Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Crisis - Frank Gardner

Frank Gardner is the BBC's Security Correspondent who was shot and disabled by terrorists whilst filming in Saudi Arabia in 2004. I became interested in him after watching a documentary series in which he set off, wheelchair and all, to see the birds of paradise in Borneo. So when I saw his first novel. I had to give it a try.

It's not his first book but it is a first novel and has some inevitable faults. His characterisation isn't great and there are scenes that don't need to be there. But it is the depth of knowledge behind the story that draws you in. The idea is a cracker: Colombian drug smugglers decide to take revenge on the Brits who disrupt their trade with a North Korean dirty bomb. Once the clock starts ticking, the device beloved of all the best thrillers, the book becomes thoroughly compelling, as good as any in the genre.

Before that things take their time. It's the inevitable compromise - you have to develop your characters and setting in sufficient detail to make your reader care about the outcome. Gardner's hero, who seems to be continuing in a second novel, is Luke Carlton, an identikit hero with an identikit name, a former Special Forces officer turned spy - which I guess must be a regular thing in real life.

Luke is a newbie at MI6 but he is the obvious man for the job because he was born and raised in Colombia (a prologue in which he loses his parents is one of the scenes I could happily dispense with). His girlfriend Elise and her subplot is a bore, but Luke suffers enough and makes sufficient gung-ho mistakes that we do come to care about his fate. The villains are pretty much the usual black hats - there is no need for them to be anything more. The most interesting characters are the officials at MI6 HQ in Vauxhall Cross (VX), especially Sayed 'Sid' Khan, the conflicted Head of Terrorism, and Luke's line manager Angela Scott.

Crisis is 550 pages. All bar about 50 of them are excellent. A very good debut but Gardner really needs to spend more time on characterisation and giving them more original names.

PS It has just dawned on me that the front cover gives away one of the plot twists. Duh!

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?