Or it is just there in the background or as a feature, maybe mosquito netting or fine muslin used as an awning, as in this photo which seems to be depicting age and youth, at least we think it’s a child silhouetted in the window. (Note the multiple levels: foreground, sheet, background silhouette and, very faintly in the distance, the horizon of trees.) The woman friend I went with said it reminded her of a pre-natal scan.

Raúl Cañibano, Tierra Guajira series: Manatí, 1999. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

Cañibano was born and raised in a poor family in the rural province of Las Tunas on the eastern side of Cuba. He had little formal education and worked as a welder until 1989, when a visit to an exhibition of Alfredo Sarabia’s surrealist photographs at the Fototeca de Cuba inspired him, at the age of thirty, to consider a career in photography.

It paid off. In 1999 he won the Grand Prix in the Cuban National Photography Exhibit for his project on the life of rural workers, Tierra Guajira.

Thus Cañibano had little or no formal training and picked it up as he went along. His first art photograph, depicting the shadow of an equestrian statue cut off in the middle to reveal an array of modern lamp-posts against a clear cloudless sky, established his style but also hints at his socio-political concerns.

After the collapse of communism in 1990 Cuba’s role as the pioneer of communism in Latin America lost its rationale. For generations the population had put up with travel restrictions and the shortage of consumer goods because they were told they were building a better society. Then communism collapsed. Now what? In Cañibano’s photograph the general riding his proud horse into the dream of a perfect future has been cut in half.

De su serie Ciudad (1992) © Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery

The print gallery assistant explained to me that, because of the restrictions on imports of photographic equipment into Cuba, Cañibano initially had to use expired film and materials, and didn’t have the correct printing resources to hand when starting out. So he tended to convert the negatives straight into digital images which could be stored and distributed.

And so, this year, the Photographers’ Gallery made the decision to fly Cañibano to England, bringing his precious negatives in a cigar box. Once here the negatives were turned into limited-edition silver gelatin prints in collaboration with master printer Robin Bell, who has worked with such big name photographers as David Bailey, Don McCullin and Terence Donovan. So this exhibition is a real first, creating high quality prints of Cañibano’s work, and making them available in the UK, for the first time.

All the prints are for sale, starting at £1,250 + VAT. I can’t afford anything like that but I can well imagine people who would pay that sum for a limited edition, high-quality print of one of these wonderful, vivid and evocative images.

Malecon Habanero, Cuba, 2006 by Raúl Cañibano. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery


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1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn (2004)

The war in the wilderness of North America was a nasty, brutal, vicious war, fought without quarter on both sides. (p.352)

The basic idea is simple. The Seven Years War (1756-63) was a major European conflict which was of critical importance in world history. It had two components:

The European War – Six years of fighting on the continent of Europe which involved the armies of France, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Poland and Russia responding to the tortuous diplomatic manoeuvres of those nations’ rulers – Louis XIV (France), Czarina Elizabeth (Russia), Frederick the Great (Prussia), the Empress Maria Theresa (Austria) and so on. In many ways the conflict was a continuation of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and to really understand what was at stake you would have to read hundreds of pages about each of the different combatant countries and the complexity of their territorial ambitions.

The World War – by contrast the global dimension was much simpler: during these years France and Britain battled for world domination in two major cockpits, East India and North America – with additional conflict in the Caribbean and the Philippines when, towards the end (in 1762), Spain got dragged into the fighting.

Although British armies fought on the continent – not least because King George II of England was also king of Hanover, one of the many minor states in Germany – British historians have been less interested in the bewilderingly complex diplomatic manoeuvring of the Europeans than in the life-or-death struggles for control of India and North America which we fought with the French. The European situation established by the Peace of Paris in 1863 was to go on changing through another 150 years of warfare i.e. is only part of a continuous and complicated narrative – whereas it was this war which saw the decisive emergence of Britain as the dominant global power.

Louis XV, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748)

King Louis XV of France painted by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1748) ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)

Pocock and McLynn

This explains why Tom Pocock’s popular account, Battle for Empire, which I read recently, barely even mentions Europe or its numerous bloody battles, instead giving vivid accounts of the campaigns in Bengal, Canada, the Caribbean (the British siege of Havana) and the Philippines (the British siege of Manila).

This book, by popular historian and biographer Frank McLynn, focuses on just one year of the war, arguably the key year, of 1759 – the year the British won decisive victories in India and Canada, expelling the French from both and opening the way to the dominance of the British Empire. Hence the blurb on the back which claims that 1759 ought to be as well-known a date in British history as 1066 or 1588 or 1815.

Between this and the Pocock, I prefer Pocock. McLynn is a lot longer – some 400 pages of small print versus Pocock’s 300 of larger print. But the Pocock is very tightly focused. At first I was put off by the way he opens each section with thumbnail sketches of leading personalities, generally admirals and key naval officers. But as the book progressed, this approach helped me to grasp the connections between the relatively small number of senior military and naval personnel involved and who pop up i different theatres of the war. Pocock’s method allows the reader to follow careers, promotions, demotions, deaths and injuries in battle – to get a flavour of the jostling for power, ambition and often quite crass stupidity, which determined the outcome of key battles.

