The October Country by Ray Bradbury (1955)

I didn’t realise until I began to read him, that science fiction accounts for less than half of Bradbury’s output of short stories and novels, though it makes perfect sense. Even in the supposedly science fiction stories you can feel the pull of the fairy tale, the fable, of horror and fantasy, and also, sometimes, of strikingly ‘normal’, non-sci-fi, naturalistic stories – the kind of sweet and sentimental sensibility which produced the idyllic stories of boyhood in rural Illinois which are captured in Dandelion Wine.

But this volume is all about the grotesque and the macabre. The October Country contains nineteen dark and twisted short stories. Fifteen of them are taken from the twenty-seven stories in Bradbury’s first collection, 1947’s Dark Carnival, with four more added which had been previously published elsewhere.

I read a reissue of the 1955 hardcover edition which features artwork by Joseph Mugnaini. I’m not sure I liked them, but Mugnaini’s illustrations certainly contribute to the dated feel of many of the stories, to the sense of 1950s American Gothick, and also to the feeling that they are, at bottom, children’s stories. Albeit for very twisted children.

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury's story The Halloween Tree

Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini of Ray Bradbury’s story The Halloween Tree

The stories

The Dwarf (1954)

Set in a carnival at the end of a pier. Ralph Banghart, the owner of a Hall of Mirrors, plays a cruel trick on a dwarf who is a regular customer. He spies on the dwarf and realises that he likes going to the room of mirrors which elongate your reflection i.e. make the dwarf look ‘normal’ height. So Ralph replaces the heightening mirror with a shortening one, and listens to the dwarf’s screams of horror. All this is observed by Aimee, the kind-hearted owner of the hoop stall, Aimee, who runs off to find the distraught dwarf.

The Next in Line (1947)

This is a long story made up of numerous powerful scenes. An American couple are on holiday in mexico. When they see a funeral procession passing below their hotel balcony carrying a small child’s coffin, something in the wife, Marie, snaps. Her unfeeling husband takes her to the local cemetery which features a macabre tourist attraction, a catacomb where the mummified bodies of the poor whose relatives can’t afford to keep up payments for their burial plots, are dug up and lined up against the wall. There is room for one more at the end of the line of horrific half-decayed corpses. Marie is insistent now that they leave town, but at first the husband, Joseph, refuses, and then their car breaks down and will take days to repair.

The ensuing scenes record Marie’s nervous breakdown, stumbling weeping in the street, locking herself in the bedroom with American magazines as a psychological wall against the outside world.

Outside, in the plaza, the street lights rocked like crazy flashlights on a wind. Papers ran through the gutters in sheep flocks. Shadows penciled and slashed under the bucketing lamps now this way, now that, here a shadow one instant, there a shadow next, now no shadows, all cold light, now no light, all cold blue-black shadow. The lamps creaked on their high metal hasps.
In the room her hands began to tremble.

The story reaches Edgar Allen Poe levels of macabre when she lies on the hotel bed trying to stop her breathing, to stop her pulse, screaming at her husband that, whatever happens, she doesn’t want to end up next in line to the mummies.

Then the scene cuts to the husband merrily driving his car back north to America, wearing a black armband, and alone! Did she die? Did he have her embalmed and placed in the row? Was the whole thing some kind of evil conspiracy by him?

I didn’t quite get the ending, but for most of the story, anyway, it wasn’t really about horror, it was an intense description of a marriage breaking down, marital arguments, and of a squeaky clean housewife having a nervous breakdown.

Here’s a review of the story which includes photos of the mummies which actually exist, and inspired the story after Bradbury visited them.

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse (1954)

A comedy which satirises the ‘honey I’m home’ conformity of the American middle classes and the ‘hey daddio’ coolness of 1950s hepcats. George Garvey is the most boring man in the world. They have no social life because George almost instantly bores company to death. By chance the leader of a gang of jazz-loving hepcats, Alexander Pape, meets him in the hall of the apartment building and is so blown away with his stupefying dullness, that he invites his gang of swinging dudes to pay him a visit. The story recounts their jazz-slang conversations as they (afterwards) marvel at his world-stopping dullness. Eventually George becomes the epicentre of a new craze, with jiving cool dudes packing out his apartment.

But, alas, under the influence of all these precious things he himself starts to become interesting. He accidentally nips the tip of one finger in the door of his car but insists on having a gold fingertip replacement made. When his eyesight fails in one eye he posts a poker chip to Henri Matisse in France with fifty dollars and asks the master to pint it for him. Astonishingly, Matisse does and George receives the Matisse eyepiece back (along with the cheque – Matisse doesn’t need the vulgar money).

The hepcats get bored of George and abandon him, but he is now a man transformed. He insists on being called Giulio and sometimes, in the depth of the night, his wife wakes up, looks over at her snoring husband and could swear that… she sees the Matisse poker chip wink at her!

Skeleton (1945)

A really delirious story in which everyday Mr Harris develops the neurosis that his own skeleton has a life and personality of his own. Through a series of encounters, with his wife (Clarisse), his friends, a doctor, a bone specialist, the narrative becomes a kind of continuous hallucination as Harris loses weight and his skeleton becomes evermore apparent, in the street, in the mirror.

Finally, he calls back the creepy bone specialist, a Monsieur Munigant, who sits him down, bends over him with a peculiar device and…. extracts his skeleton from his body! Cut to M. Munigant strolling down the sidewalk, pulling out a long white thing which looks remarkably like a thigh bone, carving holes in it and… playing a tune on it… and then to Harris’s wife returning from the shops:

Many times as a little girl Clarisse had run on the beach sands, stepped on a jellyfish and screamed. It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name

The Jar (1944)

Charlie is a poor hick from the outback in Louisiana. At a carnival he’s entranced by one an object in a jar, something like one of those pickled foetuses. He buys it off the carny-owner for $12 and takes it in his horse and cart back to the shack by the swamp, and it becomes a talking point, a feature, a pretext for the real backwoods retards of the village to come up every evening and speculate on its contents.A poor farmer buys a jar with something floating in it for twelve dollars and it soon becomes the conversation piece of the town. However his wife begins to realize that she cannot stand the jar or him.

The Lake (1944)

Harry is twelve. It is the last day of summer. He is at the lake and his mother washes him down. He walks off a long the short remembering his childhood friend, Tally, who drowned her earlier in the summer. They used to build sandcastles together. He builds half of one leaving the rest for her to complete.

Ten years pass by. He moves to Los Angeles and grows up, goes to college, gets a job, and married Margaret. They come East for their honeymoon. When Harry takes her down to the beach where it all happened one summer long ago, he is startled that the lifeguard is carrying in a small bundle. To his fascination and horror the lifeguard unwraps the decayed face long enough for Harry to recognise the long blonde hair and (admittedly decayed) features. It is Tally. Staggering back along the beach he comes to a sandcastle, half a sandcastle… as if built by her spirit.

The Emissary (1947)

Martin is ten. Since he contracted an unnamed disease he is bed-ridden. His only contact with the outside world is the family dog who they’ve named Dog. Bradbury revels in giving acute descriptions of the smells and fragments Dog brings to Martin’s bed of woods and leafmould and fresh air and sunshine. He also often returns with the teacher Miss Haight, who sits and listens to Martin.

Autumn comes, then wet October. His mother haltingly tells him that Miss Haight has been killed in an auto accident. Martin cries. Then one day Dog doesn’t return. Martin is distraught, his two lifelines lost.

And then, one cold and rainy night three days after Halloween, there is a barking and commotion and Dog comes bounding up the stairs and leaping onto Martin’s bedcovers. And something else is with him. Something else has come into the empty house. And clumps crudely up the stairs. And swings open the door to Martin’s bedroom.

It is the living corpse of Miss Haight which Dog has dutifully dug up and brought to Martin, like a good dog.

Touched With Fire (1954)

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw used to work in insurance. They’re both now retired and chat about the old days. During this unusually hot summer it dawns on them that certain people are just destined to have accidents, certain people are made careless or negligent.

As a hobby, they have been studying people in their neighbourhood, studying the personalities and habits and trying to calculate the odds. One fat, argumentative woman in particular, Mrs Shrike, catches their attention, and they watch her storm out of her apartment building, slamming the door, nagging everyone she comes across, haranguing the shopkeepers, before storming home.

Mr Foxe and Mr Shaw decide they have to help her. they come to warn her that she is just the sort of person accidents happen to. but she is outraged that they’ve been following and watching her. Moreover, there is a certain temperature, 92 F, Mr Foxes has informed us, at which the most murders are committed – the temperature at which people lose self-control and snap!

And as Mrs Shriek harangues them, Mr Shaw notices the thermometer in the room hitting 92 degrees and Mr Foxe does indeed snap, raising his cane and hitting her over the head. I thought that he would end up killing her and so it would be one of those spookily self-fulfilling prophecy stories.

But instead Foxe drops the cane and staggers out with his friend, they sit on the cool stoop and get their breath back. She was hurt but still shrieking when they left. And they are still recovering when the front door is brusquely pushed open and the enormous brute who is Mr Shrike pushes past them and clumps up the stairs. As he goes, they can’t help noticing that tucked in his back pocket is a big ugly sharp longshoreman’s hook. The strong implication is that, what with her nagging and the sweltering heat, Mr Shrike is about to murder his wife.

The Small Assassin (1946)

Alice and David Leiber are comfortably off, nice job, nice house. They consciously plan to have a baby but even before it’s born, Alice begins to have nightmares about it. the actual birth is excruciating and she screams convinced the baby is trying to kill her. The hospital psychiatrist Jeffers takes David aside to warn him that his wife may be suffering from post-partum psychosis.

In fact Alice is remarkably clear headed and lucid (I say this having known two women who had severe post-natal depression) and simply points out to her husband that their baby is trying to kill her. He goes off on a business trip. Jeffers rings him to say his wife is ill. he rushes home. She recovers from pneumonia. Things settle down. One midnight, David is sure he hears something at the bedroom door. Gets quietly out of bed, pads to the door and… stumbles over a soft toy placed in just the right place to make someone stumble. But this soft toy was in the baby’s room. How did it get here? He begins to have horrible suspicions. He takes the toy back to the baby’s room and looks down at the little creature.

David drives to work the next day full of misgivings. When he gets home he finds his wife dead at the foot of the stairs. She has tripped on the soft which he placed back in the baby’s room and fallen all the way down the stairs.

Dr Jeffers attends and David blurts it all out, convinced now that the baby is the killer. they had put off giving it a name. Now he wants to call it Lucifer. Jeffers tries to calm David down and prescribes sleeping pills. David takes them but as he’s passing out, swears he can hear something else moving in the empty house.

Next morning the doctor pops round to check up on him and finds David dead in  his bed. Someone had disconnected the gas pipe in his room and, being drugged asleep, David had asphyxiated. Convinced now that the baby is to blame, Dr Jeffers takes things into his own hands and the story ends with him leaning over the baby’s crib… holding a scalpel!

The Crowd (1943)

Mr Spallner is in a car crash and, as he passes out, hears the voices in the crowd around him. Later, in hospital, he becomes convinced something was wrong about it. It got there too fast, people were commenting on things they couldn’t have known about. He becomes obsessed and scours the archives for photos of other auto accidents – and discovers the same faces in the crowds that thronged round them as thronged round his one, even down to the colour of their dresses and coats.

He shares his theories with work colleague Morgan who thinks he’s bonkers, but as the evidence mounts, begins to be persuaded.

The story ends with Spallner in another car crash, this time nothing to do with him as a heavy truck rolls out of a side street and crushes his car. He sees the same faces bending over him, the same voices asking whether’s he’s dead. but whereas in the first accident, a voice had said, No, he’ll be alright,’ now he hears the very same voice suggesting that they move him – which he knows is that last thing you want to do to a crash victim. He tries to cry out to prevent them but a couple of guys move him onto the sidewalk and he fells his body break and erupt in pain.

As he fades Spallner realises the crowd decides who will live and die. And in the rather ambiguous final words, he manages to speak a little and seems to have realised that – the crowd are the spirits of the dead, themselves killed in car accidents and somehow condemned to eternally revisit and rewitness them.

He tried to speak. A little bit got out:
“It – looks like I’ll – be joining up with you. I – guess I’ll be a member of your – group – now.’

Jack-in-the-Box (1947)

This is one of the really weirdest stories in the collection, told from the point of view of a boy who lives with his mother in a vast secluded mansion, convinced that beyond the dense forest which surrounds them are monsters which will eat him, told that his father, the original God, was killed by beasts outside. Every day his mother prepares breakfast for him then packs him off to see the ‘teacher’, who wears a grey cloak and has her classroom up on the top floor.

A lot of effort goes into creating the detail of this 20-page story, before the rather inevitable climax, namely that the mother dies: when the boy goes to see ‘the teacher’ she is not there either and he pieces it together that the two women are one and the same.

At which point he sets off bravely through the gates of the mansion’s garden, on through the densely overgrown tunnel through the woods to emerge… into a perfectly normal American city, with cars honking and pedestrians hurrying by and two cops puzzled by the strange looking boy wandering round repeating ‘I am dead, I am dead’ to himself.

The Scythe (1943)

During the Depression a family of four are heading west to California but are pushed off the highway by their car failing then braking down, just near to an empty looking farm. Going in, the husband, Drew, discovers the owner, dressed in his Sunday best, dead on his bed, and next to him a will leaving the property to whoever finds him, on condition they use the scythe – which is there in the room – to mow the huge wheatfield out back.

Not looking a gift horse in the mouth Drew, his wife and two kids move in, quickly discovering reserves of delicious meat and milk in the barn. Next day Drew sets to mowing. He quickly discovers that the wheat he mows rots immediately. Also that it has all grown back next day. He tries to abandon the futile mowing but discovers that he can’t settle to anything, his hands and arms are twitchy. Only when the scythe is in his hand is he happy.

Worse, he slowly realises what the wheatfield is when he hears a crying out as he mows one outcrop. The wheat is human souls. He himself is the grim reaper, fated to carry out his duty whether he wants to or not.

The story comes to a climax when he realises a little clump of wheat stalks represents his wife and children. Revolted he throws down the scythe and walks away. But next day, when he is out mowing another part of the field, he sees smoke from the house and runs to find it burning to the ground. but his wife and children preserved intact inside. They should have died, but they didn’t died because he didn’t mow them.

So back out to the meadow he goes and consciously scythes the stalks representing his family and, embittered and enraged, goes on, madly, feverishly, unable to stop.

Sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night. . . .
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.

Uncle Einar (1947)

This is one of several stories about the ‘Elliott’ family which bears a close resemblance to the Addams family, being made up of monsters and ghouls.

It’s the story of Uncle Einar who has enormous wings on his shoulders, and becomes a kind of bat at night-time, but who one night flies into an electricity pylon, and wakes up on the ground, being tended by a kindly cowherd, Brunilla.

they fall in love and get married but Einar is devastated to discover that the accident with the power cable has destroyed  his sense of sonar i.e. he can’t safely fly at night. Since he cannot fly during the day because people will spot him and call the cops, he is stuck and becomes very depressed.

Then he discovers some of the Elliott children are going to fly kites and he has a brainwave: he attaches a string to his feet, goes along with them to the kite hill, then leaps into the air and swoops and soars in complete freedom, under the pretence of being their kite.

The Wind (1943)

A really atmospheric little thriller: the main character, Herb Thompson, is having friends round for drinks and his wife is hassling him to get ready. Trouble is he keeps getting rung up by his friend Allin, a former explorer who once penetrated to a mystic valley in the Himalayas which was the source of all the world’s winds.

