Friday, 30 March 2018

The Bottle Factory Outing - Beryl Bainbridge

The Bottle Factory Outing came out in 1974, towards the end of Bainbridge's early period. It has the hallmarks of being firmly working class, girls dreaming way beyond their station, a touch of the fantastical and more than a touch of the macabre. I have read some of her middle period novels, which are male-centric and historical and which I enjoyed. This is my first of the early period.

Freda and Brenda share a desperately glum bedsit somewhere on the outskirts of London and work together at the Italian wine-bottling factory nearby. Freda is big and blowsy and glam. Brenda is tiny and shy and odd, not unlike the way Bainbridge chose to present herself at the time. The bottle factory is a relic from the Victorian era. All the other members of staff are Italian, save for Patrick, who drives the van.

Freda has set her cap at Vittorio, who will one day inherit the factory. Brenda, meanwhile, has to fend off the attentions - and hands - of the office manager, Rossi.

Freda has decided there must be a factory outing to Windsor, which is where things start to go wrong, ending with a truly macabre problem. Meanwhile Brenda's mother-in-law turns up with a gun, Patrick fixes the toilet cistern, and Freda gets to ride one of the Queen's special funeral horses.

It's a comic novel, though not for me a laugh-out-loud one. The offbeat characters and meandering plot keep us involved and amused. You can sense Bainbridge's talent seething in search of the perfect vehicle. This isn't that vehicle, but it's great fun.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Colonel Sun- Robert Markham/Kingsley Amis

As noted below, I acted on the spur of the moment and bought a copy of Colonel Sun, the first of the continuing adventures of James Bond which began after the death of Ian Fleming. They left a decent pause - Fleming died in 1964 and Colonel Sun did not come out until 1968 - but only because Fleming left a load of scraps that could be exploited in the interim.

Amis had already cashed in with The Bond Dossier (1965) so was an obvious choice for Fleming's heirs. Whether Fleming himself would have approved is another matter. Amis was a truly gifted writer who dabbled in genre fiction from time to time. Fleming was a rubbish writer who created a genre phenomenon. What made the difference was that Fleming knew about the spying business and had met most of the real life spies he brought together in the character of Bond. You wouldn't turn to Fleming if you wanted an inspiring description of a landscape - certainly not if you wanted characters of more than (at best) one-a-half dimensions. But you can and always could rely on his explanation of a particular firearm or car. You can rely him for the tone in which spies and especially their superiors speak and their world view. Fleming was one during the war - a spy and a bureaucrat.

True Bond fans have always shunned the post-Fleming stuff. I have said before on this blog: I read all the early Bonds before I was twelve and loved them; I saw the films as they came out and drew a very firm line after Thunderball, which is crud; I tried the books again sometime this century and have read several, which I find to be a deal less good than they are supposed to be. The plots are rubbish, the characterisation inadequate, and the tone - which, in fairness, was undoubtedly the tone of posh folk in Fleming's formative years - offensive and unacceptable.

And so to Colonel Sun... First off, I have always found Amis's arrogance unacceptable, which oddly makes it perfectly acceptable here. In fact the sex bomb, Ariadne, is a fully developed, conflicted and unpredictable character, which surprised me. I really liked the eponymous villain. The torture scene was stripped down to gruesome basics and was genuinely horrifying. The plot was certainly complicated - much more complicated than anything Fleming came up with - and I'm not sure it worked. Colonel Sun is the super-villain but instead of seeking to rule the world like your regular super-villain, all he wants to do is disrupt a gathering of Soviet spooks on a nearby island and blame it on the gallant Brits, for which purpose he has arranged to kidnap M. (I thought the use of a decrepit and semi-senile M was pure genius.)

The writing is very good, infinitely better than Fleming. Amis handles the action sequences well enough and his descriptions of the Greek islands are often spellbinding. The problem - the failure, really - is his inability to convince us that he knows how to sail a common-or-garden boat. There have to be boats because these are the Greek islands. They have to be sailed cleverly and surreptitiously because this is a spy adventure. But - for goodness sake, Amis - Bond is a bloody naval officer!!! Presumably that's in your Bond Dossier somewhere. Even I knew that. And I also know that Fleming knew how to sail boats - because he, like Bond, was a Naval Commander.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Ides of March - Thornton Wilder

So what have we here? An epistolary novel by an author who was highly respected in his lifetime but who has since fallen into total neglect. A history which the author admits, on page 1, has been dicked about with - to the extent that the outrage which hangs over everything else here, actually happened a decade and a half earlier. The author even goes so far as including anonymous attacks on Caesar which actually come from the Spanish Civil War - a slight anachronism of a mere two thousand years. The result?