Pocock also describes the fights in quite bloodthirsty detail – I am still reeling from the appalling butchery at the Battle of Ticonderoga on 8 July 1758 where, misled by faulty intelligence and his own apparent stupidity, General James Abercromby ordered British forces to charge uphill towards a powerfully built timber stockade manned by French and Indian forces who cut down the Brits like wheat, turning the hillside into an abattoir (Battle For Empire pages 100-112). McLynn only mentions this harrowing disaster in a passing sentence:

His [Pitt]’s 1758 strategy had worked in the Ohio Valley and on Lake Ontario but came to grief at Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) when General Abercromby foolishly sent his much larger army on a frontal assault on Montcalm’s entrenchments, where it was shot to pieces. (p.138)

Portrait of a year

But then McLynn is aiming for something quite different. He is not aiming for a military or diplomatic history, but for a ‘portrait’ of the whole year in all its cultural, literary, artistic and philosophical aspects as well as battles – to give you a feel of everything that was going on in this fateful year.

Which explains why McLynn’s book is massively and deliberately digressive. There is more about Dr Johnson and David Hume, about Casanova’s love life, the plays of Goldoni, Madame de Pompadour’s early years, about the alcoholic Bonny Prince Charlie or the brutal Duke of Cumberland – than there is about some of the crucial military encounters earlier in the war. McLynn is setting out to give the broadest possible social, cultural and biographical context for the whole year.

Madame de Pompadour by François Boucher (1756)

Madame de Pompadour painted by François Boucher (1756) ‘a multi-talented woman with many different gifts and charms’ (p.72)

It is an immensely gossipy book, wandering off to give us a five-page description of Venice in the 1750s, complete with profiles of the city’s leading composers and painters and playwrights, or a pen portrait of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (56), and his (surprisingly) unhappy marriage. 1759, we learn, is the year that Arthur Guinness (34) bought a brewery in Dublin, James Watt (23) opened a shop in Glasgow, the Duke of Bridgewater (23) got the first Canal Act through Parliament, John Smeaton (35) built the Eddystone Lighthouse, Kew Bridge – designed by John Barnard – was opened and the British Museum opened to the public. You get the picture. George Washington (27) got married. So did Tom Paine (22). Thomas Arne (composer of ‘Rule Britannia’, 49) received an honorary degree. As did Benjamin Franklin (53). And so on.

Even when we come to the actual history being described, it is pre-eminently history seen through the personalities and biographies of powerful people – with all their quirks and oddities, their feuds and obsessions, their endless scheming, bickering, gossiping and bitching behind each other’s backs.

Thus the ultimate failure of the French to keep New France (or Canada, as ‘we’ called it) is seen as a failure of the indecisive French King Louis XV, his former mistress and primary adviser Madame de Pompadour, and his bickering Conseil d’en Haut, to realise Canada’s importance and keep it properly supplied or armed.

This strategic failure was exacerbated by the bitter rivalry of the two men on the ground, head of the army Louis-Joseph Montcalm and the Governor General of the colony, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial. Montcalm despatched an ambassador to Versailles to plead his case. (This was the noted mathematician, Antoine Comte de Bougainville, who had joined the army and risen to be Montcalm’s aide-de-camp. In a typically diverting aside McLynn describes his later career as a noted explorer, in fact the first french officer to circumnavigate the globe, claiming Tahiti for France and getting plants and part of Papua New Guinea named after him). But Vaudreuil sent his own representative and the two gave conflicting accounts and lobbied rival camps of supporters back in France. It was a viper’s nest of intrigue.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Louis Antoine de Bougainville, award-winning mathematician who became aide-de-camp to Montcalm and was sent by him to lobby Versailles for more resources in Canada. In the 1760s Bougainville undertook the first voyage round the world by a French officer, claiming Tahiti for France, getting an island off Papua New Guinea and the genus of plant named after him.

Why the French were doomed

Amid the lengthy descriptions of the Canadian landscape and the potted biographies of all the key players, there emerges some analysis of the challenges the French faced and which, set down in black and white, seem insuperable. They were:

  • outnumbered by British forces five to one
  • poorly supplied and paid by France, which was erratic in its support compared to Britain’s commitment of large resources, arms and men to its colonies
  • hampered by France’s chaotic and failing finances which was administered by nobles who themselves refused to pay taxes, compared with Britain’s much more effective tax system backed up by the lending capacity of the Bank of England
  • crippled by the vast ‘pyramid of corruption and defalcation’ created in New France by world-class embezzler and swindler, the Finance Minister, François Bigot – McLynn’s account of his swindles and scams is breath-taking
  • restricted by the British navy’s control of the Atlantic which amounted to a blockade of French traffic
  • daunted by the British ability to recruit American colonists from the densely populated Thirteen Colonies with their settled farming communities and towns (total population maybe 1 million), compared to the very thin, scattered nature of French settlers, often itinerant trappers (population maybe 70,000)

The more you read about the situation in Canada the more inevitable the French defeat and expulsion seems. The French commander in the field, Montcalm, knew it, writing to the Minister of War, Belle-Isle, that Canada would inevitably fall to the British in the next fighting season because:

