Friday, 23 June 2017

The Spanish Game - Charles Cumming



Cumming is 21st century British spy fiction at its best. The Spanish Game (2006) is an early novel (his third) but is fully accomplished. Alec Milius is living in Madrid, not really on the run, but hiding out from the espionage world which he flirted with in an earlier novel with disastrous results all round.


Gradually he gets drawn back. He becomes involved with ETA, the Basque Separatists, and the secretive but real rightwing GAL. This is the tricky part of any spy story - why does the hero bother? This is where Cumming shows his mastery. Milius gets involved because he is working for an ex-pat banker who needs a report for a client on the likelihood of Basque autonomy. The boss, Julian Church, sets up a meeting with colourful Basque politician Mikel Arenaza. Alec and Mikel bond during a night on the town in San Sebastian. Mikel arranges to meet up with Alec in Madrid. He calls from the airport to say he is on his way, but never arrives. Naturally Alec is curious. Inevitably he has the skillset to investigate...


To be fair, the story takes a while to get going. There seems to be too much backstory in the early chapters but believe me, it has to be there to justify the ending - which is downright brilliant. Cumming already had his character from previous novels and again he deals with it innovatively, by building our understanding of Alec's state of mind, the paranoia which means he simply cannot go straight to authorities with his theories about Mikel. Cumming is very, very clever - by some distance the best spy novelist of his generation.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Great Spy Race - Adam Diment



The Great Spy Race is the second and penultimate Philip McAlpine novel and thus the second and penultimate Adam Diment novel. It is the successor to The Dolly Dolly Spy but it is simply not in the same league. What was a fresh take on the super spy - Carnaby Street instead of Savile Row - has already tipped over into parody. On an island fortress (Scaramanga, Doctor No) McAlpine finds the legendary spy Peters and his amusing ethnic henchman-butler Petite. Peters has set up the titular race for great spies and McAlpine is the reluctant UK entrant. Thereafter it all degenerates into a sort of literate Wacky Races.


There is a certain amount of fun, nowhere near enough Sixites sex, no meaningful jeopardy. That said, Diment's narrative gift is never in doubt. The text rolls along briskly, Sadly, it never gets anywhere I care about. I have no idea what the prize in the race turned out to be.




Three novels in barely a year - then absolutely nothing between 1968 and now. Fifty years of silence. You have to wonder if Diment flogged his idea as far as it could go, then never had another. Truly an enigma. But I don't think I'll be bothering with the remaining third, Think Inc., despite the cracking title.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis

The other book about Donald Trump was written 80 years ago by Nobel Prize Winner (the first American winner) Sinclair Lewis. And it is both funny and scary.




It's scary because his outsider president, Buzz Windrip, spouts the same meaningless word-association babble that Trump does. Buzz too is known by his first name, which he has made into a brand. He has even sort of written a sort of book, which Lewis gleefully quotes at length (having obviously made it up in the first place). It's scary in that Lewis wrote it in 1934-5, when Hitler and Mussolini seemed poised to take over Europe, if not the world. It is no surprise, then, that Buzz turns out to be an American fascist dictator, who institutes work camps for the poor, local commandants to keep them poor, and uniformed Minute Men to enforce the will of the commandants. And the people love it - because Buzz Windrip has made America Great Again.


It can't happen here? Well it just did. How long, we wonder, before somebody on Fox News mentions Buzz Windrip and The Donald naturally assumes he was a real president, wiped from history by Fake News? His stormtoopers won't be called Minute Men, though, because Trump can't tell the difference between minute (time) and minute (tiny) and he has tny hands and therefore, in his mind, a tiny penis.
Anyway, back to the book. The story concerns Doremus Jessop, the sixty-year-old editor-owner of a local newspaper in Fort Beulah Vermont. He fancies himself a free-thinker, an armchair radical, but the unexpected triumph of President Buzz challenges all his preconceptions. Doremus (magnificent name) is sorely tested, he pays a high price for his beliefs and almost childish acts of sedition. Does he face up to the challenge? Does he answer the call? That's what the book is about and it would be unfair to reveal the answer. Incidentally, the way Lewis ultimately rolls out the answer demonstrates the skills needed to win the Nobel Prize.


