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The Light of Day, Eric Ambler (1962)

I first read this as an old paperback picked up in a charity shop. It was a book-of-the-film with a photograph of Peter Ustinov as the protagonist on the back cover. I couldn’t remember ever seeing the film and I wasn’t expecting much from the book. Why should I have been? It was just another cheap paperback bought out of idle interest.

It turned out to be one of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read. The first-person narrator is Arthur Simpson, a neurotic, devious tourist-guide and petty crook living in Athens. He’s in his fifties and has bad breath and a paunch. He bears grudges, steals from his clients whenever he can, and has no redeeming qualities except his candour. But the more he reveals about himself and his past – from the anonymous notes he sent to get teachers in trouble at school to the indigestion he suffers whenever he foolishly gets himself into trouble again – the more you’re on his side. He’s a highly flawed but sympathetic character. You’ll finish this book not just wishing him well but wishing there were more books to read about him (according to the introduction, he appears again in Dirty Story, 1967).

He reminds me of two other flawed but sympathetic characters: George MacDonald-Fraser’s Flashman, a cowardly Victorian war-hero, and Anthony Burgess’s Nabby Adams, an alcoholic policeman in British Malaya. Flashman cheats and scampers his way through a long and entertaining series. Adams appears in only one book and like Arthur he leaves you wanting more. Burgess intended him to stand for the human race: he’s like our sinful, suffering forefather Adam, who is a prophet, or nabi, in the Muslim tradition. But Nabby lives to drink; Arthur isn’t sure why he lives at all:

I have often thought of killing myself, so that I wouldn’t have to think or feel or remember any more, so that I could rest; but then I have always started worrying in case this after-life they preach about really exists. It might turn out to be even bloodier than the old one. (ch. 7)

He muses like that half-way through the unwanted adventure that takes him from life as a tourist-guide in Athens to life as a criminal conspirator in Ankara. He’s being blackmailed, you see, by a tourist he tried to cheat and rob. The tourist, who’s going under the name Harper, turns out to be much cleverer and more dangerous than he seemed. He catches Arthur in the very act of stealing traveller’s cheques from his luggage, beats him up a little, then forces him to write a confession for the Greek police. Unless Simpson follows orders, the confession will put him in jail.

The orders are that he must drive a large American car to Ankara on behalf of a Fräulein Elizabeth Lipp, who will meet him there and pay him for his work. Of course, he suspects that he’s being used to smuggle something into Turkey, so he carefully checks the car before he tries to cross the Turkish border. He finds nothing and tries to cross the border. That’s when his unwanted adventure really turns unpleasant: by the end of chapter two, Ambler has skilfully brought a petty crook into a big criminal conspiracy.

Or rather: he’s skilfully brought the reader into realizing, with a sudden shock, that the petty crook is in a big criminal conspiracy. Arthur was entangled as soon as Harper caught him with the traveller’s cheques at the end of chapter one. Ignorance, deception and self-delusion are important parts of this book: that’s why it’s called The Light of Day. Arthur often reveals more than he means to about himself, but he stays sympathetic. So do the other characters in the book: like Ambler’s Passage of Arms (1959), you understand why everyone acts as they do. And like Passage of Arms, exotic cultures are brought to life for English-speaking readers. Ambler seems to know Turkey and Greece from the inside.

And Egypt too. That’s where Arthur was born, as he reveals at the beginning:

My correct name is Arthur Simpson.

No! I said I would be completely frank and open and I am going to be. My correct full name is Arthur Abdel Simpson. The Abdel is because my mother was Egyptian. In fact, I was born in Cairo. But my father was a British officer, a regular, and I myself am British to the core. Even my background is typically British. (ch. 1)

No, he’s not British to the core: he’s selfish to the core. But you understand why and you sympathize with his rootlessness and his failures. After his father dies an army charity pays for his education in England, then he returns to Egypt to work with his mother in the restaurant she apparently owns. Things go wrong and he ends up in Athens, married to Nicki, an attractive younger woman who he thinks will leave him sooner or later. She’s attractive by his standards anyway, but not by Harper’s, as Arthur learns when he takes Harper to the club where his wife is still working as a dancer:

They have candles on the tables at the Club and you can see faces. When the floor show came on, I watched him watch it. He looked at the girls, Nicki among them, as if they were flies on the other side of a window. I asked him how he liked the third from the left – that was Nicki.