  • The British have 60,000 men, the French have only 11,000
  • The British are well organised, the French government of Canada was ‘worthless’
  • The British had food and supplies; the French had none (p.135)

But it is characteristic of McLynn’s book that the first few pages of his Canada section are devoted not to an analysis of the economic, social or military situation – but to an exposition of Edmund Burke’s landmark treatise on ‘the Sublime’, which distinguished between Beauty (symmetrical, pleasurable) and the Sublime (huge, overpowering and containing elements of fear and/or pain). McLynn goes on to relate this idea of the Sublime to the grandeur of the North American landscape as described by 18th century travellers and tourists, quoting diaries and letters which describe the mountains, the Great Lakes and, of course, Niagara Falls, in term of their size and majesty.

This leads naturally to a consideration of the Canadian climate – especially the biting cold endured by both sides in the conflict, stories of frostbite and amputated toes among both armies – before leading on to the structure of the Indian nations, with profiles of the various Indian leaders and their complex treaties and alliances with either the French or British. All very interesting, often fascinating & thought provoking – but if you don’t already have quite a good grasp of the key political and military events, eventually quite confusing.

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761

Étienne-François, comte de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister of France 1758-1761 – apparently ‘a compulsive and frenzied womaniser’

In defence of McLynn’s personality-based approach, it does seem to have been an age where the quirks and characters of leading figures were hugely important. In Europe the Austrian Queen Maria Theresa pulled off a diplomatic coup by making flattering overtures to Madame de Pompadour who in turn persuaded Louis XV to completely reverse French policy – and astonish Europe – by making a pact with France’s traditional enemy, Austria. Direct personal contact between rulers could change the course of history – in this case, badly for France, since I’ve read that French soldiers were dragged into Austria’s continental campaign which would have been much more effectively deployed in either India or Canada. Another example of the importance of personality is the rivalry between Montcalm and Vaudreuil which does seem to have been particularly poisonous and helped weaken New France.

Pitt & Newcastle

Compare and contrast the disunity in the French camp with McLynn’s account of the famously close and effective partnership between Britain’s Prime Minister, the master strategist William Pitt (Pitt the Elder), and his one-time political opponent and temperamental opposite, Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, ‘an amoral, cowardly, unprincipled, vacuous man’ (p.96) who ended up becoming one of the great ‘odd couples’ of political history.

So in some ways, McLynn’s chatty, gossipy approach is appropriate for a chatty, gossipy age which was dominated by powerful personalities, their alliances, feuds, friendships and enmities. But some of his digressions stray so far beyond the political and military sphere, off into remote regions of culture and art and topography that, interesting though they all are, these excursions ultimately, I think, rather muddle the central thesis. In among the welter of general knowledge and historical trivia, it’s easy to lose track of which events directly impacted the war – and therefore of the book’s central thesis i.e. just why 1759 was so important.

India

Thus (relatively brief) chapter on the Anglo-French conflict in India (the majority of the book is about Canada) is introduced by a long excursus into the work of Samuel Johnson whose popular short novel, Rasselas, was published in 1759, part of the fashion for tales and accounts of exotic far-off countries (Persia, Canada, India). This leads into the role played by exotic animals in the popular imaginary of India, specifically elephants and tigers; of the role of the elephant in classical Hinduism; the efforts of the famous horse painter, George Stubbs, to paint exotic animals; and the way later British imperialists took over the Mughal tradition of hunting tigers on elephant-back. All very interesting, but quite a while before we arrive at the political and military situation in India.

The India chapter highlights the other, fairly obvious, drawback with concentrating so much on one year, which is that, no matter how momentous it is, key geopolitical and military events happen either side of it. Thus the decisive battle which secured Bengal for the British East India Company was fought at Plassey in 1757. Pocock’s account of the build-up and the battle itself are a revelation to someone like me, who didn’t know much about it beforehand. Whereas in McLynn’s account it is briefly mentioned in order – fair enough, according to his own prospectus – to concentrate on the events of his magic year 1759. Here we are given detailed (and withering) portraits of the two key French military figures –

  • Thomas Arthur Lally, comte de Lally-Tollendal, in charge of the French army in India, failed to capture Madras, lost the Battle of Wandiwash, then surrendered the remaining French post at Pondicherry. After time as a prisoner of war in Britain, Lally voluntarily returned to France to face treason charges for which he was eventually beheaded. McLynn accuses him of ‘stupidity and incompetence’ (p.178)
  • Anne Antoine, Comte d’Aché, in charge of the French fleet, a timid and indecisive man who fought a series of inconclusive battles with his aggressive British counterpart Admiral Sir George Pocock, failed to provide adequate naval support to French troops trying to capture Madras in 1759 and failed to support the French forces defending Pondicherry, the French capital in India, which was subsequently surrendered to the British. ‘A prickly, difficult individual’ (p.179)

It was more complex than this, as McLynn explains how Lally’s high-handed approach to Indian princes lost him alliances and territory in the interior and alienated all his subordinates and colleagues, before ending in complete failure. He gives a gossipy profile of Lally the (very flawed) man – ‘imperious, short-tempered and despotic’ (p.167) – as well as a detailed account of the plans and marches and sieges and retreats and battles and skirmishes which took place throughout the year. But ultimately, this account of the Anglo-French conflict in India suffers rather than benefits for concentrating so much on one year, without placing the events of 1759 in the continuum of what came before or after, a drawback for which no amount of entertaining digressions about Johnson or Voltaire can really compensate.

