A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (2013)

Conspiracy thrillers

I started reading grown-up books and watching movies in the mid-1970s, which happened, among other things, to be the golden age of conspiracy thrillers. After Watergate and the debacle in Vietnam, a wave of disillusioned American film-makers produced gripping and chilling movies based on the premise that wicked, money-grabbing corporations had fatally corrupted government, and that any naive young government operative who stumbled on these secrets would be eliminated by their own side.

Thus films like Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Conversation (1974), and The Parallax View (1974) still deliver a paranoid thrill today – and they have a legacy in the ongoing Bourne franchise, where yet another fresh-faced, young white man is shocked to discover that his worse enemies aren’t the Russkies or the terrorists – they’re his own superiors carrying out corrupt and covert operations which are sanctioned at the highest levels.

40 years later le Carré has, rather belatedly, woken up to idea that the same thing could happen in Britain. The plot of this novel – conscientious civil servants try to expose government-corporate cover-up – feels old, very old. And instead of the handsome Robert Redford (Condor) or Warren Beatty (Parallax), we have as ‘heroes’ the very British paring of a timid young civil servant and a fogeyish retired diplomat.

Quite apart from the dusty plot, what’s really striking about the book is the garish prose style and stilted dialogue through which it’s told, a tortured style which comes from a strange parallel universe where Jason Bourne has been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse.

The plot

British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers the evidence that his Minister, the bullying Fergus Quinn, helped arrange a hush-hush ‘mission’, Operation Wildlife, to be carried out by an American corporation – Ethical Outcomes – involving US mercenaries, four British soldiers, and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high-value terrorist on Gibraltar.

But there was no terrorist: the apartment he was meant to be hiding in turned out to be empty, and instead a Muslim woman and her baby, probably illegal immigrants who were squatting there, were mistakenly shot to ribbons.

Three years later, retired British diplomat, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn, is approached out of the blue by Jeb Owen, one of the British soldiers who took part in Wildife and has been haunted ever since by what he saw. Jeb has identified Kit as the FO man sent to witness the operation (Kit did so under an assumed name and was spirited away moments after it ended in confusion), and now Jeb has tracked Kit down to his genteel retirement in a manor house in Cornwall.

Kit was never sure exactly what happened that night, having observed it all from a distance in the squaddies’ ‘hide’, but Jeb now confirms his worst fears that something went badly wrong, and backs his story up with black-and-white photos of the dead woman and baby.

They make a date to meet again when Jeb will produce more evidence, but Jeb not only fails to keep this meeting with Sir Kit, he turns up dead in the back of his own van, in what the authorities claim is a ‘suicide’, though his wife knows this isn’t true. The evidence in hand, and Jeb’s dodgy demise, determine the honourable Sir Kit – backed by his charming lady wife Suzanne, and with the support of his feisty doctor daughter Emily – to inform the proper authorities.

So he goes up to London, to the Foreign Office, naively and stupidly to tell the very people who covered up the fiasco in the first place that he has evidence to prove there was a fiasco and a cover-up. To Kit’s amazement – and the utter unsurprise of anyone who’s ever seen or read a conspiracy thriller – the powers-that-be not only brush aside the incident, but end up blaming him for the deaths – seeing as he was the ‘responsible officer’ on the spot – and make it clear that if he breathes a word to anyone, he will be the first one to be prosecuted. Does he want that to happen? Does he want to put his wife – in remission from some unspecified illness – through that? Or his daughter? ‘Go home, Sir Kit.’

Meanwhile, in a separate thread, we flash back three years to the build-up to the botched mission, to the period when fresh-faced young civil servant, Toby Bell, was private secretary to New Labour bruiser and Foreign Office minister, Fergus Quinn.

Toby dutifully fetches and carries for Quinn but is puzzled by the bruiser’s secretiveness – a new safe is installed in the office, his door is always closed, secret phone calls abound. Toby’s concerns reach a peak when he is told to organise a hush-hush meeting in private rooms, and to ensure that even the CCTV on the side entrance into the building is turned off, so there’s no record of the attendees.

Intrigued, Toby digs up an antique reel-to-reel tape recorder which has been mouldering in his office, plants it in the meeting room and sets the timer to record the ‘secret’ meeting. Listening to it later, he hears Fergus conspiring with a renowned shady operator who floats on the periphery of Whitehall, a certain Jay Crispin, to organise the mission, and so first hears the words Operation Wildlife.

Aware that he’s breaking various protocols and possibly the Official Secrets Act, Toby transfers the tape recording of the meeting to a computer memory stick and seeks the help of his mentor within the service, Giles Oakley.

Lofty, insouciant Giles explains that Crispin is the smooth English front man for a US mercenary outfit known as Ethical Outcomes. In fact, Toby himself briefly meets Crispin and his partner and fundraiser, introduced in characteristic JLC ringmaster fashion as ‘the one and only Miss Maisie from Houston, Texas’. Quinn introduces them to Toby in his office for what might just have been an interview to be recruited into the mission – but Tobym with his Bertie Woosterish innocence, fails the audition. And just as well, as things turn out.

Toby discovers that the FO man referred to in the plans is Sir Kit, gets his address, and so travels down to the diplomat’s big house in Cornwall. Here the pair share their discoveries and, with the latter’s forceful GP daughter Emily, they form an alliance to ‘uncover the truth’. Tremble in your boots, oh baddies.

Toby travels on to Wales to meet Jeb in his crappy, post-industrial town, only to hear from his distraught wife that Jeb ‘committed suicide’ just a few days earlier – despite having just expressing new confidence that he’s finally exorcised his post-traumatic demons by meeting and talking to Sir Kit. Plus, Jeb shot himself with his left hand, which is odd because he was right-handed. Almost as if dark forces might have bumped him off and made it look like suicide. Crikey.

1. Kit takes the dossier of evidence he’s compiled up to London and, after some effort, forces his way into the Foreign Office and an interview with some creepy lawyers. These slick operators magically twist everything round to show him that the only person named for sure in the entire operation is himself, backed up by his own admission that he was senior man on the spot. Since all the others deny any involvement, this means that if his dossier is published, he, Sir Kit, would be the prime suspect and legally held responsible. A broken man, he catches the train back to Cornwall.

2. Jeb’s widow gives Toby the phone number of one of Jeb’s army colleagues who was involved in the mission. But when Toby meets this fellow, ‘Shorty’, in a North London café, instead of having a discreet chat he finds himself being briskly escorted to a car which then drives him to a very secure, guarded house in St John’s Wood, where he is received by the smooth, handsome, posh Jay Crispin he has heard so much about. Like all baddies in thrillers, Crispin is immensely urbane and polite – ‘more coffee, Mr Bond’ – before asking if he’d like to join Ethical Outcomes – sign a confidentiality agreement and immediately double his salary? No? Oh dear. That is unfortunate.

Toby walks out and walks home, opens the door to his Islington flat and is immediately gagged, hooded and given an extreme beating by professionals wearing knuckle dusters. As he lies vomiting on the floor, one of them mutters, ‘This is just for starters’ – such a cliché it made me laugh out loud. When Sir Kit’s daughter Emily phones, Toby groans into the receiver enough to make her come round and clean him up. Feeling slightly more human, he insists on getting dressed, finding his hidden memory stick and all the other evidence, and hobbling with her help to the nearest internet café, from where he emails all the evidence he has to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 news, Guardian and so on.

At which point they hear sirens. Lots of sirens. Sirens coming from all directions and converging, with a screech of tyres, just outside the café. Almost as if his blackberry, phone and even the memory stick are tagged and monitored and that, by using them, he has drawn down on himself the forces of darkness!

Just because you’re paranoid…

This ‘powerful’ ending reminded me of the 1988 movie Defence of the Realm, in which investigative journalist Gabriel Byrne and the fragrant Greta Scacchi come together to reveal the massive official cover-up of a near-nuclear accident – which ends with them, also, posting all the documents they have to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Guardian etc – before the forces of darkness ensure that they meet a very sticky end.

The sticky end, after all, the time-honoured ending of the paranoia thriller (cf Warren Beatty getting killed at the end of The Parallax View) – just the final thrill in a sequence of shocking revelations.

Moreover, the downbeat climax repeats the fatalistic endings of le Carré’s other late novels – the whistleblower ‘Salvo’ unjustly extradited in The Mission Song, the innocent refugee Issa brutally kidnapped by the CIA in A Most Wanted Man, the defecting Russian mafiosi (and his innocent Brit minder) blown to pieces by the forces of darkness at the end of Our Kind of Traitor.

The ‘clean-cut-heroes-against-the-corrupt-Establishment-cover-up’ plot is an old and venerable one, one I quite literally grew up with 40 years ago. So how is it handled here? What about its style and presentation?


Le Carré land

From the first pages we are in le Carré land, where posh, naive white men talk to each other in superannuated 1950s slang, are tyrannised by modern, go-getting types who show how up-to-date they are by saying ‘fuck’ a lot, who are in cahoots with dastardly foreigners – not Islamic terrorists or Russians, no, the worst foreigners of all – Americans! – and where all the characters and the omniscient narrator are indistinguishably soaked in the same heavy-handed, lumbering, facetious tone of voice.

Le Carré’s response to every aspect of the modern world, especially in its bureaucratic and organisational forms, is one of unremitting sarcasm. He has a particular bee in his bonnet about the way ‘Personnel’ departments have been renamed ‘Human Resources’ in big organisations, a bugbear which crops up in several books. Here is Sir Kit meeting the head of HR at the Foreign Office right at the start of the novel:

‘So how’s your poor dear wife?’ asks the not-quite-superannuated ice queen of Personnel Department, now grandly rechristened Human Resources for no reason known to man, having summoned him without a word of explanation to her lofty bower on a Friday afternoon when all good citizens are running home. The two are old adversaries. If they have anything at all in common, it is the feeling that there are so few of them left.
‘Thank you, Audrey, not poor at all, I am pleased to say,’ he replies, with the determined levity he affects for such life-threatening encounters. Dear but not poor. She remains in full remission. And you? In the pink of health, I trust?’
‘So she’s leavable,’ Audrey suggests, ignoring this kindly enquiry.
‘My hat no! In what sense?’ – determinedly keeping up the jolly banter. (p.4)

The whole book is written in this phony, mock heroic voice. The passage contains examples of several JLC mannerisms:

  • The way public schoolboys use condescending tags and clichés to indicate their superiority over the great unwashed – ‘when all good citizens are running home’ – like the poor miserable rabbits that they are, presumably.
  • And is it really a ‘life-threatening encounter’, chatting to the head of HR? No. Then why make out that it is? Ironic hyperbole, old chap. All part of the ‘jolly banter’.
  • Antiquated slang. How many people, in Britain, in 2016, in a moment of surprise, exclaim, ‘my hat’? Anyone?

