Thursday, 30 May 2019

City of Gold - Len Deighton

City of Gold is late period Deighton, from 1992. I don't remember hearing about it at the time and wonder if it wasn't the greatest hit. That said, even mediocre Deighton is better than most people's best and this novel is by no means mediocre.

The setting is Cairo, early 1942. Rommel is advancing on the city. The Allies cannot stop him. He seems to know their plans before they do. There is an obvious reason for this. Someone is leaking information. Major Cutler is heading for Cairo to find out who. He has a prisoner with him, Jimmy Ross, facing court martial for killing an officer. Cutler suffers a heart attack. Ross switches identities with him. He only intends to be Cutler temporarily, just until he can find a way of escaping properly, but events get the better of him. He finds himself wholly dedicated to finding the source of Rommel's information and in love with a beautiful girl called Alice.

Ross is by no means the only person pretending to be someone else. Cairo is full of people playing a role, whether it is the deserter Wallingford, pretending to be a special duty naval officer but in fact building a black market empire, or Dalrymple who has not formally deserted, just failed to answer orders. Then there are the sort of people who tend to gravitate to places like Cairo whether there's a war on or not. The Jewish financier Solomon, his Muslim opposite number Mahmoud and, best of all, the flamboyant Prince Piotr Nikoleiovich Tikhmebrazoff. On the fringes of this shady group is Peggy West, an English nurse whose husband Karl is supposedly working with the Zionist Jews in Palestine.

You can be confident Deighton has done his research. He tells us about it in his introduction to this 2010 reissue. The book is packed with colour and detail. Of course he knows his military history - Deighton has built a second career in the field. The story crackles along. Most of the storylines are resolved at the end. That said, it's not SS-GB.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Singapore Grip - J G Farrell

The third of Farrell's Empire Trilogy, The Singapore Grip lasts an enormous 672 pages, yet manages to end far too soon. It starts in 1937 and ends with the fall of Singapore in February 1942. I wondered if Farrell had planned a sequel before his sudden death in 1979 but the tone of the conclusion doesn't really encourage the thought.

In line with the other two-thirds of the trilogy (Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur, both reviewed earlier on this blog) Farrell traps his English colonials among rebellious locals. Here, he focuses on the Blackett family, one half of the great mercantile house of Blackett and Webb, which is planning to celebrate its jubilee. The firm's founder, old Mr Webb, has been retired for the past seven years, keeping largely to his bungalow and indulging in eccentric pastimes like watching athletic Malayan ladies exercise naked. Walter Blackett, in sole control of the firm, is inevitably thinking of the future. At one time it was assumed that his daughter Joan would marry Webb's only child Matthew and thus the firm would pass seamlessly to the second generation. But Matthew has suffered a progressive education overseas and is now working, so far as anyone can tell, for peripheral agencies of the League of Nations. Joan, meanwhile, whilst undoubtedly good-looking, has taken to playing fast and loose with the affections of impecunious young men like her current American, Captain James Ehrendorf.

Then old Mr Webb dies and Matthew has to be tracked down and brought to Singapore where his intentions for his inheritance can be properly examined. Fortunately Ehrendorf was at university with Matthew and can help locate him. Matthew eventually arrives, too late for the funeral (there's a war on, you know!) and turns out to be as woolly-headed and progressive as everyone feared. Attempts are made to marry him into the safekeeping of Joan who, for all her flirtations, has a much shrewder head for business than her blustering brother Monty, but Matthew much prefers Vera Chiang, one of his father's live-in young ladies.

The book is a traditional English comic novel on a grand scale. There are dozens of peripheral characters, all of whom are memorable - the stuttering Sinclair; Dr Brownley, who invariably dines with the Blacketts but never offers to reciprocate; the failed French diplomat Dupigny, who sleeps on a table at the Webb house. The best scenes, for me, involve the hopeless GOC of the British Army, though there is one brilliant scene involving a Japanese soldier trying to live up to the legacy of his national hero father.