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) by Thomas Hudson

Admiral Sir George Pocock (1706–1792) though never winning a decisive sea battle, his aggressive tactics eventually forced his French rival, Admiral D’Aché, to abandon the East Coast of India to British control.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham 13 September 1759

On 13 September 1759 General James Wolfe won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This was high ground to the west of Quebec, the capital of New France i.e. Canada. He had been sent there by Pitt with a large naval force and plenty of soldiers, irregulars and Indians. The problem he faced was breaking through the French defences to the east of the city and McLynn shows in detail how he failed to do this, with many casualties, in a frontal assault and then resorted to terrorising the neighbourhood of the city, systematically burning remote settlements to the ground in order to demoralise the French. His own officers objected to this policy and, predictably, it stiffened French resolve.

It was only after months of stalemate that he acted on what some historians take to be more or less impulse – and there is a great deal of controversy about who gave him the idea – a renegade Indian, a deserting Frenchman, a Brit who had been held prisoner in Quebec and escaped; but someone suggested landing on the narrow shingly beach upstream of Quebec and that there was a path up the 300 foot cliffs to the plain above. Wolfe had good luck all the way, with the flood tide being just right to carry his ships upstream but not too much to cover the beach; the French sentries had been told to expect a flotilla of supplies going upstream and so mistook the British for that; French sentries on the heights were palmed off by a Scot who happened to speak fluent French – until enough British forces had scrambled up the track to the top, overpowered the scanty French forces and to allow Wolfe’s army to come up, bringing artillery with them.

Thus the commander of the French forces awoke to discover to his horror that a full British Army was drawn up in battle ranks on the sloping plain above the city. He transferred his troops from the eastern approaches which they’d been defending for months and battle commenced. Even now it was a close run thing, with British forces mauled on the east and west flanks by Indian and irregular forces, until the British eventually broke the French army and forced them to retreat beyond the city to the east. At the height of the battle Wolfe was shot in the wrist and groin and bled to death. Coincidentally, the leader of the French forces, Montcalm, was also killed. Their deputies acted according to the book, Townshend lining up his guns above the town ready to blast it to pieces, the French withdrawing the remainder of their forces to a distance to regroup and await reinforcements from the north.

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe's aide-de-camp

Battle of the Plains of Abraham based on a sketch made by Hervey Smyth, General Wolfe’s aide-de-camp

What I didn’t know is that the actual surrender hung by a thread. A relief force under Major-General François de Gaston (aka the Chevalier de Lévis) was appalled at the cowardly Governor de Vaudreuil’s decision to withdraw. Lévis regrouped all his forces and marched back towards the city. But delay in assembling all the logistics for the march allowed the governor of Quebec, Jean-Baptiste Nicolas Roch de Ramezay, to believe the army had abandoned him. Stuck in charge of a large number of sick and wounded, his already heavily bombarded town thronged with women and children and seeing the British lining their guns up to pound the city to oblivion, Ramezay took the decision to hand over the city. Thus on 18 September British forces entered Quebec and took control. There was, as McLynn emphasises, no looting or pillage, the French were guaranteed security, freedom of religion etc; all comparatively civilised. But Lévis’ force arrived one day later. If Ramezay had held out for one more day the history of North America might have been completely different.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part one

The seizure of Quebec wasn’t decisive in itself. A French army remained in the field and, as McLynn points out, in some ways it was a relief for the French not to be responsible for feeding the civilian population, including all the sick and wounded, during the harsh Canadian winter. In fact the British forces in Quebec suffered badly during the winter, not least from scurvy caused by their poor diet, and were considerably weakened when the French returned to give fight in the spring.

But although fighting continued up until the end of the war in 1763, the British never relinquished the city and the strategic advantage it gave them. An important reason they could hang on was the Royal Navy’s great victory at Quiberon Bay off the French coast on 20 November 1759. All through the year the French had been planning to mount an ambitious amphibious invasion of Britain, landing some 100,000 troops, defeating the Brits and marching on London.

This theme threads throughout the book and McLynn is good on the continual vacillations among the French high command for this huge project, which saw the site of the invasion being switched from the South Coast of England to Ireland or Scotland. At one point the French tried to persuade the Swedes to lend them ships to ferry troops to the east coast of England. It is against the backdrop of this ambitious if ever-changing plan that McLynn threads his descriptions of Bonny Prince Charlie.