The HR thing gets le Carré’s goat so much he repeats it later:

‘Were the Personnel people – or Human Resources or whatever they call themselves these days…’ (p.172)

Yes, why do people keep bloody changing the words for things all the bloody time?

Jeb might be psychotic, he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the other big words we throw around so easily these days… (p.187)

As Colonel Blimp might have put it: ‘Bloody confusing big words: what’s wrong with the short words we used in the good old days – dago, darkie, pansy boy?’ To my surprise, Sir Kit does actually use the expression ‘pansy-boy’:

Said one of the Americans was a little fat bastard with effeminate mannerisms. Pansy-boy, according to Jeb. The pansy-boy was the worst.’ (p.213)

Well, who could possibly disagree? ‘Bloody Americans. Bloody fat Americans. Bloody fat American pansy-boys, they’re the worst, oh definitely the worst, old boy.’

The reader thinks: ‘Well, we better not tell the confused old buffer that we no longer use pounds, shillings and pence or that we’ve put a man on the moon. His head might explode.’

And this character – Sir Christopher ‘Kit’ Probyn – with his ailing wife, his devoted labrador and his manor house in good old Cornwall – this is one of the two ‘heroes’ of the book. He is held up as a gold standard of old-fashioned morals and conscience – but comes over as an ineffectually blundering buffoon.

Our Le Carré’s use of the little word ‘our’ is symptomatic. He deploys it in a way which radiates public school, upper-class facetiousness; a pally-pally, knowing condescension:

‘our dear young queen… our stoical defenders… Mr Jay Crispin, our corporate warlord and intelligence provider… And the secret pulse of our great nation, Laura?… a reliable has-been from the ranks of our own dear Service… our intrepid friend… our selfless volunteers… [at his village fair Sir Kit enters the] roped-off enclosure of our Rustic Crafts section… [Sir Kit is referred to as the] leader of our gallant British detachment…’ and so on and so on

Far too intelligent to simply refer to people by their names or functions the narrator – and Le Carré’s characters (interchangeably) – use ‘our’ to indicate their mocking familiarity with the personage in question, advertising their lofty height above the great unwashed.

Your fine family Similarly, family and loved ones or careers and places – especially funny foreign places – are routine targets for upper-class exaggeration and elaborate hyperbole, or for the public school habit of using religious tags and mock pomposity in a tone of permanent sneering:

‘should an unfortunate crisis afflict your fine family… given to him by his beloved wife… Manila, Singapore, Dubai: these are but a few of the fine cities where you have attended conferences… Paul, you are now and for evermore family… My beloved wife Hermione tells me… his beloved La Rochefoucauld… the fabled castle that is Prague’s pride… My beloved ex-partner…’ and so on and on.

Ye olde English Toby’s mentor, Giles, tries to reassure him that everything’s been sorted out, but cannot say anything without using the same facetious upper-class banter, with the same mock Shakespearian rhetoric, that all the other characters use:

Just listen to me, dear, will you? The scandal at Defence is dead, and Jay Crispin is henceforth and forever banished from all ministerial and government premises on pain of death.’ (p.74)

Is he, though? Banished? On pain of death? No. That is deliberate hyperbole and exaggeration because posh Giles – imprisoned, like so many Le Carré characters, in the lofty tower of his expensive education – just can’t speak like ordinary people. He can’t say, ‘Listen, Crispin is finished, it’s official. No-one is allowed to contact or do business with him,’ because that is how ghastly oiks speak.

When Toby gets a new job as Private Secretary to Quinn, the narrator can’t state this as a simple fact, but has to describes him as ‘newly anointed’. In one of their long conversations, Giles goes into ecstasies of sarcasm about ‘Man of the People’ Quinn: I counted him using the ironic phrase ‘your nice new master’ five times in as many pages.

Almost all the character speak in this insufferably mannered upper-class style. There’s only so long you can listen to these smug wankers with their insufferable smugness and superiority before wanting to hit something.

Telegraphese Too posh to say complete sentences? Bark them out like a retired colonel:

  • ‘Man’s a liar.’
  • ‘Hell are you doing with my daughter anyway?’

Music hall compère I particularly relish the occasions in Le Carré novels where the narrator introduces his characters with the pomp and moustachioed bombast of an old-time, music hall compère:

And who is the guiding light in London who presides over this pragmatic trade in human destinies…. – None other than Giles Oakley, Foreign Office intelligence broker extraordinaire and mandarin at large. (p.61)

‘Tobe, kindly pay your respects to Mrs Spencer Hardy of Houston, Texas, better known to the world’s elite as the one and only Miss Maisie.’ (p.86)

The first quote is the narrator speaking. The second one is ‘Man of the People’ Fergus Quinn speaking. The mock heroic phraseology is identical in both. That’s why I say the narrator’s voice and the characters’ voices are interchangeable: they all radiate the same kind of condescending, mock heroic, upper-class grandiosity.

This inability to find any other voice than a pompous Old Etonian is particularly noticeable when le Carré tries to do colonials. Just as the Australian tennis coach in Our Kind of Traitor didn’t sound remotely Australian, so Elliot the allegedly South African character doesn’t sound remotely South African – he sounds just like all Le Carré’s other elaborately facetious characters – although in these two particular cases, rather more like an elaborately ironic butler than the lord of the manor:

‘Sir, I believe I have the singular honour of welcoming Mr Toby Bell of Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. Is that correct, sir?’ (p.316)

Really? Is that really how a tough bastard South African mercenary would talk?

1950s slang Is there anyone of working age who routinely says ‘old sport’ and ‘old chap’ at the end of every sentence? Or ‘what?’ Or exclaims ‘My hat’? In a remarkable moment, the smooth-talking New Labour-era creep Jay Crispin, manipulator of American billionaires and Whitehall ministers, while trying to buy Toby off, tells him that Jeb, the soldier he was due to meet is a bit, you know,

Not quite himself, ‘twixt thee and me. (p.319)

‘Twixt thee and me’?

Sarcastic descriptions Similarly, when le Carré wants to ridicule characters he does it with very heavy sarcasm, lumbering them with elaborately ironic adjectives and descriptions. In particular, in all these later novels, le Carré can barely contain his anger at the way Tony Blair’s New Labour betrayed all its promises, instigated the appalling ‘corporatisation’ of the state (in this case the civil service, with its outliers in the military and intelligence services – renaming perfectly good Personnel departments Human Resources, for chrissakes), and rubber-stamped America’s mad invasion of Iraq.

This anti-New Labour animus adds such malevolence that posh Giles can only bring himself to refer to Toby’s minister – ‘your nice new master’ Quinn – with arch facetiousness:

‘…your distinguished minister… appears determined to outdo the militarist zeal of his late great leader, Brother Blair…’ (p.97)

(I’ve never seen this formula – ‘brother X’ – with its air of smothering but simultaneously contemptuous familiarity, used in this way by any other author. It’s a le Carré trademark.)

The first half of the book amounts to a satirical caricature of a New Labour minister, Fergus Quinn, who bulks large in the first half of the novel as Toby’s bullying master, helping to arrange the ill-fated mission, presumably in expectation of some back-handers or a transition to a nice, corporate position when he leaves government. With characteristic New Labour emphasis on slick media presentation, Quinn hypocritically puts on a smile for the cameras and likes to present himself as a straight-talking Glaswegian. And so gets skewered with the same withering descriptors throughout:

‘Fergus Quinn, man of the people… Quinn the People’s Choice… the Champion of the Working Classes… Fergus Quinn, MP, white hope of the powers-that-be in Downing Street (p.191)

A politician who puts on a fake smile for the cameras but is really a hectoring bully in private? Golly. A politician who helps high-level business contacts while in office and then moves smoothly into a related directorships when he leaves? Crikey. This isn’t really new. It isn’t even New Labour new. Weren’t Trollope and other Victorians aware of the canting posturing of politicians. Isn’t 18th century literature awash with corrupt political figures? What is The Beggar’s Opera (1728) but a satire on the deep-dyed corruption of the Prime Minister?

Bluster instead of insight As per usual, when key players in a le Carré novel try to get to the heart of the matter, they prove incapable of intelligent analysis – instead they bluff and bluster. The first meeting between the good guys, Sir Kit and Toby, has them discussing the situation and leads up to Sir Kit summarising for Toby his understanding of the military cock-up which is at the heart of the whole plot:

‘Operation Wildife,’ he barked. ‘Roaring success, we were told. Drinks all round. Knighthoods for me, promotion for you – what?’ (p.198)

Days later I am still reeling from the imbecility of this moment. The man is meant to be a seasoned diplomat. Toby, who he’s talking to, is meant to be a fast track civil servant.

When I worked at the Department for International Development, I had contact with some of the heads of directorates and once with the Secretary of State himself. What came over was their immense workload and the brisk, professional way they dealt with it. I was impressed by the speed and incisiveness of their fact-processing and decision-making. By contrast, almost all le Carré’s Whitehall characters come over as dim and slow – really slow, much, much slower than the reader, who is always streets ahead of them. By about half way through I was really hoping the entire crew of dim duffers would be arrested, extradited, or simply blown up, as the only fitting way to respond to such irreparable denseness.

Humour Le Carré is probably the most humourless writer I know. But his narratives act as if they’re hugely funny. Take Elliot, the dodgy South African mercenary handling the British soldiers during the ill-fated mission. Here he is explaining to Sir Kit that the aim of the mission is to kidnap a terrorist, codenamed Aladdin.