Now the winds are coming to get him. Herb’s wife calls him away to come and be polite to the guests, but throughout their drinks and dinner are continually interrupted by calls from Allin, who lives in an isolated house thirty miles away, and describes, at each call, how a big wind is assembling on the horizon, then blowing round his house, then smashing in the windows, then blowing down the walls, so he retreats to the cellar, at which point, taking the umpteenth call, Herb hears a great shattering sound, the roar of wind and screaming.

Later that night a surprisingly strong wind comes and rattles Herb’s door and windows. He opens the door and calls Allin’s name and hears a cackling and feels a sudden gust in his face. then the winds are off, laughing, to their multiple destinations round the world.

The Man Upstairs (1947)

Young Douglas watches his grandma stuffing a chicken the old fashioned way, pulling out the innards herself, then stitching it back together and filling it with stuffing.

A new stranger, Mr Koberman, comes to rent the room at the top of the house. He is creepy and has strange demands, such as insisting on using only wooden cutlery.

Over the ensuing days Douglas follows and spies on the man, establishing that he only goes out at night and sleeps like a log through the day, despite Douglas’s attempts to wake him up by stomping up and down and banging things and singing right outside his door.

One day Doug happens to be on the landing where there’s a window with panes of coloured glass in it when he watches Mr Koberman walking down the street, experimentally watching him through each of the colours and sees… to his horror, that Mr Koberman has a completely different insides from us. He is filled with geometric shapes.

Next day, when his grandma has gone out, and Mr Koberman is asleep in  his darkened room, Doug creeps into the stranger’s room with shards of the coloured glass and… a sharp kitchen knife. To cut to the chase, Doug kills him and guts him, removing a whole series of weird-colour and strange-shaped organs.

The story ends with two hardened cop and the coroner standing over the body, examining the organs before sewing him back up and agreeing that the kid did the right thing.

There Was an Old Woman (1944)

Aunt Tildy is an ‘ornery, opinionated, down-home, no-nonsense old lady. When a smooth-talking young man comes a-calling, saying he wants to take her away, she thinks he’s an insurance salesman and kicks him out. The four men with him carry out a huge heavy casket which she doesn’t understand at first but when her young friend Emily comes to visit, the latter is terrified to discover her hand and the cup of tea she’s made go right through Aunt Tilda.

Because Aunt Tilda is a ghost! That nice young man was Death, and those other men carried her body when they carried out the casket.

Mad as hell the ghostly Aunt Tilda gets Emily to drive her down to the mortuary and makes a big scene, interrupting the service, insisting on seeing the manager, threatening to turn the whole place upside down until, at her insistence, the fetch the casket, open it and, with great effort, and much comic sound effects, she squeezes herself back into her corpse, ordering all the parts, one by one, to come back to warm life!

The Cistern (1947)

Two lonely, odd old ladies, Juliet and Anna, live in a house overlooking the street. During the long dark afternoon they tell stories about lost loves and also the urban legends about the rainwater drain outside the house, how it runs like a dark secret beneath the whole city to a magical land where lovers are reunited after death and – by sheer force of hallucinating intensity – persuades herself that that is where her long-lost lover, Frank, who never had the courage to marry her, is waiting for her.

Juliet drowses in the late afternoon, then hears the front door slam.Leaping up, by the time she gets there to open it the street is empty, but she thought she just had time to hear… the big manhole cover in the middle of street clang closed, as if someone had just climbed down into the dark wet underworld…

Homecoming (1946)

The second and longer story about the supernatural Elliott family who return from round the world for a family reunion at their spooky Gothic mansion, each demonstrating their special supernatural skills, as seen through the eyes of young boy Timothy who is one of the family but – being an orphan mortal boy left on their doorstep – has no immortal powers himself.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone (1954)

Fans track down a writer who chose to withdraw into seclusion and cease writing, and get his story from him.


Reflections on Bradbury’s approach and style

After a while I began to get a bit bored of one very prominent feature of the stories, which is that so many of the characters experience intensely altered, hallucinatory, delirious psychological states.

In story after story Bradbury describes people passing out, having delusions, fainting, besides themselves, alienated from their bodies, hysterical and so on. These may all sound like different and distinct states of mind but they’re all described in the same way, in sentences which:

  • tend to be long, with lots of consecutive ‘ands’ conveying
    • a nightmareish sense of unendingness and
    • mental collapse, the failure of the adult ability to distinguish between events, reversion to an infantile state where a thing happens and another thing happens and another thing happens
  • repeat the same phrases or words to convey the way the mind is numb and repeating like a machine
  • often include words indicating falling, swooning, fainting, passing out
  • sometimes invoke the grand concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ to give the impression that the entire universe is crashing around the characters

1. Long sentences Here’s an example of a long sentence with lots of naively consecutive ‘ands’. Marie, the wife in The Next in Line, is having a nervous breakdown:

She could not speak to him for she knew no words that he knew and he said nothing to her that she understood, and she walked to her bed and slipped into it and he lay with his back to her in his bed and he was like one of these brown-baked people of this far-away town upon the moon, and the real earth was off somewhere where it would take a star-flight to reach it. If only he could speak with her and she to him tonight, how good the night might be, and how easy to breathe and how lax the vessels of blood in her ankles and in her wrists and the under-arms, but there was no speaking and the night was ten thousand tickings and ten thousand twistings of the blankets, and the pillow was like a tiny white warm stove under-cheek, and the blackness of the room was a mosquito netting draped all about so that a turn entangled her in it.

‘and… and… and’, a headlong sequence of clauses which creates a sense of breathless, panting hysteria.

2. Clotted clauses Here is Bradbury doing hysteria – old man Foxe in Touched with Fire is being driven mad by the harridan Mrs Shrike taunting him on a blisteringly hot day until he reaches breaking point and snaps. Not the long flatness achieved by all the ‘and’s, here it’s something different, the piling up of multiple clotted clauses to create a sense of claustrophobia:

He was in a blazing yellow jungle. The room was drowned in fire, it clenched upon him, the furniture seemed to shift and whirl about, the sunlight shot through the rammed-shut windows, firing the dust, which leaped up from the rug in angry sparks when a fly buzzed a crazy spiral from nowhere; her mouth, a feral red thing, licked the air with all the obscenities collected just behind it in a lifetime, and beyond her on the baked brown wallpaper the thermometer said ninety-two, and he looked again and it said ninety-two, and still the woman screamed like the wheels of a train scraping around a vast iron curve of track; fingernails down a blackboard, and steel across marble.

Here is the dwarf driven mad by the sight of himself crushed and compressed in a distorting mirror. The first sentence is the usual concatenation of ‘ands’; the second sentence uses the piling up clauses technique to create a sense of crashing stumbling.

There was another scream, and another and still another, and a threshing and a pounding and a breaking, a rushing around and through the maze. There, there, wildly colliding and richocheting, from mirror to mirror, shrieking hysterically and sobbing, tears on his face, mouth gasped open, came Mr. Bigelow.

3. Out of body Numerous Bradbury characters suffer from a hyper-self-consciousness about their bodies, have out-of-body experiences, find themselves looking down and not recognising your own hands, feel their body disappear from under them. Here’s the husband, David, in The Small Assassin being told down the phone that his wife is very ill:

Leiber dropped the phone into its cradle. He got up, with no feet under him, and no hands and no body. The hotel room blurred and fell apart.

If this was a spy thriller, you’d think this character had just drunk a poisoned drink or been injected with a sleeping potion. In Bradbury it’s a fairly common occurrence. Here is the same husband, having flown home to be with his wife:

The propellers spun about, whirled, fluttered, stopped; time and space were put behind. Under his hand, David felt the doorknob turn; under his feet the floor assumed reality, around him flowed the walls of a bedroom…

Later, Alice ‘collapsed inward on herself and finally slept.’ Characters’ bodies bend, buckle, disappear, are suddenly empty or void or alien.

4. Repetition Another trick is the repetition of the exact same phrase, maybe for incantatory effect, sometimes to emphasise the sense that the mind being described is in such a state of shock, that it has become a stuck record. This is from The Crowd:

They were a ring of shifting, compressing, changing faces over him, looking down, looking down, reading the time of his life or death by his face…

The ambulance doors slammed. Through the windows he saw the crowd looking in, looking in

He heard their feet running and running and running

He could smell their breaths, the mingled odors of many people sucking and sucking on the air a man needs to live by…

Conclusion

Bradbury was young when he wrote these stories and the cumulative impression of reading a sequence of them is the impression that he was still dazzled with the tremendous impact these tricks can have.

It’s like a teenage girl discovering that if she wears high heels and a low-cut top she can have a dramatic effect on the boys. Us parents look on and think, ‘Yes, I lived through that age, I’ve had that experience, it doesn’t thrill me anymore, in fact I feel embarrassed for you.’

Thus when the story The Crowd opens with just such an out-of-body altered moment of experience, conveyed by one long sentence with lots of ‘ands’ simply and naively joining together a sequence of impressions as if the higher functions of the brain have been surgically removed – and when the story then invokes grand words like time and space – all these tricks are being used to convey the experience of being in the centre of a car crash.

There was the feeling of movement in space, the beautifully tortured scream, the impact and tumbling of the car with wall, through wall, over and down like a toy, and him hurled out of it. Then–silence.

The only problem is that by this stage in the book, we have seen same box of tricks nine times already, used variously to describe a woman having a nervous breakdown, a man learning his wife is seriously ill, an old man being goaded to snapping point, and a dwarf being goaded to madness. In other words, it is getting a bit over-familiar.

You even begin to suspect that Bradbury began the writing process with a strong personal familiarity with this kind of over-self-aware, hallucinatory, out of body, psychological state, discovered that he could reel off hundreds of pages of long incantatory sentences describing it – and then he found stories to fit the effects into.

You suspect that the sense of nervous collapse, and the giddy style which captures it, came first – and then he had to find the kind of tales and narratives which justified deploying it.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting happy stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood in small-town America in the 1920s
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Black Mask by E.W. Hornung (1901)

The paperback edition of Raffles stories I picked up in a second-hand bookshop contains the first eight Raffles stories (originally collected in a volume titled The Amateur Cracksman, published in 1899) along with the second eight, which were collected in the next volume, The Black Mask, published in 1901.

The final story in volume one had ended with the failure of Raffles’s most ambitious plan – to steal a priceless pearl which was being taken by courier on a German steamer across the Mediterranean. Caught by his nemesis – Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard – Raffles was given a moment to say goodbye to his ‘fiancée’ – a young Australian woman that he’d actually been using to find out more about the pearl – and takes the opportunity to jump up onto the ship’s railing and, as Mackenzie and the ship’s officers run to stop him, to dive overboard into the sea.

His assistant and the narrator of the Raffles tales, ‘Bunny’ Manders, thinks he catches sight of a head bobbing in the long reflection of the sunset across the waves, before he is himself dragged off to be thrown into the brig, taken back to Britain, tried, found guilty, publicly shamed and humiliated, and sent to prison for his part in Raffles’s various thefts.

There the series appeared to end with Bunny in the nick and Raffles drowned off the Italian coast. But…

The stories

1. No Sinecure

The first story in the new set reveals that… it is not so!!

It is 18 months later, Bunny has served his time in HMP Holloway. A wealthy relation has reluctantly taken pity on him and found him a hovel of a garret to live in while Bunny pursues an unsuccessful career as a freelance writer.

One day Bunny gets a telegram telling him to look at an advert in that day’s Daily Mail. It is an advert for a nurse-cum-gentleman’s assistant to an ailing old man, Mr Maturin. Bunny pawns some belongings to buy a suit and heads off for the interview at an apartment block in Earl’s Court.

He is let into the apartment by a zippy young doctor, Dr Theobald, who is the ageing Mr Maturin’s personal physician, and then ushered into the darkened room where the invalid lies in bed, white-haired and white-faced. As soon as the physician has exited, Bunny realises that the figure in the bed is… RAFFLES, his old mentor and partner in crime!!

Even as bubblegum, popcorn entertainment the stories are not as barbed and gripping as they might be. For example, you might have expected Bunny to be a bit cross with the man who led him into a life of crime, got him banged up for eighteen months, and ruined his life. You might have expected some kind of psychological reckoning. But not a bit of it, he’s just thrilled to see old A.J. again.

Raffles gives the briefest explanation of his escape: it was a hard swim, the reflection of the setting sun dazzled any potential pursuers, and life for a half-naked man wading ashore on Capri was challenging. The peasants gave him clothes, he got odd jobs, he worked his way north along the coast and into France. That’s about it. Then we are swiftly on to this week’s adventure.

Bunny helps Raffles get dressed in formal evening wear and they take a circuitous route across the apartment block roof (This is to avoid awkward questions from the porter in the apartment block’s downstairs lobby). They go down by a separate set of stairs, and head to Kellner’s Restaurant in the West End. Here, Raffles explains, he and Bunny are going to pretend to be rich Americans meeting the head of a famous firm of Regent Street jewellers’.

Over dinner in a private room the jeweller places on the table a series of expensive pieces. Raffles, in his guise as American millionaire, declares he wants them all – can he take them and send round a cheque? As expected, the jeweller laughs in his face, so Raffles makes a suggestion. Why doesn’t he place the pieces in the cigarette carton he happens to be carrying, seal it up, and give it back to the jeweller who can post it round in three days, after he’s received and cashed Raffles’s cheque.

The Regent Street jeweller agrees and they call for string and sealing wax, carefully stow the jewels in the carton, wrap and seal it, stand up and shake hands, then the jeweller departs with the carton which he will, as promised, post.

Leaving Raffles to open his voluminous jacket to reveal… the cigarette carton with the jewels in it!!

While there had been a hiatus of waiters coming in with brown paper, string and whatnot, Raffles had swapped the carton with the jewels in it for an identical but empty one – which is the one they wrapped up and gave to the jeweller!

Quickly they take a cab back to Earl’s Court, climb up the parallel staircase, and over the roofs, back into the sick room, where Raffles changes back into pyjamas and gets into bed. Raffles is back! and Bunny has helped him pull off his first job of the new era!!

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

Raffles and Bunny on the roof, illustration by F. C. Yohn (1906)

2. A Jubilee Present

Taking advantage of the absence of Dr Theobald, Raffles takes Bunny along to the Gold Room at the British Museum. It is meant to be just a reconnaissance trip, but Raffles is loudly telling his sidekick how he plans to steal a priceless gold cup when a hidden policemen surprises them both by stepping out of the shadows.

After a few moments of trying to bluff his way out of it, Raffles simply hits the man over the head with a stick and they walk quickly but calmly past the attendants in the other rooms, down the steps, and into a hansom cab which takes them to the nearest tube, and so anonymously and safely back to the Earls Court. Here Raffles shows Bunny that in all the confusion – he pocketed a priceless gold relic.

In the event, the relic is too rare to fence, and too culturally precious to melt down for the gold (Raffles is, after all, a gentleman of taste). So, for fun, he sends it anonymously to Queen Victorian to celebrate her Jubilee!

3. The Fate of Faustina

Some Italian organ grinders in the street outside prompt Raffles to reminisce about the time he spent on the island where he had stumbled ashore, naked and exhausted, having made his getaway from the ship, as described above.

Once taken in and given clothes by kind locals, he got a labouring job and fell in love with a peasant girl, Faustina. But she was the beloved of the creepy Stefano, himself a factor to the big, rich lord, Count Corbucci.

