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Archive for the ‘Thrillers’ Category

Front cover of For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
For Your Eyes Only, Ian Fleming (1960)

The best first novel I know is Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928). But Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first James Bond novel, is highly impressive too. Genetically speaking, I don’t think this is a coincidence: Waugh and Fleming both had Scottish ancestry. This may explain their literary talent or their will-to-fame or both or neither, but there is definitely something to explain about the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture. Alastair MacLean is another example in literature and, as another best-selling thriller-writer, is a useful point of comparison with Fleming. As I described in my review of The Satan Bug (1962), MacLean is interested in the elements in their harsher forms: he writes a lot about cold and wet. The Satan Bug is a bleak book and it’s appropriate that one of the few diversions from the bleakness is a reference to astronomy and the moons of Jupiter. MacLean doesn’t seem to have been very interested in human beings or in life in any of its senses.

Fleming was quite different: he liked sun, sex and sybaritism. You can find all three in his Bond books, but I think my favourite is this overlooked short-story collection, For Your Eyes Only. I like it partly because it’s overlooked, but mostly because it’s so full of life in all its senses. MacLean noticed the harsher elements: wind, rain, hail, snow. Fleming noticed all kinds of animals: sting-rays, squirrels, wood pigeons, bees, deer, fiddler-crabs, moray eels and a “chorus line of six small squids” appear in For Your Eyes Only. Male writers like dispensing expert knowledge, and male readers like absorbing it, but I can’t think of anyone else who would start a murder-mission story like this:

The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird. The cock bird is about nine inches long, but seven inches of it are tail — two long black feathers that curve and cross each other and whose inner edges are in a form of scalloped design. The head and crest are black, the wings dark green, the long bill is scarlet, and the eyes, bright and confiding, are black. The body is emerald green, so dazzling that when the sun is on the breast you see the brightest green thing in nature. In Jamaica, birds that are loved are given nicknames. Trochilus polytmus is called ‘doctor bird’ because his two black streamers remind people of the black tail-coat of the old-time physician. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s from the title story and Fleming uses it to heighten the effect of the violence committed later. He was obviously a bird-watcher, but then he named his hero after an ornithologist with what was, back then, the very ordinary name of James Bond. Fleming gave the name glamour, though he didn’t give his own Bond much of an interest in ornithology. Bond is less complex than his creator and the books have a life and interest beyond Bond. It’s not just animals: roses, blue-bells, hibiscus, bougainvillea, lilies, hyacinths all appear here too. One of the stories, “The Hildebrand Rarity”, is actually named after a small fish, and the plot of another hinges – literally – on a rose-bush. MacLean’s writing is bleak with repression. Fleming’s writing is bursting with richness. Here’s a good example later in the title story:

The girl looked like a beautiful unkempt dryad in ragged shirt and trousers. The shirt and trousers were olive green, crumpled and splashed with mud and stains and torn in places, and she had bound her pale blonde hair with golden-rod to conceal its brightness for her crawl through the meadow. The beauty of her face was wild and rather animal, with a wide sensuous mouth, high cheekbones and silvery grey, disdainful eyes. There was the blood of scratches on her forearms and down one cheek, and a bruise had puffed and slightly blackened the same cheekbone. The metal feathers of a quiver full of arrows showed above her left shoulder. Apart from the bow, she carried nothing but a hunting knife at her belt and, at her other hip, a small brown canvas bag that presumably carried her food. She looked like a beautiful, dangerous customer who knew wild country and forests and was not afraid of them. She would walk alone through life and have little use for civilisation. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

Bond meets the girl while he’s preparing to assassinate an ex-Nazi in his forest hideaway near the Canadian border. He thinks she looks “wonderful”. Fleming liked beauties as well as beasts. There are hints of his sado-masochistic tastes in the bruise and scratches, and in the spanking Bond threatens the girl with for interfering with his mission, but S&M is another way of getting more out of life. Pain reminds us that we are alive and gets the blood flowing. So does danger. This is a thriller and Fleming is good at writing about dangerous situations. One of the stories is actually called “Risico”, Italian for “risk”. It’s about Bond both facing death and witnessing it:

Bond was planning to slow down to a walk and keep enough breath to try and shoot it out with the three men, when two things happened in quick succession. First he saw through the haze ahead a group of spear-fishermen. There were about half a dozen of them, some in the water and some sunning themselves on the seawall. Then, from the sand-dunes came the deep roar of an explosion. Earth and scrub and what might have been bits of a man fountained briefly into the air, and a small shock-wave hit him. Bond slowed. The other man in the dunes had stopped. He was standing stock-still. His mouth was open and a frightened jabber came from it. Suddenly he collapsed on the ground with his arms wrapped round his head. Bond knew the signs. He would not move again until someone came and carried him away from there.