Bonny Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellions

Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of King James II of Britain. In 1688 James was expelled by a coup of leading British aristocrats, because he was a Catholic and had had his baby son christened as a Catholic. The coup leaders invited the Protestant William, Prince of Orange (part of Holland) to come and be Britain’s king, because he was married to James II’s (Protestant) daughter, Mary. Mary died comparatively young in 1694. When William died in 1702 he was succeeded by Mary’s sister i.e. another daughter of James II, Anne. She reigned until 1714 and died without children. Parliament had planned for this contingency and decreed that the crown should then go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, the granddaughter of James VI and I through his daughter Elizabeth. As it happened, Sophia had died earlier the same year, and so the law decreed the British throne should then pass to her son, George, Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of Great Britain. His son would be George II, his grandson George III, his son George IV, collectively giving their name to the Georgian era, Georgian architecture etc.

These elaborate machinations obviously made a mockery of any notion of the ‘divine right of kings, and there were many in England who pined for the ‘true’ line of descent to be followed, and for King James (and later on his son) to be restored to their ‘rightful’ throne. This feeling was even stronger in Scotland, where many felt that the English could do what they wanted, but Scotland deserved to have her ‘rightful’ Stuart dynasty restored, instead of some preposterous German prince.

Collectively the cause of restoring the Stuart king was called Jacobitism (from Jacobus, the Latin for James, the name of the deposed king, and his heirs) and its followers were Jacobites. In 1715 there was a major Jacobite rising beginning in Scotland, in which armed forces captured a lot of the country, and coinciding with a rising of English Jacobites in Northumberland and the West Country. The Hanoverian government (as it had become known) successfully quashed this, only after months of manouevring and several major battles, in 1716. James (the Old Pretender) returned to France a disappointed man.

In 1745 his son, Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender also known as Bonny Prince Charlie) led a much more substantial rising. The collective Jacobite forces took the Hanoverian army by surprise and marched as far south as Derby, only 120 miles from London, before losing their nerve, halting and then withdrawing. This turned into an increasingly desperate retreat all the way back into Scotland and then into the Highlands where, at the notorious Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746, the Jacobite forces were decimated, survivors being hunted down and killed. The rising led to a brutal backlash in which vast areas of the Highlands were cleared of their suspected treacherous inhabitants, the kilt and other signs of the clan system were banned, all the ringleaders were arrested and many hanged, drawn and quartered.

It was this smouldering resentful Jacobite cause which the French government hoped to revive in 1759. Hence repeated bad-tempered meetings between the Young Pretender and Louis XV’s exasperated ministers: they wanted him to land in Scotland and spark a Highland rebellion to distract Hanoverian forces from the south of England, where the invasion would then take place. Charlie knew from bitter experience where that led (Culloden), suspected most of the surviving Highland chiefs would be reluctant to support him, and realised he was, in any case, only being used as a pawn. He insisted on significant French forces to support him and that he lead an assault on England. London or nothing. Repeated suggestions that he lead an assault on Scotland, Ireland or (bizarrely) Canada, were swept aside.

In the event, Charlie played no part in the decisive events of 1759, but McLynn is fascinating about his character (he had become a grumpy alcoholic), the collapse of the Jacobite cause in England and Scotland (when Charlie took a mistress he lost many of his Puritanical followers), and the intense and frustrating negotiations, as seen from both sides.

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) known as The Young Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie

Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (1720 – 1788) also known as ‘The Young Pretender’ and ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. By 1759 an embittered alcoholic.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20 November 1759 part two

Preliminary to the victory at Quiberon Bay, was the Battle of Lagos Bay on 18 and 19 August 1759. McLynn devotes a chapter to this battle where the Royal Navy defeated the French Mediterranean fleet in a running fight coming out around the south coast of Spain, which ended with the French survivors limping into Lagos Bay, Portugal. This ended all hopes of a Grand Invasion plan (which required multiple French naval forces to fend off the Royal Navy in the English Channel) and forced the French to lower their ambitions. Still, they had built hundreds of flat-bottomed barges in the Channel ports and just needed the Atlantic fleet to protect them. Pitt and his cabinet knew there was a plan to invade and the location of the barges, and so he ordered the Navy to enforce a blockade on the key Atlantic port of Brest.

McLynn is full of admiration for Admiral Edward Hawke, who spent months itching for a fight, compared to his timid opposite number, the Comte de Conflans. Finally the French were sighted exiting the port, word got back to Hawke in Torbay and he gathered as many ships as possible to sail south. Both fleets struggled to manage stormy Atlantic weather, but Hawke chased the French back towards their port in the Gulf of Morbihan, attacking the stragglers first then engaging with the main fleet.

24 British ships of the line engaged a fleet of 21 French ships of the line under Marshal de Conflans. McLynn gives a vivid and terrifying account of the battle, which amounted to huge ships firing at virtually point blank range into other huge ships, destroying rigging, obliterating human bodies, turning the decks into bloody slaughterhouses. Result: the British fleet sank or ran aground six ships, captured one and scattered the rest, giving the Royal Navy one of its greatest ever victories.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay a) led the French to abandon any plans for an invasion, b) established the Royal Navy as the most powerful in the world c) meant the French were from that point onwards hampered in trying to send provisions and troops to the other theatres of war, namely Canada. Although French forces fought on in Canada for another few years, they were never able to receive the reinforcements of troops or provisions which they British did, which was weakening in itself but also demoralising. The Peace of Paris in 1763 falls outside McLynn’s remit, and was a complex deal in itself, whereby various territories seized by one side or the other were returned or exchanged. But the key element was French ceding of almost all their North American territory to the British. And in many ways the treaty merely reflected the reality on the ground: the Royal Navy ruled the seas and so made much easier, or maybe inevitable, British overlordship of America and India.

