An unattainable ideal

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A Legacy of Spies
by John Le Carré,
Penguin Books 2018 (2017)

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
— George Smiley. Chapter 13

It is the second decade of the 21st century. Peter Guillam, retired spy, contemplates events in the mid-1990s, not long after the MI6 building was completed in 1994, and also earlier on in the Cold War, in the late fifties and early sixties. He himself is in his mid-eighties but his memories of twenty and sixty years before are as sharp as ever.

But old habits die hard. For someone who has been in the secret services for so long, he is careful to mix in disinformation as well as misinformation into his accounts to his interrogators, and to us. And the author too, also with a background in the secret services during the Cold War: we have to beware over which parts of his narrative are ‘real’ and which parts are unreliable.

The clue, after all, is in the title. Are we to imagine the novel is to do with a remnant of retired spies from an earlier period? Is that the legacy, rather as the erstwhile ‘Circus’ building has been superseded by Vauxhall Cross? Or is it the sins of yesteryear’s spies that have come back to bite them on the bottom? Is the ‘legacy’ in fact both of spies and of spying? Or is the author having his own little joke?

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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From transcript to transmission

Flowers, buds and leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla [credit: Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia]

Kate Atkinson: Transcription
Doubleday 2018

The title of this novel, as with many novels of ideas, is a key to understanding what unfolds in its pages. The main protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, works for MI5 during the war transcribing the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, themselves entrapped by spy posing as one of them.

But is the spy what he seems? This is a second level of transcription: is what we read on the page an accurate record of what has transpired, or is it a best-fit interpretation, or indeed a false record? In metafictional terms, are the facts described in this novel the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

The narrative seesaws between 1940 and 1950, from global conflict to Cold War, framed by a flash-forward to 1981. Juliet herself moves from MI5 to the BBC — from transcripts to transmissions, as it were — and yet the manufacturing of ‘facts’ continues with children’s programming, especially the dramatic reconstructions of how life was supposed to have been lived in Britain in times past. And, indeed, in the ‘present’. Has everything been a lie?

Continue reading “From transcript to transmission”

Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)

Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.

It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.

Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.

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Joining dots

Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery
Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)

Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.

On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.

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Scorn and pity

Entrance to The Oxford Arms Inn, Warwick Lane demolished in 1878. Image by Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’s record of threatened buildings (Museum of London)

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)

“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

Continue reading “Scorn and pity”

Into the woods

George Frederic Watts Little Red Riding Hood (1890: public domain)

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat
Faber & Faber 2015

An impressive debut novel, The Girl in the Red Coat thoroughly deserves its plaudits. Part magic realism, part fairytale, part contemporary fiction (at one stage the 9/11 event is playing out on television) Kate Hamer has created an unputdownable story that has had many readers finishing it in a night, though I steeled myself to stretch it out a bit longer. Its theme is a harrowing one for anyone with a child, namely the disappearance of that child without a trace. The author swaps between two viewpoints, the mother Beth Wakefield and her daughter Carmel, so we see developments through both their eyes; and, as time goes on, we too begin to wonder if there will be any optimistic resolution to Beth and Carmel’s tale.

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A Cassandra role

Extraterrestrial organism at high magnification: still from The Andromeda Strain (1971)

Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain
Ballantine Books 1993 (1969)

Certainly the Wildfire team was under severe stress, but they were also prepared to make mistakes. They had even predicted that this would occur. What they did not anticipate was the magnitude, the staggering dimensions of their error. They did not expect that their ultimate error would be a compound of a dozen small clues that were missed, a handful of crucial facts that were dismissed.

— From Chapter 24, The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton’s 1969 techno-thriller is in some ways an update of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but instead of invading Martians being defeated by a earth-borne microbes (or “putrefactive and disease bacteria” as Wells has it, our “microscopic allies”) here it is the extraterrestrial microscopic organisms that threaten humankind. Brought back to earth by a Project Scoop satellite, they kill human beings by almost instantly clotting their blood. A top secret team codenamed Wildfire is tasked with retrieving, analysing, assessing and counteracting this virulent invader before it spreads to the general population. Holed up in an underground lab, they have a scant few days to come up with solutions; this being a thriller, things do not go smoothly.