‘Aladdin is basically a mixed-race Pole who has taken out Lebanese citizenship… Aladdin is the Pole I personally would not touch with a barge, to coin a witticism…’ (p.23)

Ha. Ha ha. Le Carré is so proud of this joke that he repeats it a few pages later. And to be fair, it is probably the funniest joke in the novel. There’s another cracker when Sir Kit asks one of the yokels in his village, Ben, the owner of Ben’s garage, if he can borrow some metal cutters, prompting this sparkling exchange:

‘You off to prison?’ Ben enquires.
‘Well, not just at the moment, Ben, thank you,’ replies the same Kit, with a raucous hah! of a laugh. (p.142)

Because, you see, Ben the yokel is making a humorous suggestion that Sir Kit might want metal cutters so he can break out of prison, and Sir Kit pretends to find this frightfully funny. Ha ha ha. Oh, my hat!

Italics Why so many italics in the dialogue? Scattered so randomly? After as little as one page the reader begins to wonder whether the characters are mentally ill, afflicted with a version of Tourette’s Syndrome which makes them emphasise words with no logical reason, like a pub drunk jabbing you in the chest with his finger according to no discernable logic.

As a tiny example, when Sir Kit goes up to London to (naively and hopelessly) put his case to his former employers at the Foreign Office, he has to pass through several layers of security but then is gladdened to see a familiar face:

‘Molly, my God, of all people, I thought you’d retired aeons ago, what on earth are you doing here?’
‘Alumni, darling,’ she confided in a happy voice. ‘I get to meet all our old boys and girls whenever they need a helping hand or fall by the wayside, which isn’t you at all, you lucky man, you’re here on business, I know. Now then. What kind of business? You’ve got a document and you want to hand it personally to God. But you can’t because he’s on a swan to Africa – well deserved, I may add. A great pity because I’m sure he’ll be furious when he hears he’s missed you.’ (pp.282-283)

Partly it’s standard upper-middle-class class gush: ‘Oh Lavinia, how simply marvellous to see you’ etc. But it’s been turned up a notch, beyond the comprehensible, to become a mannerism, a compulsion.

The suspicion arises, not for the first time, that when le Carré tries to do clever dialogue between people who are assessing and probing each other – dialogue which ought to be subtle, measured and understated – he can’t. So he has his characters either swear a lot ‘for fuck’s sake’, or randomly emphasise every other word to make it sound somehow more forceful and intelligent.

Both of which tactics fail.

Conclusions

Whereas the outcomes of, say, a Robert Harris thriller are genuinely unexpected and sometimes terrifying, the outcomes – in fact most of the plots – of le Carré’s later novels are entirely predictable variations on the dominating obsession of his post-Cold War books, all emanating from the, to-him, shocking revelation that the modern world is corrupt.

The key text to understanding his attitude is his 2003 article ‘The United States of America has gone mad‘, which perfectly captures the way he can barely contain his white-hot anger at the American government’s stupid, blundering, imperialistic invasion of Iraq – so much so that the tone spills over into sarcasm, facetiousness and barely controlled hysteria.

(Note particularly the final section which abruptly switches from outraged journalistic diatribe to a spooky dialogue between an earnest lickle child asking innocent questions about the war and a reassuring Daddy telling him the it will all be over quickly and everything will be alright.)

The same runaway anger informs these later novels – anger that:

  • transnational corporations get away with murder (The Constant Gardener)
  • a rogue America can trample roughshod over individual and national rights in its obsessive ‘war on terror’ (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man)
  • and worst of all, how Britain has also fallen into the mire [since some imaginary romantic past of chivalrous idealism] so that senior politicians, businessmen and even elements of ‘our dear Intelligence Service’, are in corrupt collusion with shady foreigners like the Russian mafia (Our Kind of Traitor), or are paid agents of dastardly international arms dealers (The Night Manager) or are helping to plan coups to impose corporate-friendly rulers on helpless Third World nations (The Mission Song)

Anger that is only barely contained beneath a simmering surface of withering sarcasm, of fake joviality and spurious bonhomie littered with the bizarre remnants of the almost-forgotten, upper-class banter of the 1950s.

The movie

If you dumped the entire bombastic narrative voice, changed the characters from 1950s throwbacks to make them 21st century people, rewrote the dialogue so it is intelligent and snappy rather than sweary public school chaffing, and trimmed down and focused the plot – in fact if you dropped everything about the book except the core idea – Foreign Office hero uncovers conspiracy to cover up UK involvement in US-led extraordinary rendition cock-up – then it would make a cracking movie or TV series, just like A Most Wanted Man or The Night Manager which, once they’d been extracted from le Carré land, and comprehensively rewritten, proved to be very successful.


Credit

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré was published in 2013 by Viking books. All quotes are from the 2014 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar – but there was no terrorist: instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index
2013 An Officer and a Spy

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 Corgi paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

Thunderball by Ian Fleming (1961)

Bond laughed, partly in admiration. ‘You’ve been taking mescalin or something. It’s a damned good sequence for a comic strip, but these things don’t happen in real life.’ (p.168)

Shrublands

The tremendous battering Fleming has submitted Bond to over the previous seven novels begins to show, as M – a recent convert to healthy living and wholefood diets – insists he takes a rest cure at a sanatorium in Sussex named ‘Shrublands’. Fleming’s description is amusingly sardonic throughout, from the brylcreemed youth who drives him in a taxi to the spa, through the old health food ‘doctor’ who prescribes his rest cure treatments, to the repellent, fat, old men and women who populate the place.

Bond submits with bad grace to the round of massages, hot baths, and the starvation diet of nut cutlets and dandelion tea, though there are several highlights: 1. He flirts with the unusually pretty, firm-bodied and ‘strict’ health therapist Patricia Fearing until, with dumb inevitability, while she’s massaging him he reaches up and kisses her. For all her flurried objections, Bond knows it is a done deal, and (rather callously) describes bonking her in her little bubble car up on the Sussex Downs.

2. More importantly, someone tries to kill him. He notices a tiny tattoo on the wrist of another ‘guest’, the handsome six-foot Count Lippe, then makes a bad mistake by phoning the Cipher Section of the Service to ask about the tattoo, from a public payphone in the sanatorium’s corridor. Turns out the tattoo is the sign of the Tongs, a secret society based in Macau.

Later the delectable Ms Fearing straps Bond into a complicated spine-stretching apparatus as part of his treatment and leaves the room – only for Lippe to sneak in and turn the machine way up past the danger zone, so that Bond’s body is literally being torn apart. It is only the accidental return of Ms Fearing a bit earlier than scheduled that saves his life. Bond laughs it off as a mishap but plans his revenge and, on the last day of his stay, ambushes Lippe who is sitting in a ‘sweat box’. Bond turns its thermostat up to a scalding 180 degrees.

Bond leaves Shrublands feeling lighter, toned up, fitter and more focused than for years, having bonked a pretty nurse and scored a petty act of revenge.

What he doesn’t realise is that he has impinged on a conspiracy to shake the governments of the world! Chapter five introduces us to Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the most notorious Bond baddie – giving his full backstory as a gifted Polish engineer who set up a bogus spy ring in pre-war Poland and screwed money out of various buyers, before setting up another ring in Turkey during the war itself, then clearing out to South America. Now he is back and he has invented SPECTRE, SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, as a clearing house for all kinds of criminal activities.

Meeting of SPECTRE

In the next scene we are introduced to a meeting of the top men in SPECTRE at a non-descript house in Paris. They are all allotted numbers, and comprise cells of men recruited from the French and Italian Mafia, SMERSH, American underworld gangs etc. Their undisputed leader is Blofeld. Blofeld reads out the monthly summary of profits from their various criminal activities – then melodramatically moves on to punish one of the members seated round the big table. This man is accused of violating a young girl who had been kidnapped, and SPECTRE had promised to return unharmed. Blofeld announces that SPECTRE returned half the kidnap ransom and now the guilty man is punished by the activation of electric pads in his chair which electrocute and virtually cook him. His smoking body slumps onto the table. The other members take this as due justice. This is SPECTRE. Blofeld’s word is law. They then proceed to discuss ‘the Omega Plan’.

This scene feels every bit as overblown and teenage as the movies.

The letter

Next thing Bond knows he’s called in by M who gives him a letter claiming SPECTRE has hijacked an RAF bomber (the fictional Vindicator) carrying two atomic bombs. The governments of the West have one week to hand over £100,000,000 or they’ll explode one of the bombs at a site worth exactly that amount. Then, a day later, if no money is delivered, they’ll explode the other bomb at a major world city.

Frankly, this threat made me nervous and edgy in light of our current geopolitical situation, and I didn’t enjoy thinking about it. Bond is told that the intelligence forces of the Western world have gone into overdrive, everyone and everything is being thrown at the problem. But M has a hunch: before it disappeared off the radar the hijacked Vindicator descended into the main East-West Atlantic traffic (to conceal itself). A few hours later the American DEW radar system detected a plane making a sharp turn south, just off the US coast. M has a hunch it was the baddy plane, and goes to investigate maps of the region. As a result, M thinks the Bahamas might be a perfect hiding place for the crooks, out of the way but not far from the US mainland, no real military or radar presence – good place to ditch a plane. So he is dispatching Bond to the Bahamas to see what he can see. Bond is disgruntled because he thinks he’s being sent on a wild goose chase.

Capturing the plane

There is then a long sequence which describes, in retrospect, how the Italian ‘observer’ on the hijacked plane, Giuseppe Petacchi a) poisoned the five man crew by opening a cyanide capsule in the cockpit, then b) pulled the bodies out of the way and flew the plane single-handedly down into the busy East-West Atlantic commercial plane traffic, then veered south towards the Caribbean, exactly as M hypothesised. Here, overcoming nerves, he locks onto the radio signal then onto the landing lights put out by SPECTRE and skillfully crash lands the plane on the surface of the sea. Proud and happy he walks along the wing of the slowly settling plane towards the motorboat of SPECTRE men who have come to meet him and the first one aboard casually slips a stiletto up under his jaw and into his brain which kills him immediately. Not very nice people.

We are introduced to Number 1 (SPECTRE numbers rotate on a monthly basis) Emilio Largo, a superbly fit figure of a man, Olympic swimmer, fencer etc (p.126), scion of a noble Roman family, with a hooked nose, the mouth of a satyr and enormous hands. He supervises the concealment of the sunken plane and the retrieval of the two atom bombs – using the facilities of his superb, purpose-built, luxury catamaran, the Disco Volante (Italian for ‘flying saucer’, p.134).