“Legs too short,” he said. “I like them with longer legs. Is that the one you had in mind?”

“In mind? I don’t understand, sir.” I was beginning to dislike him intensely.

He eyed me. “Shove it,” he said unpleasantly. (ch. 1)

Arthur’s dislike helps explain why he decides to try and steal some of Harper’s traveller’s cheques: as he says elsewhere, he always likes to get his own back. He also needs money because he’s struggling to pay the rent on his and Nicki’s flat.

But he badly underestimates Harper, which is why he ends up in Ankara. The conspiracy under way there is to steal jewels from the Topkapi, the museum in the old Sultans’ palace that gave its name to the film version of this book. The conspirators – Harper, his lover Fräulein Lipp and a boorish German-speaker called Fischer – are staying in an old house on the Bosphorus while they complete their plans. Arthur, who has acquired another and worse blackmailer by now, persuades them to employ him as a driver and guide to Ankara. They think the signed confession keeps him safely under their thumb. In fact, he’s under someone else’s thumb, which is why he has to spy on them.

But while he’s spying on them, he’s also observing the other servants in the house: an old Turkish couple called the Hamuls, who work as caretakers, and a Turkish-Cypriot chef called Geven. After Arthur himself, these three are in some ways the most interesting characters in the book. Like Evelyn Waugh, Ambler could make characters live and breathe on the page. But Waugh wouldn’t have been interested in Turkish-speaking servants in Ankara. Ambler definitely is and so is Arthur, partly because Geven, although “a good cook”, also “gets drunk and attacks people.”

Arthur doesn’t want to get on Geven’s bad side. He knows about Geven’s prison sentence for wounding a waiter before he meets him, but Harper and Company don’t. All the same, Harper guesses, with his usual perception, that Geven has been upset by Fischer’s high-handed treatment of him and is not cooking as well for his employers as for his fellow servants: “I’ll bet Arthur eats better than we do. In fact, I know damn well he does.” Arthur is eavesdropping as Harper and Fräulein Lipp are in bed together, making “the beast with two backs” (ch. 8). He’s already frightened of Harper; now he’s jealous too, because Fräulein Lipp is very attractive, with “long legs and slim thighs”.

In the end, it will be Harper who wishes he’d never met Simpson, but Arthur isn’t counting his blessings on the final page. He’s too neurotic for that and too full of resentments and grudges. I didn’t think the final page works. Nor does the climax of the book, as Arthur unwillingly joins the jewel-robbery. What worked for me were the glimpses into both the high politics and the low culture of Turkey: the importance of Atatürk, on the one hand, and the boozing of an unstable Turkish-Cypriot chef on the other. Arthur knows little Turkish, but Geven speaks English because of his time in Cyprus:

He drained the glass again and leaned across the chopping table breathing heavily. “I tell you,” he said menacingly; “if that bastard says one more word, I kill him.”

“He’s just a fool.”

“You defend him?” The lower lip quivered.

“No, no. But is he worth killing?”

He poured himself another drink. Both lips were working now, as if he had brought another thought agency into play in order to grapple with the unfamiliar dilemma my question had created.

The Hamuls arrived just then to prepare for the service of the evening meal, and I saw the old man’s eyes take in the situation. He began talking to Geven. He spoke a country dialect and I couldn’t even get the drift of what he was saying; but it seemed to improve matters a little. Geven grinned occasionally and even laughed once. (ch. 8)

The country dialect isn’t enough, as Geven shortly demonstrates. But Ambler has created a world that lives on the page. Like Burgess he was interested in foreign languages, not just foreign cultures, and he could use them to heighten the realism of his stories. Arthur is a hybrid man who’s always on the outside of what he’s observing, because he doesn’t truly belong anywhere: not Egypt, not England, not Greece or Turkey. He starts this sentence like an Englishman, but the memory he reveals isn’t at all English:

The day Mum died, the Imam came and intoned verses from the Koran: “Now taste the torment of the fire you called a lie.” (ch. 10)

Ambler knew about Islam too and in some ways The Light of Day is even more relevant today than it was when it was first published in 1962. Turkey is still a land of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy, but the balance of power has shifted drastically. Arthur is told something that Atatürk is supposed to have said shortly before he died: “If I can live another fifteen years, I can made Turkey a democracy. If I die sooner, it will take three generations.” That was in 1938 and three generations have passed now. Atatürk’s dream is dead: Islam has re-asserted itself and Atatürk is no longer a Turkish hero.