The man is in an uncleared mine-field near Venice, because the Second World War wasn’t long finished when these stories were written. Accordingly, the Cold War wasn’t long started. “From a View to a Kill”, the opening story, is about how Bond manages to “wipe the eye of the whole security machine of SHAPE”, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Forces Europe. He solves a murder-mystery involving a hidden team of Soviet spies and the theft of “top secret booty” from motorbike dispatch-riders. He also meets another beautiful blonde. Like the bow-toting dryad in “For Your Eyes Only”, she’s a sex-object but not a passive one, and Fleming can bring her to life in a way MacLean couldn’t:

The battered Peugeot, commandeered by Rattray, smelled of her. There were bits of her in the glove compartment — half a packet of Suchard milk chocolate, a twist of paper containing bobby pins, a paperback John O’Hara, a single black suede glove.

But all the stories have beautiful blondes in them. It’s implied more or less directly that Bond beds them all, except Rhoda Masters in “Quantum of Solace”, which supplied the title but not the plot for a recent Bond movie. This story is an odd addition to the collection, because it isn’t about Bond, who merely sits and listens as the British governor to the Bahamas narrates a story about a failed marriage in the then colony. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham and of “Octopussy” (1966), another short-story by Fleming in which Bond is a bit-player. “Octopussy” is a better story, with a proper thriller plot, and Maugham would have made a better job of “Quantum of Solace”, but I like the way it breaks the action, slows the pace, and makes Bond a spectator, not an actor. He’s in the Bahamas for adventurous reasons, but they’re out of the way within a paragraph:

Arms were getting to the Castro rebels in Cuba from all the neighbouring territories. They had been coming principally from Miami and the Gulf of Mexico, but when the US Coastguards had seized two big shipments, the Castro supporters had turned to Jamaica and the Bahamas as possible bases, and Bond had been sent out from London to put a stop to it. He hadn’t wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export programme with Cuba in exchange for taking more Cuban sugar than they wanted, and a minor condition of the deal was that Britain should not give aid or comfort to the Cuban rebels. Bond had found out about the two big cabin cruisers that were being fitted out for the job, and rather than make arrests when they were about to sail, thus causing an incident, he had chosen a very dark night and crept up on the boats in a police launch. From the deck of the unlighted launch he had tossed a thermite bomb through an open port of each of them. He had then made off at high speed and watched the bonfire from a distance. Bad luck on the insurance companies, of course, but there were no casualties and he had achieved quickly and neatly what M had told him to do.

By not describing the adventure in detail, Fleming makes Bond more realistic: he has a life beyond the page and there are things about him that readers don’t know. It reminds me of the briefly mentioned “extra episodes” in the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were, of course, written by yet another highly successful and talented Scot, Arthur Conan Doyle. Scots have been disproportionately successful in all branches of science too, including the genetics that will one day tell us why this is so. Doyle mixed science into his literature in a way Fleming didn’t, but Fleming had some of the traits that make for a good scientist: he was interested in the world for its own sake, not simply as an adjunct to himself or to humanity. And so he observed and recorded the world and brought it to life for his readers. He packs a lot of detail into the 63,000 words of For Your Eyes Only and I’m sure his books are harder to translate than MacLean’s. They would certainly need much more commentary for alien visitors, even though Fleming and MacLean were writing thrillers about the same civilization. MacLean was influenced by Fleming, but he didn’t base his plots on rose-bushes or describe the glove compartments of beautiful blondes. His best villain is a virus, not a human being.

Fleming created lots of memorable human villains and the beasts in For Your Eyes Only aren’t confined to the animal kingdom:

Bond examined the man minutely [through the telescopic sight]. He was about five feet four with a boxer’s shoulders and hips, but a stomach that was going to fat. A mat of black hair covered his breasts and shoulder-blades, and his arms and legs were thick with it. By contrast, there was not a hair on his face or head and his skull was a glittering whitish yellow with a deep dent at the back that might have been a wound or the scar of a trepanning. The bone structure of the face was that of the conventional Prussian officer — square, hard and thrusting — but the eyes under the naked brows were close-set and piggish, and the large mouth had hideous lips — thick and wet and crimson. (“For Your Eyes Only”)