There is a tame nuclear physicist on board the ship and on the payroll, Kotze, who is given a speech explaining how you defuse an atomic bomb, then arm it with a timed fuse so you can drop it somewhere and make your getaway. As he explains all this to Largo (and the reader), Largo is wondering when the moment will be right to ‘eliminate’ him. Not very nice people. The bombs are stashed in a remote coral island, and this phase of the mission is complete.

Bond in the Bahamas

Once again Bond is in the sunny Caribbean – in this, as in many other respects, Thunderball feels like a rehash of themes and settings. Bond has quickly latched onto Largo’s mistress, Dominetta ‘Domino’ Vitali, an independent-spirited, beautiful young woman. (The way she is named after a game is reminiscent of Solitaire.) He accidentally on purpose bumps into her in a general store in Nassau and invites himself for a drive in her sporty MG then a drink and get-to-know-you. (We see Bond through her eyes, six foot, black hair, scar on right jaw, cruel smile, confident, p.145).

There is then another flashback, taking us how through Bond got to this point (exactly as the letter from the terrorists was followed by the account of the hijack of the plane which preceded it).

So we learn that Bond arrived in Nassau and went straight to a High Priority meeting with the Governor, Police Commissioner etc. He said he’s looking for a group of 10 or 20 or 30 men, decent and respectable, engaged on a completely innocent purpose, who probably arrived in the fairly recent past. The Police Commissioner mentions the annual Treasure Hunt crew: every year a yacht goes looking for legendary sunken treasure. This year it’s the Disco Volante owned by Emilio Largo, who has been joined by about twenty shareholders in the venture. Bingo!

—This is a really glaring example of the general rule that there is no detection in James Bond. Mr Big, Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, they are all identified very early on as the bad guys – the narrative interest comes not from slowly unveiling the truth, but from the elaborate skirting round each other, which leads to the torture scenes and then the final showdown. a) M had a hunch the hijacked plane flew to the Bahamas and, guess what, he’s dead right b) the police suggest the Largo’s treasure hunters are the only group that fit Bond’s bill and, guess what, they’re dead right.

Bond has identified the baddies by page 180 of this 350-page novel, though admittedly he isn’t absolutely certain they are the ones and, as his snooping makes him more and more certain, he still doesn’t know where the bombs are hidden. 170 pages remain of, well, snooping round, getting caught, getting beaten up, chatting up the girl, escaping, probably a climactic shoot-out of some kind…

Felix Leiter

Bond had asked for help from the CIA and goes to the airport to meet the agent who’s flying in with a state-of-the-art Geiger counter. It is – with heavy inevitability – Felix Leiter, his old bosom buddy with the metal hook instead of a hand (the result of being half-eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die). Leiter allows Fleming to really let his hair down and write loads of American pulp dialogue, with Bond joining in; their buddy conversations are always fun to read. But this is all very familiar territory.

Bond tells Leiter everything and invites him to go with him out to the Disco Volante, Bond posing as a rich Londoner who wants to buy the house Largo is currently renting. Largo is hospitality itself and shows them all over the impressive catamaran and promises to get his ‘niece’ (Domino) to show him the beach-front house. Leiter and Bond depart in their rented motorboat debating whether Mr Largo is really as squeaky clean as he seems – he didn’t show them about half the volume of the boat but then it is on a secret treasure hunt so why should he? And they didn’t see any of the ‘shareholders’ but then it was siesta time, maybe they were all napping…

There may be suspense for Bond, but there is none for the reader.

Confirmations

In quick succession:

1. Bond goes to the Nassau casino that evening where he meets Largo and Domino. First – in a scene which echoes the intense card game scenes in Casino Royale or Moonraker, Bond takes on Largo at baccarat and just about wins. He deliberately spooks Largo by mentioning the word ‘spectre’ several times to see what affect it has. Then Largo encourages him to go have a drink with Domino. She tells him her extended fantasy about the man portrayed on the front of packs of Players cigarettes, an entertaining piece of whimsy which reminds us that Fleming was also the author of the smash hit children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For the purposes of the plot, she lets slip that her real family name is Petacchi and that she has a beloved brother who is something in the air force. Like the Italian observer flying in the Vindicator. What a coincidence.

2. Bond borrows a scuba diving kit and swims underwater out to the Disco Volante. He confirms that there is a great seam in the hull which probably opens to allow ingress and egress of possibly naughty machinery. Barely has he done so than he is clobbered by the butt of a compressed gas harpoon and has a vividly described fight with an underwater guard, presumably from the boat which ends when the guard is attacked by a six foot barracuda. Dazed, Bond just about makes it back to shore and the waiting policeman who has accompanied him.

3. Bond and Leiter rent an amphibious plane and go scouting low over the sea, looking for the sunken plane. The odd circling of three sharks prompts Bond to go back to a particular area, land and again scuba dive to the ocean bed where, sure enough, he finds the plane hidden under a large tarpaulin. Fleming again gives a vivid description of the foulness of the water, polluted with the five corpses, and of their wrecked appearance, half eaten by sea creatures. He is particularly memorable on the interior of the plane which is absolutely stuffed with small octopuses which are eating the dead air crew. For the purposes of the plot he discovers a) the atom bombs are not on board – they have been removed, b) the body of Giuseppe Petacchi, and snaps off his identity tag, along with the rest of the crews, before finally escaping the nightmare scene and resurfacing by the flying boat.

While flying around and scouring maps, Leiter and Bond had discussed possible targets for SPECTRE’s attacks. They speculate that the first one might be against the NATO missile-firing base ‘at a place called North-West Cay at the eastern end of the Grand Bahamas’ (p.199). They fly near it, observing the rocket gantries, missile launchers, radar beacons and the rest of the paraphernalia.

Bond and Leiter had been keeping their respective services informed of developments and now are told that senior military men are flying in and Washington has dispatched a nuclear submarine, no less, to Nassau. Bond and Leiter must obey these orders, but have still not located the exact location of the bombs.

Snogging Domino

Back from the flight, and having assimilated the responses of their services, it is still daytime and Bond phones Domino at the house she and Largo are renting and casually asks if she’d like to go swimming. She gives directions to the beach where she’ll be and Bond races there in a Land Rover borrowed from the Governor’s staff. There follows a strange interlude which is meant to be moving: for Bond is affectionate and kind to her, all the time knowing he is about to break the news to her that her brother is dead, and that he was more than likely involved in a massive conspiracy to blackmail the world’s governments.

She emerges from the sea with some bits of black sea urchin in her foot and Bond very gently, very sensuously, sucks them out for her. Then carries her up to the primitive changing rooms and there they make love. And only then, does he tell her the truth. Tears. Recriminations. I hate you. Slowly she recovers as he presses on her the importance of the situation. Eventually he recruits her: will she agree to go on board the Disco Volante with the Geiger counter-disguised-as-a-camera which he will give her and snoop about: if she finds something come on deck; if nothing, remain in her cabin.

Bond leaves her to be collected by the Disco Volante and motors back to the docks to join the police who are now keeping it under surveillance. There is a message to join Leiter for the arrival of the nuclear submarine.

Nuclear submarine

The USS Manta arrives and Leiter and Bond go onboard to be greeted by the cheerful, confident commander P. Pedersen. They brief him on the whole situation including the crux that they don’t know where the bombs are. At this point they are all informed the Disco Volante has weighed anchor and steamed off north-west. The girl didn’t come up on deck, the pre-arranged signal that there were no bombs aboard, if she managed to carry out her search and not get caught, that is…

But Bond is still concerned: a) If the sub intercepts the Volante, they still won’t have the bombs and it’s just possible some other team is gathering and deploying them; b) Captain Pedersen informs Bond and Leiter the catamaran can skate easily over the countless reefs and shallows in the area, whereas the Manta can only follow guaranteed deep water channels, so they can’t give close chase to the baddies.

Aboard the Disco Volante

Cut to the interior of the Disco Volante, where Largo has called an emergency meeting of the ‘shareholders’ ie the other SPECTRE crooks. He announces to the shocked meeting that Domino was found snooping round with a camera which, on closer inspection, turned out to a Geiger counter: looks like someone put her up to it, so someone is on to them.

Domino has been detained and will be tortured to find out who commissioned her snooping. Meanwhile, the Omega plan goes ahead. The meeting is disrupted by one of the Russian delegates who sows seeds of doubt, saying while some of them are being frogmen accompanying the bomb to its destination, who’s to say the boat won’t weight anchor and scarper, leaving them in the lurch. Largo replies by shooting the complainer three times. We get the picture: SPECTRE are ruthless people.

Then Largo goes down to the cabin where Domino is tied spread-eagled to a bed, rips off her clothes and leans over her naked vulnerable body with a lighted cigar and a bucket of ice cubes, and starts to torture her. [This feels like it steps over a line: Fleming torturing Bond is one thing, as happens in the earlier novels – Bond is the hero and at least part of the mind of the male reader is experiencing the physical ordeals vicariously and wondering how he would fare. I think this is the first time we’ve seen a woman be tortured, really sadistically, cold-bloodedly tortured, and it’s not only not entertaining, but it feels wrong for Bond’s persona, for the feel of the books.]

Underwater fight

Bond and Leiter are aboard the American sub. The commander is under orders to take their orders, so Bond gives out a plan of battle to the best ten hand-picked men. They will wear skin-diving outfits, use makeshift spears, and attack Largo’s men wherever they find them.

Hours later the sub makes contact with the Wavekrest anchored off North-West Cay, the missile testing base, just as Bond and Leiter had speculated. Bond, Leiter and the ten best men suit up and exit the submarine with their makeshift weapons. They approach in a flanking movement the SPECTRE crew, but Bond immediately realises the odds are against them, as there are many more of the baddies, who have also got little propeller packs on their backs giving them greater mobility. In the middle of his posse sits Largo, riding an underwater sub which is towing the bomb.

A massive fight breaks out, Bond skewers several bad guys, before himself getting cut, cuffed, then saves Leiter’s life as a bad guy is about to shoot him, then escapes the melee to hunt down Largo. Largo is still riding the mini-sub and Bond throws himself onto it, they have a desperate cat-fight, but Bond manages to slip back onto the rudder and twist it so the machine rears up and breaks the surface, throwing them both off.