Raffles planned with the girl to flee the island and stole a revolver which he shows her how to use. That night he is creeping down the steep staircase carved in the rock towards the cavern which they have made their secret hideaway when… he hears blundering footsteps coming up the other way.

Raffles crouches into an alcove to let the heavy-breathing big guy wheeze past and then lights a match, to reveal that it is the Count. After some ironical exchanges the count tells Raffles to go and find his beloved and turns round to resume the ascent with a scornful laugh.

Raffles hurtles down the steps and into the cavern to find Faustina dead, stabbed to death. She had been caught by Stefano and the Count, had revealed her plan to escape and drawn the gun on them, but they had wrenched it off her and stabbed her to death. Stefano is still in the cave and Raffles shoots him dead.

Raffles runs back up to the steps and along to Corbucci’s house where he roughly ties up the Count and locks all the doors, half hoping the blackguard will starve to death there. Then Raffles takes a dinghy to the mainland, and quickly skims over the way he stowed away on ships taking him further up the coast, getting small jobs where possible.

But there I had to begin all over again, and at the very bottom of the ladder. I slept in the streets. I begged. I did all manner of terrible things, rather hoping for a bad end, but never coming to one.

One day, catching sight of himself in a mirror, Raffles realises he looks like an exhausted white-haired old wreck and that no-one back in London would now recognise him. And so to London he returns, adopts the character of the old paralytic, hires Dr Theobald to make it all look kosher, and then arranged for Bunny to come calling looking for the job.

However, now he tells Bunny that – they have followed him.

Who, the police? asks Bunny. No, the CAMORRA!

Count Corbucci was a top man in the Italian underworld organisation, the Camorra, and Raffles is not surprised that word has been put out to every Italian in London to track him down. If he’s not much mistaken, that’s exactly what the Italian barrel organ people out the front of their flats have been doing. Tracking him down and staking him out.

4. The Last Laugh

Sure enough it was the Camorra. One night Bunny spots a man in the darkness opposite their block of flats standing and watching. Raffles waits till Bunny has changed into his pyjamas to go to bed, then declares he’s going out to confront these watchers in the dark.

Bunny springs to the window and watches Raffles emerge from the apartment block and the man opposite promptly turn and walk away, with Raffles in hot pursuit. But then Bunny sees a big fat man in a slouch hat amble into the street, pass directly under the window of their flat, and make off after the other two. Something’s up. Quick, he better warn his hero!

Bunny changes into his clothes, runs out into the street, hires a hansom and drives around west London in a fever, but can find no trace of Raffles or the others. Finally, he returns to the flat and remains, looking out the window in an agony of suspense all night.

Suddenly, there’s a frantic knocking at the apartment door and a one-eyed Italian stands there talking very fast Italian and gesturing for Bunny to follow. Out into the street, along Earls Court Road to the cab stand, into the first hansom, then it is a feverish life-or-death drive across London to Bloomsbury, with the cab driver using all his wiles to weave in and out of traffic and take unexpected side streets.

It’s exactly the same mentality as the car chases in James Bond or Jason Bourne movies, the same nail-biting tension building up, only set in 1901 and with hansom cabs.

The one-eyed Italian directs the cab to Bloomsbury Square and makes him pull up outside number 38. Out they leap, run across the pavement, burst through the door, run up the stairs, and into a room where Bunny is horrified to discover Raffles bound to the wall by leather ropes threaded through iron hoops attached in the wall, with a gag thrust in his mouth, covered in blood from a beating.

But the Italian doesn’t falter and continues his run at an old grandfather clock standing dead opposite Raffles, knocking it to the ground just as the revolver attached to the clock face fires, as it had been arranged to do, as the clock struck noon.

Not only had the Count’s men tied Raffles up and beaten him… they had arranged this fiendish death as a psychological torture. For the best part of 12 hours Raffles had had to watch the minute hand slowly creeping round and the apparatus inch towards the point where the clock hand would pull the trigger of the revolver and shoot him through the heart!

Who is the one-eyed man and why was it all left to the last minute? As they undo the straps and set Raffles free, he explains to Bunny that the man is one of the Count’s assistants who Raffles got a few moments alone with and managed to bribe – persuaded him that he (Raffles) would see him set up and safe if he would help.

Why the delay and the wild panic drive? Because the Count and his other assistant didn’t leave to get a train from Victorian until 11am. So 11 was the earliest that the one-eyed man could leave on his life-or-death dash for Bunny, all the time knowing that they had to be back before noon.

But did the Count leave on time? Did he ever leave the building? Cue dramatic music!!

For now Raffles reveals a further twist in the story. He had for some time been walking around with a hip flask filled with spirits, tinctured with — the deadliest poison known to man!!

‘It is cyanide of cacodyl, and I have carried that small flask of it about with me for months. Where I got it matters nothing; the whole point is that a mere sniff reduces flesh to clay. I have never had any opinion of suicide, as you know, but I always felt it worthwhile to be forearmed against the very worst. Well, a bottle of this stuff is calculated to stiffen an ordinary roomful of ordinary people within five minutes; and I remembered my flask when they had me as good as crucified in the small hours of this morning. I asked them to take it out of my pocket. I begged them to give me a drink before they left me. And what do you suppose they did?’

What the Count and his pal did was taunt Raffles with the flask, refuse him a drink, then go downstairs and drink a toast to their wicked scheme. And promptly dropped dead, where our heroes find them, grimly spread across table and floor in positions of agony.

These two stories are quite significantly more blood-thirsty than anything which has gone before in the Raffles canon. It was only half a dozen stories back that Raffles was invited down to a country house weekend on the strength of his cricketing skills, in a story as concerned with satirising vicars and duchesses as with robbery. The tone seems to have darkened considerably. It would be interesting to know from a Raffles scholar if this reflected any change in the tone of fiction, or of popular culture, at around this date – or whether someone had suggested to Hornung that he take Raffles in a new direction.

But murder, torture, suicide and poison introduce a new, more highly-strung mood into the stories.

5. To Catch a Thief

There has been an outbreak of jewellery thefts among the highest of high society. Raffles and Bunny know it is not them for the simple reason that they are still in self-imposed hiding in their Earls Court flat.

This entire second series of stories is rather stifled by this fact, the fact that – even though his appearance has changed considerably for the worse – Raffles is still petrified that someone will identify him, the cops will arrest him and he’ll be sent to prison. They tend to only go out at night, generally in disguise, and even then avoid the fashionable parts of London. A lot of the devil-may-care, man on the town spirit of the first set of stories has thus been sacrificed. They feel more claustrophobic.

Anyway, without much detective work Raffles has identified that the man responsible for this little crime wave is himself a member of the upper classes, one Lord Ernest Belville.

So they drive round to his lordship’s apartment in the swanky new King John’s Mansions. When they announce that Lord Ernest is expecting them, the porter nods them through and the page boy obligingly takes them up in the electric lift (a relative novelty in the stories) and unlocks and shows them into his Lordship’s flat. That wasn’t very difficult, then.

Raffles and Bunny thoroughly search every room in Belville’s flat and, as always happens, it is the last place they look that they stumble upon the hiding place of the jewels.

(That trope, that the thing the heroes are looking for is always in the last place they think of, after everywhere else has been searched, must be a deep narrative truth. It is a profound fixture of this kind of ‘search’ story.)

And then there’s yet another cliché which is that, having emptied the hiding place (which was a set of hollow Indian exercise clubs) of all Lord Ernest’s loot, they have just fitted everything back in place, closed the windows and cupboards, turned all the lights off and are about to make a quiet exit when…. they hear a key being fitted into the lock!

Lord Ernest confronts them whereat Raffles, with his lightning wits, waves a gun and pretends to be the police. He leaves Bunny to tie up his lordship, saying he’ll just go for reinforcements. Inevitably big strong Belville manages to overcome Bunny and knock him cold, escaping down the fire escape.

Raffles comes back in, wakens up the groggy Bunny, and they swiftly depart the flats, walking across St James’s to hop into a hansom cab and so home.

Now, as usual, they decide to avoid the porter in the lobby of their block of flats, and so go up a set of service stairs and then across the rooftops. Raffles is in advance of Bunny who is still slow and groggy from being knocked out. Raffles goes to get a light to help him.

In his absence, however, Belville appears brandishing the revolver he took off Bunny. Turns out he did not escape down the fire escape, but hid in the toilet and listened to Raffles and Bunny’s conversation – then followed them in the darkness across St James’s, then by cab etc.

Now he handcuffs Bunny to the railings of a perilous little iron bridge over a deep drop between two wings of the apartment block. Raffles reappears and there is a confrontation while the two gentleman thieves congratulate each other on their style and then proceed to debate how they’re going to proceed.

A big storm is brewing. There is lightning. A tremendous gust of wind blows out the lamp Raffles was holding and he lunges forward. Ernest tries to block his move but trips and plummets down down into the well between buildings, landing splat on the concrete at the bottom.

Raffles releases Bunny from his handcuffs and helps him along into the safety of their apartment.

Somewhere along the line Raffles has switched from the light and airy comedy of Lord Amersteth’s house party and cricket match to a world of murder and cyanide in what feels like a permanent Gothic night. Jeeves and Wooster have turned into Batman.

6. An Old Flame

Wheeling Raffles along in a bath chair in his character as invalid, Bunny is horrified when the old man sees an open window into a posh Mayfair house too attractive to resist. He clambers up to the first floor balcony and into a room with much silver on show, but is caught by the lady of the house entering.

Bunny pushes the bath chair quickly round the corner and away from this disastrous scene – but is amazed when a few moments later Raffles catches up with him. The woman turns out to be no other than Jacques Saillard, a passionate headstrong Spanish woman who has made a reputation as a painter. They had an affair some years before.

They have barely got home before the doorbell rings and it is her. She has followed them. She insists Raffles dismisses Bunny who is kicked out of the flat while she gives Raffles an earful of complaint.

Next thing Bunny knows is that Raffles asks him to find them a place in the country. Now this woman knows he’s alive she will sooner or later blurt out the secret. Raffles tells Bunny to go and find a nice quiet cottage somewhere like Ham Common west of Richmond. So off Bunny goes and does just that, renting it from a kindly old lady. Raffles had made his dismissal official, getting Dr Theobald to pay him off (it’s easy to forget that for all the stories in this volume Bunny has, supposedly, been an assistant and help to the supposedly confirmed old invalid Mr Maturin.

Bunny waits for news of Raffles’s arrival and, after ten days, pays a visit back to the apartment block in Earls Court. Here he is horrified to learn from Dr Theobald that Mr Maturin has passed away. They are just carrying the coffin downstairs. Bunny watches appalled.

Next day he attends the funeral in an agony of unhappiness, watches Dr Theobald and then Jacques Saillard pay their respects and drive away. An odd-looking fellow had been hanging round and now offers Bunny, the last mourner, a lift in his brougham.

Wwll, no prizes for guessing that this chap turns out to be… Raffles in disguise! Yes, he faked his own death to throw Jacques Saillard off the track and paid Dr Theobald a whopping £1,000 to sign the death certificate and keep quiet.

7. The Wrong House

Freed from their Earls Court base, Raffles and Bunny move in to the cottage on Ham Common and tell the kindly old landlady that Raffles is Bunny’s brother, returned from Australia.

But old habits die hard and this story is about the semi-farcical attempt to burgle a stockbroker’s house near the common and make a quick getaway on the newfangled technology of bicycles!

Unfortunately, it is a dark and foggy night and they end up breaking into the wrong house, which is a private school packed with plucky young students, who grab Bunny, until Raffles manages to free him at which point they are confronted by the head of the school and only just about blag their way out – claiming that they were innocent passersby who saw the burglary taking place.

They run out top the drive where they have stashed their bicycles and set off with the students giving such close pursuit that they actually wrench their handlebars, but our heroes manage to shake them off, and make their escape, going on an immense roundabout route before returning, none the better off, to the little cottage.

8. The Knees of the Gods

The Boer War breaks out on 11 October 1899. Raffles and Bunny read about it and then, as the tide turns against Britain, decide to volunteer. Being a bit old, unable to be conscripted in England, they take ship to South Africa and wangle their way into a regiment there, as privates.

Here a very strange thing happens. Hornung’s style turns into Rudyard Kipling’s. Having read almost all of Kipling’s 120 or so short stories, I can report that, in his later tales, he made a point of revising the stories again and again, to remove extraneous words and phrases, repeatedly paring and chipping away at the stories to make them more and more clipped and allusive, often to the point of obscurity.

To my surprise, that’s what happens to Hornung’s style. It’s as if he’s incapable of broaching on the subject which Kipling’s massive imaginative presence, in poems, short stories and novels, virtually owned – Britain’s imperial wars – without adopting his style.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a corporal in Bunny and Raffles’s platoon who they come to suspect is a Boer spy, and catch in the act of releasing British horses and packing them off to the Boer lines. Raffles impresses an officer in the regiment who, it turns out, he was at school with – presents definitive evidence of the corporal’s guilt – and the corporal is shot as a spy (after Raffles and this officer spent forty or so minutes chatting, inevitably, about cricket, that great social marker of the pukka Englishman).

But it’s the adoption of Kipling’s often puzzlingly clipped and allusive style which dominates the story, for me. For example, this dodgy corporal, Connal, picks on Bunny until Raffles steps in to defend him (in best public school style).

Connal was a hulking ruffian, and in me had ideal game. The brute was offensive to me from the hour I joined. The details are of no importance, but I stood up to him at first in words, and finally for a few seconds on my feet. Then I went down like an ox, and Raffles came out of his tent. Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked, but the net result was dreadfully conventional, for the bully was a bully no more.

That phrase, ‘Their fight lasted twenty minutes, and Raffles was marked’ – the clipped understatement of ‘Raffles was marked’ – is fantastically redolent of the stiff-upper-lip, public schoolboy tone of Kipling’s stories about schoolboy hi-jinks, Stalky and Co.

This obliqueness really comes over as the story builds to a climax. The platoon is tasked with taking a hill held by Boers, and is crawling forwards when Bunny is drilled by a bullet through the thigh. Raffles of course comes to his aid, pulling him into the shelter of a rock and taking it upon himself to try and locate and shoot the sniper who did it. Up and down he pops behind this rock, chatting away merrily to Bunny, commentating on his progress in identifying the blighter’s location, ducking down again to reload, popping up again to take another pot shot.

Until he is shot dead. Raffles proves himself the ultimate good chap by dying for his Queen and Country. This puzzled me because I know there is at least one more set of Raffles short stories, plus an entire novel, so I am intrigued how Hornung got around the difficulty of killing off his hero.

But what impressed me more than Raffles’s death was the extraordinary way it is described. These last few pages consist almost entirely of Raffles’s confidant chat to Bunny, who is by now, in pain and losing consciousness, with each long paragraph of dialogue, just briefly ended by a phase about Raffles reloading from his bandolier.

His entire activity of jumping up to take pot shots, then ducking back down again, is not described, it is only implied, through the couple of references to bandolier, and some of Raffles’s banter about ‘missing the blighter’ and so on.

It took me a page or so of rereading to figure out what was happening and I was really struck by the technique because this is exactly what Kipling’s later short stories are like. In Kipling’s short stories, also, the explanatory text is pruned so far back that it is often difficult to work out exactly what is going on. Only a long quote can give the effect, the way rhythm supersedes sense, and the way concrete detail is omitted and key facts only implied.

It was not a minute before Raffles came to me through the whistling scud, and in another I was on my back behind a shallow rock, with him kneeling over me and unrolling my bandage in the teeth of that murderous fire.

It was on the knees of the gods, he said, when I begged him to bend lower, but for the moment I thought his tone as changed as his face had been earlier in the morning.