Brilliant. I loved it. There is so much going on here. We have the arrival of Caesar's lover, Cleopatra, in Rome. We have the connivance of the local femme fatale Clodia Pulcher and her crazed brother. We have Caesar's fortnightly journal-letter to his old friend Turrinus in self-imposed seclusion on the Isle of Capri. I have never heard of Turrinus - is he perhaps another invention? In the novel, though, he becomes a constant, slightly eerie presence. It is hinted that he was horribly mutilated during Caesar's Gallic campaign, hence his seclusion - yet during the novel it becomes apparent that he is willing to receive visitors, some of whom he hasn't seen for decades. We see nothing of his replies to Caesar though the contents of letters to others are referred to. Does he really exist or is he another of Caesar's devious, secretive schemes?

The letters tend to be formal, and Wilder adds notes to enforce the illusion they are real. Yet he manages to create vivid characters in them. Cleopatra comes across very well, her exoticism demonstrated, and Wilder has fun with the women of Rome trying to decide if she is beautiful or not. Also stunningly brought to life is the young iconoclast poet Catallus and his premature death.

For me, the final perfect touch was the use of a direct quote from Tacitus - the only 'real' document in the dossier - to cover Caesar's assassination.

I don't know about other works by Thornton Wilder, but Ides of March is good enough in his own right to warrant restoration to the canon of great Twentieth Century American literature.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The End of the Web - George Sims

George Sims was one of those men with one of those names: ordinary, middling, probably from London or the Home Counties. Lower middle class, in some sort of service industry or perhaps a small businessman. Indeed this Sims, the one in question, was most of those things. For most of his life he was an antiquarian bookseller, first in London, then operating from a cottage in Berkshire. From 1964 on he wrote about a dozen crime thrillers about other middling men, often set in the rarefied world of antiquarian book dealing. This is one.

Leo is the book dealer in question. Leo is middleaged as well as middling, yet a beautiful young woman seduces him. While they are making love an armed man breaks in and kills the girl. Leo suffers a heart attack. Everyone assumes Leo killed the girl, then suffered his attack. But not family friend Ed Buchanan, back from a working holiday in Greece, who investigates. The revelation of the killer's identity is clever and appropriate - but it is the way Sims gets to the revelation that is the surprise of the book.

Sims' prose lacks punch, though his dialogue works well. His descriptive sentences are too long for comfort. His characterisation, albeit he is proud of using ordinary men and women as heroes and villains, is well above average. I especially enjoyed the hired thug in a bad wig. It is the detail that holds the attention. Sims seems well acquainted with all the locations used here. Semi-genteel London in the Seventies is no surprise, but Bodmin Moor and Amsterdam? Likewise, the detail of the car Buchanan borrows to travel to Bodmin - a 1970 De Tomaso Mangusta (it's a supercar not unlike a De Lorean but much classier). Totally the wrong car for the terrain, which gets him into incidental trouble that has nothing to do with the plot.

The plot itself unrolls through a series of narratives. Buchanan does not appear until about a third of the way through. When I realised what the underlying plot was I got very excited because it's one I've been working with for years - indeed, I was working on it yesterday afternoon, immediately before I got to the relevant revelation in The End of the Web.

Best bit for me, structure-wise, was Chapter Two, which consists of two facsimile information sheets, one for Leo, the other for his mate Chard. Who made them? Why? The answer lies therein - but that's telling you nothing.

This fascinating discovery comes via the new series of classic thrillers reissued by the British Library. Another of Sims' novels - The Last Best Friend - is also in the series, so I'm definitely having that the next time I visit. The introduction is by Martin Edwards, who also oversaw the Library's hugely successful classic whodunit reissues and whose cracking website has long been featured on the righthand panel of this blog. Check him out. And check out the magnificent cover photo by Paul Almasy,

Friday, 9 March 2018

Ian Fleming and James Bond - Ben Macintyre

I am a big fan of Ben Macintyre, his books, his TV programmes and his contributions to The Times. This is one of his early, minor works, commissioned in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of Fleming's birth.

I am in no sense a fan of James Bond. I read perhaps half the novels as a child and gave up to the films after I fell asleep in Thunderball when I was eight or nine. I suppose I have seen most of the Connery and Moore movies on TV since then. I have seen none of the Dalton, Brosnan or Craig iterations and am very unlikely to now. I have re-read a couple of the books more recently. I remember Diamonds Are Forever and Casino Royale. The former is very flimsy, the latter rubbish. Ian Fleming is not an author I take to in any way.