There is a certain Augustan tone to the writing, echoes of Swift and Pope which are pitch-perfect for what is, after all, satire. It Can't Happen Here is a triumphant book. Given that Lewis knocked it off in a frenzied burst of activity, it begs the question, how good are his other books? And why the hell have I left it so late to discover him?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

How the Hell Did This Happen? - P J O'Rourke

It is as if P J O'Rourke had been waiting all his life for Donald Trump to waddle along. Sure, he cut his pointy teeth on Richard "Tricky Dicky" Nixon, and kept his satirical eye in with the line of presidential duds that followed Reagan (it really is bad news when you realise George H W Bush was the last truly competent president). But Trump is the prize for O'Rourke, the fact that he was up against the hopelessly flawed and eminently corruptible Hillary Clinton an unlooked-for bonus. Yes, they can set up inquiries into Russian hacking but they can't get round the fact that the leaks were genuine and true.


So, the moment he had stopped rubbing his hands in glee, O'Rourke sat down and started a journal. However the election panned out, he knew he had a bestseller in the pipeline. He starts by disposing of the small fry, the Ted Cruzes and Jeb Bushes of this world who nevertheless turned out to be the best of a very shabby stream of also-rans who came and went over the course of the primaries.
O'Rourke knows this election was not about either Trump or Clinton. He knows it is really about the abused electorate getting their own back on the elite who bailed out the banks and hawked American jobs off to the most disreputable overseas charlatan they could find. The men in shiny suits who have spent more on their teeth than the average voter earns in a year. Men like, well, Messers Cruz and Bush 3. He explains at length how it is really about delivering one below the belt to the self-appointed elite.


The ultimate triumph of Trump is not thanks to him or her. It is down to the failure of America's ludicrous electoral system. If these two are the best the Democrats and Republicans can come up with then the system is rotten to the core. O'Rourke has always espoused this thesis. Now he has the proof positive, glowing uranium orange behind the big desk in the Oval Office.


So read his book. Laugh. Laugh out loud because it is very very funny. Then weep.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Enemy in the Blanket - Anthony Burgess


Part two of The Malayan Trilogy sees Victor Crabbe and his long-suffering wife Fenella dispatched to one of the furthest outposts of the tottering colony. Crabbe is technically head of the local school but, typically, soon finds himself carousing with a new mistress and an old college friend. This friend, Rupert Hardman, fills the place of Nabby Adams in The Enemy in the Blanket. Like Nabby, Hardman likes Malaya and desperately wants to make a career there. Where Nabby was notable for his size, with Hardman it is his colouring - he is whiter than white, even whiter in the damaged tissue where his face was burnt during his wartime service with the RAF. He is a lawyer and not an especially bad one, but he just cannot find a way of breaking through into success. Again, like Adams, he has debts everywhere, though not for booze; in Hardman's case it is the necessities of life that throw him into debt - food, accommodation, a halfway decent suit for court. Hardman is so determined to be a success that he makes the ultimate sacrifice and converts to Islam and marries Normah, a rich and voluptuous widow. Like Burgess, Hardman is a Catholic, so his mercenary switch of faith costs him the only real friend he had in Dahaga, the saintly priest Laforgue. Meanwhile Normah turns out to be a demanding wife. She has needs. She drops sinister hints about what happened to her previous spouses when they failed to meet those needs.

Crabbe, of course, floats happily down the stream of failure. He has the chance to slake his sexual needs with the feisty Anne Talbot. He tolerates the machinations of his Machiavellian deputy head Jaganathan. He tolerates the idea that Fenella is compensating for his shortcomings by having an affair with the Abang, the real ruler of Dahaga.

The plot resolves beautifully, with real moments of tenderness between Crabbe and his disappointed women. Hardman makes a desperate bolt for freedom. Jaganathan gets his comeuppance and life rolls on in Malaya like a runaway bulldozer - all to the benign amusement of a chorus of lackadaisical Sihks. Burgess's second novel is a significant step forward in his literary development. It is comic, clever, a splendid depiction of the last sputterings of Empire.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Detour - Gerbrand Bakker

Gerbrand Bakker is a Dutch gardener. You need to know more? OK, he's a sometime skating instructor. He is in his fifties. He was forty when he wrote his first book, The Twin. Oh - and he's an absolutely phenomenal writer. Thanks, Gerbrand, for this info.