So there’s even more irony in The Light of Day than Ambler intended. I think he would have liked that. History and human beings are complex. There isn’t just one world: there are as many worlds as there are people. Lives and cultures are both separate and interwoven. At their best, Ambler’s books convey all that better than any other books I know. And this may be the best of the best: The Light of Day is a very clever, entertaining and thought-provoking novel. As I said about Passage of Arms: it’s good that this edition was re-printed in 2016 with a brief but interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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The Magic of Uri Geller, as revealed by the Amazing Randi (1982)

Uri Geller is a luftmensch with chutzpah. It’s no coincidence that two Yiddish words sum him up, because Jews have been as disproportionately successful at fraud as they have been in other professions requiring high intelligence and quick wits. Chutzpah, or brazen arrogance, probably won’t need defining, but a luftmensch, for those who haven’t come across the word before, is literally an “air-man”: someone who makes a living from nothing. Geller has achieved world-wide fame and made large sums of money principally by bending spoons and keys and starting “stopped” watches. Compared to the atom bomb or the moon-landings, it’s hardly the stuff of legend, but the difference is that the men behind the atom bomb and the moon-landings didn’t put a dishonest label on what they did. Geller does and that’s why he’s been successful.

Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In fact, it wouldn’t: it’s well-established in psychology that labels can affect emotion and sensation. The label doesn’t even have to be verbal:

The direct relationship between the quality of a product and the colour of its container is again demonstrated by an American test in which 200 women were invited to judge the flavour of a coffee served from brown, red, blue and yellow coffee pots. Although the same coffee was served in each case, almost three quarters of those tested found the coffee from the brown pot to be too strong, whereas nearly half of the women found the coffee from the red pot to be rich and full-bodied. The coffee from the blue pot was regarded as having a milder aroma, while that from the yellow pot was judged to be made from the weaker blend of bean. (The Colour Eye, Robert Cumming and Tom Porter, BBC Books, London, 1990, “Colour and Quality”, pg. 147)

Geller attributes his trivial tricks to mysterious powers, helped by a simple equation that has been at work for many thousands of years: ignorance + emotion = the supernatural. When human beings can’t understand something and are excited by it, they have always been prone to seek a supernatural explanation (or rather, non-explanation: the supernatural explains nothing, merely allows us to conceal an epistemological gap in a psychologically satisfying way). When Geller, a master of psychological manipulation, creates emotion by bending a thick key in a way his audience can’t understand, it’s easy for him to convince the gullible that he has special powers. And we are much gullible than we’d like to believe. The Amazing Randi, the author of this debunking book, reproduced Geller’s feats before an audience of scientists, having explicitly stated he was using trickery. Maurice Wilkins, who won a Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, then told him: “Mr. Randi, you’ve told us that what you did was accomplished by trickery. But I don’t know whether to believe you or believe in you!”

After all, one of the most important points this book makes is that scientists, for all their priestly prestige and status, are not the right people to investigate Geller’s claims:

Certain prominent American scientists have said, concerning the criticisms of their acceptance of Geller, that their detractors are calling them either liars or fools. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 256)

And since prominent American scientists are obviously neither liars nor fools, Geller must be genuine. Randi points out the false logic:

Neither is correct, so far as I am personally concerned. I call them simply “unqualified” – in this particular field – to pass judgment on such matters. (pg. 256)

A clever magician can fool a clever scientist, because deception is a magician’s stock-in-trade. Geller and Randi are both masters of deception, but Randi is honest about what he is, Geller isn’t. Randi is also a master of readable prose: I enjoyed this book a great deal, and not just because it remains highly relevant, even thirty years after Geller’s heyday. Luftmenschen with chutzpah are still with us and Geller reminds me a lot of Tony Blair. Blair isn’t Jewish, isn’t as intelligent, and hasn’t lasted as long, but the mass psychology behind both men’s success seems similar. Randi quotes the Latin saying Homo vult decipi; decipiatur: “Man wishes to be deceived; let him be deceived.”

Like Blair, Geller didn’t have to do much to convince large numbers of people that he was special, but then another important point the book makes, in Geller’s case, is that failure can even be helpful. If Geller were successful all the time, he’d look more like a fraudster who uses trickery. Occasional failure not only makes him look honest but heightens the effect of his successes too, and Randi describes how magicians sometimes exploit this aspect of human psychology by deliberately failing on something small before succeeding on something big.

