Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason, disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece: vase figure in Vatican Museum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Orion Books, 2004 (1980).

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.

I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form.

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Cat and mouse – and a rat

St James’s Park, London © C A Lovegrove

The Chase by Ava Glass,
first published as Alias Emma.
Penguin Books, 2023 (2022).

A cat and mouse game taking us through London’s streets. A possible rat who seems bent on jeopardising a covert mission. An enemy who seems to anticipate one’s every move. Ava Glass’s thriller not only keeps the reader on the edge of their seat but introduces us to a protagonist who deserves to survive after all that’s thrown at her.

But survival is not all that she has to accomplish because her mission is to persuade a potential victim to accept the protection that’s being offered to him, a protection he seems strangely unwilling to accept. Will his reluctance over-complicate matters, a situation already compromised when back-up fails to materialise?

The Chase is more than merely a chase, though that’s at the core of this novel; we are given backstories to encourage us to invest in characters, intrigue to keep us guessing, and familiar landmarks made sinister by the nature of the pursuit, the prospect of capture, and the reducing chances of escape.

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Do unto others

© C A Lovegrove

The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig.
Abacus, 2021 (2020).

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Luke 6:31

A little way into this modern morality tale Hannah – poverty-stricken, downtrodden, and en route to see her dying mother in Cornwall – is invited into a first-class carriage by Jinni. To Hannah’s surprise she finds herself making a pact with Jinni for each to murder the other’s husband, consciously echoing the central concept in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. All that remains is, apparently, to see how this plays out.

I see, however, that I’m not the only reader to find this mix of mystery thriller and misery memoir hard going, primarily because anyone familiar with domestic abuse – personally or through a family member or acquaintance – will recognise all the classic signs: the physical and psychological abuse, the bullying and the financial strictures, the control exerted through coercion and threats, made especially unbearable when there are children involved.

So, if it weren’t for the murder mystery element in the novel and the literary parallels which the author referenced the sheer misery of proceedings would’ve been enough to have depressed this reader immeasurably. However, Amanda Craig raises hopes here that guilty parties will get their just desserts, not just echoing the Sermon on the Mount but also, as some may know, Charles Kingsley’s fairy Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, the counterpart of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in The Water-Babies. Will Hannah – her name in Hebrew means ‘grace’ or ‘favoured one’ – conform to the hypothesis of nominative determinism?

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More blood? #NordicFINDS23

© C A Lovegrove

Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbø,
Mere Blod (2015)
translated by Neil Smith.
Vintage Books, 2016.

Finnmark is the furthest north you can go in Norway, further from the capital than Oslo itself is from London or Paris, so what reason has southerner Jon Hansen for being here? Is he really here to hunt grouse as he claims, or is he himself being hunted?

Nesbø knew this area in the 1970s and so its able to give his descriptions of the desolate Finnmark coastal countryside an especial realism for a thriller set in the same period. And the isolated Sámi communities – either engaged in herding or fishing, and either strict Protestant or traditional in their beliefs – mean any visiting strangers will understandably elicit a degree of curiosity.

Ulf – as Hansen says he’s called – gradually reveals details of his sordid Oslo life in this first person narrative, and we gradually piece together how precarious his position now is. And all is complicated by the fact that he is starting to feel an attachment to one individual in the community, and developing an easy relationship with that individual’s young son, Knut.

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Going native

© C A Lovegrove

The Tremor of Forgery
by Patricia Highsmith.
Introduction by Denise Mina.
Virago Press, 2015 (1969)

‘There were moments here in Hammamet, days and weeks, in fact, when I hadn’t any letters from you or from anybody, and I felt strange even to myself, as if I didn’t know myself. And part of it, perhaps – I know from a moral point of view – was that the Arabs all around me had different standards, different ethics. And they were in the majority, you see. This world is theirs, not mine.’

Chapter 20

The enigmatic title, supposedly the title of a novel the protagonist is writing, in fact indicates a key thread in this subtle tale of suspense. Handwriting experts can apparently identify telltale hesitation in a faked signature; and when author Howard Ingham dissembles or denies involvement in the disappearance of an individual, his behaviour also betrays the tremor of forgery.

Set in the summer of 1967 at the time of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, The Tremor of Forgery speaks of a period of waiting, increasing heat and frustration. And yet living without monetary worries in a Tunisian beach resort could, perhaps should, on paper be an ideal existence.

Patricia Highsmith’s novel is carefully wrought: nothing much appears to happen yet we have suspense, murder and mystery – all understated, it’s true, yet though narrated in a matter-of-fact way it still draws the reader in and sustains their interest right to the last page.

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The missing hat

New York City 1926

The Glass Key
by Dashiell Hammett.
Orion Books, 2012 (1931).

For a classic noir thriller with laconic dialogue, dangerous secrets, and violence both threatened and actual, it’s interesting that what struck me more than the realistic and often visceral details in the story were two separate accounts of what I think are meant to be significant dreams. Whether the reader prefers Freudian or Jungian interpretations, the fact is both dreams reveal more clearly than actions or words the psyches of two of the protagonists.

One is of a fish caught by one character and taken and released by another, and the second concerns the release of a swarm of snakes from behind a locked door. Fish, snakes, a glass key – what in heaven’s name do they signify? It may take the diligent reader till the last pages of this 1930s thriller to get an inkling but I think it’ll prove worth it.

Of course the plot initially involves a murder. Ostensibly the mystery seems to invite the question of who did it, but with a few names in the frame the follow-up questions will also involve the how, the why and the when – means, motivation and opportunity – all with the ambivalent Ned Beaumont our psychopomp, albeit one with a compromised conscience.

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Illusory questing beast

Albrecht Durer

by Lev Grossman.
Arrow 2005 (2004).

‘Codex’ is the name applied to a medieval book, one which was composed of sheets stitched together, in contradistinction to ancient scrolls or wax tablets on which texts were written in the classical period.

The novel Codex is about just such a tome, one which appears to be both unique and therefore much sought after.

Around this book Grossman weaves a modern thriller which, given that the times move on apace, may not be as modern as Grossman might have hoped it to be.

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The hunter and the hunted

Libreria Marciana, Venice CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons

Those Who Walk Away
by Patricia Highsmith,
introduction by Joan Schenkar.
Virago Modern Classics, 2014 (1967).

His room was simple and clean and had a view through its tall windows of Giudecca across the water and, directly below, of the small canal that went along one side of the pensione.

Chapter 2

In the late 1990s we stayed a night in Venice at the Pensione Seguso, possibly where Patricia Highsmith may have stayed late in 1966 while researching this novel. So it was with the shock of recognition that the view the fictional Ray Garrett has from his room in the very same pensione is almost precisely that which we had some thirty years later.

And why is Ray staying here? He is trying to meet up with his father-in-law, Ed Coleman, to explain how he feels about the suicide in Mallorca of his wife Peggy, Ed’s daughter, for which the older man blames Ray with an intense resentment that borders on and then tips over into psychopathy.

The problem is that Ed has already made an attempt on Ray’s life when they’d met in Rome: what will Ray’s reception be like in Venice when he turns up alive and physically unharmed?

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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.

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

Credit: WordPress Free Photo Library

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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