The Detour is his second novel. It is set in Wales. A Dutch woman in early middle age, whose name might or might not be Emelie, has run away from her academic job and her waste of space husband after a possible fling with what might have been one of her students. But that's not the only reason...

Anyway, she pitches up in rural Wales, the detour in question, and rents a cottage which a local farmer is looking after while the estate of the previous owner, recently deceased, is settled.

The stranger keeps herself to herself. She tells the locals, when she can't avoid them, as little as possible. Still, the locals know as much as we do until the action switches back to Holland where the husband is managing just fine without her, although her parents are starting to worry. They persuade the husband to report her missing. He eventually pals up with a copper who has nothing better to do than pursue the one lead they have - that 'Emilie' might be in Wales.

Meanwhile a free-spirited young lad called Bradwen has turned up with his dog Sam. The woman takes them in. Inevitably, sooner or later, they drift into a relationship which Bakker develops into a wonderful mish-mash of mutual support and interdependence but absolutely no revelation. Revelation comes gradually, by accident, and - the touch of a master - never completely. We learn some scraps of what might be the truth but are left wondering long after finishing the book.

It's a slim volume - only 230 large print pages - but it makes for a slow, luxuriant read. Bakker evokes the landscape of Snowdonia whilst getting immersive with the woman's plans for the garden. The characters might be unreliable witnesses yet they are wonders of layered complexity. Emilie tries, periodically, to think about her academic work on the poetry of the reclusive American nature-poet Emily Dickinson; she never latches onto the parallels with her own life but Bakker brilliantly makes sure that we always do. The translation by David Colmer is a work of art in itself.

Watch out for Gerbrand Bakker. He may well turn out to be something very special.

The Catcher in the Rye - J D Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books everybody should read at least once in their life. After all it is the book that J D Salinger wrote just once in his long life. OK, I have left it late - ironically about the same length of time that Salinger lived after starting to publish (serialized) his only novel, all 192 pages of it.


It is a roman a clef, a coming-of-age story, and quite possibly the ultimate of its kind. It's set over a few winter days between Holden Caulfield being expelled from his fancy private school and facing up to his parents back in New York. We don't witness the climactic moment, of course, but Salinger takes us to the verge, when Holden seems to admit to himself that he can't strike out on his own, that he hasn't got what it takes to stand on his own two feet. We have gathered, by that point, that he is writing his confessional from some sort of sanatorium in California.


Inbetween we have a frantic hothouse week in New York. Holden spends the last of his generous allowance on hotels, bars, night clubs. He is trying to break through into adulthood - he believes he looks much older than his eighteen years because he has a patch of grey hair, but his elders inevitably see his true childishness.


Reading The Catcher is like spending time in the company of the world's sulkiest, most self-centered teenager, which is what set the literary world on fire when the novel came out in 1951. You resent the guy, deplore his blather, even hate him - but if you are male and were ever a teenager, you know you dislike him because he is you.


Salinger's single masterpiece probably defines the term tour de force. I'm glad I finally read it. I'm equally glad I won't feel the need to do so again.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Blood of Victory - Alan Furst



The more Furst I read, the more I'm impressed. The cover blurb from the Sunday Times likens him to Robert Harris and Sebastian Faulks. I like Harris, I have so far steered clear of Faulks, but for me the closest comparison is with John le Carre. High praise, I know, but they both immerse us in their world of espionage; they write obliquely, almost furtively; and they both have an aura of insider knowledge. Le Carre's relatively brief involvement with the SIS is well known and covered in various reviews on this blog (if anyone is wondering, I'm still trying to force myself to finish reading The Perfect Spy). Furst identifies himself as a journalist; presumably he has cultivated links and sources in the spy world. What he can't have, of course, is any first hand knowledge of clandestine activities in the Balkans during the first half of World War II. Yet that is his world in all the novels of his that I have read. How would you even start to research such a topic?