And not all of Geller’s genuine failures are reported. In one of the funniest anecdotes in the book, Randi describes how, on his triumphant tour of England in the mid-1970s, Geller told a pregnant journalist that she would have a girl in three days’ time:

She had the baby, all right – a boy, a month later. Determining that the lady was expectant was all that Uri had done. And just about anyone could do that, at that stage! But what if he’d been right? The press would have trumpeted it to the world. As it was, no attention was directed to the prediction. (ch. 16, “Geller in England”, pg. 253)

Yes, it would have been trumpeted to the world, even though predicting the sex of a baby, at least, is no more difficult than predicting the fall of a coin: a 50% chance of success is hardly unfavorable. But the general public’s ignorance of probability was another factor in Geller’s success. When he appeared on a television or radio show with a large audience and predicted strange happenings among his viewers or listeners, he got a a lot of people ringing in to report exactly that: strange happenings. According to Randi, so did a “psychic” called Jim Pyczynski when he appeared on a radio show in New York: lights flickered or went out; a container of milk burst; mirrors “cracked”; pictures fell off walls; cats became agitated; and a clock that had been stopped for years started working again (ch. 12, “The Old Broken Watch Trick Revealed”, pp. 191-4).

But in fact Jim Pyczynski was Randi’s “full-time assistant” and was merely proving a statistical point: “strange happenings” are inevitable when enough people look out for them, and large audiences will also contain liars and fantasists, as well as honest people who, when prompted to do so, will notice what they had previously overlooked. Did the mirrors crack during Pyczynski’s broadcast or sometime before and without being noticed?

And again, the supernatural label helps create emotion that reinforces the appearance of the supernatural. Geller’s tricks are trivial, but we can be taken in by trivial things. Part of Randi’s animus against Geller is perhaps explained by jealousy, but then Randi does seem to be a better magician who, with less honesty, could easily have achieved what Geller has achieved. It’s easy to be a psychic, because people don’t understand how easily they can be manipulated or how predictable human psychology can be. This book or Randi’s website will tell you more about how fraudsters like Geller manipulate and exploit us. For the other side of the story, see Geller’s website, where you’ll find his chutzpah as strong as ever.

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Void Moon by Michael ConnellyVoid Moon, Michael Connelly (2000)

This novel has two of Connelly’s greatest virtues: clever plotting and compulsive readability. But it’s marred by perhaps his biggest vice: his failure to remember that more is often less. Like The Black Echo (1992), it grabs you at the start with the small story of a failed criminal. The Black Echo has a dead Vietnam vet called William Meadows; Void Moon has a living parolee called Cassie Black. She’s just done years in jail for burglary and is trying to start her life again as a saleswoman at a luxury car-dealer in Los Angeles.

Why was she caught? What happened to her male accomplice? Connelly cleverly leaves things unexplained and draws you in. Cassie is a sympathetic character and you start worrying as you realize that she’s planning to go back to burglary. She’s risking a quick return to jail, because Thelma Kibble, her probation officer, is an “obese black female” and therefore very good at her job. She’s becoming suspicious of Cassie, who likes her all the same. Kibble “wasn’t easy but she was fair.” Connelly’s political correctness can’t really be called a vice, because it’s so common nowadays and isn’t in fact very annoying in this book.

There are even two good white men to offset all the evil white men. And the chief villain is one of Connelly’s best. He’s a psychopathic magician called Jack Karch. That’s magic as in card-tricks and rabbits-from-hats: Karch’s father once performed in Las Vegas on the same bill as Frank Sinatra. Like money and greed, legerdemain and misdirection are important parts of the plot. Las Vegas is where Cassie was caught, trying to rob a high-roller at a casino, and where she returns for another attempt at another high-roller. That’s why Karch, who’s working as a casino detective, gets on her trail and that’s when the book begins to lose its realism. There are too many dead bodies in the second half and too much of the action might have come from a James Bond movie. Like The Black Echo, the plot starts small, believable and compelling. Like The Black Echo again, it becomes big, unbelievable and no longer compelling.

But the plot is undeniably clever, with plenty of twists and surprises, and Connelly skilfully uses the characters and setting to explore themes like loyalty, deception and ego. Another part of his literary skill is apparent only when you read more of his books. His chief character is the LAPD murder-detective Harry Bosch and although Bosch doesn’t appear in Void Moon, it’s set in the same world. All his characters are linked in some way and Cassie turns up in a Bosch book. She’s a minor character there, a major one here.