Put thus baldly The Andromeda Strain appears to be a fairly humdrum novel, its premise familiar from scores of dystopic novel plotlines and SFF films and TV series. But, bearing in mind the date of its release — at the height of a flurry of manned space missions (though just three years from the last Apollo mission to the moon) and on the crest of a wave of optimism in the march of science and technology in the face of Cold War tensions — its then impact isn’t hard to imagine. The nightmare scenario of an invisible killer chimed in with fears of Russian aggression — remember, the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies had in 1968 invaded Czechoslovakia, a country at the heart of Europe. While the US became more mired in a disastrous Vietnam conflict, despite opposing a technologically poorer nation, on the other hand it had sent a mission around the moon; and computer sciences seemed to be announcing new advances on a daily basis.

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Stalking the pages of history

steffani-agostino
Agostino Steffani

Donna Leon The Jewels of Paradise
Arrow Books 2013 (2012)

Biographers are akin to stalkers: they remorselessly research the background to their victims, obsessively familiarise themselves with their subjects’ feats and foibles, and lurk around in their vicinity hoping to pick up tidbits of information to feed their fascination. So do historical researchers, and so do fiction writers — but with one major difference. When the subject is deceased, or even imaginary, they are not harmed, nor is their personal privacy invaded or their equanimity threatened.

In The Jewels of Paradise musicologist Caterina Pellegrini finds herself drawn back to her native Venice by the promise of research into the papers left by a mysterious Baroque composer who, she subsequently discovers, is one Agostino Steffani. But that’s not all that’s mysterious about her job. Who are the strange Venetian cousins, Stievani and Scapenelli, who have hired her for this hush-hush job, and what role does the equally opaque lawyer Andrea Moretti have to play in all this? And who is that man following her one evening?

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Miching mallecho

Cover art from UFO Journal June 1950
Cover art from UFO Journal (June 1950)

John Wyndham Plan for Chaos
Edited by David Ketterer and Andy Sawyer
Penguin Books 2010 (2009)

Here is a curiosity: a novel by the author of The Day of the Triffids, written around the same time (1948 to 1951) but abandoned, only to see the light of day around sixty years later when it’s finally published. It’s not difficult to see why Wyndham gave up on it — its compound of different genres, disparate themes and mangled speech patterns make for awkward reading — and yet it’s an interesting experiment which, given radical tweaking, could have been made to work.

The basic set-up is that supporters of the Nazi cause have survived into the 1970s, somewhere in South America we deduce, where they have built a secret underground complex. Here their clandestine wartime experiments for perpetuating a master race have resulted in the successful breeding of human clones; all that is required is to fool the superpowers into annihilating each other with atomic bombs — the chaos of the novel’s title — after which the new Germans will re-populate the earth. Their technicians have also developed flying saucer technology and cloaking devices, causing international consternation and confusion in a world unaware of their existence.

Into this massive conspiracy stumbles Johnny Farthing, an American magazine photographer with a mixed British and Swedish background. Continue reading “Miching mallecho”

Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith The Two Faces of January Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

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Winter chills

laptop_09
http://www.clipartheaven.com/

To Trudi
From Scott

Hi Trudi
You may not remember me but we were introduced at Shona’s party. There wasn’t time to say hi or anything because Shona’s surprise present interrupted everything just then! Anyway, I hope you don’t mind me contacting you out of the blue but I thought nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hope you don’t mind.

Cheers, Scott

To Scott
From Trudi

So, hi Scott
Sorry I don’t remember you from the party, things were a little bit lively. Not sure why you’re contacting me, where’d you get my email?

