Monday, 29 January 2018

The Revenge of Dracula - Peter Tremayne

Revenge is the second of Tremayne's trilogy Dracula Lives! Some years ago I reviewed the first, Dracula Unborn, on this blog.

Each novel comes at Dracula from a different angle. Unborn was the story of the dynasty in the 16th century; Revenge moves us on three hundred years to the foundation of modern Romania in the mid 19th century. Upton Welsford, like Jonathan Harker in Stoker's original, has gone mad and is writing his story from an asylum. In 1861 Welsford is private secretary to a permanent secretary at the Foreign Office. As such he will go with the official party to the independence day celebrations in Bucharest. This could be the making of his career ... but before he goes he buys a quaint jade dragon in a junk shop and starts suffering nightmares in which he is part of an ancient Egyptian cult worshipping the said dragon. In these dreams he is sacrificed by a beautiful priestess, who soon appears in London, suffering exactly the same dreams. Welsford and Clara fall in love, then Clara is abducted and taken to, of all places, Romania - specifically the land beyond the trees, Transylvania.

Tremayne writes popular adventure fiction of the highest standard. He is very much in the tradition of Bram Stoker and Rider Haggard (of whom he has written a biography). The Dracula trilogy dates from the Seventies, around the time the author turned 30. The Signet omnibus, which I own, seems to hint at a TV or film tie-in, but I know of no movie versions. They are simultaneously of their era and faithful to Stoker's original. They expand the lore and are well worth checking out.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Call of the Wild - Jack London

What exactly is The Call of the Wild? Well, for a start it's not a novel. It's a novella, barely half the length of a full-length novel. Is it a book for a children like, say, Black Beauty? I don't believe so. The wild element is just too gruesome. Like Black Beauty, though, it is anthropomorphic - our protagonist is the dog Buck, who reacts to things as we think a dog might. That said, London goes much further than Sewell and Kipling. His dog hero is also aware of his ancient bloodline, all the way back to a common ancestor with the wolves and back to the first co-operation with man - startlingly, a sub-human primitive, probably a Neanderthal.

Then there is the actual call. To start off with Buck is a family pet in the Southland. Then he is stolen and sold because the Klondike Gold Rush at its frenzied height and there is serious money to be had for a dog as big and strong and buck. He is brutally broken by a man in a red shirt. Once above the snowline, it is the other sled dogs who teach him his craft. They too have personalities - the evil Spitz, lazy Pike, and so on. There comes a time when Buck knows it is kill or be killed with Spitz, so they fight a bloody battle and Buck becomes lead dog. He is sold on again and ends up with an ill-fated threesome who have no idea what they are doing. Fortune takes him into the camp of John Thornton, the perfect owner. Yet Buck cannot settle. He literally hears the call of the wild - a wolf howling at the moon - and before long he is the leader of the wolf pack, totally at home in the ancestral life of a wild dog.

I really loved The Call of the Wild. Handily this Vintage edition comes with White Fang, so I'll be onto that within a week or so. If it is half as good as The Call of the Wild it will be very good indeed.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Dead Lions - Mick Herron

Dead Lions is the second of Mick Herron's splendidly warped Jackson Lamb thrillers. I have previously read and reviewed the fourth, Spook Street. It really doesn't matter what order you read them in. The plots are standalone and the premise is always the same: Slough House is where MI5 buries the second rate spooks who are too young to pension off; Jackson Lamb, in charge of Slough House, is a loose cannon whose appalling behaviour is redeemed by his single principle in life, unswerving loyalty.

Dickie Bow, had he been younger, would have been marooned at Slough House. He was certainly a slow horse. But he was in Berlin with Jackson Lamb, and when Dickie meets his maker on a replacement bus from Reading station, Lamb feels honour-bound to stick his nose in. This leads to the death of one of Lamb's own, seconded to nursemaid a visiting Russian oligarch. River Cartwright, meanwhile, grandson of a legendary spook, uncovers what looks like a plot to crash a light aircraft into the City's latest skyscraper by a nest of long-entrenched Cold War agents.

Herron's plotting is second to none. As in Spook Street he manages to walk the delicate tightrope between comedy and suspense. The action sequences are truly thrilling, the black humour of the dialogue always amusing, often laugh-out-loud. Surely somebody has to adapt the series for TV?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Deep Blue - Alan Judd

Alan Judd is an author who took his time to find his genre. He has been writing a long time - he won the Winifred Holtby Prize as long ago as 1981 - but has not been prolific until now, in his retirement from other professions.

His main character, Charles Thoroghgood, is now C, the Chief of MI6 but first appeared many years ago in a novel about the Irish Troubles, as a soldier, which Judd was in the late Sixties and Seventies. Here, Thoroughgood becomes embroiled in one of his earlier cases, a anarchist plot to steal a lump of radioactive cobalt to make an anti-nuclear point. Such things were big in the Eighties, when Charles failed to catch those he knew to be responsible. Now extreme leftwing views are again current, with the SNP threatening the break the Union and swivel-eyed Tories imposing intolerable austerity on the working classes. We have no enemies to blast with nuclear missiles but still we persist in paying untold billions for a deterrent that probably won't work anyway.

I must stress that much of the last paragraph reflects my views, not Judd's or Charles Thoroughgood's. Yes, I am that leftie whereas Judd, career soldier and diplomat, is plainly of the right. That doesn't and never should prevent him being a supremely skilled writer with a particular gift for plotting. Despite the cover blurb from his employers at the Telegraph, Judd is not anywhere near John le Carre as a writer of spy fiction, nor indeed Charles Cumming. Where Judd excels is in the depicting the world in which senior spies have to operate, hedged in by transitory ministers and their SPADs. The SPADs trope is brilliantly worked here in Deep Blue.