To oblige me, however, he took more care; and, when he had done all that one comrade could for another, he did avail himself of the cover he had found for me. So there we lay together on the veldt, under blinding sun and withering fire, and I suppose it is the veldt that I should describe, as it swims and flickers before wounded eyes.

I shut mine to bring it back, but all that comes is the keen brown face of Raffles, still a shade paler than its wont; now bending to sight and fire; now peering to see results, brows raised, eyes widened; anon turning to me with the word to set my tight lips grinning. He was talking all the time, but for my sake, and I knew it. Can you wonder that I could not see an inch beyond him? He was the battle to me then; he is the whole war to me as I look back now.

‘Feel equal to a cigarette? It will buck you up, Bunny. No, that one in the silver paper, I’ve hoarded it for this. Here’s a light; and so Bunny takes the Sullivan! All honour to the sporting rabbit!’

‘At least I went over like one,’ said I, sending the only clouds into the blue, and chiefly wishing for their longer endurance. I was as hot as a cinder from my head to one foot; the other leg was ceasing to belong to me.

‘Wait a bit,’ says Raffles, puckering; ‘there’s a gray felt hat at deep long-on, and I want to add it to the bag for vengeance…. Wait—yes—no, no luck! I must pitch ’em up a bit more. Hallo! Magazine empty. How goes the Sullivan, Bunny? Rum to be smoking one on the veldt with a hole in your leg!’

‘It’s doing me good,’ I said, and I believe it was. But Raffles lay looking at me as he lightened his bandolier.

‘Do you remember,’ he said softly, ‘the day we first began to think about the war? I can see the pink, misty river light, and feel the first bite there was in the air when one stood about; don’t you wish we had either here! ‘Orful slorter, orful slorter;’ that fellow’s face, I see it too; and here we have the thing he cried. Can you believe it’s only six months ago?’

‘Yes,’ I sighed, enjoying the thought of that afternoon less than he did; ‘yes, we were slow to catch fire at first.’

‘Too slow,’ he said quickly.

‘But when we did catch,’ I went on, wishing we never had, ‘we soon burnt up.’

‘And then went out,’ laughed Raffles gayly. He was loaded up again. ‘Another over at the gray felt hat,’ said he; ‘by Jove, though, I believe he’s having an over at me!’

‘I wish you’d be careful,’ I urged. ‘I heard it too.’

‘My dear Bunny, it’s on the knees you wot of. If anything’s down in the specifications surely that is. Besides – that was nearer!

‘To you?’

‘No, to him. Poor devil, he has his specifications too; it’s comforting to think that…. I can’t see where that one pitched; it may have been a wide; and it’s very nearly the end of the over again. Feeling worse, Bunny?”

No, I’ve only closed my eyes. Go on talking.’

‘It was I who let you in for this,’ he said, at his bandolier again.

‘No, I’m glad I came out.’

And I believe I still was, in a way; for it WAS rather fine to be wounded, just then, with the pain growing less; but the sensation was not to last me many minutes, and I can truthfully say that I have never felt it since.

‘Ah, but you haven’t had such a good time as I have!’

‘Perhaps not.’

Had his voice vibrated, or had I imagined it? Pain-waves and loss of blood were playing tricks with my senses; now they were quite dull, and my leg alive and throbbing; now I had no leg at all, but more than all my ordinary senses in every other part of me. And the devil’s orchestra was playing all the time, and all around me, on every class of fiendish instrument, which you have been made to hear for yourselves in every newspaper. Yet all that I heard was Raffles talking.

‘I have had a good time, Bunny.’ Yes, his voice was sad; but that was all; the vibration must have been in me.

‘I know you have, old chap,’ said I.

‘I am grateful to the General for giving me to-day. It may be the last. Then I can only say it’s been the best – by Jove!’

‘What is it?’ And I opened my eyes. His were shining. I can see them now.

‘Got him – got the hat! No, I’m hanged if I have; at least he wasn’t in it. The crafty cuss, he must have stuck it up on purpose. Another over … scoring’s slow…. I wonder if he’s sportsman enough to take a hint? His hat-trick’s foolish. Will he show his face if I show mine?’

I lay with closed ears and eyes. My leg had come to life again, and the rest of me was numb.

‘Bunny!’ His voice sounded higher. He must have been sitting upright.

‘Well?’

But it was not well with me; that was all I thought as my lips made the word.

‘It’s not only been the best time I ever had, old Bunny, but I’m not half sure – ‘

Of what I can but guess; the sentence was not finished, and never could be in this world.


Comments

I’ve just read a few novels by H.G. Wells, who is almost always exact and clear in his imagining of a scene (no matter how preposterous). By contrast, I began to get irritated by Hornung’s lack of sequentiality. I mean that:

  1. His sentences often skip over logical connections so you have to do a bit of work to figure out what he’s talking about.
  2. At the same time, his descriptive abilities are limited. I got little or no sense of the interior of the British Museum which is a sitting duck of a subject for a writer – in fact his descriptions of rooms and places is generally thin.
  3. Obscure phrasing.

Maybe I am just not getting his banter but pretty regularly there are phrases I just don’t understand. At the very end of The Last Laugh he writes:

But the worst did not come to the worst, more power to my unforgotten friend the cabman, who never came forward to say what manner of men he had driven to Bloomsbury Square at top speed on the very day upon which the tragedy was discovered there, or whence he had driven them. To be sure, they had not behaved like murderers, whereas the evidence at the inquest all went to show that the defunct Corbucci was little better. His reputation, which transpired with his identity, was that of a libertine and a renegade, while the infernal apparatus upstairs revealed the fiendish arts of the anarchist to boot. The inquiry resulted eventually in an open verdict, and was chiefly instrumental in killing such compassion as is usually felt for the dead who die in their sins.

But Raffles would not have passed this title for this tale.

I’ve no idea what this final sentence means. It makes you appreciate all the more the lucidity and clarity of Conan Doyle’s prose in his Sherlock Holmes stories of the same period.

In the following example, I think Hornung is straining a simile until it breaks. Bunny is waiting with bated breath for Raffles to return to their flat.

I can give you no conception of the night that I spent. Most of it I hung across the sill, throwing a wide net with my ears, catching every footstep afar off, every hansom bell farther still, only to gather in some alien whom I seldom even landed in our street.

What? By ‘alien’ does he mean alien and so useless fish i.e. he saw and heard things but nothing relevant to his watch for Raffles? Or:

Then one night in the autumn – I shrink from shocking the susceptible for nothing – but there was a certain house in Palace Gardens, and when we got there Raffles would pass on.

I have no idea why he is shocking the susceptible, and no idea what the phrase ‘would pass on’ means. Does it mean ‘and when we got there Raffles made me carry on walking right past it’? Why doesn’t he say so?

Every few pages there are phrases like this, which require a bit of effort to parse or understand, and this lack of fluency rises to a peak in the final story, where Hornung appears to be making a virtue of it, emphasising a clipped and deliberately allusive style in – if I’m right – conscious or unconscious imitation of Kipling.

Pop culture

There are high speed chases, priceless jewels, kidnaps and poisonings. It’s a tell-tale sign that an author knows he is writing popular rubbish using popular stereotypes when he knowingly compares his characters to…er… popular stereotypes.

With his overcoat buttoned up to the chin, his tall hat pressed down to his eyes, and between the two his incisive features and his keen, stern glance, he looked the ideal detective of fiction and the stage.

‘For the moment I did think you were one of these smart detectives jumped to life from some sixpenny magazine; but to preserve the illusion you ought to provide yourself with a worthier lieutenant.’

Overtly acknowledging that you’re using penny shocker clichés doesn’t raise you above them, it just tends to confirm the reader’s perception.

ITV dramatisation

ITV made television dramatisations of the stories in the 1970s, starring the dishy Anthony Valentine.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus (1943)

I can’t bear to hear you talking like that, about crime and punishment… (p.105)
[Martha to her mother, Act 3, Le Malentendu]

Apparently, Camus heard the story this play is based on while on a holiday in Czechoslovakia in 1936:

When his father dies a young man, Jan,leaves home to seek his fortune. Years later he returns a rich man determined to surprise his old mother and grown-up sister, Martha, and asks to stay at their wayside inn without telling them who he is (he is so changed in appearance that they don’t recognise him). Little does he know that in the intervening years his mother (reluctantly) and sister (enthusiastically) have adopted the habit of murdering rich travellers who stay with them. Despite umpteen moments when he could have told them who he is, the son continues to conceal his identity and so the women murder him (giving him a sleeping draught in his evening tea, then dumping his comatose body in the river). The next morning, while going through his papers, they discover the truth – that he is their son/brother.

It has the feeling of a folk story, with the grim bitterness of folk wisdom. It certainly makes for a very taut if characteristically diagrammatic play.

In tune with the neo-classicising tendencies of between-the-war France (think the neoclassical works of Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso), Camus tries to give the language the clarity and depth of classical tragedy. The more abstract the action, the more allegorical the story becomes, capable of numerous interpretations. The most obvious interpretation is to see it as a demonstration of the ‘Absurdity’ of the world, and the preposterous vanity of human wishes.

Jan’s wife, Maria, has accompanied her husband on his pilgrimage back to his old home and begs him to reveal who he is, her feminine intuition (and the the genre of tragedy) giving her a premonition that something bad will come of keeping silent. But Jan refuses, he wants to get to know his mother and sister again as they naturally are, before revealing his identity, and – after some feverish dialogue – he sends Maria away before checking into the inn.

Above and beyond the schematic nature of the plot, Camus gives the play a kind of structural symmetry by having the daughter of the house, Martha, and the wife, Maria, mirror each other. Martha is motivated to murder rich men in order to fulfil her dream of being able to leave the rainy country behind and go and live in the hot south by the blue sea. Placed in the diagram opposite her is the young man’s wife, Maria. Martha, in her dialogue with Jan, paints rhapsodic pictures of the hot country by the blue sea where they live and which they have left behind on this fool’s errand – so that Jan can carry out what he thinks of as his duty, and share his money with his mother and sister.

One aspires to travel to – the other has come on pilgrimage from – the unnamed hot country.

Outcome

When Martha reads the passport which reveals that she has just murdered her brother, she doesn’t go wailing hysterical but stands numb. She hands it to her mother who breaks down and vows to kill herself. Martha doesn’t stop her mother as she exits the stage to go and throw herself in the self-same river where they disposed of her son’s body.

Then Maria enters asking where her husband is. There is absolutely no shred of psychology or any human touch in the way Camus has Martha tell Maria point blank: ‘He’s dead. We murdered him.’ She sounds like a robot, and the news gives rise to an entirely predictable outbreak of weeping and wailing on the part of Maria. But this doesn’t result in what you could call any believably human behaviour (like Maria attacking Martha, maybe, or smashing up a few things).

Instead, the pair remain more or less fixed in place and, through tears of anguish, discuss the philosophical issues this dreadful misunderstanding has raised. Well, shout about the philosophical issues.

Crime and punishment

Le Malentendu confirms the sense I’ve been developing that Camus’s over-riding concern is more about Justice, about the contrast between divine and human Justice, the (im)possibility of Justice in a godless universe – than about absurdist existentialism as such.

As in Caligula the terminology of crime and punishment dominate the characters’ dialogue – after all the entire play centres (as does his famous novel, The Outsider) on a murder. It is no accident that Dostoyevsky figures in both The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, nor that Camus’s last work was a labour of love converting Dostoyevsky’s novel The Devils into an elaborate stage production. The more of Camus I read, the more I realise that crime and punishment seen in are his central concerns.

Religion

But they are crime and punishment seen, as in Dostoyevsky, from a religious point of view. Cross Purpose tends to confirm my sense for the centrality of Catholic religion in Camus. On the last page the two women, Martha and her opposite number Maria, reach a crescendo of hysteria, Martha (the murdering sister) yelling at Maria that love is futile and life is pointless, we all end up in the wet mud of the grave eaten by worms:

What do they serve, those blind impulses that surge up in us, the yearnings that rack our souls? Why cry out for the sea, or love? What futility! Your husband knows now what the answer is: that charnel house where in the end we shall lie huddled together, side by side. (p.114)

And she yells in contempt at Maria to pray to her useless God. But despite this atheist harangue, pray to God is just what Maria proceeds to do in the final gesture of the play:

Oh God, I cannot live in this desert! It is on you that I must call, and I shall find the words to say. [She sinks on her knees.] I place myself in your hands. Have pity, turn towards me. Hear me and raise me from the dust, oh Heavenly Father! Have pity on those who love each other and are parted. (p.115)

‘Ayez pitié de moi,’ is the cry at the end of Racine’s searing tragedy, Andromache, but Racine’s characters believed in God. Here the very idea of God, or calling on him, is heavily mocked because Maria’s agonised prayer is, apparently, answered by the old serving man. This figure has been absolutely mute throughout the play, shuffling here and there in silence to tidy up the dishes and so on. Now, as Maria, stricken, on her knees, begs for mercy, the door opens and the old man comes in and -for the first time – speaks:

THE OLD MANSERVANT [in a clear, firm tone]: What’s all this noise? Did you call me?
MARIA [gazing at him]: Oh!… I don’t know. But help me, help me, for I need help. Be kind and say that you will help me.
THE OLD MANSERVANT [in the same tone]: No.

These are the last words in the play. I think it is intended to sear your soul with the futility and meaningless of life and to be a really bitter satire on the complete absence of God or divine love from the world – rather the opposite, the ironic presence of mocking humanity. But, as Oscar Wilde said of the death of Little Nell, I think the modern reader would have to have a heart of stone not to burst out laughing at its preposterously pompous self-importance.

The translation

The translation is, frankly, dire. I can’t imagine it being used on a modern stage; to be remotely usable it would have to be comprehensively rewritten.

Unhappily one needs a great deal of money to be able to live in freedom by the sea. (p.68)

Do please let us take the chance of someone’s coming and my telling who you are. (p.71)

On such occasions one says, ‘It’s I,’ and then it’s all plain sailing… There are situations in which the normal way of acting is obviously the best. If one wants to be recognised, one starts by telling one’s name; that’s common sense. Otherwise, by pretending to be what one is not, one simply muddles everything. (p.72)

I have not been given my rights and I am smarting at the injustice done to me… Let every door be shut against me; all I wish is to be left in peace with my anger, my very rightful anger. (p.108)

Algeria

It is of passing interest that the hot southern land which Martha longs for and which Jan and Maria come from is pretty obviously Algeria. Camus was effectively exiled in mainland France during the Second World War, when he wrote Le Malentendu, and he pined for his hot homeland and also for his wife, who had stayed there to pursue her career as a teacher.

Martha imagines her hot sun-bleached paradise, and Jan describes to her the sound of the waves and the colourful flowers of spring, and his wife Maria laments having to leave the blue skies of home – all of them quite obviously describing Camus’s Algeria,

that southern land, guarded by the sea, to which one can escape, where one can breathe freely, press one’s body to another body, rolling in the waves… (p.108)

But having processed this fact – Algeria = sunny paradise, Europe = rainy prison – it doesn’t really add much to your appreciation of the play except to make it seem even more schematic.

And having recently read Edward Said’s post-colonial critique of Camus makes the informed reader notice that in all three characters’ fantasies of this hot country there are no people, certainly no dirty impoverished Arabs to clutter up the scenery. As in L’Etranger and La Peste Algeria is a depopulated allegory of a country rather than a historic place.