So I am probably not the target audience for a book about Bond and his creator. Yet I enjoyed it. Macintyre makes no attempt to exaggerate Fleming's literary prowess, he relies on the undeniable fact that with Bond he created a worldwide icon and spawned two industries (film and follow-on books) that continue fifty years after his death. Instead he looks at what made the Bond books successful - chiefly the excitement of international jet-setting and hi-tech gadgetry in the age of postwar austerity. Macintyre uses his encyclopaedic knowledge of historical espionage to identify the originals behind the characters. He covers the basics of Fleming's life, the key moments that saw Fleming in Jamaica with time on his hands the urge to write the spy story to end all spy stories. I could personally have done with a little more about his older brother Peter, also a successful novelist and peripheral spy, and his influence on Ian. At the end of the day Ian Fleming was not an especially pleasant man and Macintyre tells us enough about his better side to leave us satisfied.

One unexpected result of reading Ian Fleming and James Bond is an inexplicable desire to look into some of the post-Fleming Bond novels. In particular I am keen to get hold of Colonel Sun, the first of the follow-ons, by a hard-up Kingsley Amis hiding behind the name Robert Markham. I read it when it first came out and hated it. I do not like any of Amis that I have read over the years, so why on earth I've just clicked to buy Colonel Sun on Amazon... What have you done to me, Macintyre? It'll be John Gardner's Bond next but it will never ever be Sebastian Faulks. You hear me? Unless---

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Haunted Hotel - Wilkie Collins

The Haunted Hotel (1879) is late Collins, strikingly modern in some ways, hopelessly Victorian in others. The plot is complex, bordering on soap-opera. Lord Montbarry has broken off his engagement to Anglo-Irish rose Agnes Lockwood and gone and married the racily exotic Countess Narona. His family, the many males of whom wanted to marry Agnes themselves, disown him; London clubland turns its back on him. So His Lordship does a bunk to Venice where he holes up in ancient palazzo with the Countess and her brutish brother. He falls ill and dies. Everybody blames the countess.

Meanwhile Agnes's former servant, whose husband just happens to have been the Montbarrys' courier in Venice, also disappears. A thousand pounds compensation from the late lordship arrives in the post. One of Montbarry's younger brothers, a minor son in search of a fortune, joins a partnership which buys the Venetian palazzo and turns it into an upmarket hotel. The son of the new Lord Montbarry marries his sweetheart. Where better for a honeymoon than Venice? Heck, why doesn't the whole family pitch up there? Agnes, obviously, is more or less family. Of course she should go with them.

Just one problem. The room in which the original Lord Montbarry died seems to be haunted. Will Agnes unravel the mystery of the missing courier?

Its a short novel but one in which Collins rolls out his full repertoire of literary tricks and traits. As in The Woman in White we have an occult mystery with elements of the detective story, a genre Collins more or less invented in The Moonstone. The narrative unfolds in a variety of voices and forms: letters, first and third person narration and - my absolute favourite - the technicalities of the mystery are revealed in a scenario for a play manically penned by the deranged and dying Countess.

Great fun.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Comedians - Graham Greene

To be honest, the relevance of the title was lost of me. I get the general idea that Brown, Smith and Jones are to an extent the classical Greek masks, and the irony that they find themselves adrift in the dark tragedy of Papa Doc's Haiti, but other than that... It doesn't matter, though; what signifies is their 'civilised' Western-ness contrasted with the wild exoticism of the Caribbean voodoo and the complete otherness of the Tontons Macoute.

This is the first time I have tried Greene at his peak. I have read the earlier stuff - Stamboul Train and Brighton Rock - and I have read the late rubbish (Monsignor Quixote), but nothing from the fifties and sixties when the Nobel Prize seemed to await. Now, having read The Comedians, I agree with those who thought he should have the ultimate Literary Prize. Brown the Monaco-born adventurer, Jones the con-man and Smith the vegetarian former candidate for the US presidency, may be generic in their names, but in their souls they are all heroes in their fashion. Smith, with his redoubtable wife, is the epitome of honour and decency; Brown would like to be a villain but cannot prevent himself from standing up for the oppressed; and Jones, who really is a villain, ends up dying a freedom fighter's death.

The supporting characters are equally fascinating. We have Brown's lover, Martha, dissatisfied wife of a South American ambassador and mother of the appalling Angel; the monosyllabic mortician Rodriguez and the pathetic Baxter with his comic monologue about his wartime escapades as an air raid warden; Captain Concasseur of the Tontons; the quiet communist Dr Magiot; and perhaps the most omnipresent, Dr Philipot, the ex-Minister who we first encounter as a corpse in the empty pool of Brown's hotel but whose death and the consequences thereof drive everything that follows.

Papa Doc does not appear - already, in 1966, he was an invisible presence confined to the presidential palace. Had he appeared, I believe the novel would have suffered. The point is that the rule of fear relies on him not being seen. That way, nobody knows what he thinks or wants. No plans can be made. All plots to unseat him are doomed to fail for the simple reason that they have to propose something whereas Papa Doc is embodiment of nothing. That, if you like, is the comedy in which our comedians play their parts, a grim farce or the blackest of satires.