Exhausted Bond sinks to the bottom, only for Largo, still fighting fit, to approach him spear-gun at the ready. In a typically Flemingesque ghoulish detail, Largo clamps a baby octopus over Bond’s mask then puts his enormous hands round his throat to strangle him (ah, those enormous hands which have been continually referred to) and Bond is passing out, everything is going black, when….

The pressure has gone, Bond wipes the octopus away, Largo is on the ocean bed flailing with a big spear through his neck, and the girl Domino is behind him, harpoon gun in hand, her body covered in ugly red burn marks from the torture. Together, the wounded hero and heroine struggle to the surface.

Bond has been cut by a harpoon, clubbed in the head, exhausted himself fighting the rudder of the min-sub and then nearly strangled to death, all but blacking out before Domino saved him – but this, like many of the other scenes, felt to me rather like going through the motions: Bond has to be beaten to within an inch of his life because this is what happens in all Bond novels – it doesn’t necessarily follow from the actual action.

Certainly it was a tough fight, but doesn’t compare to being nearly incinerated at the climax of Moonraker, tortured to a bloody pulp in Casino Royale, or subjected to the degrading punishment in Dr No. His suffering, like so much else in the novel, feels willed in order to fit a formula.

Epilogue

Bond in hospital, as at the end of so many other adventures. Leiter visits and tells him what happened: CIA, MI6 et al now know all about SPECTRE, have identified Blofeld (who got away), their plan had been to bomb the missile launching base, then make Miami the second target. 10 men from the yacht including Largo were killed, six of the 10 volunteers from the submarine ditto, both bombs were successfully recovered. And, wow! that girl – she escaped by squeezing through a porthole with a diving suit and a harpoon gun, and saved Bond’s life. Totally believable.

Then Leiter’s gone – but all Bond wants to know about is Domino: Is she alive? How is she? Bond’s doctor comes in next and Bond feverishly asks after the girl. After hesitation, the doc tells Bond she’s next door, still in great pain from having been cruelly burned and tortured. Bond staggers into the next room, holds Domino’s hand as she regains consciousness and weakly murmurs to him, then collapses to the floor and passes out. She moves her pillow so she can lie and watch him.

The book may be manipulative, sentimental slop concocted from preposterous escapades and ridiculous escapes, but something in the desperation of their commitment, the fierceness of their ‘love’, made me burst into tears. Maybe all really fierce, heart-breaking loves are emblems of all others.


Co-authorship

By 1960 Fleming was deeply involved in various schemes for turning his creation into TV series or movies. Thunderball the novel itself originated as the screenplay for a movie which was a collaborative effort between Fleming and four others – Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, Ivar Bryce and Ernest Cuneo. After he published the novel, Fleming was sued by two of the collaborators who claimed part authorship of the plot, and the part ownership of the copyright explains why two movie adaptations were subsequently made, by different production companies (Thunderball 1965 and Never Say Never Again 1983 both, rather confusingly, starring Sean Connery.)

I may be influenced by this knowledge, but I think you can feel this troubled origin in the book: in certain turns of phrase which are unusual for Fleming, and in the way the plot – although just as garish and grandiose as other Bond novels – is somehow also very heavy and lumpy. Nuclear weapon threatens major city was the plot of Moonraker; the Caribbean was the setting of Live and Let Die, Dr No, the opening of For Your Eyes Only and tropical diving was the theme of The Hildebrand Rarity.

By this, the ninth book, it feels like the building blocks of a Bond novel have become so well-defined that they are transforming into clichés in front of the reader’s eyes.


Credit

Thunderball by Ian Fleming was published in 1961 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1961

The Bond novels

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

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)

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

Luxury

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

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

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

Sensual enjoyment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The set-up

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

Black culture

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

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

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

Voodoo

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

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

The plot

1. New York

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

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

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

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

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

2. On the train

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

3. St Petersburg, Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Jamaica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bond’s biography

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Other thrillers of 1954

The Bond novels

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

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’.

Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean (1967)

From the cable-car station on the lower slopes they had an excellent if distant view of the fire. ‘Are you responsible for this?’ she asked.
‘It was a mistake,’ Smith explained.
‘Yeah. His hand slipped,’ Schaffer added.
‘You two should audition for a turn on vaudeville,’ Heidi said dryly. (p.100)

This is cracking schoolboy entertainment, MacLean at the top of his game, delivering a cleverly-thought-out, thrill-a-minute page-turner, complete with a wise-cracking double act of tough guy heroes.

The plot

It’s 1944. US General Carnaby was flying to a rendezvous with the Russians and other Allies in Crete when his Mosquito airplane was shot down in Bavaria. Bad news, because the General carries in his head the most detailed plans for Operation Overlord, aka D-Day, of any man alive. He’s almost certainly been taken to the nearby Gestapo Headquarters at the notorious Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagle, an impregnable fortress where he’ll be tortured into telling what he knows and wrecking the D-Day operation. That’s why British Army Intelligence have assembled, within 24 hours, a team of six men with in-depth experience of working behind enemy lines, to rescue him.

Leading the team is Major John Smith, ‘the best agent in Europe’ (p.49), supported by a laconic American OSS officer, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, and the novel opens with a gripping scene as their lumbering Lancaster bomber flies through an impenetrable blizzard in order to parachute the six onto a remote plateau on the side of the Weissspitze mountain. From here they will trek down into the valley of the Eagle Castle, penetrate it, and rescue Carnaby.

From the start things go wrong, with Sergeant Harrod, the radio operator, found dead tangled in his parachute. Bad luck. Except Smith finds an excuse to go back to his body later, and confirms his hunch: Harrod’s neck was broken by a blunt instrument. And in the zero visibility of the blizzard, on the cliff-side, someone tries to pull away the rope Smith needs to get down the mountain. One of the men is a traitor!

And who is the young woman the flight instructor went to the back of the plane to fetch out of hiding once the six commandos had jumped, and who followed them out? After they’ve landed in the snow, discovered Harrod is dead, and got themselves half-way down the mountain, Smith makes an excuse to leave the others, during a rest period, and sneaks back to meet her.

She is Mary Ellison. Turns out she is also an intelligence agent and they have worked together in Italy. Now he gives her instructions: she has a new German identity. She is going to pretend to be the distant cousin of Heidi, from the bierkellar in the village, who frequently cleans and serves up in the castle. The buxom Heidi, trusty barmaid in the Zum Wilden Hirsch pub, turns out to be our longest-established spy in Bavaria. There are always staff shortages inside the castle, so she’ll get Mary a job there. Once inside, Mary will provide help for Smith and Schaffer to carry out their mission. Rendezvous at the Wilden Hirsch; Heidi will be expecting you.

In the pub

Once down in the village, the soldiers strip off their snow smocks to reveal German uniforms. They dump their stuff in the locked-up railway station then stroll confidently through the village among the hordes of other Alpenkorps, to a cluster of pubs, lovely and warm amid the Alpine snow. Smith selects the Wild Deer and they go into the raucous, smoke-filled boozy bierkellar, confidently order drinks and mingle with the throng. While she serves him, Smith is able to tell Heidi the barmaid that Mary has arrived and will join her soon: the plan is on.

But in the midst of the pub scene, when things are just starting to make sense, the Gestapo suddenly enter, enforcing silence on the drunken crowd of German soldiers, and demand to know who the foreign spies are. Surprisingly, Smith stands up and indicates himself and his colleagues. Thus the five Brits are bundled into two cars and driven off. Looks bad for our heroes. But Smith manages to hijack the car he and Schaffer are in, seizes their guns then turfs the Germans out into the snow, and then runs the car off a cliff into the nearby lake, before doubling back to the castle with Schaffer.

This incident, crucially, means they are separated from the other three guys who parachuted in with them, and who have been taken into German custody.

Up by cable car

Just what is the plan, anyway? First Smith and Schaffer will, at great peril, smuggle themselves into the Schloss by climbing onto the roof of one of the cable cars that go swinging up towards the castle as part of the Luftseilbahn or aerial cableway. Just as it pulls into the top station, they both leap onto the sloping roof overhanging the station entrance, providing a literal cliffhanger moment as Smith’s knife lodges in the wooden roof but Schaffer’s breaks and he begins to slip down towards the edge, towards the 300 foot fall to the rocks below. Cut to a close-up of Smith’s hand reaching out and grabbing Schaffer’s. He pulls him up and they manage to scrabble up onto the flat part of the roof! ‘I owe you one, buddy.’

Mary, having made it up to the castle and passed the various security checks, has been shown to her quarters which – handily – overlook this very roof. She pays out a rope attached to her bed, not unlike Rapunzel in the fairy tale letting down the rope for our heroes to swarm up it and – they are inside!

In the Gold Hall

They make their way to the grand ‘Gold Hall’ where they find Carnaby being questioned by senior Nazis – Colonel Kramer, Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service, and Reichsmarschall Julius Rosemeyer, Wehrmacht Chief of Staff – watched by the three commandos who parachuted in with them. Aha. Just as Smith suspected, all three of them are traitors.

Smith and Schaffer are just in time to witness the corny, stock WWII scene where the Germans regret that, since Carnaby will only give his name, rank and serial number, the enemy officers are forced to use ‘harsher measures’ ie a sexy female Nazi approaches with a tray of hypodermic syringes – the serious interrogation is about to begin.

It’s at this point that Smith steps forward – not to shoot, but to first incapacitate Schaffer (Thump! ‘Sorry, lootenant’), then calmly put his gun down and perform a massive double bluff. Since he is fluent in German (of course) and a terrific actor (naturally) he manages to persuade the assembled German officers that he, Smith, is one of their own most senior agents, and that the three double agents who are sitting quaffing brandy with them, they in fact are the real British agents. They obviously protest but Smith brings to bear an array of proof, including a midnight phone call to one of the Gauleiters of southern Germany, who cheerfully tells them that, ‘Yes, Smith is one of ours’ (since Smith has assiduously been posing as a German double agent for this man for two years).

The crux comes when Smith persuades the officers that the only way to know for sure whether the Doubtful Three are British or German agents, is to get them to write down the names and details of all the German agents and networks in Britain. Then they can compare their lists against the master one Smith brandishes in front of them. Aha. At last, the penny drops for the reader. This is the point of the entire operation – nothing to do with D-Day. It is all an elaborate double or treble bluff designed to get details of the Nazi spy networks in Blighty.