Credit

Cross Purpose by Albert Camus was written in 1943 in occupied France, and performed and published in liberated Paris in 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Cross Purpose was brought together with CaligulaThe Just and The Possessed in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith (2010)

She crossed the road to look at the bus shelter. It had been built during a period of optimism, and although the pain had faded and holes had been mysteriously punched through the wall, Maya could still make out the faint outline of a rocket ship lifting off the ground, aspiring to more. The bus route had been closed for years. The shelter was mainly used now as a pissoir and message centre: GO FUCK YOURSELF, I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER, HEIL HITLER, OLEG SUCKS COCK.(p.118)

Three Stations is the nickname Muscovites give to Komsomol Square because of the proximity of three mainline railway stations, as well as the intersection of two metro lines and ten lanes of traffic, ‘a Circus Maximus with cars’ (p.12). Into its vortex are swept the worst scum of Moscow.

Men with vague intentions idled in small groups, beers in hand, watching prostitutes grind by. The women walked with a predatory eye and looked as likely to eat their clients as have sex with them. (p.13)

This is the shortest (277 pages) and most Muscovite of the Arkady Renko novels, as it uses its characters and plot to explore the dingy surrounds, the violent underworld, and the moneyed corruption of Arkady’s home town. Its 36 chapters are short and punchy, making it feel fast-moving and edgy.

Arkady

Senior Moscow crime investigator Arkady Renko is in deep poo with his boss, prosecutor Zurin, despite solving the mystery of ‘Stalin’s ghost’ and nailing two colleagues who turned out to be murderers in the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

Zurin has forbidden him to work on any case. Typically, Arkady gets round this ban by simply tagging along with his assistant, the trying-to-give-up-alcohol detective Viktor Orlov. The novel opens with the pair standing over the body of a murdered prostitute in a shabby trailer near the three Stations. She seems to have been poisoned then her skirt hitched up around her waist and her legs carefully arranged so one ankle is touching the other heel. Why?

They follow a power cable from the one naked bulb in the trailer, through rubbish outside, to the nearest militia office: i.e. the police appear to have been pimping her out. This comes as no surprise since successive Renko novels have taught us that Russian police are often worse than the criminals they supposedly pursue; someone who’s been burgled often finds the militia removing any valuables the burglars missed.

Arkady names the corpse ‘Olga’ and gets an old schoolfriend, fat Willi Pazenko, to do an autopsy. She was given knock-out pills then poisoned with ether, which has remained in her asphyxiated lungs.

Zhenya

For the last couple of novels Arkady’s life has been enlivened by the occasional presence of Zhenya, a street kid who flops in his apartment sometimes, but also goes missing for stretches. Zhenya is a larger presence in this book than usual, as we see him fitting in with the hundreds if not thousands of street kids who infest the squalid Three Stations area. Cruz Smith repeats the stunning fact, first mentioned in Stalin’s Ghost, that there are anything up to 50,000 children living wild on the streets of Moscow, having run away from the traditional Russian, alcoholic, abusive home, and who have contributed to an epidemic of petty crime, mugging, arson and vandalism (p.102).

Zhenya differs from most of the kids in that he is a chess genius, rarely seen nott clutching his precious board. In the previous novel we learn that his father, Osip Lysenko, spotted his talent from an early age and used him to lure unwary passengers on trains or in waiting rooms into chess games which Zhenya was briefed to lose until the gull could be persuaded to bet big money on a game – at which point Zhenya wiped the floor with him. If Zhenya made any mistakes, let alone lost, his father beat him. That’s why he ran away when he was about 8 and Arkady first met him at one of Moscow’s many refuges for children.

Zhenya is 15 now and playing chess for money is the only life skill he has. Thus, throughout the novel there are scenes where he persuades unwary travellers between the three stations to bet on a match with him, with variable results, including violence.

Maya

The novel actually opens by introducing us to a simple-minded young woman, Maya Pospelova, aged 16. She is on a train to Moscow with her very small baby, Katya. When she goes outside the carriage to breast feed it she is confronted by a drunken soldier who threatens her for a blowjob. She is rescued by a sweet old lady, calling herself Auntie Lenya, who smacks the soldier and sends him off, before helping Maya back to her seat, giving her some of Auntie Lenya’s nice tea etc, generally fussing over her and telling her to get some rest while she looks after the baby.

When Maya wakes up the train is in Moscow station and Auntie Lenya and the baby are gone. Distraught, she searches all over the train, asks the guard, the driver, any station official she can find, and then the police. Nada. Nothing.

It is now that she is spotted by Zhenya who gets talking to her. He takes pity on her and takes her back to his secret base, a luxury casino near the station, named after Peter the Great, which has recently been closed down and mothballed, but which Zhenya is the only one to have figured out how to break into. Thus he – and she, now – have free run of a big, eerily empty building, giving Cruz Smith scope for some typically atmospheric descriptions.

Eva

Fans of the previous books in the series will be impatient to find out what happened to Dr Eva Kazka, the doctor Arkady hooked up with two novels previously, and who was – shockingly and unexpectedly – seriously wounded in a knife attack in the very last pages of the previous novel, Stalin’s Ghost.

We have to wait until page 70 before she’s even mentioned whereupon we find out, rather disappointingly, that she recovered from her injuries, that their relationship staggered on a bit, and then she left him. She simply declared she didn’t want to wait around for him to be executed by criminals; she didn’t want to be the grieving widow at the graveside. Boom. She’s out of his life. Shame, She was a sparky, recalcitrant element in the novels.

The Nijinsky Fair

At the scene of Olga’s death, Arkady found an invitation to a glitzy, high society charity event called the Nijinsky Fair, so he uses it to go along. He looks woefully out of place, a skinny, lank, badly-dressed cop trying to mingle with super-rich mafia types and skinny supermodels in a huge ballroom festooned with luxury brands, flashing lights, waiters serving champagne cocktails and so on. Arkady catches sight himself in a room full of mirrors.

With so many mirrors reflecting each other, he seemed to share the room with multiple desperate men with lank hair and eyes deep as drains, the sort of figure who might wander the streets on a rainy night and cause people to roll up their car windows and jump the traffic light. (p.126)

Not, in other words, a desperately reassuring presence. To his surprise he bumps into Anya Rudikova, his new neighbour in his apartment building, a rather self-dramatising journalist. She is drinking with Sasha Vaksberg, a characteristically semi-criminal New Russian multi-millionaire who was running a set of casinos among other things, until ‘our friend in the Kremlin’ decided to cut the oligarchs down to size and closed them all down. His casinos include the Peter the Great casino in Three Stations, which we have seen Zhenya making his hideout. Aha. The reader has the familiar sensation of threads and storylines beginning to pull together.

This party is actually a charity event, given by nice Mr Vaksberg to raise money for the very street kids we’ve seen as we follow Maya and Zhenya. It leads up to a big stage show, part of which features ballet dancers, not actually dancing but adopting the numbered postures and positions they use in training. For some reason number 4 is missing, so Vaksberg surprises us all by running down onto the stage and nimbly adopting the posture himself. Laughter from his super-rich audience. More cocktails. Gaiety as a trapeze artist pulls cunning stunts and then there is another tableau, this time of the dwarfs from Snow White. And so the show rambles on while Arkady watches, dazed by all the bling on display.

The trapeze arsonist

Poking around, as is his habit, Arkady finds himself backstage and climbs to the gallery to look down on the stage. Here he finds the trapeze artist who was part of the show, crouched on his almost invisible wire. As Arkady asks him questions, the artist dementedly lights matches for each question and drops them down into the flies below. He could easily start a fire which would cause mayhem in the club, is he mad? Scratch, another match dropped. Arkady makes his excuses and leaves…

Maya the child prostitute

We get an incredibly bleak flashback of Maya’s childhood in some God-forsaken dump miles from Moscow and civilisation, working from as early as she can remember, since before puberty, as a child prostitute in a room decorated as a little girl’s room, all in pink complete with teddy bears.

She remembers all the fat, middle-aged clients who want to fuck Daddy’s little girl but end up on the side of the bed crying. Matti, her Finnish pimp, tells her she’s been sold into prostitution by her parents, presumably to buy more vodka, that noble drink for, as Arkady points out, ‘Four out of every five violent crimes involved vodka’ (p.20).

It is a portrait of a society in complete moral and social collapse.

‘Girls flock to Moscow with romantic ambitions of being models or dancers and Moscow turns them into escorts and whores. We wax them and pluck them and inflate their breasts like balloons. In short, we turn them into freaks of beauty.’ (p.138)

Eventually, Maya becomes pregnant, which causes trouble with the brothel’s owners who make Matti look like Father Christmas. Soon as she’s had the baby, two of the ‘Catchers’, as they’re known, come to visit, intending to take Maya away and make an example of her as they have of previous girls who in any way rebelled – burn her face off with acid or break every bone in her body, that kind of thing. Foolishly, they let her sit in the derelict bus shelter out front of the brothel while they crank up with some of Matti’s vodka.

Unexpectedly, an Army bus is passing from the nearby barracks and to everyone’s surprise stops when Maya sticks her hand out. She quickly boards to the cheers of the soldiers and although the Catchers come running out brandishing pistols, the bus has pulled off and Maya is safe. It drops her at the local train station and she uses all her pitiful savings to buy a train ticket to Moscow. It was on this journey that the kindly old lady stole her baby.

Shootout on the freeway

Back in the present, Vaksberg offers Arkady and Anya a lift home in his huge armour-plated, bullet-proof Mercedes. As it starts to rain, Vaksberg sits snugly inside patting the Adidas bag filled with the takings from the charity event, bitterly complaining how ‘the judo master in the Kremlin’ (p.138) ie Putin, has screwed the oligarchs.

The car drives up onto a stretch of freeway flyover which was never completed and the car stops at the edge of the road, yawning into space as thunder and lightning erupt. Vaksberg gets out to pace under an umbrella and is in mid-rant when the trunk of the Mercedes unexpectedly pops open and a figure opens up with a gun. Vaksberg’s bodyguard fires back and is mown down by sheets of submachine gun bullets, same with the driver, as Vaksberg drops to the floor and Anya hides inside the car. Meanwhile, Arkady grabs the bodyguard’s gun and walks calmly towards the boot and, as the assailant pauses to reload, shoots him dead.

To everyone’s surprise the shooter turns out to be the man who played Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs in the gala show earlier that evening.

Maya in the underground

Maya falls into the unhealthy orbit of a bully boy among the street kids, Yegor, who promises to find her baby for her if she becomes his whore. Zhenya tries to dissuade her but he can’t out-gun Yegor and his gang. Yegor’s mere name inspires terror.

Yegor’s name was a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade. (p.62)

In fact, we now learn how and why the baby was stolen. After leaving the train holding Maya’s baby, Auntie Lenya emerges from the toilets in her true identity of Magdalena, and joins up with the drunken soldier who turns out to be her partner in crime, Vadim. They take the baby back to their flat and then on to an apartment overlooking the Three Stations. Here, in a crappy Soviet-era tower block, lives Colonel Kassim and his wife, who is always nagging him for a baby.

Now Kassim pays off Magdalena and presents his wife with a real baby. But it is crying for its milk and refuses to take formula. After twelve hours of non-stop crying Kassim’s wife is begging him to get rid of the horrible little brat.

He packs it in a box with airholes punched in it, puts it in a carrier bag and sets off through the drizzle to the chaos of Three Stations. On one of the concourses he finds nowhere good to ditch a whimpering baby and is wondering what to do next, when he realises – he’s been robbed. He put the bag down for a second and – it’s gone! Oh well. Job done, he returns to his apartment where his wife resumes her nagging.

The catchers

The two angry Catchers arrive in Moscow in pursuit of the girl who got away. They show people in the Three Stations crowds photos of Maya. One of the people they show is Zhenya, who feigns ignorance but realises Maya is in deadly danger and is wondering how to get word to her, but one of the other street kids has already been shown the photo and immediately told the bad guys Maya is holed up with the street kid, Yegor. Off they go to find her.

Angry Anya

The journalist Anya turns up on Arkady’s doorstep, soaking wet and furious. Arkady left her and Vaksberg at the scene of the shooting waiting for the militia who, of course, stole the Adidas bag with the cash in it and gave them both a grilling. Some friend he turns out to be! Anya sleeps on his sofa, carrying on giving him a hard time until Arkady rather angrily shows her the letter he’s just received from his boss, Zurin.

Arkady has been officially fired for disobeying the clear order not to take part in any further investigations. So he has no influence with the cops any more, that’s why he left the shooting scene, advising Vaksberg to take the credit for shooting the assassin.

Itsy’s gang

Now the novel introduces us to a new set of characters, the barely pubescent members of Itsy’s street gang. Turns out it’s they who stole Colonel Kassim’s bag and are astonished to find it contains a crying baby. The narrative gives us several half-comic descriptions of owners of shops around Three Stations being ‘steamed’ by a gang of children storming through their shop, causing havoc but, when the dust settles, only having lost nappies, wipes and milk formula. Aha. That’ll be Itsy’s gang deciding they are going to raise the baby as their own and stealing the necessary kit.

We get Itsy’s backstory, too. Like Maya’s parents selling her into prostitution and Zhenya’s dad beating him until he became a chess huckster or Arkady’s own dad bullying him until he can strip and rebuild a pistol, Itsy’s childhood was one of unmitigated misery. Her father was a dog breeder, often drunk, who forced Itsy to feed and tend his dogs. One day he went too far and began knocking her about inside the dog pen and the dogs, who had come to think of Itsy as their feeder, savaged him to death. She left for Moscow with the fiercest dog, Tito, and quickly carved out a space in the street gangs.

In the morgue

Inevitably disobeying his boss’s instructions, Arkady accompanies Viktor to the morgue to see Dopey’s body. Stripped bare it is covered with amateur tattoos. Viktor expains to Arkady (and the reader) that Russian criminal tattoos give an elaborate account of the owner’s criminal career. Dopey was no amateur; he was a hard-core professional criminal.

Arkady notices the crop of other corpses on ice in the morgue includes a young man who has committed suicide.

Viktor has been doing some research at Arkady’s suggestion, and found a number of other murdered young women from the past few years, all found without panties, with their dresses hitched up around their waists and their legs arranged in funny postures. In a flash Arkady realises all the murdered women have been posed in the classical postures of ballet training, the ones he saw at the Nijinsky Club!

Ballet dancers

Arkady sets out to interview the inhabitants of the tower block which overlooks the trailer where ‘Olga’ was found. He meets he choreographer of the Nijinsky Club, Madame Isa Spiridona, fascinating survivor from happier times, with her b&w photos of the greats.

With a shock Arkady recognises the photo of her son on the mantelpiece – Roman Spiridon – as the corpse he saw in the morgue. Madame Spiridona explains that she got a message to say he was going on a long trip, passed on to her by his old friend Sergei Borodin. And from another photograph he identifies the trapeze artist behind the scenes at the Nijinsky Club, the one who behaved as if he was mad, as the ‘friend’, Borodin. Could he… have murdered M. Spiridona’s son? Is he the killer?

When Arkady leaves, Madame S lets him take a coffee table book which has taken his fancy, about the great dancer Nijinsky, since ballet seems to be the thing and the club was named after him…

The catchers

Maya is plying her new trade under the supervision of young Yegor. She is in the middle of being screwed by a middle-aged Pakistani trader, Ali, who has broken off to go for a pee, when the two Catchers burst into the seedy hotel room. Ali returns to find them waiting for him. ‘Where’s the girl?’ they ask. They torture him but he doesn’t know. In fact Maya had heard a sound outside, hidden from the Catchers, then slipped into the hall and out while they attack Ali.