Britain won

So we won and, as the Wikipedia entry on Madame de Pompadour puts it, ‘France emerged from the war diminished and virtually bankrupt.’ Weakening the prestige of the monarchy, allowing the revival of the great and reactionary aristocrats, and crippling France’s finances, the Seven Years War in many ways sowed the seeds for the French Revolution of 1789.

But, paradoxically, it also sowed the seeds of the American War of Independence and the loss of Britain’s American colonies, as is made clear in Tom Pocock’s account. The weakening of the American armies which the British used in the Caribbean, where they were decimated by disease, was one of the reasons the Pontiac Indian rebellion of 1763 was able to take hold, causing many colonists to complain about the lack of protection from ‘their’ government. The British beat Pontiac and his forces after a long struggle and proceeded to build forts to protect the frontier with the Indians, but then made the fateful decision of taxing the colonists to pay for their own defence. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the seed around which all kinds of grievances and complaints against the mother country crystallised, leading to riots alongside the formation of corresponding societies to co-ordinate the new demands for ‘independence’.

These events occur well past McLynn’s set year of 1759, but they – as well as the decisive victory of the British on the world stage – are its important legacy.

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by William Hoare

William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, the strategic genius who led Britain to victory in the Seven Years War. The American town of Pittsburgh is named after him. ‘He could not understand friendship and had no real friends’ (p.282)

Punishing profiles

McLynn has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholar’s concern for references and theories, and his prose often slips into gushing novelette style. This is particularly noticeable in his enthusiastic criticisms of almost all the main characters:

  • Choiseul was a ‘compulsive and frenzied womaniser’ (p.60)
  • Benedict XIV was ‘undoubtedly one of the great popes of the ages’ (p.61)
  • Louis XV was ‘a great ditherer and prevaricator’ (p.61) as well as being ‘neurotic, weak and indecisive… vindictive and vengeful’ (p.71)
  • King Ferdinand of Spain was ‘under the thumb of his termagant queen’ (p.65)
  • In the 1750s the high aristocracy began to reassert the powers they’d lost under Louis XIV, with the result that ‘patronage-hungry great families crowded to the trough, snouts a-quivering’ (p.70)
  • ‘The classic bull in a china shop, Lally was a hopeless politician’ (p.167)
  • D’Aché ‘was a stickler for protocol and paranoid about imaginary slights…a malcontent who groused eternally about the lack of support given him by the Ministry of Marine’ (p.173)
  • Georges Duval de Leyrit, Governor General of Pondicherry between 1754 and 1758 was’ cold, bureaucratic and venal’ (p.176)
  • ‘One of the most striking things about Wolfe was his physical ugliness.’ (p.201)
  • Townshend, one of Wolfe’s three brigadiers, was ‘aloof, quarrelsome, malicious, pompous and generally dislikeable’ (p.207)
  • The Duc de Richelieu, ‘hero of a thousand bedroom conquests’ was a ‘lazy, sybaritic commander’ (p.260)

And so on… After a while I looked forward to the introduction of new characters to the narrative purely in order to enjoy McLynn’s ‘acidulous’ (a favourite word of his) character assassinations of them. The parade of backstabbing buffoons threatens to turn into Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year, 1759 edition.

  • The 3rd Duke of Marlborough was ‘ignorant, careless and insouciant’ (p.262)
  • Lord George Sackville, commander of British forces on the Continent, was ‘sharp-tongued, arrogant, ambitious, unsure of himself, depressive and hyper-sensitive to criticism.’ (p.262) After his disgraceful behaviour at the Battle of Minden he was court-martialled and expelled from the army. ‘Probably more stupid and incompetent than cowardly in the normal sense.’ (p.283)
  • Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise, was ‘a nonentity, timid and indecisive as a commander, possessing no military talent’ (p.263)
  • General Freiherr von Spörcken was ‘an unspectacular plodder’ (p.274)
  • The Comte de Conflans ‘vain and self-regarding’ (p.357), ‘a true prima donna’ (p.358)

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry - guilty of 'egregious stupidity'

Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally at the siege of Pondicherry – ‘pigheaded’ (p.181), ‘a martinet and petty disciplinarian… [guilty of] egregious stupidity’ (p.176)

When he’s not being wonderfully bitchy about these long dead heroes and villains, much of McLynn’s phraseology slips into thriller-ese or cliché:

  • Native Indians ‘presented an awesome military spectacle, armed with musket or rifle, tomahawk, powder-horn, shot-pouch and scalping knife, seemingly the perfect killing machine’ (p.133)
  • The umpteen forts which are besieged by one side or the other are generally ‘tough nuts to crack’
  • Embattled forces fight ‘tigerishly’
  • ‘Morale in Lally’s forces plummeted alarmingly; confidence was at rock-bottom… [Lally is] not a white abashed…The French were now in a parlous state…’ (pp.182-183)

His long descriptions of landscape often read like adventure fiction. There are several extended descriptions of the Canadian landscape, lush and verdant in summer, turning to a white inferno of snowdrifts and frostbite in winter.