That’s like life and so was the opening of Void Moon. When the bodies start piling up, the credibility is gone. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Thelma Kibble, the obese and highly competent probation officer, had been one of Karch’s long list of murderees. She isn’t, but she has more than a waddle-on part in the book and I’m not sure that Connelly was entirely sincere in making her such a stereotype of Black female virtue. If Void Moon had ended as it began, mindful that less is more, it would have been a much better book. But it’s still good and if you like hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Connelly is definitely someone to try.

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’Vile Vibes

In Plain Sight The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan DaviesIn Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, Dan Davies (Quercus 2014)

’Seventies nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Britain has reeled again and again at revelations about the sex-crimes committed by famous entertainers from that ever-more discredited decade. Gary Glitter, Jonathan King and Stuart Hall have all gone to jail. Rolf Harris will probably die there. But the biggest nonce of the lot got clean away:

Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE; Knight of Malta, Knight of the Vatican, ‘Special’ Friend of Israel; Honorary Royal Marines Green Beret, Honorary Doctor of Law and Honorary Assistant Entertainment Officer at Broadmoor maximum security psychiatric hospital; miner, scrap metal merchant, inventor of the disco; racing cyclist, wrestler and marathon runner; pop Svengali, radio DJ and Top of the Pops presenter; charity fund-raiser, highly paid business consultant, hospital administrator; confidant of prime ministers and princes. (ch. 2, “Frisk Him”, pp. 18-9)

Savile got a lot done in his eighty-four years, but the public didn’t know the half of it. He was born poor and sickly in Leeds in 1926 and died in the same city in 2011, rich, famous and laden with honours. I didn’t live in the UK at the height of his fame, but I saw some episodes of his famous children’s programme Jim’ll Fix It, on which he made dreams come true for a lucky few of the many thousands of children who wrote to him every week: some “got to fly with the Red Arrows, blow up water towers or sing with The Osmonds” (ch. 2, pg. 13). I didn’t like Savile or his programme, but I always reasoned that he couldn’t be a paedo because he looked and acted so much like one.

That was Savile’s bluff: as Davies puts it, he was hiding in plain sight. After his death it gradually emerged that he had committed sex-attacks on children for decades, relying on his fame, cunning and peripatetic life to keep himself out of jail. He had narrow escapes and was even interviewed by the police, but he got to the end of his life unscathed. That’s why his highly expensive grave in Scarborough bore the jeering epitaph: “It Was Good While It Lasted”. Not that the jeer was immediately apparent: Savile was buried with honour and acclaim. But Davies opens this biography by describing what happened to the grave when the toxic truth got out:

The three 18-inch thick slabs of dark granite it had taken eight months to craft and to polish and to inscribe had been taken to a yard in Leeds where the fourteen hundred letters were ground down and the black granite smashed into tiny pieces for landfill. Nothing was to be left of the headstone and nothing was to be left to mark the spot where the coffin was buried beneath the earth. It was good while it lasted. (ch. 1, “Apocalypse Now Then”, pg. 8)

The title of that first chapter, “Apocalypse Now Then”, is a good example of what you’ll find in the rest of the book: black humour and bathos. There’s also a series of impossible-to-answer questions. What made Savile tick? How did he fool so many people for so long? You could ask the same questions about Tony Blair, a criminal on a much bigger scale, but there are two big differences between Savile and Blair. Unlike Blair, Savile was highly intelligent and a self-made man. Blair got to the top by serving powerful interests; Savile got to the top under his own steam. I’d also say that while Blair is a narcissist, Savile was an exhibitionist.

Long before Savile’s death, Davies saw through the exhibitionism and glimpsed the depravity beneath. At the age of nine, he attended the recording of an episode of Jim’ll Fix It “at a television studio in Shepherd’s Bush, west London” (ch. 2, pg 13). After watching Savile’s performance as a zany, dream-fulfilling jester, he came away with an uncomfortable feeling that “there was something remote and cold and untouchable beyond the façade”. Later, he read Savile’s autobiography, As It Happens (1974), and was disturbed again:

As a child of the Seventies and Eighties, I had heard all the playground rumours about Britain’s favourite uncle; we all had. Jimmy Savile was a weirdo and possibly worse; a poofter, a necrophiliac or a child molester. [When I was an adult] Friends thought I was joking when I spoke of my ‘Jimmy Savile’ dossier and how I was going to use it to bring him down one day. (ch. 2, pg. 15)