That’s a description of von Hammerstein, an ex-Nazi who has been working for the Cuban dictator Batista and decided to get out as Castro nears power. Seeking to diversify his property portfolio, he’s murdered two British subjects in Jamaica. “Subject” is the mot juste: Fleming believed in Queen and country and so does Bond, who’s sent by M to assassinate von Hammerstein in northern Vermont. It has to be an unofficial job, so Bond flies to Canada and slips across the border to do rough justice on his country’s behalf. If Bond had ever existed, his drinking and smoking would have killed him long ago, as they killed his creator. But it’s interesting to wonder what Fleming or his creation would have made of queen and country now. It’s the same queen as it was in the 1950s, but it can’t be called the same country. That’s something else that makes this book interesting. It’s full of life, but a lot of that life has vanished. Or been poisoned. In “Risico”, Bond has to break up a heroin-smuggling gang operating in Italy. He allies himself with one of the “greedy, boisterous pirates” he meets often in the Bond books and gets on well with. They’re on the wrong side of the law, but they’re not evil. This Italian pirate’s booty is clean and he won’t deal in drugs. He tells Bond how the raw ingredients of the heroin are

a gift from Russia. The gift of a massive and deadly projectile to be fired into the bowels of England. The Russians can supply unlimited quantities of the charge for the projectile. It comes from their poppy fields in the Caucasus, and Albania is a convenient entrepôt… No doubt it is some psychological warfare section of their Intelligence apparatus.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union undoubtedly used heroin as a weapon against the West. Its Marxist allies in the West didn’t openly support heroin-smuggling, but they did openly support another Marxism-friendly import: mass immigration, which is far more harmful. Hard drugs can kill individuals, but they can’t kill civilizations. Immigration can do both and the Marxists responsible for it were climbing into position while Fleming was contributing to the civilization they hated with his Bond books. I don’t think his contributions are as good as Evelyn Waugh’s, and they’re certainly not as witty, but they are probably much healthier. Europe needs James Bond’s chivalry and sense of duty, not Basil Seal’s misogyny and anarchism. You don’t have to find important geo-political themes in For Your Eyes Only, let alone genetic ones, but I think they’re there to be found all the same. Also here are more insights into an interesting creator, Ian Fleming, and an interesting creation, James Bond. I’ve owned two or three paperbacks of this book and now I’ve read it as an e-text. It’s been highly enjoyable every time and it only gets more interesting.

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The Satan Bug (1962) / The Way to Dusty Death (1973), Alistair MacLean

MacLean isn’t the best thriller-writer I know, because I think Ian Fleming is better, broader and more entertaining. But The Satan Bug, originally published under the name Ian Stuart, is probably the best of his many books. Or rather, the best version of his book, because he wrote variants on a single theme: hierarchy-hating hero defeats super-cerebral sado-villain(s) whilst wet, wounded and whiskey-soaked. The hero isn’t usually described in detail, because that would have got in the way of the wish-fulfilment fantasy for the heterosexual males who formed MacLean’s main audience. The nondescript hero here is called Pierre Cavell, a highly intelligent, highly skilled Anglo-French secret agent who has turned down six decorations – “three British, two French and one Belgian” (ch. 1) – at the end of the war before joining British intelligence and trying to stop minor but dangerous thefts from a high-security germ-warfare laboratory in Wiltshire called Mordon.

Then the thefts turn major: the laboratory has brewed a super-virus called the Satan Bug and someone makes off with two flasks of it, despite the high security. Cavell endures cold, kicks and cracks on the cranium as he unravels the crook’s cunning and literally saves the world in the final chapter, high over the rain-soaked streets of London. The ending is reminiscent of Fleming’s Goldfinger, which was published in 1959, but MacLean’s villain is more of a God-finger: he could destroy the world with one hand tied behind his back. The botulinum toxin he has also stolen, a gramme of which could wipe millions of people, is much less dangerous than the infernal infection he was really after. Following the theft, an Italian bacteriologist at Mordon describes what it can do:

In its final form, the Satan Bug is an extremely refined powder. I take a salt-spoon of this powder, go outside in the grounds of Mordon and turn the salt-spoon upside down. What happens? Every person in Mordon would be dead within an hour, the whole of Wiltshire would be an open tomb by dawn. In a week, ten days, all life would have ceased to exist in Britain. I mean all life. The Plague, the Black Death – was nothing compared with this. Long before the last man died in agony ships or planes or birds or just the waters of the North Sea would have carried the Satan Bug to Europe. We can conceive of no obstacle that can stop its eventual world-wide spread… The Lapp trapping in the far north of Sweden. The Chinese peasant tilling his rice-fields in the Yangtse valley. The cattle rancher on his station in the Australian outback, the shopper in Fifth Avenue, the primitive in Tierra del Fuego. Dead. All dead. Because I turned a salt-spoon upside down. Nothing, nothing, nothing can stop the Satan Bug. (ch. 3)

MacLean could write compelling prose about the biggest and baddest of themes, but he was also capable of touches like this, when the police are issuing a description of a get-away car:

“Alfringham. Then the London road. Cancel the call for the Fiat. It’s now a turquoise Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre. All stations. Locate, follow, but don’t close in.”