Trudi

Hi Trudi
Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you. I got your email off Shona’s newsletter where she’d cc’d everybody. It’s just that I heard you’d gone to do History at Leicester Uni at more or less the same time as me, and I didn’t remember our paths crossing. I was in the same year as Natalie and her gang but I guess you must have been the year ahead or behind. Anyway, no worries, I’m not stalking you or anything, just wanted to compare notes if that was OK.
Anyway, I’ll back off if you’d rather not chat.

All the best, Scott

Hi Scott
You were in Natalie’s year? Wow, she was something else, wasn’t she, what’s she doing now, you any idea? Sorry I was a bit suspicious, you hear so much about weirdoes contacting you out of the blue. Did you know Jeremy too? I had a bit of a thing for him but he didn’t come back for his third year and we kinda lost contact, but then I was with Kevin for two years before finals. And you? What are you doing?

Trudi

Hi Trudi
That’s weird, Jeremy was at school with me! But when we went to Leicester we kind of made new friends. I know he suddenly swapped courses to do French, but then I lost contact too. He must have done his year abroad then, you know his mum was Swiss so perhaps he skipped a year. Me, I’m in some boring job, I’m not sure you really want to know, do you? Just really wanted to chat to someone about uni, life, the universe, anything rather than office politics. But that’s OK, just happy to get this off my chest. Don’t worry if you don’t want to chat.

Scott

Scott, don’t be a misery! I remember, you must be the guy that had the tee saying Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost! Look, where are you, are you close to town? Do you want to meet up for coffee somewhere?  I often meet friends in Caffe Nero behind the Exchange, when’s good for you? You don’t need to wear a flower in your buttonhole but for goodness sake don’t wear that t-shirt or I’ll pretend I don’t know you!

Trudi x

* * *

So, this is how the emails between Scott and Trudi could have panned out.  But they could so easily have taken a very different direction, couldn’t they? Continue reading “Winter chills”

Secrets galore

via occulta
Directions for the Secret Way

Enid Blyton Five Go Adventuring Again
Illustrated by Eileen A Soper
Hodder Children’s Books 1997 (1943)

The second in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Five Go Adventuring Again as before features siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), together with their eleven-year-old cousin Georgina– hereinafter George — and her dog Timothy (also variously referred to as Tim, Timmy and a ‘peculiar-looking’ and ‘terrible mongrel’). Published the year after Five on a Treasure Island but set during the Christmas holidays of the same year, this outing for the quintet also involves intrepid youngsters, unbelieving grown-ups and a few dastardly villains.

Circumstances dictate that the trio again spend time at Kirrin Cottage by the sea where, not unexpectedly, trouble finds them. In 1943 Britain was still at war, though you’ll find no reference to the conflict bar the fact that a secret formula is close to being stolen by enemies of the state. Continue reading “Secrets galore”

Screenplay principles

wpid-img_20140728_183943.jpg

I mentioned some time ago that I’d signed up to a short course on Screenwriting, part of an ongoing series of Creative Writing classes. This was not necessarily because I wanted to complete a screenplay but because writing for film is part of that tradition of composing narratives that includes drama, oral tales and, of course, novels.

Here I only want to briefly outline a few definitions when it comes to the ideas from which a screenplay is born. In class we were introduced to Robert McKee’s 1999 text Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film), in particular the part in which he outlines the three basics which every good screenplay needs. These basics are Premise (what the story is about, in other words a general description of the story); Hook (what grabs the attention of the viewer, rather like a riff or chorus in a popular song); and finally Controlling Idea (in other words, the main themes of the movie).

To try and get under the skin of these basics we were asked to identify them in a mainstream film; I chose The Bourne Ultimatum. This thriller from 2007 (which seems to be showing on one digital channel or another most nights of the week) was directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and starred Matt Damon. See what you think. Continue reading “Screenplay principles”

Three collections, three mini-reviews

dragon
Life-size (?) dragon outside bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Here is a trio of mini-reviews of collections of short stories, novels and a novella. The idea is to whet your appetite for fuller reviews which I am planning over the months ahead of individual books in the two quartets focused on Earthsea and on Sally Lockheart, as well as the novella in Unexpected Magic.

Continue reading “Three collections, three mini-reviews”