The guilty three are thus compelled to write down all these details under the watchful eye of Smith and the Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service and the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff. BUT, once they have finally finished, Smith seizes his gun again, throws another to Schaffer, and stands revealed as the real British agent. Ta da! Fooled you all. Now we have the names of all the Nazi spy networks in Britain!

BUT – Unfortunately, the senior Gestapo man in the castle, von Brauchitsch, has had his suspicions about the lovely Mary ever since accompanying her up in the cable car earlier that evening. Now he appears in the door and says in a cod Nazi accent: ‘Nobody move. Drop ze veppons,’ at which Smith instinctively turns and the Nazi shoots his gun out of his hand, breaking several fingers. From now on Smith is a wounded hero, bleeding from his hand and only barely able to pull off a whole string of heroics through superhuman courage and determination – like teenage boys everywhere would love to.

BUT – a moment later there is a soft woman’s voice: ‘Nobody move. Put down that gun, von Brauchitsch.’ It is Heidi, our longest-serving agent in southern Germany, who followed the Nazi along to the hall. Wow! How many thrills can MacLean pack into this cartoon narrative?

Smith and Schaffer tie and gag the Germans, lock the hall and gather the three traitors up, roped together (they’re going to be brought back to Blighty to stand trial). Thus begins the long sequence of their escape from the castle complete with lots of shooting and Schaffer setting off gelignite booby traps around the castle. Bang! There goes the radio room. Boom! There goes the courtyard. Crash! There goes the archive room, full of papers, and before you know it, the Nazis are running round like a ransacked ants’ nest, allowing our guys to make it back to that roof above the cable car station.

Cable car heroics

This is the famous sequence which defined both the movie and the novel and MacLean milks it for all it’s worth. Our heroes don’t just make their escape from a burning castle set on a vertiginous volcanic plug via a commandeered cable car – first of all there has to be a fight on a cable-car roof. For the three traitors they’ve been hustling through the chaotic castle and who they’ve carefully manhandled down into the (apparently empty) station, now slug Schaffer, grab his machine gun and jump into a down-bound car. Smith, realising what’s up, at the last minute leaps from the roof of the cable car housing – which slopes over the cable car entrance into the castle – down onto the slippery icy top of the car carrying the three traitors down to safety.

There follows a nail-biting sequence in which they shoot up through the roof with Smith dodging bullets. Then, as Smith slips and his legs dangle over the edge, down over the precipitous drop to the rocks below,  one of the traitors grabs hold of his legs, while the other one climbs up out a window and onto the slippery, frozen roof. And all this while Smith has only one good hand (remember the other one being injured in the Gold Hall?) What a legend!

Although you know it’s twaddle it is still terrifically exciting. You laugh but also shiver when the baddie who’s climbed up onto the car roof points his machine gun at the utterly defeated Smith, does a little baddie gloat (‘Not so clever now, eh, Smith?’) just as one of the pylons supporting the cable car looms up out of the darkness. ‘Behind you,’ says Smith, ‘Yeah, sure,’ says the baddie, then looks round and just has time to shriek before he is crushed against the massive steel pylon, his lifeless body then plummeting to into the depths below. What could be more satisfying to the teenage boy imagination?

The bus chase

More? Of course there’s more. They are nearly at the bottom station when they feel the car stop and begin to reverse. The Germans back up in the castle have obviously stormed the upper station (they had locked and barred its steel doors) and now they jump into the snowdrift. But not before Schaffer has thrown some gelignite on a short fuse into their car. Boom! That was the second cable car. No way down for the Jerries on the castle.

Our guys sneak through backstreets to the big shed they’d discovered way back in the early part of the novel, before they were arrested in the pub. Inside is the big yellow postal bus with an enormous snow plough attached at the front. What a stroke of genius. This allows MacLean to have Smith smash it through the padlocked doors of the barn, then drive it like a maniac through the village – swerving to smash a whole series of parked Jerry motorbikes, before roaring out to the road across the lake – where the troops in the nearby barracks open fire, and then a Tiger tank fires several armour-piercing shells harmlessly the length of the bus.

But what about the lorries, cars and motorbikes which have been scrambled to chase our heroes? Have our guys turn a corner and rattle over the rickety old wooden bridge over the swollen river; Schaffer jumps out and attaches some of his endless supply of gelignite to the pillars. So just as he scrambles back into the bus and it pulls away, and just as the first Jerry car hits the bridge – BOOM! Up it goes.

The payoff

They had radioed for help from the castle radio before everything went up in flames. Now a Mosquito, fastest plane in the world, cruises in to land at an auxiliary airfield where Smith has parked, flashing the bus’s lights. Across the strip they run and into the plane, which doesn’t even stop, but turns and takes off. Success!

And here comes the final one in the book’s long stream of twists and double-guesses. For the man who commissioned the entire escapade back in London, has flown in with the Mosquito, Colonel Wyatt-Turner. And it is only now, in the plane roaring back through the Alps, with his exhausted companions slumped around him, that Smith reveals the biggest secret of all; Wyatt-Turner, senior figure in British Intelligence, is himself a double agent. ‘You’ll never live to tell it,’ he sneers, suddenly lifting his Sten gun to point at Smith. ‘Pilot! Change your course to land at Lisle’ (in German-occupied France). ‘Not so fast,’ smiles Smith. ‘We suspected you all along. This whole operation was planned with a view to snaring you (and the other spies and networks).’ (‘Thanks for telling me, bud,’ quips Schaffer.)

Wyatt-Turner pulls the trigger of the Sten gun pointing at Smith. Nothing happens. Smith takes the firing pin out from his own pocket. ‘Yes, we made sure you’d have that gun. I thought it best to take precautions.’ ‘I’ll be tried for treason, won’t I?’ says Wyatt-Turner. ‘And hanged?’ He opens the plane door and steps out into mid-air. And that’s it. The last twist, the last revelation in this densely plotted adventure.

Smith shuts the plane door and snuggles up next to Mary. For them the war is over, their covers are blown and so no more active service. Everyone snuggles down for a safe flight back to Blighty.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The odd thing is, it’s a comedy. MacLean’s prose style is terrible and his facetious tone often grates, but the novel comes alive whenever Smith and Schaffer are alone together to do their double act, Schaffer the morose Yank worried that Mrs Schaffer’s little boy is never going to get home, referring throughout to Smith as ‘boss’, while Smith is all understated Limey irony.

‘I thought it was horses you were scared of?’ Smith said mildly.
‘Horses, Dobermann pinchers, you name it, I’m scared of it. All it’s got to have is four feet.’ He looked gloomily at the burning station. ‘I’d have made a rotten vet.’ (p.93)

It was written in 1966-67, a time of comedy thriller double acts, of buddy movies, of two guys wisecracking their way through perilous adventures.

‘Ready when you are boss.’
‘That’s now. I have my bearings. First left, down the stairs, third left. The gold drawing-room. Where Colonel Kramer holds court. Complete with minstrels’ gallery.’
‘What’s a minstrels’ gallery?’ Schaffer enquired.
‘A gallery for minstrels.’ (p.111)

It is a cartoon, a boy’s own wartime adventure, but of its genre it’s a masterpiece.

The movie

Apparently MacLean was commissioned by his neighbour in Switzerland, Richard Burton, to write a war movie he could take his son to, and that’s what gave him the idea to write something full of thrills and spills. Fascinatingly, he worked on the screenplay and novel simultaneously, and it’s interesting to compare the two. The movie ditches some of the complexities of the book in favour of far more bangs from Schaffer’s gelignite, and far, far more German being shot. Whereas in the book Smith makes a point of going back to untie the German radio operator that they’d tied up, once the castle gets burning – in the movie scores and scores of Germans are cut down like nine-pins by Clint Eastwood’s inexhaustible Schmeisser machine gun.

The movie was made and released within a year of the book (1968) and was a box office hit, partly because of the presence of Burton at his craggy best, alongside the gorgeous young Clint Eastwood, but also helped by the spectacular Alpine scenery and the cracking score from Ron Goodwin, both on display in the opening sequence.

Credit

Where Eagles Dare published by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd in 1967. All quotes from the 1986 Fontana paperback edition.


Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses Gruelling war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone Herioc war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head A motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians fleeing Singapore endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier Secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key Government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader Counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous First officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug Agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new genetically engineered supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title, and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare Six commandos are parachuted into snowy South Germany to rescue an American General who has the plans for D-Day and is being held captive in the inaccessible Schloss Adler, the Eagle’s Castle. Except this is merely a cover for a deeper mission – and the pretext for a ripping yarn chock-full of twists, turns and nailbiting excitement.
1968 Force 10 From Navarone Three of the heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 Seawitch Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 Goodbye California Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.

Plot

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

Eric Ambler’s novels

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

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

Air Bridge by Hammond Innes (1951)

The man was desperate. It showed in his eyes, in the way he talked. He hadn’t given up hope. I think that was what made the atmosphere so frightening. He wasn’t quite sane. A sane man would see that the thing was impossible. But he wouldn’t. He was still thinking in terms of getting those engines into the air. It was incredible – incredible and frightening. No man should be driven by such violent singleness of purpose. (p.105)

Air Bridge is set during the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from June 1948 to May 1949.

It is a first-person narrative by another of Innes’s ‘everybloke’ figures. Here it is Neil Fraser, who flew bombers during the War till he was shot down and captured and spent 18 months in a German prisoner of war camp. He escaped, stole a plane and flew back to Blighty, causing quite a stir at the time.

But, like so many wartime heroes, he finds himself unemployed after the War and drifts into a racket flying old planes illegally out of Blighty to France, to be traded on to Palestine. However, his most recent flight is intercepted before it takes off, he legs it, nicks a police car, dumps it and stumbles through woods to a proper airstrip, where he comes across a couple arguing in the old hangar, the man gives chase, they fight in the woods and the man knocks him out.

This opening is probably intended to be mysterious and gripping but I found it confusing. It does establish the narrator as a crook liable to arrest by the police (like numerous previous Innes heroes) and therefore vulnerable to blackmail.

When I learned this novel was about the Berlin Airlift I was excited because I like fictions which tackle historical subjects and, although there are countless novels about the War, there are not so many about the murky post-War period. However, Air Bridge has a relatively small set of characters and the story is intensely personal, not political or historical.