Having stumbled on Judd by accident I am keen to explore more of his work. Many of his titles appeal to me. There's one about Shakespeare's sword, a couple about Nazi Germany, and a new Thoroughgood called The Accidental Spy. Now he has turned seventy Judd is clearly knocking them out at an increased rate - Deep Blue was published in 2017 and we're only three weeks into 2018. His non-fiction seems especially important. He is the biographer of Ford Madox Ford, a writer with whom he would seem to have much in common, and the definitive biography of MI6's first C, Mansfield Cumming.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Beds in the East - Anthony Burgess

Beds in the East is the final part of Burgess's Malayan Trilogy (1956-59). Set in the final days of British colonial rule, the ethnically diverse natives are starting to take over as the Brits fade away. Likewise in the narrative - our hero Victor Crabbe enters late and leaves before the end. He just disappears, which I felt was a masterly touch from Burgess.

Crabbe's reduced role means that Burgess can concentrate more on the 'natives', only some of whom are actually Malays. There is also the extensive Chinese community and the close-knit Tamils, all of them jockeying for status in the new independent Malaya. Among them is Robert Loo, son of a Chinese cafe proprietor, who is certainly a self-taught musical prodigy and whom Crabbe considers a genius. He tries to get a commission for Robert to write a Malayan anthem for the independence ceremonies and a scholarship to get him to a conservatory in England or America. There is Sayed Omar, who believes he has been blackballed for promotion by the fiendish Tamil Maniam and seeks his revenge. There is Maniam's Tamil friend (the Tamils are all 'friends') the vet Vythilingam, desperately trying to avoid the arranged marriages his mother is equally determined to oversee.

Linking them all, and messing up all their plans, is the mixed race sex bomb Rosemary, who pretends she is English, who pretends her British fiance Joe is really going to send for her, and who lives amid her dozens of cats and a similar number of (largely) frustrated admirers. Rosemary is unusual for Burgess (a dominant female character) and I wonder why he didn't create more in his later work. I suppose there is the Dark Lady in Nothing Like the Sun, but I don't recall any others.

You can feel Burgess stretching his wings in Beds in the East, really hitting his novelistic stride. He is happy to let his syntax loose, happy to flaunt his own musical prowess without feeling the need to explain it. At the same time it finishes off his debut trilogy beautifully.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Tudor: The Family Story - Leandra de Lisle

I was a big fan of de Lisle’s book about the Grey sisters The Sisters Who Would be Queen, and there was much here that I liked. Eventually, though, I had to give up, because de Lisle’s conservative agenda became too much. I have no problem with conservative writers; it sometimes does me good to be reminded how the other half think. I read the Daily Telegraph from time to time – I have even read Leandra de Lisle in the Telegraph – but she also writes for the unacceptable, inexcusable Daily Mail and when she got to discussing Bloody Mary in this book the tone became out-and-out Daily Mail – incoherent ranting along the lines of Everyone’s wrong ‘cept me, the bastards! Yes, I daresay Mary I had her good side, and much of her problems later in life can be attributed to the appalling way her mother was cast aside, but the fact is her burning-at-the-stakes stats are much worse than those of Henry VIII who everyone agrees was a self-indulgent tyrant. She burned more people over a much shorter reign, and that is the yardstick by which to judge her.

The first half of the book was pretty good. De Lisle is excellent on Lady Margaret Beaufort and she introduced me to a character I had not come across before, Owen Tudor’s illegitimate son David, who was brought up for a time with the future Henry VII and who featured at various Tudor family occasions. Where I think she started to go wrong was when Henry VIII lost interest in governing, circa 1540. There is too little about the Pilgrimage of Grace, which must have shocked even Henry to the core, and even less about the Western and East Anglian rebellions in Edward’s reign, and next to nothing about Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554, which she tries to attribute to the ineffective Marquess of Dorset.

Yes, this is expressly an account of the Tudor family, but I would argue that in order to understand the tumultuous eleven years between Henry VIII’s death and the accession of Elizabeth you have to understand the very real threats to the first cabinet government in English history, the self-appointing juntas of Somerset and Northumberland. This is probably where de Lisle’s politics start to get in the way. As a contemporary conservative she has to believe that government by a cabinet which is not even in tune with its own party, let alone the people, is acceptable. I don’t – and nor did the ordinary people of England 1547-1558. It is my firm belief that nobody outside London gave two hoots about kings until Henry VIII, having time on his hands as England’s first non-warrior king, started to interfere with their beliefs. It may even be that they weren’t that worried about liturgical changes, that what really prompted their rebellion was the removal of their welfare state, the safety blanket of the monasteries which, corrupt as they were, nevertheless provided alms, sanctuary and medical care to the poor.

Returning to Mary, if she cared anything about popular support, she would have refounded the monastic system, but she didn’t because she cared about authority, those who sided with her, and the proceeds of the dissolution which she happily shared with them.

One final criticism: De Lisle chooses to call the Marquess of Dorset ‘Harry’ Grey. In her notes she says that King Edward used the diminutive in his journal and that she uses to lessen the number of Henrys in her text. To me it sounds wrong. No one called him Harry (or Henry) outside his immediate family (of which Edward was one by marriage). They called him Dorset and later Suffolk. Surnames were not important in early modern England; titles were everything.