“Blue-green,” the general murmured. “Blue-green, not turquoise. Don’t call it turquoise. It’s policemen you’re talking to, not their wives. Half of them would think you’re talking about their Christmas dinner.” (ch. 11)

The general is Cavell’s spy-chief and the father of Cavell’s beautiful blonde wife, who gets kidnapped by the villain and his psychopathic deaf-mute assistant in chapter ten. That sort of thing was a bit dated even in 1962, but MacLean also bases a plot detour on an amateur astronomer taking photos of Jupiter’s “satellite Io occulting its own shadow” (ch. 5), so he obviously had a well-stocked brain. It was a well-soaked brain too and his alcoholism isn’t hard to guess from the constant references to hard liquor, though they aren’t as obtrusive and gratuitous as they are in some of his other books. The source of his obsession with cold, wet and injury won’t be so easy to guess, but the obsession is all over The Satan Bug. The book is set in a very wet October and Mordon is “grim, grey and gaunt… under darkly lowering skies” (ch. 2). Because of his war-service, Cavell is almost blind in one eye and has a crippled foot. He also spends the closing half of the book with cracked ribs after the villain tries to dispose of him. Why all the wet and wounding? Well, MacLean served on the Arctic convoys supplying the Soviet Union during the Second World War and his experiences there never left him or lifted from his writing. I also wonder about an earlier part of his life: his mother-tongue was actually Gaelic, not English, and perhaps that helps explain the drive and directness of his prose. He also has a verbal tic of describing people or things as “very X indeed”. It’s part of his hyperbole, but is it also an echo of some characteristic Gaelicism?

Perhaps, but I wonder about genetics as well as Gaelic. Scots have been disproportionally successful in all areas of Anglophone culture and MacLean, one of the best-selling authors in history, is a good literary example. And if I look at my favourite authors, I find that Scots are disproportionately represented there, one way or another. Ian Fleming had Scottish ancestry, for example, and so did Swinburne and Evelyn Waugh, though Waugh’s surname is actually a form of “Welsh”, from Anglo-Saxon walh, meaning “foreign” (as in walnut, because the tree isn’t native to Britain). And Waugh looked, and drank, remarkably like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Thomas isn’t one of my favourite writers, though I do recognize his talent. All the same, he may be another example of the link between literary greatness and Celtic genes.

I wouldn’t call MacLean a literary great, but he definitely had talent and could write up a storm. It’s rain-storms in this book; elsewhere, in Night Without End (1959) or Ice Station Zebra (1963), it’s snow-storms. If you want to understand why he sold so many millions, The Satan Bug may be the best place to start. The copy you read may also be older than you are, but my tattered, age-stained, pre-post-code paperback – stamped “At Your Service | 7 Warren Road | Cheadle Hume | Books and Bric-a-Brac | Bought and Sold” – is more enjoyable to read than a modern paperback would be. Black marks on whitish paper create and populate a world: writing is a strange and magical thing. There are two stills from the film-of-the-book on the back cover of my copy, but film is a less strange and less wonderful thing. It still hasn’t caught up with what writing can do and in some ways it never will.

Nor will computer games, but I can see similarities between computer games and The Satan Bug – and also MacLean’s formula-one thriller The Way to Dusty Death, which I’ve re-read at the same time. The Way to Dusty Death has another good title and is another entertaining read, but it’s on the downward slope of Mount MacLean, heading towards the foothills of rubbish like River of Death (1981) and San Andreas (1984). Like The Satan Bug, it’s a wish-fulfilment fantasy for heterosexual males, though it’s not as complete a fantasy as the James Bond books. MacLean’s books are clean books, without sex or lechery, though the glugging of whiskey is often accompanied by the slugging of villains. The Way to Dusty Death isn’t unusual in its slugging, but is in one of its sluggees:

She spat at him. “Fix it yourself.”

Harlow gave no warning. There was a blur of movement and the silencer of the pistol smashed against the blonde’s face. She screamed, staggered and fell to a sitting position, blood welling from gashes on both cheek and mouth.