After leaving the northern end of Missisquoi Lake, the Rangers entered a spruce bog, with water at least a foot deep and sometimes deeper, where the current had carved brook-like channels. For nine days they splashed through mud and icy water, often stumbling and sometimes falling full-length into the noisome tarn. There was no firm ground anywhere, and the entire area was plashy marsh, with water everywhere between the trees, concealing irregularities in the ground. Young and choked trees of every height provided invisible tripwires; huge trunks lay rotting in the water with small spruces sprouting thickly along them; there were dead branches sharp as razors concealed in the water and if a man trod on them, he would be raked from ankle to thigh on jagged points. It seemed as if living malevolent branches clutched and tore at their clothes, gored them through the holes, plucked the caps from their heads and tried to scratch their eyes out. (p.339)

In many places this long work feels more like a novel than a work of history, and certainly has more of a writerly sensibility than a scholarly, historical one. Compared with the tremendous intelligence, the sheer force of ideas and analysis present on every page of John Darwin’s brilliant book Unfinished Empire, McLynn’s work reads like a series of entertaining magazine articles.

An enjoyable symptom of his writerly approach is McLynn’s attraction to out of-the-way vocabulary, his fondness for rarely-used words:

  • adipose – fat
  • contumacity – wilfully and obstinately disobedient
  • defalcation – misappropriation of funds by a person trusted with its charge
  • escalade – the scaling of fortified walls using ladders, as a form of military attack
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fetch – the length of water over which a given wind has blown (part of a long explanation of the origin of monster waves in the North Atlantic)
  • gallimaufry – a confused jumble or medley of things
  • hellion – a rowdy or mischievous person, especially a child
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • Manitou – the spiritual and fundamental life force understood by Algonquian groups of Native Americans
  • persiflage – light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter
  • phratry – a descent group or kinship group in some tribal societies
  • sept – a division of a family or clan
  • tourbillion – a vortex especially of a whirlwind or whirlpool

The book is not only an interesting conspectus of the 18th century as seen through the prism of one year, but an entertaining tour of the English language as well.

The death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. Wolfe is not such a hero to McLynn, who sees him as ‘impetuous, headstrong and brave to the point of folly’ (p.202) and, incidentally, guilty of war crimes.

Further reading

In the sections about Quebec and Wolfe, McLynn often disagrees with someone he refers to as ‘Parkman’, accusing him of naivety and propaganda. It took a bit of research to find out he’s referring to Francis Parkman, a Harvard-educated American historian, who published a seven-volume history of France and England in North America in 1884, the sixth volume of which is titled Montcalm and Wolfe. The whole thing is available online at Project Gutenberg, and just reading through the chapter headings and summary of contents gives you a good sense of the story and issues.

Both McLynn and Pocock’s accounts, though long, are deliberately narrow in scope. For a comprehensive scholarly account I’ll need to read something like The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest by Daniel Baugh. Even this only focuses on the global Anglo-French rivalry i.e ignores the European conflict, but still manages to be a whopping 750 pages long!

The book Amazon pairs it with, The Seven Years War in Europe: 1756-1763 by Franz A.J. Szabo, which does focus on the European theatre of war, is over 500 pages long. Just this one war feels like it could easily become a lifetime’s study.


Credit

1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn was published by Jonathan Cape in 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Pimlico paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Empire

Other posts about American history

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fine comic novel which, like Loser Takes All, keeps a good-humoured smile on your face as it leads you through a succession of humorous or farcical episodes. Because of the dated way people speak it’s difficult not to see it as a black-and-white Ealing comedy and the book was in fact made into a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guinness as the hapless hero.

Plot summary

Jim Wormold (worm + old, geddit?) is rather a failure in life. He lives in Havana where he works as a vacuum cleaner salesman. His wife has left, leaving him in charge of their flighty and spoilt, St Trinians-y teenage daughter. She is hanging round with unsuitable company who encourage her to borrow a lot of money to buy a horse along with all the extras and to join the expensive, high society Country Club.

Out of the blue, a shifty Brit named Hawthorne comes sidling round the vacuum cleaner shop, takes Wormold for a few drinks, manhandles him into the loos (‘for security, old man’) and bamboozles him into becoming an agent for British Intelligence. Wormold is in the middle of spluttering his opposition when Hawthorne mentions the £150 per month pay, plus expenses, plus extra money if he runs sub-agents. Wormold thinks of his daughter’s Country Club fees – and accepts. Thus, our man in Havana is recruited.

Back in Blighty, Hawthorne visits the Chief in his underground bunker in Maida Vale and very amusingly manoeuvres him into embroidering Wormold’s character, helping build a fantasy of a well-connected old planter type with contacts in high society. ‘Useful chap, eh?’

After a month or so Wormold receives a (coded) message, via the embassy, asking where’s the information they’re paying him for. That night he has a brainwave. At a stroke he invents five sub-agents – a pilot, an engineer, a professor, a Mata Hari glamour girl etc – and cooks up completely fake intelligence about big clearings being made in the jungle, concrete platforms being built, scary new weapons being constructed.