She steps over the body of Yegor, who has had his pool cue broken and stuffed down his throat before the Catchers then killed him. For his part, before he dies Ali mentions Zhenya, whose name he’s heard being mentioned by the girl and Yegor. Oops.

Anya attacked

When Maya finds Zhenya and tells him what she saw, Zhenya knows bad trouble is coming and phones Arkady. Our hero picks him and Maya up and bring them back to his apartment, where he interviews the terrified girl, along with trusty (if alcoholic sidekick) Viktor.

Half way through Arkady senses rather than hears something and goes cautiously into the next door apartment, the one recently leased by the pain-in-the-neck journalist, Anya.

He and Viktor discover Anya in a crumpled heap against the wall, no knickers and her skirt pushed up around her waist, her legs posed in ballet posture number 5, blue and not breathing.

Arkady realises she is suffering from anaphylactic shock, having mentioned something about being allergic to milk. He saves her life by finding her EPI pen in her fridge, and injecting her with a full dose in the thigh. Above her body, ‘God is shit’ has been sprayed in big words on the wall.

Anya starts and begins breathing. Soon she is conscious again. Arkady wraps her in blankets, feeds her, settles her on his bed, packs Viktor off to his long-suffering wife and settles down to read the book Madame Spiridona leant him. But it isn’t a book about Nijinsky, it is an edition of his notorious diary, which chronicles his descent into madness, and it falls open at one of his rants.

God is dog, Dog is God, Dog is shit, God is shit, I am shit, I am God. (p.218)

So Arkady realises: he is dealing with a Nijinsky-channeling, ballet-obsessed serial killer.

Itsy’s gang

In a weird scene Itsy takes some of her gang of kids shoplifting leaving the two boys, Leo, Peter and Emma to guard their camp and look after the baby. The two boys immediately sniff air freshener and have a trip. They see a brightly caparisoned Mongol from the Golden Horde approaching, jangling his bridle. In fact it is a street cleaning machine driven by a Tajik (although Muscovites call anyone who comes from one of the central Asian republics a ‘Tajik’, regardless of their ethnic identity).

The driver sees that the boards of several crates near the kids’ base have been broken off to make firewood. What they don’t know is that the crates contain a big consignment of Afghan heroin which is being stored here in the scruffy backstreets before being distributed.

The ‘Tajik’ is not happy at the discovery. He pulls Peter’s head back and is about to slash his throat, when the baby starts crying. Emma, who has seen all this, scuttles to the furthest end of the container, and watches as the ‘Tajik’ approaches the baby’s makeshift cot.

She – and the reader – fear the absolute worst and steel our nerves. But when Emma pokes her head out from cover, the ‘Tajik’ has left, and she discovers the baby alive and kicking, having been given an amulet with Koranic script on it to suck on. Thank God there is some humanity in this God-forsaken wasteland.

Anya apologises

It’s a few days later and Anya is well enough to be up and doing her part time charity work, distributing condoms to the street children. We see her being hassled by the militia who try to blackmail out of her box till they realise what’s in it. Back in the apartment block she knocks on Arkady’s door to thank him and apologise again. She has found out from contacts that Vaksberg is virtually bankrupt and has been creaming the money from his own charities. The whole incident with Dopey was staged by him. Dopey was meant to steal the bag of cash and make off, later giving it to Vaksberg (minus a fee) but he got carried away with the gun and sparked a bloodbath.

Anya carefully establishes that Eva has definitely left, and that Arkady is definitely a single man – before abruptly consenting to have sex with him. Arkady isn’t complaining.

The catchers

Itsy returns from the shoplifting trip and Emma tells her what happened with the ‘Tajik’. Itsy realises they have to leave this base. She hussles her gang into packing up and moving out, whipping them on ahead of her, but Peter and Leo are lagging behind. When she goes back to find them, she discovers they have both been shot dead by the Catchers, their little bodies lying in the mechanics trench next to the trailer.

Then Itsy herself is shot dead by Ilya, one of the Catchers. He crouches over her body and is not at all expecting Tito the wolf to attack him, knocking him onto the trench and, while his partner tries to get a clear shot, ripping open his carotid artery so he is dead in seconds. Tito then bounds out of the trench to kill the second Catcher, but he empties his magazine into the beast which falls dead.

Christ, he thinks, what a mess. How is he going to move his partner’s body? Then he realises there’s a laser red mark on his own body, and he himself is shot by the ‘Tajik’. Carnage.

Sergei Borodin

Arkady is fairly sure the trapeze artist, Sergei Borodin, is the killer so he rings him, and implies he has the evidence to convict him, and invites him to his apartment for a chat. Then Arkady sets up two separate tape recorders to capture everything.

Eerily, Sergei is accompanied by his mother, who clearly dominates and dictates his life (distant echoes of Norman Bates in Psycho). Realising he really thinks he is Nijinsky reincarnated, Arkady plays on his delusions and extracts a spectacular confession from Borodin. All helped when he stage manages for the supposedly dead Anya to enter Arkady’s kitchen dressed in the nightgown she was wearing when Sergei tried to murder her, at just the right psychological moment. Confronted by a ghost, Borodin screams his confession.

Sasha at the races

Arkady visits Vaksberg at a racetrack outside Moscow where the millionaire is hosting a bizarre party. When Arkady had left the scene of the shooting of Dopey, he had told Anya and Sasha to omit mention of his presence and claim that it was Sasha who foiled a daring attack on a respectable businessman.

This has had the unexpected consequence of turning Vaksberg into a popular hero and, even more improbably, he has been rehabilitated with the Kremlin, had his passport returned, and his ability to do business restored.

Hence he is getting back into the swing of things with a new business venture. Although the stands at the racecourse are empty, the loudspeakers blare out the sounds of cheering crowds, as the relatively small number of VIP guests quaff champagne and let them be persuaded by Sasha to get involved in his next enterprise, buying and breeding elite racehorses.

This isn’t the first time Arkady sees Moscow’s hyper-rich in action and each time it gets harder to bear.

On his mobile Arkady gets a call from Viktor identifying Dopey as a regular at the racetrack, Pavel Petrovich Maksimov. Without even being questioned, Sasha suavely admits to Arkady that the dwarf attack was staged, and confirms Anya’s story that, yes, he was, at that point, skimming money from his own charities. But now everything has turned out well – ‘more champagne, detective?’

Madame Furtseva

In his questioning of characters in the apartment block overlooking Three Stations Arkady had met Madame Furtseva, a world famous photographer, her rooms adorned with b&w photos of the mid-century greats, Hemingway, Malraux etc. Out of nowhere, she appears next to the startled Emma in one of the alleyways around the Square, and offers to take her in.

Old and infirm, Madame Furtseva explains that, although she can barely move nowadays, still she likes to spend her time staring out the window, observing the human wildlife prowling around the waterholes of the Three Stations. She has seen a lot of Emma’s story play out and offers to protect her and the baby.

Car chase with Sergei

To his astonishment Arkady’s solid gold confession from Sergei Borodin is rejected by Arkady’s vindictive boss, Zurin, because it was obtained while Arkady was not technically employed as an investigator. Borodin is released from custody to kill again.

Driving back from police headquarters in Viktor’s knackered Lada, Arkady finds himself terrorised by a shining black Hummer. There is a high tension car chase around the snowy, midnight-black streets of Moscow and when the Hummer draws level the automatic window slips slickly down and Sergei points a pistol at Arkady’s head, smiling like the psycho he is.

But all the time Arkady has been driving towards his own rundown neighbourhood, and in particular towards the pothole which has been causing him grief intermittently throughout the novel and which we have observed various squads of unhappy workman trying and failing to fill.

Now, as Sergei goes to pull the trigger, the Hummer hits the big pothole at 150 kph, upending into it so that Borodin mother and son go flying through the windscreen at speed. End of the Borodins.

The final catcher

In a final sequence the sort-of family of Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya take a break at his father the General’s old dacha out in the country by a lake.

But – with wild improbability – Arkady has been ‘befriended’ by the second of the Catchers. Turns out he wasn’t shot dead by the ‘Tajik’ as we thought, just shot through the shoulder.

Now recovered, the Catcher makes efforts to adopt an (implausible) disguise, pretending to be a bookish intellectual who bumps into Arkady at libraries. He follows the ‘family’ to Arkady’s dacha and makes elaborate plans to swim across the lake in a wetsuit, emerge silently and kill them all in their beds.

Instead, as he emerges slickly from the black water, Arkady who had long ago rumbled his disguise, is waiting, and cuts him open from sternum to balls, then watches him writhe and die in the lake water, in clouds of his own blood.

This whole sequence feels like it comes from a different novel, even a different type of novel, a more straightforward action hero novel.

Maya’s baby returned

And in another scene which doesn’t quite match the tone of the book, the reader is surprised to encounter a fairy tale happy ending.

Arkady, Anya, Victor and Zhenya put on a little carnival in one of the squares around Three Stations, hiring a number of child-friendly acts, balloons and entertainers, jugglers and fire eaters.

Lured from her hideyhole up in the veteran photographer’s apartment, Emma wanders open-eyed among the marvels and, when Arkady asks her to, very gently hands little baby Katya back to her mother, Maya.

Against all probability, plausibility or reason, this made me burst into tears. Thank God that something good and innocent and pure is capable of coming out of the moral, physical, spiritual, economic and cultural desolation which is modern Russia.

Comment

Three Stations is the shortest of the Renko novels and feels like a chamber symphony, with all the same instruments and elements, but on a more domestic scale, based on tighter, tauter, more integrated plotlines and themes – especially the locale of Three Stations with its hookers, street kids and street crime.

The waiting hall at Kazansky station put Zhenya in mind of the nocturnal habitat at the zoo, a place where things stirred indistinctly and species were difficult to identify. (p.41)

Russia is depicted as a lost, doomed civilisation. Is it really as woeful, as impoverished, violent and corrupt as depicted in these novels? Are there really so many Russian prostitutes in Italy that the new slang word for prostitute is ‘Natasha’? (p.18)

Mind you, in 2009 when this novel was being written, the entire global financial system was nearly brought to its knees by clever bankers in London and New York, and Cruz Smith makes the point that, in many ways, we in the West are no better, having the New Russian billionaire crook Vaksberg drily comment:

‘A year ago we had over a hundred billionaires in Moscow. Today there are less than thirty. So it’s the best of times, the worst of times and sometimes it’s just the shits. It turns out we don’t know how to run capitalism. That’s to be expected. As it happens, nobody knows how to run capitalism. That was a bad surprise. Cigarette?’ (p.97)

Maybe because it’s shorter and tauter, there were fewer really breath-taking turns of phrase in this novel than in its predecessors, though there are still some crackers:

The Lada’s exhaust pipe and muffler hung low and occasionally dragged a rooster tail of sparks. (p.8)

He tried to sleep but his anger was a match struck before a mirror and he saw what a fool he’d been. (p.160)

As a footnote, I annotated for the first time something I’ve noticed in the past few Cruz Smith novels, a particular verbal formula which helps express Arkady’s sense of whatevere-ness, a kind of verbal shrug of the shoulders: his or the narrator’s habit of saying or thinking that, if something is not x, then what is?

The director of the children’s shelter that Zhenya originally came from claimed that the boy and Arkady had a special relationship. Zhenya’s father had shot Arkady. If that wasn’t special, what was? (p.9)

‘A healthy young woman was dead. If that doesn’t make you suspicious, what does?’ (p.89)

I like it. I like pretty much everything about these wonderful books.


Credit

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Mantle in 2011. All quotes and references to the 2011 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith (1989)

‘Zina said words freed you or fucked you or turned you inside out. Every word, every single one, was a weapon or a chain or a pair of wings.’ (p.275)

Polar Star is a brilliantly interesting, richly diverse and engaging thriller. It is 437 pages long in my 1990 Fontana paperback edition and divided into three sections: Water, Earth, Ice.

Water (217 pages)

At the end of Gorky Park – the bestselling novel which introduced the character of coldly effective Moscow detective Arkady Renko – our hero had uncovered a smuggling ring led by a rich American who was paying off corrupt Soviet officials. The bloody shootout at the climax of the novel is set in New York but, although given the chance to run away with the woman he’s fallen in love with, Irina, Arkady refuses and returns to the Soviet Union.

Now, eight years later, Cruz Smith published this sequel, and it seems a similar period has elapsed in Arkady’s life. Gorky Park was set in spring and summer 1977, Polar Star refers to the ‘New Thinking’ inaugurated by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985…

Polar Star is the name of an enormous fishing factory ship, which has been working the Bering Sea for four long cold months, its 250 crew processing the vast hauls of fish brought to it by four supporting catcher boats. These latter are American and the two nations are collaborating via a jointly-owned company which shares the profits.

The novel opens powerfully with a vast net full of fish being hauled up the ramp onto the Star and among the tens of thousands of pollock, cod, crabs and so on which pour onto the boat, comes the corpse of a young woman, Zina Patiashvili, a popular member of the catering staff. Grizzled old sea captain Viktor Marchuk sends for – who else – Arkady Renko, a man with a shady background who has been expelled from jobs all across continental Russia till he arrived in the far east of the country at Vladivostock, and who has been working on the ship’s disgusting, below deck ‘slime line’.

Flashbacks

In flashbacks we learn that, immediately upon returning to the USSR after the events of Gorky Park, Arkady was incarcerated in a psychiatric institute where he was interrogated with the use of drugs by the authorities who, more than anything else, wanted to know the whereabouts of his girlfriend/lover Irina. As he doesn’t know, he couldn’t tell them. In a strangely moving scene, he is visited one day by the KGB major, Pribluda, who started Gorky Park as Arkady’s bitter enemy, but ended as his grudging ally. Paying back a debt incurred in the earlier novel, Pribluda smuggles Arkady out of the prison and onto an eastbound train, complete with new clothes and fake papers. ‘Stay out east and no one will bother you.’ (pp.111-124)

Other flashbacks fill in Arkady’s years on the run from one low-paid job to another, always staying one step ahead of KGB agents, travelling across Siberia until he arrives in Vladivostok. Here, desperate to escape land, he signs on to the Polar Star for a long, rusty, salty year, working on the ‘slime line’, gutting and cleaning fish for the freezer, eight hours a day, day in, day out.

Arkady’s investigations

Now Arkady finds himself unwillingly tangling with the pushy third mate in charge of the investigation, Slava Bukovsky, and with the shipboard commissar or Party enforcer, Volovoi. The ship doctor Vunai and officials gather together to declare Zina’s death an accident, but Arkady embarrasses them by almost certainly proving it murder. Over the next 200 pages we follow Arkady – liberated from the prison of the below-decks production line – and given carte blanche to explore the intricate world of ship-board life, its complex network of friendships and alliances.