“Jesus!” Rory was appalled. “Mr Harlow!” (ch. 10)

Like the pistol-whipped blonde, Rory is an unusual character for MacLean. He’s a teenager and was perhaps meant to allow the sons of MacLean’s older fans to think themselves into the story too. It’s good that he didn’t like that pistol-whipping, but the hero Johnny Harlow has a justification for it: the blonde is beautiful, true, but she’s also a cold-blooded murderess, because she’s recently disguised herself as a nurse and fed a sugar-coated cyanide pill to an inconvenient prisoner. Unlike some of the old writers described by George Orwell in his classic essay “Raffles and Miss Blandish” (1944), MacLean needs to give his heroes good excuses for their brutality and bullying. Cavell is trying to save the world in The Satan Bug and Harlow is trying to defeat a heroin-gang in The Road to Dusty to Death.

And get his employer’s kidnapped wife back. He does both, of course, but the book is curiously empty and dream-like by comparison with The Satan Bug. At one point Harlow exchanges idiomatic banter with two French policemen, but MacLean doesn’t bother to say what language they’re talking in. Is Harlow unusually skilled at French or are the policemen unusually skilled at English? No clue is offered: the European setting of the book seems little more than an excuse to include some exotic surnames and places and every character is a walking, talking cliché, from Harlow himself, the world’s greatest racing-driver, to Harlow’s love-interest, the beautiful, black-haired Mary MacAlpine, twenty-year-old daughter of the millionaire owner of the Coronado racing team. But clichés can be compelling, or they wouldn’t be clichés, and the book starts well. This is the opening paragraph:

Harlow sat by the side of the race-track on that hot and cloudless afternoon, his long hair blowing about in the fresh breeze and partially obscuring his face, his golden helmet clutched so tightly in his gauntleted hands that he appeared to be trying to crush it: the hands were shaking uncontrollably and occasional violent tremors racked his entire body.

He has just survived a bad crash. His friend Isaac Jethou hasn’t and is “being cremated in the white-flamed funeral pyre of what had once been his Grand Prix Formula One racing car”. Harlow stares at the flames with “the eyes of an eagle gone blind” and then pours himself brandy in the pits with a “castanet rattle” of bottle on glass. But one difference between him and MacLean’s other heroes is that they drink because they like it. He drinks because he’s pretending to like it, part of a deception to make both his friends and his foes think he’s lost his nerve. This is the scene that greets his boss MacAlpine and a journalist called Dunnett in Harlow’s hotel bedroom after the crash:

Harlow, clad only in shirt and trousers and still wearing his shoes, was stretched out in bed, apparently in an almost coma-like condition. His arm dangled over the side of the bed, his right hand clutching the neck of the whiskey bottle. MacAlpine, grim-faced and almost incredulous, approached the bed, bent over Harlow, sniffed in disgust and removed the bottle from Harlow’s nerveless hand… Both men turned and left the room, closing the broken door behind them. Harlow opened his eyes, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. His hand stopped moving and he sniffed his palm. His wrinkled his nose in distaste. (end of ch. 2)

This book was a wish-fulfilment fantasy for its alcoholic author too, but the theme of deception is everywhere in MacLean’s writing. It’s related to paranoia and sleeplessness, which are two more important themes. Paranoia and sleeplessness go together, in fact, as MacLean must have learnt on the Arctic convoys and Harlow gets little sleep at the end of the book, though he doesn’t get wet. That happens to one of the villains instead, but MacLean doesn’t alter much else and the hero triumphs fully and finally in the end.

This is one way the book differs from a computer-game. Like The Satan Bug, it could supply plot-and-hero for one, but it follows a “linear narrative” and MacLean decides what happens next. Not that I’m knocking linear narratives: DNA follows one too and DNA is responsible for both language and computer-games. The era of language is millennia-old now; the era of computer-games began a few decades ago. The males who once read MacLean books are much more likely to be watching pixels now, but it’s reassuring that my copy of The Way to Dusty Death was published in 2009, part of HarperCollins’ reissue of all MacLean’s novels. I prefer to read MacLean’s novels in editions published before he died in 1987, but I’d be happy to re-read some of them again in any format. And when I say “re-read again”, that’s exactly what I mean: the ones I like I’ve read several times. Others I’ve read once and will not be reading again. The Satan Bug and The Way to Dusty Death are among those I will re-read again. They’re fun, as intended, and thought-provoking, as not always intended. If you’re looking to try MacLean for the first time, I’d recommend The Satan Bug. It’s better-written, better-plotted, and its bio-terror theme hasn’t dated.

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