When London ask for more details Wormold, now working with a fluency and confidence that surprises even himself, sits down and draws technical diagrams of enormous and ominous-looking weapons based on… the vacuum cleaner parts lying around in his shop! In London HQ the Chief calls Hawthorne over and there is a very funny scene where, the more the Chief evinces horror at this ghastly new secret weapon, the more Hawthorne realises what they’re actually sketches of, realises Wormold is pulling a fast one, and hears the crashing noise of his own career hitting the buffers.

The Chief (or C) says Wormold (or agent 59200/1) is now generating such important information he’s going to need a properly-trained secretary and a radio operator, which are duly despatched. They arrive in Havana to Wormold’s horror – and it’s then that the fun really begins.

For it turns out that there actually exists a pilot with the name Wormold thought he’d invented for him – and he is assassinated by ‘the Other Side’! Soon after an attempt is made on the life of the (actually existing) engineer he’d frivolously named in his reports to London. The police are called in. Wormold is questioned. The sinister head of police, Captain Segura, tells him someone has cracked his code and is taking his wild fictions for fact, taking them so seriously they are prepared to threaten and kill to get their hands on the photos of the new secret weapon!

How can Wormold get out of this fix? How long can he conceal his massive deception from Beatrice, the female assistant sent out from London? What is the role of Wormold’s secretive friend, the German Dr Hasselbacher? Will Wormold get his fingers burned playing a dangerous game of deception with the head of Havana’s intelligence, Captain Segura, who is rumoured to be an expert torturer? And what grim fate awaits Wormold at the European Traders’ Association annual jamboree?

The plot darkens

Arguably the plot darkens a bit from here onwards. The eccentric German emigre doctor, Dr Hasselbacher, who, over drinks at the bar, first suggested the idea of inventing agents and reports, has himself been approached by ‘the other side’. It is he who reports that the pilot Wormold thought he’d invented has in fact been assassinated. And then he himself is murdered. The novel moves towards a climax of sorts when Wormold confronts the fellow Englishman who tried to poison him at the annual lunch.

These actual deaths ought to spoil the book, but Greene maintains a light-hearted tone, combined with crisp writing which continues to produce comic effects, banter, repartee, comic asides, and leads up to the high comic ending, so that you close the book with a broad smile on your face.

Sententious

The sheer volume of Greene’s wise sayings in his early novels prompted me to devote a blog post to Greene the preacher. The dictionary defines ‘sententious’ as ‘abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims’ or ‘given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous’. This essentially light, witty novel would be lighter if Greene didn’t feel compelled to sprinkle it with pithy apothegms:

A picture-postcard is a symptom of loneliness. (p.64)

Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy. (p.70)

There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim. (p.72)

The irritating thing about them, is they’re nearly all not true. When my mother died there were no banana skins around. When I’ve watched friends or family write piles of postcards on holiday, it wasn’t anything to do with loneliness, generally the opposite. I can think of many jokes with no victim. What’s yellow, lumpy and extremely dangerous? Shark-infested custard. Can’t see the victim there. Greene’s pithy maxims are invariably slick and false.

But these, and the occasional potholes in the road caused by references to his daughter’s Catholic convent education, and even the sudden deaths on the last part, can be easily overlooked in the sheer enjoyment of this confident and extravagantly funny novel.

Related links

The movie

Apparently, Greene based the story on a well-known agent he came across while running British Intelligence’s Portuguese network of agents during the War. The agent, codenamed ‘Garbo’, earned a fortune sending the Germans entirely spurious information about British troop movements and so on without ever leaving the comfort of his apartment. Greene wrote a movie treatment in 1946, which wasn’t commissioned and which he dusted off after making trips to Cuba in the late 1950s and realising the farcical plot could be relocated there.

Our Man In Havana was immediately optioned and gave Greene the opportunity to collaborate once again with director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). The resulting movie stars Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives and Ralph Richardson and was released in 1960. It is beautifully shot in and around Havana, uses lots of Cuban music and extras, and has brilliant comic actors. Why, then, does it fall flat? There isn’t a real laugh in its nearly 2 hours duration whereas I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel.

It might be something to do with the way a book cocoons you in its own little world, carefully selecting the details it provides you and where you’ll end up believing anything (eg Harry Potter), including this farcical intrigue involving half a dozen characters. Whereas this film all-too-beautifully shows you the ‘real’ world of Havana with its millions of people going about their lives in the hard tropical sunlight, and this somehow destroys the delicate bloom of the novel’s comedy. The reality of the bustling streets and busy highways makes the fragile farcical fiction harder to sustain.

Plus, it could be that Reed, the master of sinister effects and noir camera angles in The Third Man, was just not so good at filming comedy. Comedy is always about timing – there are plenty of funny moments in the screenplay: the moment when Hawthorne realises that the diagrams his boss is holding in his hands and raving about are in fact just enlarged drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, that Wormold is a fraud, that his boss will sooner or later realise this and then Hawthorne’s goose will be cooked – is a great moment in the book and it occurs here in the film but, as with almost all the other would-be comic moments – just doesn’t quite click.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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