The plot 1 – Membury

Despite their unconventional introduction Fraser ends up becoming friendly with the puncher, Bill Saeton (pronounced Satan), who offers him a job helping to build new-specification diesel plane engines. The plan is to attach these to the plane in the hangar so it will be ready to join the Berlin Airlifts soon after Christmas 1948. However, it slowly emerges that:

  • Saeton looted the design for the new diesel engines from Germany at the end of the War; though he claims the looted design didn’t work and needed extensive adapting by…
  • His colleague Tubby Carter, a quiet honest man who gets on with his job of building the parts for the second engine. His wife, Diana, cooks for the boys while they work but, in a couple of tense scenes, it becomes clear she fancies Saeton like mad (forcing herself into his arms, telling him to rip her dress off etc) which eventually leads Tubby to send her away.
  • The Displaced person Else Langan, who’s living at the nearby manor house, turns out to be none other than the daughter of the German engineer who designed the new engines (before he was hauled off to Dachau for having a remote connection to the Hitler assassination plot). She has travelled across Europe and England to spy on the development of the engines and, if possible, to smuggle out their design to a German company, Rauch Motoren.

This first part of the novel focuses very much on the complex and tense relationships between this cast of five. The infidelity scenes are electric; there is also a series of scenes where Fraser tries to seduce Else, at a local dance, then on a walk through the woods. The frustration Fraser feels when these fail and the bitter, mixed feelings of the orphan daughter German emigrée, Else, are memorably captured.

Plot 2 – the crash

Part one climaxes when the three men take the old Tudor aircraft into the air using the two new engines they’ve built and she flies like a dream. However, in an ironic twist, as they return to the base they find the undercarriage won’t come down, no matter what they do. Saeton makes Fraser and Tubby bale out then crash lands the plane, just about surviving – but the plane is a write-off.

Tubby announces he is leaving. A contact has got him a job as flight officer on the Airlift. A day or two after leaving he phones the airfield to say he’s got Fraser a job, too. It is now that Saeton springs his ‘satanic’ plan. He tells Fraser: Go and sign up, fly Airlift planes. Then one time when you’re flying over the Soviet sector, pretend the plane is going to crash, get the crew to bail out, fly back here to Membury, we’ll swap the engines for our new diesel engines, then volunteer for the Airlift, then return with this plane, but I’ll change all the serial numbers, no-one will know it’s the old one, and we’ll get to publicise our new engine design, and on the back of that fame set up an international charter firm and become millionaires!

Fraser points out every possible flaw in the plan, starting with the iniquity of dumping innocent men out into the Soviet sector but Saeton turns nasty and threatens to turn Fraser in to the police. Does he fancy another stint in prison? This is where there’s some very characteristic Innes writing, describing the pure fear, the claustrophobia, the horror of imprisonment which the hero feels, which breaks him out in a cold panic sweat. No. Not that again.

‘You bastard!’ I screamed at him, suddenly finding my voice. I called him a lot of other names. I had got to my feet and I was trembling all over, the sweat breaking out in prickling patches across my scalp and trickling down my forehead. I was cold with fear and anger. And he just stood there, watching me, his shoulders hunched a little forward as though expecting me to charge him, a quiet confidential smile on his lips. (p.110)

And so, reluctantly, Fraser agrees to do it.

Plot 3 – the plane heist

Fraser travels to the airfield in Germany and is shown the ropes (all accurately described by Innes who went and researched the locations in person). He is allotted a couple of flight assistants but, to his horror, Tubby is his navigator. This makes the Heist scene very intense as, once they’re over the Soviet Zone, Fraser fiddles with the engines to cut them out, and persuades the other two to bale out. But Tubby, on the verge of joining them, comes back to the cockpit to give Fraser time to put on his own parachute – only to realise what Fraser’s up to and the two get into a fist fight which quickly escalates as Tubby grabs a wrench. In the heat of the moment Fraser punches Tubby who hits his head on the fuselage and then, to Fraser’s horror, slips unconscious out of the gaping open door in the side of the plane.

Fraser regains control of the plane and flies it back to Membury where there are some pretty heated scenes as Fraser and Saeton accuse each other of murdering Tubby. In angry silence they switch the engines on the Tudor, alter the serial numbers and make other changes. This takes a few days, time for Saeton to offer his services to the Airlift and get snapped up, so they both fly back to Germany.

Plot 4 – the final act

Saeton flies a guilt-stricken Fraser back to Germany and on to the exact location where Tubby’s body fell out. As luck would have it, it was near the abandoned airfield of Hollmind and Saeton lands there. They’ve barely begun searching for Tubby’s body before Saeton announces he’s flying to the Airlift airfield, Fraser can stay and search if he wants. Berlin is only 30 miles south-east, he can walk it. (In light of the intense security, the electrified barbed wire fences and border patrols which we associate with the Iron Curtain, it is fascinating to learn that at this early stage it was possible to walk across the various zones.)

So Fraser begins optimistically looking for Tubby but the snow is falling, it’s early January, and he quickly begins to suffer from the cold, exposure, hunger etc. Until he finds Tubby’s helmet – then shreds of parachute – so Tubby’s alive! Then Fraser stumbles onto a track through the woods and evidence of a cart having stopped for a while and the snow all mashed up. Maybe a peasant stopped and loaded Tubby onto his cart?

Fraser follows the track to an isolated farmhouse and there finds Tubby, badly injured (broken arm, fractured ribs) being looked after by a kindly German couple whose son, who fought in the Wehrmacht, has disappeared into Russia after the War. (This couple and the abandoned room of their son which they keep as a shrine to his memory, are just one of the many memorable vignettes in the novel.)

After himself being tended to and recovering, Fraser promises Tubby he’ll be back and makes his way partly on foot, partly hitch-hiking German lorries down to Berlin. Here he is able to walk through back streets from the Russian to the British sector. He arrives back at Wunstorf airfield almost delirious but determined to tell Diana, Tubby’s wife, that he’s alive.

Imagine his (and our) surprise when the airfield authorities tell him the Russians have confirmed they’ve found the plane wreckage and a body! Case closed. In his delirious exhausted state, the more Fraser rants about Saeton’s complicated scheme the less the authorities believe him, finally carting him off to hospital to be sedated.

Is the Russian report true? Is the body really Tubby’s? Did the Russians discover him hiding at the farm and murder him? Can Fraser persuade a distraught Diana that her husband is still alive? As Saeton walks into the mess triumphant with the success of his new engine, can Fraser persuade him to risk everything and fly him back to the abandoned airfield so they can rescue Tubby? Will Saeton be punished for his Machiavellian plots or convince everyone Fraser is delirious? Will Fraser’s part in the whole scam be uncovered? Will anybody believe him?

You’ll have to get hold of the book and find out for yourself.

Sex

Innes writes honestly and candidly about male sexual desire, its all-consumingness and its banality. The scene where Fraser and Tubby accidentally eavesdrop on the latter’s wife drunkenly propositioning Saeton is powerful and convincing, as is Saeton’s contemptuous rejection of her. As is Tubby’s quiet, dignified decision to send her away from Membury but to stay on himself, to keep working on the engines, his one true love.

In a different way, Fraser’s relationship with Else is so peculiar and erratic that it carries a kind of conviction. She partners him to a dance, but spurns him, then lets him kiss her out in the woods, but then gets angry at the memory of her father, dragged off by the Gestapo and the way Saeton is exploiting his designs. Hot, then cold, then hot again. Confusing, like life.

Reunited in Berlin there is a stirring scene in her poky little flat where he watches her washing in freezing cold water, admiring her body while she watches him watching her. Somehow he controls his raging desire.

Without thinking I had turned towards her and then the future and Tubby was driven out of my mind by the sight of Else leaning over the basin washing herself. She was naked to the waist, and her firm breasts looked big and warm in the soft lamplight. (p.216)

A decade later Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley almost ignored female anatomy. Eric Ambler is too detached and urbane to do this kind of thing. Graham Greene discusses sexual activities but always with disgust. Innes stands out from the thriller writers I’m reading for his familiar and relaxed attitude to sex: it isn’t repressed or concealed in his texts, but it is there in a very male, very 1950s, very chaste interest in boobs – the curve of her breasts is a recurrent aspect of the Contessa in this book’s predecessor, The Angry Mountain, and the hero noticing the large bust and pert nipples of the heroine were one of the striking features of The Killer Mine, striking because that kind of candour is generally absent from most of the other thrillers I’ve read from this period. Two years after Air Bridge Ian Fleming would publish Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books, with their graphic descriptions of the hero’s rather sadisticic sexual tastes.

Innes stands clear of all these rivals in the thriller space. His candour about women’s physical characteristics and his male character’s lust for them seems to me clean and honest and is, I think, linked with Innes’ vivid descriptions of healthy physical exercise, the enjoyment of skiing and sailing which dominates several of his other books. While the main concern of the novels is with characters being nasty to each other, there is nonetheless a thread of pure physical enjoyment running through them which lights up his texts.

Anyway sex, or a pulpy soft porn ambience, tends, as the novels progress, to shed or left behind in favour of the ‘real thing’, the understanding a man and a woman reach when they are thrown together by adversity and suddenly see themselves facing a joint future together. The novels almost all have this trajectory from superficial sensual attraction between the male and female leads, to a ‘deeper’ understanding and optimistic sense of a shared future.

The future

Many of Innes’ novels close with an explicit reference to the future being bright.

His heroes are often worried, haunted, hunted men. The extremities of the plot often serve to ‘cure’ them, and leave them with a clearer sense of who they are and what they want. (These aren’t profound books; but this journey towards greater psychological certainty stirs something profound in the reader.)

Through the exigencies of the melodramatic plot the hero reaches a new level of confidence, about himself and about the future. And it is always connected to the relationship with the nubile female in the story clicking into place, often after a litany of misunderstandings and arguments.

This ‘future’ always means a) escaping from the complexity of the current situation b) hand in hand with a young woman the situation has brought him together with.

I wanted to say, ‘Damn the bloody engines!’ I wanted to tell them that they’d already cost the lives of two men. And then I looked up and saw Else watching me. There was excitement – a sort of longing in her eyes. And then I knew what the future was. (p.253)

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This is a great evocative cover by the celebrated popular illustrator Al Rossi, but it is an idealised version of the text. Fraser is not a hero, he’s a crook. The girl in the story is by no means an adoring dolly bird but a tough ex-Nazi. And there are no men in the shadows pursuing him. The story implied by this heroic cover looks arguably more interesting than the actual Innes novel.

