Extraterrestrial parasites

The Possessors
by John Christopher.
Sphere Books 1978 (1965)

The Possessors had a long memory, but not long enough to encompass their origins.

With this opening sentence Sam Youd, writing as John Christopher, establishes that this is speculative fiction. But for all its SF credentials, The Possessors is grounded in human relationships and idiosyncrasies, exposing how a disparate group of individuals isolated in a skiing chalet cope with personal demons and with each other when the chips are down.

With its setting in the Swiss Alps near the fictional village of Nidenhaut we are at times reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but when an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the village the group quickly have to develop a siege mentality as, one by one, the residents start to become other, forming a threat to those left and, ultimately, humankind. Are they changed because of a physical trauma, a psychological weakness, an unknown virus or, as the two locals fear, possession by devils?

Make no mistake, the author is misdirecting us with the title, for this novel is not really about the Possessors: it’s about the possessed.

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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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It’s curtains

Vintage photograph of St John’s College, Oxford.

The Case of the Gilded Fly
by Edmund Crispin;
A Gervase Fen Mystery.
Vintage 2009 (1944)

“I pardon that man’s life. What was thy cause? Adultery?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to ‘t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive…”
— ‘King Lear’, Act IV, Scene 6

In this crime mystery abounding in literary references the reader’s attention is of course arrested by the titular gilded fly, a clear reference (as the closing chapter confirms) to Lear’s conversation with the blinded Duke of Gloucester. Superficially the Gilded Fly is a detail on a finger ring found on the first victim, but the author knew — as did Shakespeare — that the iridescent insect has a reputation for wantonness. (In folklore the diminutive wren, incidentally, also became King of the Birds through trickery).

While the ring itself turns out to be a red herring the theme of extramarital sex runs throughout the plot, especially when we are asked to consider motive, means and opportunity. But, as suits a novel from the Golden Age of crime fiction, it is the tricky nature of the storytelling which elicits appreciation more than any attempt at realism, for this is as preposterous a tale of coincidence and opportunism as any ghost story or Jacobean tragedy.

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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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Of chivalry and shysters

Landing craft LCT

Hammond Innes: Dead and Alive
Fontana 1990 (1946)

With a title doubtless designed to recall those wanted posters from the wild west of America, Innes’ novel is about an equally lawless region, Italy in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. And yet it opens, not in the dry, fly-ridden south of that Mediterranean peninsula but on the cold, wet North Cornish coast.

Intriguingly, the star turn opening the show is a wreck. Specifically a landing craft, an LCT Mark 4, stranded on Boscastle beach not far from King Arthur’s Castle at Tintagel. And it will lead to a quest in which narrator David Cunningham will play the chivalrous knight seeking a damsel in distress.

But not before he, his business partner and his crew of two have black marketeers, gun runners, resurgent fascists, gangsters, a forger and a rapist to cope with, and a ruined infrastructure to negotiate.

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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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Knee-jerks and books

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph by James Valentine, c.1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury

In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.

In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.

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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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