The rumours may have been completely true. Savile was a Charlie Chester who preferred girls but also molested boys. And he spent a lot of time with corpses during his unpaid stints as a “celebrity porter” in various hospitals. Davies didn’t get to bring him down, but his uneasy fascination with Savile never went away. After he grew up and became a journalist, he conducted some lengthy interviews with his “bogeyman” for a magazine called Jack (ch. 2, pg. 17). He never got to the truth: Savile was too clever for that. But his uneasiness grew and the interviews are the basis of this book. Savile speaks at length, relishing the battle of wits with Davies and revelling, no doubt, in the thought that his words would acquire their full feral-and-fetid meaning only after his death.

I was struck by the strangeness of his language. This is how he described a narrow escape from death in a plane:

“It was all a bit of fun. You’re gonna die, you didn’t die, very good. I had plenty of time to think about it because I was up in the air when we ran out of fuel. It didn’t bother me because I’m a bit odd. One minute you’re here, the next minute you’re not.” (ch. 15, “Didn’t Die, Very Good”, pg. 117)

That’s English, but it’s “a bit odd”. If you know Savile’s voice, you can hear him speaking as you read. There’s something unsettling about the words and syntax he uses, not just the tone and manner that must have gone with them. I can’t point to exactly what it is, but I wonder if his language was influenced by brain damage or some other neurological abnormality. There was certainly something very odd about Savile’s brain, whether he was born that way or suffered a brain injury later, perhaps when he was hit by a collapsing roof during his time as a coal-miner (ch. 8, “The Power of Oddness”, pp. 65-6).

He claimed that he was “concussed”, but Davies couldn’t verify any details of the accident, not even the year it happened or whether it happened at all. Savile lied and distorted constantly, so nothing is certain about long stretches of his life. But something that suggests to me that he was brain-damaged later in life is the early photo of him that opens the book. He’s standing with his family as a boy, smiling happily and candidly at the camera. He’s the least odd-looking person in the photo. In fact he doesn’t look odd at all: just an ordinary, cheerful kid, albeit a clever-looking one.

In his photos as an adult, he definitely looks odd. The photo that opens Part Four is chilling: he’s sitting alone in a camper-van, dressed in dungarees and peering out of the window at a busy street with a blank, calculating expression on his face. You can’t put your finger on exactly why the photo is chilling, but it is. It screams “Nonce!” And many people besides Dan Davies were suspicious of Savile during his decades of fame. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of them, but it took her a long time to give him a knighthood, because her civil servants kept saying no: “Under the headings Benefactions, we have again considered the name of Mr Jimmy Savile, whom you have of course considered on previous occasions. We have concluded that he should not be recommended.” (ch. 53, “I am the boss – it’s as simple as that”, pg. 404)

The civil servants were right, Thatcher was wrong. But she had more excuse than the police and the BBC, who both come out of this book very badly. They missed numerous opportunities to stop Savile’s crimes and the BBC tried to maintain a cover-up as long as it could. Nevertheless, Savile was indeed a master manipulator, committing sex-crimes for decades against both sexes and all ages in TV studios, schools and hospitals up and down the country. He secured powerful friends and even managed to get an important position and unsupervised access at Broadmoor, the country’s most notorious psychiatric hospital. It was through Savile that Princess Diana seems to have got access to Broadmoor too. Diana was another fascinating fake who combined ostentatious charity-work with ghoulish interests, but she wasn’t a sex-criminal or a self-made woman and she didn’t achieve a fraction of what Savile did.

So how did he get away with it and fool so many for so long? His high intelligence was undoubtedly part of it, but so was his extraordinary energy: he lived like a blue-arsed fly, never staying long in any town or city, making and raising millions of pounds for himself and for charity while recording TV and radio shows, courting or fending off the media, and running dozens of marathons. Like Thatcher, he doesn’t seem to have needed much sleep or time for recuperation.

And like Thatcher, he is very interesting from the point of view of HBD, or human bio-diversity. What were the physiological and genetic bases of his intelligence, energy, will-power and dominance? What was his precise ancestry? We should be able to answer those questions one day. Other questions about Savile may never be answered, but Dan Davies does an excellent job of capturing the black comedy, bathos and chutzpah of his strange, sordid and sinister life. If you want to be right repulsively entertained, In Plain Sight will fix it for you.