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

PS – Paradise Lost

The obligatory mention of Paradise Lost comes on page 114 from Field, the navigator who flew in bombers over Germany during the War, and has been involved in the Berlin Airlift for four months – ‘Ever read Milton’s Paradise Lost? Well, that’s Germany.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler (1953)

‘Funny things some of these old inheritance cases,’ observed Mr Sistrom absently. ‘They make perspectives. A German dragoon of Napoleon’s time deserts after a battle and has to change his name. Now, here we sit, over a hundred years later and four thousand miles away, wondering how to deal with a situation arising out of that old fact.’ (p.63)

These post-War novels of Ambler’s feel slower, more elaborate, more careful and therefore a lot more plausible than the smash-and-grab pre-War thrillers. I thought The Schirmer Inheritance was starting off slowly, as Judgment on Deltchev does – but in fact it carries on slowly. Slow and methodical turns out to be its style.

The story

It is 1807, during the Napoleonic wars. Retreating from defeat through a frozen wasteland a Prussian sergeant named Schirmer deserts his company, rides for days through barren snowbound wastes to a hut with smoke rising. Confronts the inhabitant, a starving woman, she with an axe, he with his carbine. Offers food in return for shelter. She says what food; he shoots his horse: this is the food. They unite and survive, in the winter sow crops, he is integrated into the family as a worker, marries the daughter who had threatened him with the axe, has a son, Karl. More war brings the Russians dangerously close so he and family move west into Germany, but here he risks being identified as a deserter so he changes his suname to Schneider. Wife dies, he marries again and has ten Schneider children, but doesn’t bother to change surname of his one son, Karl Schirmer.

100 years or so later, in 1938 an old lady, Amelia Schneider Johnson, dies in Pennsylvania with no relatives or heirs. When police examine the house they find a tin under her bed with bonds worth some $4 million which she inherited from her brother, Martin Schneider, a soft drinks tycoon, who has no children.

A local law firm is charged with finding if there are any blood relatives. The press get hold of it and some 8,000 (!) people apply for the money (it is still the great Depression in America). The lawyers quickly establish that Amelia was the daughter of German immigrants. The law firm dispatches an investigator to Germany whose work is interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two.

The novel proper gets under way when, soon after the end of the War, junior lawyer George Carey is lumbered with the job of clearing out the entire basement room, which is overflowing with the folders and correspondence from this old case. He stumbles across a box left by the investigator full of intriguing papers and photographs, so he goes to see the retired and ill investigator at his home.

Interviews

This sets the pattern of the novel: piecing together the story by interviewing people, each interview filling in a bit more of the Schirmer family tree and throwing up leads of more people to interview.

  • Moreton: retired investigator. Had established Franz Schirmer’s marriage to Maria Dutka, births of Karl and Hans, his name change, his remarriage, his subsequent ten further children. Establishes that none of them survived to outlive Amelia. Pursues Karl through provincial German records: he had six children: tracked down five who had left no heirs. Which left the sixth, Friedrich b. 1887. He did survive Amelia but had died before Moreton arrived in Bad Schwennheim. But had a son, Johann. Here the trail runs dry, WWII breaks out, Moreton returns to the US, the legal firm drops the case. A key witness had been Father Weichs who knew the Schneider family. So Carey is despatched by his law firm to Paris, where he is provided with a top knotch translator, the young and attractive and ice-cold Miss Kolin, before travelling to Bad Schwennheim to interview…
  • Father Weichs: was confessor to Friedrich Schirmer. He had a bad falling out with his son and daughter-in-law and was sent away. He never met the son, Johann. But he met his son, Johann’s only child, Franz Schirmer, who had become a parachutist during the War, was wounded and chose to convalesce near the last reported location of his beloved grandfather. Father Weichs concedes there were more photographs than Moreton took and stored in the legal file: but they were pornographic, and he burnt them.
  • In Cologne, from old Army records, they find the full biography of Franz Schirmer, reported missing presumed dead in Greece 1944. Next-of-kin Ilse Schirmer, Elsass Strasse. That address is a bombed-out ruin. They discover it actually belongs to the neighbour, Frau Gresser. She tells them that Friedrich, the father, was the real brain, a trained book-keeper. Johann the son was a drunk. However, the family bust up after a fateful evening when Friedrich tried to seduce his daughter-in-law. Johann threw him out, but was useless without him. Meanwhile, she has the letter from Franz the parachutist’s officer, Leubner, informing Ilse that her son was killed in an ambush by Greek partisans at the end of the War.
  • In Geneva, they interview M. Hagen of the Red Cross who was in Greece during the War who provides background to the civil war in Greece, communists versus nationalists. When told where Sergeant Franz was attacked, Hagen says it will have been by communist partisans (ELAS) under the command of one ‘Markos’.
  • They travel to Salonika with an introduction to Colonel Chrysantos of Greek Military Intelligence. His subordinates dig out records which record details of the attack, its location and the partisan leader, Phengaros, who led it. He is still alive, though in prison.
  • They interview Phengaros in Salonika prison. He confirms his leadership of partisans but claims everyone who took part in that particular attack is now dead. The lieutenant accompanying them points out this is simply because Phengaros is protecting any living colleagues and offers to torture him to get the names which Carey embarrassedly rejects.
  • They go to the mountain village of Vodena, to the scene of the actual ambush, and find the graves the German army dug for their comrades killed by the partisans. An old man in the village says the partisans came from a nearby village called Florina.
  • In Florina they meet captain Streftaris who says he can find the truth. he passes them onto the morbidly obese owner of a wine shop, Madame Vassiotis. She confirms that Schirmer was in the lead vehicle of the German convoy, it was blown up by a partisan land mine, his body was in the road, her contacts even secured the burnt strap of  his water-bottle with his name on it. Since Carey hadn’t told the captain the name of the German they were looking for, in his legal opinion this counts as definitive proof that the quest is over. The last possible inheritor of the Schirmer legacy is dead. Case closed. That night he is depressed. it had been colourful and exciting…

So why, when he goes up to his hotel room that night, does he find it has been comprehensively searched and a man is waiting for him in the dark with a gun?

Part two

The man – incongruously a Cockney-accented Brit – puts down his gun, accepts a cigarette from Carey and says he knows all about his investigations. Would he like to know more? Well, be at a certain cafe between 4 and 5pm. Carey is there and finds his bill returned with a scribbled note: be outside the cinema at 8pm. He is and is collected in a battered lorry which drives him and Miss Kolin high up into the mountains, from where they are met and have to stalk over landslides, across country, up paths to a ruined house which is now the HQ of bandits. And into the lighted room where they are sampling the local plum brandy walks – Sergeant Schirmer!

The text then recounts what happened after Schirmer’s convoy was attacked by the Greek partisans in ’44, in a prolonged section of historical flashback which parallels the opening narrative about Franz’s great-great-grandfather. This parallelism between a German on the run in Napoleon’s Europe and in post-Hitler Europe is neatly captured by the jacket illustration of the 1953 Heinemann hardback edition I read. All is explained to Schirmer who is delighted above all to find out the parallel with his ancestor – both sergeants, both deserters, both wounded in the arm, both survivors.

My true inheritance is the knowledge you have brought me of my blood and of myself. So much has changed and Eylau is long ago, but hand clasps hand across the years and we are one. (p.269)

The end

Schirmer refuses his inheritance. Turns out he and the cheeky cockney British Army deserter who accompanies him everywhere, fought together for the Greek communist bandits for four years. But when Tito closed the Yugoslav border to them, the band’s days were numbered and they and a handful of others evolved into genuine bandits and bank robbers. They rob banks and financial houses with the inside help of old communist sympathisers, then retreat a few miles across the border into Yugoslavia where such a small gang is tolerated. To go to America and claim the inheritance would inevitably result in publicity, his photo being everywhere, and risk being extradited back to Greece for his crimes. Instead, he writes George a farewell letter and leaves along with Miss Kolin for parts unknown.

In the most startling twist, Miss Kolin who has been upright and proper and frigid and distant (despite tucking away formidable quantities of brandy at every port of call), Miss Kolin – of slavic birth – who has vehemently denounced German soldiers as murdering rapists, Miss Kolin who – on their second visit to Schirmer’s hideout in the hills, leaves a trail of coloured markers behind them to lead the Greek military to the safe house, Miss Kolin who – when her treachery is revealed – attacks Schirmer and throws bottles at him only to have him punch her, slap her, and punch her again so hard she can’t get back up – against all probability, later that night George hears Schirmer visit Miss Kolin in the room they’ve locked her in – and have sex with her. Loud enough to be heard through walls. In the morning she voluntarily leaves with Schirmer. His note even hints that she wants to marry him and have his children. She has become devoted to him. Funny old world.

a) It is a further parallel with the situation of his great-great-grandfather, who had the stand-off with the starving young peasant woman with the axe. One minute they were going to kill each other. Then they killed and ate the horse. In the spring they married and had children. Same here. Deadly enemies right up to the moment when… they fall into bed together!

b) The Cockney, Arthur, says it takes all sorts. Maybe all she needed was ‘a damn good seeing-to’ all along, though one is wary of such an outrageously sexist interpretation.

c) Maybe it’s an early example in fiction of a woman masochist. Though in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) there is some wild sado-masochistic sex. It’s certainly a first and a new note in Ambler.

d) The same year Schirmer came out, 1953, saw the publication of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Fleming’s novels were to contain large amounts of sadism and masochism. Maybe it was in the spy-pulp-thriller air. Maybe it was socially permissible to write openly about people’s peculiar sexual proclivities. Maybe it was now permissible to describe such things in print as it hadn’t been even a decade earlier…

Anyway, George’s quest has failed. The Schirmer Inheritance will end up reverting to the Commonwealth of Philadelphia ie the government.

George put the letters in his pocket, got his briefcase from his room and walked up through the pine trees. It was a fine, fresh morning and the air was good. He began to think out what he would have to say to Colonel Chrysantos. The Colonel was not going to be pleased; neither was Mr Sistrom. The whole situation, in fact, was most unfortunate.
George wondered why it was, then, that he kept laughing to himself as he walked on towards the frontier. (Last page)

Related links

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Eric Ambler’s novels

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

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