The Russians

  • Zina Patiashvili – Arkady finds out a lot more about her. Far from being the non-entity she appears at the start, Arkady finds a stash of tapes she’d made recording her conversations and encounters: she had sex with a ‘lieutenant’ in what might be a secret intelligence room somewhere on the ship; there are tapes of a man singing traditional Russian slave songs. Searching her cabin thoroughly he finds uncut precious stones sewn into the lining of one of her jackets. There was more to her than meets the eye.
  • Captain Marchuk – gruffly honest, he turns out to have had a one-night stand with Zina back in Vladivostok. He describes picking her up in a bar and going back to her apartment which looked like it was shared with an absent man – and this opinion is repeated by the radio officer, the one Arkady later identifies as the ‘lieutenant’ in Zina’s recordings of their encounters. Both thought Zina was living with someone back in Vladivostok – so who was he? What was she doing with the hidden jewels? Who else had she had sex with?
  • Volovoi – in the early phases Arkady is opposed by the political commissar, Volovoi, who wants Zina’s death to be a simple accident, for his own and the ship’s good. Volovoi is in charge of two snoops or sneaks, Skiba and Slezko, who follow Arkady.
  • To his dismay, the third mate, Slava Bukovsky, is put in charge of the investigation, something he is completely unprepared for.
  • We get to know Arkady’s room-mates – Gury fermenting illegal alcohol from every sort of rotting vegetable matter, Kolya Mer the would-be scientist and botanis, and Obidin the devout Russian Orthodox. It is in the details of their characters and lives and hopes, trammeled by Soviet society, that Cruz Smith scores imaginatively time after time.
  • Natasha Chaikovskaya is the very large young Russian woman – the classic Russian shot putter – and a fiercely orthodox Communist Party activist, who works on the slime line alongside Arkady and starts the novel as his enemy, but gets to see his dedication to the job at first hand and becomes his assistant for the middle sections.
  • Karp Korobetz – the chief trawlmaster turns out to be Arkady’s bitterest enemy, a man Arkady helped convict 15 years earlier, consigning him to a prison camp in Siberia, where he got himself covered in the tattoos of the urka the professional criminal and convict.
  • Hess – mysterious Fleet engineer who appears out of nowhere to be at the captain’s side for the meetings where the captain tasks Arkady with finding the truth about Zina. Arkady suspects, then confirms that Hess is from Naval Intelligence. He has a small cabin in the prow of the ship which is equipped with sonar machines attached to a long cable lined with detectors which the Polar Star trails behind it. Aha. The ship has a secret espionage function. Is that what Zina had stumbled across? Is that why she was murdered?

The Americans

  • Captain George Morgan of the American catch-ship Eagle.
  • Susan Hightower, one of the Americans on permanent secondment to the Star, she was on the deck of the Polar Star and saw Zina the night she went missing. What did they say to each other? Susan starts off very antagonistic to Arkady, this jumped-up fish-worker turned investigator, but ends up falling for him, in fact they end up sleeping together – though right to the end keeping their emotional distance.
  • Ridley and Coletti, cocky unpleasant workers on Morgan’ ship.
  • Mikhail ‘Mike’, a Russian-born Aleutian Islander, also working on the Eagle.

Arkady’s snooping around the ship awakens dark forces. After he has emerged from the mysteriously empty forward hold – which he went to explore wondering whether it contained the secret chamber referred to on one of Zina’s tapes – he is mugged, has petrol-soaked rags thrust in his mouth and a sack pulled over his body. A belt is tied round his middle and he is carried by several men at speed along gangways till he is thrown into the fish cold storage room.

Cruz Smith gives an absolutely brilliant description of an intelligent man quickly starting to freeze to death. Arkady tries a number of futile remedies – within a minute he is shaking too hard to strike the matches in his pocket – and is only saved because the sound of his demented laughing penetrates the padded door as someone happens to be passing. It is Natasha, and it is from her rescue and the subsequent effort she puts in nursing him back to health that their friendship grows, and then he recruits her to help him.

Scared now, of further attack, extra pressure is added when word gets around that Arkady’s investigations may lead to the cancelling of the long-promised shore leave on Dutch Harbour, in the Aleutian Islands, the main reason most of the crew sail on the wretched ship. His shipmates turn surly, there are not so subtle threats against him. The rumours were deliberately spread by commissar Volovoi who wants to return to port with 100% good conduct record for the journey.

At the climax of the section Slava comes bounding into the captain’s cabin declaring he’s found a suicide note from Zina. Thus the crew can go ashore at Dutch Harbour, and a lot of the pressure seems to be released. But Arkady knows there was no suicide note where Slava claims to have found it.

Earth (56 pages)

Arkady watches the crew go ashore. Then, to his surprise, the mysterious German, Hess, in charge of the ship’s secret monitoring equipment, smuggles him ashore where he is free to roam the streets of the little town watching the crew go mad shopping and getting drunk in the town’s one hotel. Susan the American lures him away from the bar to her room where, surprisingly, she is ready to go to bed but Arkady, standing by the window, happens to see ‘Mike’ the Aleutian leaving the back of the hotel.

Arkady apologises to the now furious Susan and slips away to follow the Aleut, up the hillside towards a secret door in the hillside. He enters to find a secret workshop containing a beautiful half-built native kayak. This, native boat building, was mentioned on one of Zina’s tapes. Did she sleep with Mike, as well? Either way, Arkady discovers Mike – who only went through the door a minute or two before Arkady – is dead, a pair of workman’s scissors expertly stabbed through the back of his neck. Yuk.

Arkady is still bending over the body when the commissar Volovoi arrives, having followed him, accompanied by the massive bulk of Karp Korobetz carrying an axe. Volovoi predictably accuses Arkady of the murder. He casually orders Karp to hit Arkady, at his whim, as he tries to beat the truth out of him. But in a weird and intense scene Volovoi badly miscalculates Karp, goading him almost as much as our hero, until Karp turns on his master and – amazingly – plunges a knife right into his throat, forcing Volovoi to sit back on a bench where he gazes astonished at himself bleeding to death. Then Karp turns back to the business of killing Arkady. There is a long cinematic fight which ends with Arkady desperately throwing a paint pot which knocks over a lantern which starts a fire. As the fire takes and grows, Karp calmly closes the door to the workshop and locks Arkady inside.

Desperately, through the flames, Arkady builds a shaky tower of barrels allowing him to swing some netting up towards a hatch in the ceiling of the workshop, which he manages to force open to emerge gasping, beaten and singed onto the hillside.

Ice (54 pages)

In the final section the Polar Star steams north into the Arctic circle, breaking the ice for the American catch ships following behind it. We find out that after escaping from Mike’s fiery workshop, Arkady had thrown himself into the harbour of Dutch Harbour and got himself fished out, pretending to be drunk, the seawater erasing the smell of smoke and explaining his bruises.

He knows Karp is still after him but has no evidence and doesn’t understand why Karp harbours such animosity to him. How are Arkady’s investigations threatening him? How is Karp connected to Zina? The official line is that Mike and Volovoi got drunk together on their shore leave and accidentally set off a disastrous fire. Captain Marchuk and his sidekick Hess realise something else happened but – as usual – Arkady refuses to contradict the official version, keeping everything he knows to himself.

In this the final section a number of things happen:

  • Karp and his men again try to kill Arkady who escapes into the cabin of Susan Hightower. In a James Bondish way she, drunk, seduces him and reveals that she works for American intelligence. She was recruited by Captain Morgan four years earlier. Morgan is hoping to capture some of the cable lined with echo equipment which the Soviets are using to spy on US submarines.
  • Karp traps Arkady again, this time on the half frozen ramp sloping down into the sea up which the fishing nets from the catch ships are hailed. As he closes in, Karp confirms our man’s suspicions that he is running a drug smuggling operation. Small packs of American cocaine were included in the nets of fish routinely transferred from the American ship Eagle in exchange for larger packs of Russian marijuana.
  • Zina was Karp’s moll. She seduced all the men she needed to in order to get herself onto the ship and then to get the lie of the land. Thus she slept with Slava to get recommended to the crew, with the captain to get him under her thumb, with Volovoi to scare him, with the radio officer Nikolai to understand the range and power of the radios, she used sex as an exchange for information, but all the time remained loyal to Karp’s massive, Siberian love.

The Polar Star‘s spying cable gets caught in something and the ship slows and then comes to a standstill amid the ice. The Eagle a few kilometers south is quickly iced in. Arkady takes a chance, dresses warm and descends to the ice and sets off through the fog across the creaking treacherous ice to the American ship, becoming aware halfway that a figure is following him.

Because of the fog Arkady can sneak unobserved onto the ship and begins to search it when he is confronted – again – with the bulk of Karp. It is finally confirmed that Karp needs to kill Arkady to smother the evidence of his drug running and that he and Zina were lovers and that he saw the opportunity of setting up a drug smuggling operation with the Americans and brought Zina in to help him.

Playing furiously for time, Arkady explains he thinks Zina was killed here, on the American boat. Suspicious, Karp lets himself be talked into helping Arkady search the boat while the three crew are above deck trying to clear the ice. They have just found the storage locker where Arkady realises Zina must have been hidden after being killed, a set of bolts in the side explaining bruises on Zina’s corpse, and even a lock of her hair snagged in the door – when a pair of guns appear at their heads.

It is Ridley and Coletti, the Eagle’s crewmen, along with Morgan the captain. In an intense, knife-edge scene they admit to the drug smuggling and agree to kill Arkady. But the captain objects to this – ‘I’ve gone along with the drugs but there’s to be no killing’ – while Arkady simultaneously plays on Karp’s anger by goading Ridley to admit he slept with Zina and then – when she inconveniently appeared on the ship that fateful night – killed her – ‘Sure, she was in the way.’

Suddenly it all kicks off and in a few confused seconds the captain makes a move on Coletti who shoots and badly wounds him, Arkady fires the flare he’s been keeping in his pocket at Ridley, confusing him long enough for Karp to fling a three-tined grappling hook around his face, pulling him backwards screaming then binding it round his body, throwing the rope over an overhead cable and hauling Ridley’s wriggling body up into the air till he’s dead. Keeping Coletti covered, they help captain Morgan back to his feet, who promises to radio the Polar Star that two seamen are making their way back across the ice.

And here, on the polar ice, in the middle of nowhere, lost in the fog, Arkady and Karp have their final reckoning.

Thoughts

This Fontana paperback version of Polar Star is physically longer than Gorky Park (430 v. 350 pages) because it is printed in larger font with fewer words and less information on each page. Its physical thickness, the embossed cover and the lighter pages all made it feel more like a light airport novel than the dense, intense Gorky Park and the text itself reinforces the impression.

There are poetic flashes which gleam like fish scales on the water, but fewer than in the earlier book. Also, whereas every element of the Moscow book was foreign, from the street names to the food served in the horrible cafes, and although in this one the political commissars, and every aspect of life on the fish factory ship reek of Soviet privation, low expectations, shabby goods and drunkenness, and give it a powerfully claustrophobic, spied-on feel – nonetheless, the basic setting of being at sea is rather more international – or nationless – than the first novel. The descriptions of rusty bulkheads, salt-tanged air, mildew, breaking waves, remind me of the numerous other seaborne thrillers I’ve read by Alistair MacLean or Hammond Innes.

Also, we are a little more used to Arkady’s character and to the rhythm of these books: the most important one being his frustrating habit of discovering all sorts of things about the case but not telling  his superiors who go on thinking he’s wasting his time or, worse, is somehow responsible for crimes when we, the reader, have seen him get beaten, shot at and run over by the real baddies umpteen times. Something of the rhythm and feel of the book are, therefore, less intensely fresh than Gorky Park.

But in a way this helps to make it a slightly easier-to-read and therefore more entertaining and in some ways, more powerful book.

Poetry

There is less of the inspired, poetic use of language than in Gorky Park, but it is still here, like threads of gold buried in the weave of the novel, which occasionally gleam into the light.

He wore the enlightened expression of someone who enjoyed the wrong notes in an amateur piano recital. (p.91)

[Marchuk] poured more water for himself, studying the silvery string of liquid. (p.101)

Pribluda killed the engine, and for a moment there was no sound except the settling of snow, all those tons of flakes gently blanketing the city. (p.119)

Under his cap Pribluda had little eyes driven deep as nails. (p.119)

Water so cold seemed molten. Sea water started to crystallise at 29ºF, and because it carried so much brine it formed first not as a solid but as a transparent sheen, undulating on black swells, going grey as it congealed. (p.293)

These occasional flashes are the icing on the cake of a novel which handles its subject matter with supreme confidence. The book conveys astonishing and thoroughly researched insight into the Arctic fishing trade, with all its equipment, processes, the smell of the sea and the rotting fish, and the very rough camaraderie of a large crew at sea for prolonged periods. Much of the poetry is in the information, the depth of knowledge, which allows Smith to describe the ship, its work, the vividly drawn crew members and the freezing seas with such brio.

Soviet

And throughout you are aware of the series’ unique selling point – it is written by an American but set in Soviet Russia and conveys an unparalleled depth of insight into Soviet life and manners.

In the middle of the long table was a pot of cabbage soup that smelled like laundry and was consumed with raw garlic offered on separate plates, along with dark bread, goulash and tea that steamed enough to make the cafeteria as foggy as a sauna. (p.321)

I liked the notion that one form of Russian rebellion against the stifling communist bureaucracy was to create a whole underground of music based on criminal and prisoner songs, songs of crime, drunkenness and loss comparable to the popularity of the blues in the west.

I liked the idea the KGB is a name to inspire fear but also, among the officers, tired exasperation at the way they’re always sticking their nose in – Hess, the sound engineer who works for Naval Intelligence, doesn’t care about the murders on the ship, he is only concerned that the murders will give the KGB the opportunity to discover the expensive spying equipment installed on the Polar Star and steal it.

In a quietly persuasive scene, Captain Marchuk explains that the ship was delivered to Russia brand new from a Polish shipyard, with gleaming fixtures, and then the KGB descended and stripped it of everything valuable, taking all the linen and cutlery, the bulbs, all the fixtures and fittings, and replacing them with substandard Soviet work. In this scene, and numerous others, Smith paints a portrait of a society ruled by fear and run by an elite gluttonous with corruption. Several characters discuss the astonishing greed of Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, well known for her addiction to diamonds. (Her Wikipedia article confirms that she smuggled jewelry out of the USSR on such a scale as to threaten de Beers’ monopoly!)

Arkady’s nemesis, Karp, covered in tattoos except where his skin has been removed with acid by labour camp authorities, is a strangely attractive figure. He has survived the worst the Soviet system can throw at him and has become a kind of superman, effortlessly confident on the icy ramp of the ship where everyone else slips over, calmly confident in fight situations he knows he will always win – and full of stories, from the pimping and robbery he practiced in Moscow, which led eventually to the murder which saw him caught and condemned to life in Siberian labour camps, working in a reindeer slaughterhouse, hunting in the wild. His description of hearing a snow tiger prowling near one camp is hauntingly memorable.

But then so is the whole book. It is a brilliant work.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (1981)

Moscow was a low city. From the river it almost disappeared into its own somnolent ether. (p.65)

Tall, gaunt Moscow criminal investigator Arkady Renko is a disappointment to his father, the cranky old war-hero general; a disappointment to his bitch of a wife, Zoya, who is openly having an affair with a colleague and trying to divorce him; and a disappointment to his friends, who don’t understand his lack of ambition.

Three bodies are found dead in Gorky Park, the pleasure park complete with funfair and ice-skating ponds which borders the river Moskva in central Moscow. They have been shot at close range, then had their faces removed with a skinning knife and the tips of their fingers cut off to prevent identification. The three had been skating and are still wearing their skates.

Gorky Park is the long, densely written, fiercely imagined account of Arkady’s investigation into the bizarre murders, a thread which – in the best thriller tradition – leads to the unravelling of a bigger conspiracy which draws in the KGB and CIA. Along the way we are introduced to a large number of colourful and persuasive secondary characters, but the book’s main achievement is to take you right inside a brilliant depiction of Cold War Soviet Russian society. (It is set in the spring and early summer of 1977.)