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The Wooden Horse by Eric WilliamsThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

This book is about much more than ingenuity, effort and escape: it’s about existence. First published in 1949, it tells the story of three British prisoners of war who found an especially ingenious way to overcome the anti-escape restrictions of Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland). The perimeter fence was a long way from the huts and the Germans were using seismographs to detect any sound of digging. Solution? Simple: start a tunnel beneath the open sky while men jump up and down around you to cover the sound of your digging.

But how on earth do you do that? The title of the book supplies the answer: build a wooden vaulting horse, knock it over a few times to show the guards that it’s innocently empty, then hide inside it the next time it’s carried out and start digging. The excavated soil is carried back in the horse when the vaulting session is over and the entrance to the tunnel is concealed with a trapdoor. This means that Eric Williams and his companions, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, were using a disguise even before they escaped. They go under other names – Peter Howard, John Clinton and Philip Rowe – in this book, which is written like a novel in the third person. That allows Williams to use interior monologues, to switch locations and perspectives, and to be more descriptive than he would have been in a straight history. The Wooden Horse is full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations:

Peter leaned on the window-sill. It was late spring. Beyond the wire he could see the pale fronds of a silver birch graceful against the dark background of the pine forest […] a cascade of delicate green, almost yellow in the morning sun. […] Under the wire the sand was moist with dew and dew sparkled on the barbed wire. The long green living huts looked washed and cool, uncluttered as yet by the thousand prisoners who would soon spread their restlessness throughout the camp. He refused to think of the biting flies that would swarm into the hut and plague them as the day warmed up. (Part one, “Inside”, ch. 1, pg. 22)

He crossed to the trapdoor and lowered himself into the space under the hut. The sand felt cool to his hands and the air was musty and full of the odour of pinewood. He crawled towards the edge of the hut and lay waiting until John joined him. “After the next beam,” he whispered. “Then we’ll make a dash for the sand pit.” […] Peter looked up at the sky. It was the first time he had been out-of-doors at night since he was captured. There were no clouds and the heavens were trembling with a myriad stars. (Ibid., ch. 2, pg. 45)

The sheet of thin card the Escape committee had provided was almost as thick as that on which the pass was printed. He cut two pieces of the right size; cutting them carefully with the razor blade and metal ruler on the glass top of the dressing table, forgetting even the ultimate aim of his work. He would be absorbed for the rest of the afternoon and would finish the job with aching eyes and stiff shoulders; but rested and in some way renewed by the intensity of his concentration. (Part two, “Outside”, ch. 1, pp. 208-9)

There’s an important phrase in that final paragraph: “the ultimate aim”. What is it? Like the object it’s named after, The Wooden Horse is carrying more than it seems and in the end readers will find themselves in the same position as the German guards at Stalag Sagan. Just as there was much more to the vaulting than the guards realized, so there’s much more to the story of three prisoners and their escape than you first realize. The final page of The Wooden Horse will cast everything that’s gone before in a new light. It’s a memorable book about deception and disguise that is itself deceptive and wearing a disguise. A story set in a particular narrow time and situation is really about something much wider. You’ll learn a lot about life in a German POW camp in the Second World War, but you’ll also learn things about yourself. This is an existential book, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s humour in something serious, like the “ghosts” in the camp:

At some time in the early days the prisoners had managed to confuse the German nominal role, so that there were fewer of them on the books than were in the camp. These supernumeraries went into hiding at appell, and were kept in reserve to take the place of any prisoner who had escaped or who wanted for some reason to disappear. The life of a ghost was not a happy one. Not being on the roll he could draw no rations and even his letters from home had to be addressed to another prisoner. (“Inside”, pg. 85)

There are also glimpses of horror. When they escape to a Baltic port and try to find a ship for neutral Sweden, they see starving Russian prisoners being used as slave labour. “Escaping was still a sport to us,” says Eric Williams in an introduction he wrote in 1978. To the Russians it was an impossibility: they were too weak to attempt it, too far from home to consider it. And home was full of horror too. Wars are engines of cruelty and destruction, but even at its height the Second World War didn’t destroy everything or crush everyone. The Wooden Horse was made truly famous by the film, but the book has much more than the film. Sand, sun and trembling stars: after Williams broke out of Sagan, he broke into history and wrote a classic not just about escape, but about the essence of life.

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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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