Two-faced

Blood-red moon: WordPress Free Photo Library

Double Indemnity
by James M Cain.
Foreword by James Lee Burke.
Orion Books 2005 (1936).

The moon.

The final words we’re left with in this classic thriller gives us the image of Earth’s satellite. As a metaphor it is particularly apt: the lunar body is two-faced, always presenting the same side to us, and Cain’s novella deliberately gives us a one-sided account of what is happening.

But what we’re told, however dark it is, is not as dark as the side we don’t see. The narrator thinks he has all the facts, holds all the cards, is the prime mover in what transpires, and we go along with that. But the far side of the moon has its own secrets; and when at one point its disc seems to rise in the west over the Pacific Ocean we are alerted to the fact that not all is as it seems.

In the US insurance companies sometimes provide double indemnity, in other words they may pay double the face value of an insurance policy in certain circumstances such as when accidental death can be proved. Double indemnity is what the main protagonists are counting on when they plan the perfect murder; but will their plot be bedevilled by two-timing and double-cross?

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“Breathtakingly ordinary”

The perennial London fog

Call for the Dead
by John Le Carré.
Penguin Books 1964 (1961).

What can be said about Le Carré’s first novel that hasn’t been said before, and better than anything I can offer? What can be added to an assessment of George Smiley which has already been discussed, expanded on, in fact more than adequately described by the author himself in the pages of this and subsequent Smiley novels?

The answer is, of course, nothing of material worth; so the best I can do is present my own reactions to this already six decades old spy thriller, based on my own memories of the early sixties and limited experience of this genre.

But one doesn’t need to be a veteran fan of espionage novels to appreciate the supreme achievement of the then debut novelist, namely the creation of a figure whom Smiley’s ex-wife characterised as breathtakingly ordinary, an oxymoron that is still so apposite and which goes to the heart of Smiley’s appeal as a fictional hero. For his nondescript outward appearance conceals no ordinary mind, proof of the adage that one should never judge a book by its cover.

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Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

Heartstones
by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

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A complicated world

Carneddau landscape by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru (photo C A Lovegrove)

The Gift by Peter Dickinson.
Illustrated by Gareth Floyd.
The Children’s Book Club 1974 (1973)

“Were you knowing you had the gift, Davy? […] It is said to run in your family—Dadda’s family. Often it misses a generation. But usually there is one of your blood alive who can see pictures in other people’s minds.”

Chapter 1, Granny. The Gift.

The Gift is a powerful story for teenage readers from the pen of Peter Dickinson, a novel that works at several levels to appeal to many ages, emotional capacities and intellects. It also crosses the permeable frontiers between fantasy, social realism, and thriller, as well as border-hopping between North Wales and England’s South Midlands.

Davy Price is the youngest in a dysfunctional family, with a father who’s a fly-by-night chancer, a mother who occasionally ‘disappears’ on holiday with male acquaintances, an older brother who’ll become involved with a splinter group of Welsh nationalists, and a sister who doesn’t stand fools gladly but whom Davy values as a confidante.

After one particular familial upheaval the three children get dumped on the father’s mother — the trio’s fierce Welsh granny — and her gentle husband, known as Dadda, on a Welsh hill farm near a disused slate quarry. This is when Davy first discovers he has the ‘gift’ of seeing other people’s vision, the legend of how certain generations of the family have it, and how it can in fact be more a curse than otherwise. It will take a major crisis to bring things to a head, and a situation of great danger which may or may not free Davy of his dubious talent.

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A symbolic London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury (1730) in imitation of the Mausoleum, the ancient tomb of Mausolus, but guarded by a lion and a unicorn [own photo]
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton.
Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)

Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.

The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.

The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.

If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.

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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?

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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.

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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”