The Russian background

is stunningly authoritative, deeply researched, totally convincing. It is not just the organisational structure of the KGB or Moscow militia, the relationship with the Ethnographical Institute or city prosecutors and lawyers – the kind of organisational knowledge an author like Len Deighton is so expert at – It is the way Smith inhabits the tired, jaded, everyday relationships between the workers in all these places, captures the mundane routines and tips and tricks and bypaths of such a society. It takes the kind of repartee you get in familiar American cop shows and sets it in a completely alien environment, utterly there.

I don’t know whether ‘Fuck your mother!’ is a common Russian expletive or whether there really is a ‘Siberian Dilemma’ (You are in Siberia fishing on a lake through a hole in the ice -the ice breaks and you fall in – do you stay in the water and freeze to death in a few minutes or get out into the -40 degree air and freeze to death immediately? p.214) or whether urka is the name for Russia’s tattoo-covered professional criminal class (p.75) – but every aspect of the novel’s Russianness – from the street layout of Moscow, the description and feel of different parts of the city at different times of day and night, the crunch of the snow and then the spring flowers breaking through, the taste of the cheap vodka, the squalor of state apartments, the constant bugging and surveillance, the horrible food in the cheap cafes, the fear and tension surrounding the presence of KGB officers, above all the Russian repartee of all the characters – all of it is thoroughly persuasive.

Characters

Arkady is a sort of hero: but although as honest and upstanding as Philip Marlowe, he is also cold as a fish, continually calculating, trying to read the runes and uncover the true murderer. In the early part of the novel Smith artfully surrounds Arkady with a penumbra of related characters:

  • Zoya, his cold wife, full of hatred for him, openly having an affair with a colleague, Schmidt, then later interrupting tense moments in the narrative to bother him about the divorce she is instituting
  • Pasha, his foul-mouthed competent assistant investigator
  • Flet, another investigator imposed on him and pretty obviously a KGB stooge reporting back to…
  • Major Pribluda, the stocky, aggressive KGB man who hates Arkady from when the latter correctly accused him of murdering a pair of dissidents two years earlier, as a result of which Arkady was beaten up by mysterious assailants, and the case quashed.

The plot – part one

Arkady gets little Professor Andreev, so short he compares himself to a dwarf, head of Moscow’s Ethnographic Institute, to reconstruct the face of one of the victims, a ticking process which accompanies the early investigation and promises much. Meanwhile, forensics show that a) one of the corpses had dental work of a type only done in America b) the corpses’ clothes carried traces of gold and gesso associated with religious paintings and icons, as well as specks of chicken blood and meat.

When Arkady puts out an all-Russia alert for missing persons a call comes through from distant Siberia that a local hoodlum, Kostia, and his moll, Valerya Davidova, have been missing for a while. Meanwhile, the female corpse’s skates have a name inside, that of Irina Asanova, who reported the skates stolen a few months earlier and works on the set of the Moscow film studios. In a separate strand, Arkady is taken by his boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, to an elite sauna and steam-room for the exclusive use of KGB and senior officials. Here he is introduced to the smooth, suave John Osborne, a tanned, silver-haired American, who swaps barbed comments with him.

As he delves deeper he discovers Osborne has been in and out of Russia since the War when, as a young man, he was involved in channeling support to America’s brave ally against the Nazis. Even in those early days he was making important contacts with influential Russians, especially in law enforcement and the KGB. Things begin to come together when photos emerge of Osborne in Siberia at a farm for sables, the slinky wild mammals whose fur is tremendously valuable. Then the police in Siberia reveal that Kostia and girlfriend at one time worked in a local sable farm.

Via his underworld contacts Arkady finds black marketeer, Golodkin, who complains that John Osborne commissioned him to find an icon chest, an antique covered in religious imagery and containing distinct drawers, only to dump him at the last minute and not buy it. Does Arkady want to buy an antique icon chest? No. But when Arkady orders his colleague Pasha to go with Golodkin to his apartment, they are both shot dead. Arkady is clearly on the right track…

The plot is complicated (very complicated) by an unprovoked attack on Arkady while he is back in Gorky Park one night, re-imagining the murders. He is badly beaten then narrowly escapes being shot by a well-disguised assailant. KGB? Underworld mobster? Foreign agent? Takes a number of further twists before Arkady discovers it is one William Kirwill, a New York detective. He has traveled from the States to investigate the murder of his younger brother, James.

A further distraction/complication is the way Arkady finds himself – upset and hurt by his wife’s abandonment – falling for the angry but vulnerable Irina – and then discovering she has some kind of relationship with the sleek American Osborne.

Through the mesh of numerous further twists, turns and nailbitingly intense scenes Arkady pieces together the story.

Memorable scenes

include:

  • Irina being mugged in the Moscow underground and placed on the railway lines with 2 minutes till the next train as Arkady does battle with her two assassins
  • Arkady driving out to meet his father, the General, old and frail but still seething with anger
  • Arkady smuggling himself out of Moscow on a train north packed like a cattle truck with stinking, smoking, leering convicts heading for Siberia (pp.256-249)
  • His convalescent home is threatened by a sudden forest fire and Arkady finds himself thrown into the chaotic fiery confusion of trying to fight the flames (pp.282-285)
  • Kirwill killing a KGB agent with his bare hands by battering his skull to pulp (p.229) The book is not for the squeamish

The story is

American John Osborne has made a lot of money using his important contacts stretching back to the war to conduct various import-export deals to Russia. But his secret plan has been to get hold of and smuggle live sables out of Russia – the fur-exporting capital of the world – and set up his own breeding programme in the States. Given how quickly sables breed, and how much their pelts are worth, within five years he will have a sustainable multi-million dollar business.

Kostia and Valerya brought him the live sables stolen from a Siberian farm, but they wanted more. In exchange for supplying an icon chest big enough to smuggle the sables in, they also wanted to be smuggled to the west, to freedom. James Kirwell was a young born-again Christian Osborne came across in his travels and brought to Moscow to show Kostia and Valerya how easily he could move people in and out of the USSR. Thus assured they gave him the sables and the chest and set off with James for a happy afternoon skating, before a rendezvous when Osborne was to meet them with vodka, sausage and details of their escape route. Instead, he shot all three of them quickly, with a gun hidden inside the bag of food and drink, the final victim, Valerya, so paralysed by fear she couldn’t run.

But Arkady’s unravelling of the mystery is hampered throughout by the heavy-handed interventions of the KGB. His boss, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, is fully supportive of him and invites Arkady out to his dacha in the country where, in a vivid scene, we watch him call eider ducks across the frozen lake and feed them while pledging Arkady his support. Later, as the net tightens, Iamskoy calls him in and reprimands him for the increasing number of corpses (Pasha and Golodkin, his childhood friend Misha) he’s leaving in his wake and tells him to hand over the case. Arkady refuses and, in the climactic scene of part one, he is ambushed by Osborne’s sidekick, the German Unmann, and badly stabbed in the gut before himself stabbing Unmann then drowning him as they both fall into and struggle in a pool in the grounds of Moscow University where Osborne has lured him.

Unable to break free, Unmann tried to bite, and Arkady fell back, carrying the man down into the water with him. There the German sat on top, squeezing Arkady’s throat. He looked up from the bottom of the pool. Unmann’s face grimaced, fluttered, divided, ran back together and split apart like quicksilver, each time less coherently. It broke into moons and the moons broke into petals. Then a dark cloud of red obscured Unmann, his hands went slack and he slid out of view. (p.260)

With Unmann dead, Arkady, bleeding badly, surfaces from the pool only to find his superior, the man who has backed him without hesitation, Chief Prosecutor Iamskoy, pointing a gun at him. Goodbye Arkady, he says, you were always my best investigator: there is the bang of a gunshot but it is Iamskoy who collapses, the top of his head blown off. It is Irina who has shot him. Run, says Arkady – and collapses…

Part two

The 70 pages of part two take the novel beyond ordinary intense, fast-paced thriller territory into a strange place, for Arkady takes a long time to recover from his severe belly wound and this section follows his recuperation in tremendous detail, the days and nights watching the ceiling of his hospital room as he drifts in and out of drugged sleep; then the increasingly aggressive visits of various KGB agents to question him.

And then he is moved out to a rest home in the country where, of all people, Major Pribluda is assigned to stay with him. Slowly the two men, while continuing to hate each other, form an edgy respect. When Arkady is well enough to walk he accompanies Pribluda, who is of true peasant stock, down to the garden of the house where the Major sets about creating a vegetable garden, taking off jacket and tie to labour long and hard for days on end to prepare the soil, hoe and turn it, before planting seeds of radish and lettuce, then creating an elaborate irrigation system and weeding his plot. All the time the pair exchange memories of life in Soviet Russia, clash over the pair of dissidents Arkady knows Pribluda murdered, discuss the details of the Gorky Park case.

Throughout this section Arakdy overhears nurses, KGB men smoking and playing cards, and even Pribluda saying – it doesn’t matter what you do or think, Renko. You are going to be shot.

Part three

Except he isn’t shot. To his (and the reader’s) surprise he finds himself on a plane to New York. The KGB have spared his life so he can do a deal with Osborne, now safely back in the States. I must admit, at this stage I stopped understanding what was going on. What deal? Osborne is safe in his own country with the sables, he doesn’t need anything. It emerges that Irina is with him; they let her go; she has been sleeping with Osborne all along and she ‘made’ them let Arkady come to her. Why? So they can be together because she loves him. OK. But why is Osborne letting her have Arkady? And why are the KGB letting Arkady go to the States? So he can track down the sables and kill them?

And why, then, do the KGB hand Arkady over to the CIA who set him up in a cheap whore’s hotel and follow him about, while they figure out what their deal is with Osborne.

Free to come and go as long as he returns to the hotel, Arkady meets up again with Kirwill who squires him around the Big Apple. In a bit of a plot hole, out of the entire vast pullulating city, it is rather a stroke of luck that a drunk lowlife trying to sell a black polecat he trapped in a remote part of Staten Island comes to Kirwill’s attention. It is a sable and Kirwill immediately realises Osborne must have set up his sable farm not far away.

It is the CIA operatives – Wesley, George and Ray – who take Arkady out to Osborne’s sable farm the next day. Here, at the sable farm on Staten Island, there is a bloody shootout.

For a start the arriving CIA and Arkady find Kirwill’s body bound to a tree and eviscerated, his guts hanging out his belly (p.357). Osborne did it. ‘He shot my dogs,’ he yells, more than a little demented on his home turf. A little later Arkady finds the crook who was trying to sell the sable, himself shot through the head. But as they approach Osborne over the snow, with no warning he shoots dead two of the CIA agents, one flees, Arkady throws Irina to the ground and runs off into the farm buildings.

Thus begins a deadly cat and mouse game between Arkady and Osborne between the cages of the mewing, screaming sables. George, the remaining CIA agent, pops up to try and shoot Arkady but Osborne shoots him. Then – in a wild surprise – one of the more friendly KGB agents, Rurik, appears looming over Arkady with a gun. He, too, is shot dead by Osborne who is using a hunting rifle with a scope. Nobody who knows about the sables is going to be allowed to escape alive.

Except that, although shot himself, Arkady manages – like all thriller heroes – to have the luck, energy, stamina – and the author’s helping hand – to nail Osborne, by this stage epitome of decadent, capitalist greed and evil. He uncages the sables and as Osborne shouts ‘No’, flings one of the creatures at him and in that moment drops to his knees and fills Osborne full of lead. How very OK Corral the whole scene has been. How very American.

In the final pages Irina pleads with Arkady for him to stay in the Free World she has always dreamed about. No. I am a Russian. I am going home, says Arkady. Home to star in the five sequels Smith wrote to this classic, long, involving and thoroughly imagined masterpiece.

Style

American prose is quicker, American writers pack more information into their sentences and paragraphs. At its worst – as in a lot of contemporary US fiction – this means depth or resonance of language or psychology disappear from the texts which become, as a result, worthless. But, at their best, American writers are confident to skip, jump and compress language to get to the nub of the matter without a lot of the preliminary throat-clearing and harumphing which (older) British writers mistakenly think of as ‘fine writing’.

In this respect Smith is a poet. He continually reminded me of the English poet WH Auden for the insouciance with which he throws off casually striking metaphors and imagery in snappy sentences, dense with charged similes and metaphors.

Levin caught up at the elevator and slipped into the car with Arkady. He had been a chief surgeon in Moscow until Stalin shook Jewish doctors out of the trees. He held his emotions like gold in a fist. (p.13)

Almost all Russia is old, graded by glaciers that left a landscape of low hills, lakes and rivers that wander like the trails of worms in soft wood. (p.120)

After Kirwill beats Arkady up in the park –

Arkady pulled himself out of a drift and staggered, holding  his chest. Trees and snow sucked him down to a stone wall… Truck lights sailed along the sweep of the quay road. He could see no one walking. No militiamen. Streetlamps were furry balls, like the bubbles of air he gagged down. (p.64)

Sometimes a wind catches a parade banner and the face painted on the banner, with no change in expression, shivers. In Osborne’s eyes Arkady saw such a tremor. (p.148)

In the communications room, two sergeants with loosened collars typed out radio messages that came in snatches, bits and ends, invisible litter from the outside world. (p.178)

By about half way through (in an evolution which reminded me of something similar which happens, as the tension builds up, in Ira Levin’s thrillers) Smith’s style allows itself to become more and more impressionistic and poetic. Frederick Forsyth, say, remains journalistic to the end, reporting clinically, factually, accurately. But in the fight in the bloody pond which ends part one, throughout the dazed diary entries of Arkady’s long painful recovery in part two, and then in the intense final scenes set in a New York as seen by a complete outsider to everything western or American, Smith’s prose is liable to splinter into intensely imagined, hallucinatory fragments.

Pribluda was the one man who didn’t speak, the one who was content with silent menace, a warted brooding under wetted hair. (p.266)

Arkady said nothing. Over the field were the triumphant screams of small birds mobbing a crow; they were like a bar of music moving through the air. (p.277)

The fire was unpredictable. One bush would catch slowly like a biscuit of fuses. (p.283)

The density of a lot of the language, its charge and intensity, the clipped brevity with which it throws out drastic insights, radical perceptions, added to the complexity of the plot, make for an intense and – unusually for a thriller – sometimes quite a difficult read. Difficult to read at speed. And worth rereading whole sections, maybe in a year or two, the whole book.

The movie

The book was quickly turned into a movie (1983), directed by Michael Apted with a screenplay by Dennis Potter. William Hurt is well-cast as the flat, unemotional Arkady, Lee Marvin is charismatic as the rich killer Jack Osborne, Brian Dennehy is big and mean as William Kirwill and Joanna Pacuła is pretty but unconvincing as Irina Asanova. There is an enjoyable supporting cast of British character actors including Ian McDiarmid, Michael Elphick and Ian Bannen.

Like all movies, this one massacres the plot of its source novel, completely deleting part two where Arkady recovers from his knife wound – there is no fight in the university pool and no wound -and transferring the final section from New York – where Kirwill is at home and shows Arkady round, which thus balances the Kirwill-in-Moscow scenes – to the much cheaper and easier-to-film-in countryside around Stockholm. The whole thing screams ‘limited budget’.

The direction is flat, not one frame stands out for beauty or care of composition, it often has the rough ‘that’s good enough’ feel of a TV adaptation. The music, by James Horner, starts with an effective and chilling set of stabbing rattles on some kind of bamboo-sounding percussion, but the majority of the film is disfigured by the fashionable 1980s sound of thumping synthesised drums and banal one-note synthesiser rock, until the final ‘heartbreaking’ scenes of Arkady parting from Irina are served up in a syrup of sub-Doctor Zhivago strings. Judge for yourself.


Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

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