There is no apparent overlap between the novels (again, subject to the proviso that I haven't read them all) and Furst makes things even more difficult for himself by having non-English or non-American protagonists - in this case I A Serebin, onetime Soviet hero, writer of delicate fictions set in Odessa, and now a leading figure of the International Russian Union (that is to say, non-Soviet emigres) in Paris. Serebin finds himself seduced (literally) into a multinational plot to disrupt German oil supplies from Romania. The scheme is incredibly complex and I lost track completely. It didn't matter a jot - for me, the convolutions are the point. What mattered to me was Serebin, a splendidly-drawn character, sentimental in his care for a former lover, now dying, and utterly indifferent to the dangers he faces. Unlike so many lesser writers in the genre Furst does not lose focus on his hero. Serebin is there on page one and he is front and centre in the action sequence at the end. I was more than captivated by his current lover Marie-Galante, a femme anyone would risk fatality for.

For me then, Alan Furst is in the top two or three exponents of spy fiction. The big excitement is that he is still getting better with each new novel.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Kraken - China Mieville



Mieville is probably the high priest of British New Weird. Kraken (2010) is not especially new but it is certainly weird. A preserved giant squid vanishes from the Natural History Museum. Its conservator, Billy Harrow, finds himself drawn into a web of cult police and kraken cults. Beneath this lies a secondary world of Londonmancers and occult gangs. On one, and one thing only, the feuding factions agree: the taking of the kraken betokens the Apocalypse.

I was instantly reminded of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, still my favourite of his. From Neverwhere springs a subset of alt-London Weird, that includes the likes of Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London). Mieville takes things much further but I feel he tries to cram too much into one novel. Kraken is far too long. The opening - the revelation of the mystery world - is extremely good; the apocalyptic battle at the end is masterly done; but there is a hell of a lot of middle, much of it stodge, much of it dispensable. That seems to the pitfall lurking for all such fictional constructs. Where do you draw the line? It's not for me to suggest plotlines to the likes of Mieville, however there is another spellbinding yarn waiting for the Tattoo and his unwilling host Paul.

The male characters are better drawn than the female. Mieville clearly has high hopes for his wisecracking witch-cop Collingwood. The best I can say is that she is amusing in small doses.

I seem to be listing a lot of negatives. That's not the intention. I really enjoyed Kraken and only criticise because I care. There's a lot more Mieville and New Weird waiting for me. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Stoner - John Williams



Stoner is the Great American Novel that had to bide its time. Published in 1965, it had to wait more or less fifty years for its classic status to be recognised.


It explores familiar territory - the campus, secluded scholarship, the lost grandeur of the South - and it takes the two World Wars as its chronological frame.


William Stoner exceeds expectations when he gains admittance as a student to the University of Missouri in 1910. He comes from dirt-poor farming stock and initially studies agriculture. Then his eyes are opened to the wonders of English Literature - in his case the late Latin lyricists. Thereafter, he never leaves the university and never really revisits his youth, save to bury his parents and sell the farm. The University is his life, teaching his passion.


Classmates leave to serve in France in 1917. Stoner thinks long and hard and decides to stay. Twenty-four years later, of course, he is too old to serve, a married man with a daughter. And here we really comes to the central issue of the novel. Stoner is a good man, but he is not a good husband and lets himself get sidelined as a father. His life is study but he is a poor student of life. Williams' great gift is the creation of character. Stoner's wife Edith is a fragile Southern beauty and slightly deranged. Stoner loves her and she wants to love him, but they can't manage it, so they eke out an uneasy compromise and over the years they make it work. The daughter, Grace, on whom Stoner dotes, finds teenage pregnancy her only way out. The father of her child, a student at the University, does the right thing by Grace only to be killed in the war. Thereafter Grace takes to drink.


Stoner's great love turns out to be another student, Katherine Driscoll, a free spirit and thoroughly grounded young woman. The only way to keep her is for him to leave Edith and leave the University. As a good man and a dedicated teacher, Stoner can do neither. He becomes embroiled in a feud with his head of department that lasts to the end of his career. And, ultimately, Stoner does what the protagonist in every Great American Novel has to do: he makes his peace and dies. And what a death! Gradually fading away with his long-forgotten text book in his hand. Magnificent. Profoundly moving.


How much of this is autobiographical we do not know. We know that Williams, too, was an academic and, like Stoner, he wrote far too little. Other than that, he is a mystery. His name is about as plain as it gets, and so is his prose style. But what his achieves with simple words is far more than the likes of Henry James achieved with all his frills and flamboyant vocabulary. Williams achieves deep truths and phenomenal beauty.


I'm having luck, recently, finding masterpieces. Stoner is definitely another.