The Singapore Grip is just as dazzling and brilliantly written as Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur. Farrell has now been dead forty years but his major works, being broadly historical, have not dated. I was surprised to learn from the front matter of this Vintage paperback that there are at least four other novels. I must try and get hold of one.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Plays 2 - Stephen Poliakoff

Poliakoff really has a thing about his granddad, doesn't he? It's understandable - a Russian inventor turned British millionaire - but it so heavily stressed in three of the four plays here (and in the new TV series Summer of Rockets, which starts on BBC2 tomorrow night) that you can't help wishing he'd get over it.

Breaking the Silence (stage play, 1984) is fairly and squarely about old Joe P, albeit he's called Nikolai here. Nikolai is a rich Jewish inventor trying to get his family out of Bolshevik Russia whilst at the same time inventing sound film. It's a cracking, hugely ambitious piece which only a state supported theatre (in this case the RSC) could possibly mount. The whole thing is set on a railway carriage which gets shunted further and further away from centres of influence, whilst Nikolai half-heartedly pretends to be an official inspector. Trains are another recurring motif for Poliakoff. Poliakoff the young writer is, as ever, present in the character of Nikolai's son Sasha. Thus we have the perfect Poliakoff prototype: Sasha and the inventive Russian aristos on a Train going nowhere.

Playing with Trains (stage play, 1989) is an obvious continuation of the theme. In this case the inventor-father is British who has become rich by making key improvements to the inventions of others. Then he stakes everything on a revolutionary rail-road vehicle  - and fails. Here, the role of Sasha Poliakoff is shared between Bill's son Danny and the son Bill would like to have had, his co-inventor Mick. There are great ideas at play here but the play itself doesn't convince because it lacks all sense of place. The set is minimal to allow for quick changes, almost as if Poliakoff feels restricted by the stage and wants to move on to TV and film.

She's Been Away (TV film, 1989) is the exception here because it's not Russian, has nothing to do with anyone's grandfather, and the Sasha character isn't in it. It is not Poliakoff's first original work for TV; that was Stronger than the Sun in 1977, followed, inevitably, by Caught on a Train three years later).Lillian is the one who has been away, locked in a mental hospital for decades because of sexual shenanigans as a child. Her nephew Hugh, an honourable and rich man, has decided to do the right thing and provide her with a room in his mansion in Holland Park. Lillian (a late swansong for the great Peggy Ashcroft) is uncooperative, stubborn and resourceful but in the end she saves the day.  This is a charming, sensitive and thoughtful piece which, fortunately for us, Poliakoff continues to produce thirty years on.

Century is an actual movie, directed by Poliakoff, which came out on New Year's Eve 1993. Eccentric Russian granddad is back (played by Robert Stephens whose son Toby succeeds to the role in Summer of Rockets). Instead of Sasha our youthful protagonist is more akin to Stephen Poliakoff's brother, the eminent chemist Sir Martyn. It is New Year's Eve 1899, which Mr Reisner insists is the last day of the 19th century - a quirk which has set him at odds with his local council which rightly argues that the new century begins on January 1 1901. This is a good joke, reflecting the debate which was probably just beginning in 1993 about when we should celebrate the Millennium. Mr Reisner's son Paul is a newly qualified doctor, off to London to join the research institute newly founded by the celebrated Professor Mandry. New hope soon falters, however, when Paul discovers that Mandry is a pioneer of eugenics. That is a stunning turn of events, which Poliakoff handles magnificently, especially when eccentric Mr Reisner blunders in on the climactic confrontation.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The King in Yellow - Robert W Chambers

The King in Yellow is in every sense a strange book. It's a collection of stories but not one of them is called The King in Yellow. In fact The King in Yellow is a printed playscript of material so mind-blowing that anyone who reads it risks insanity. The fictional text pops up in the first four stories but only in the first (and best) 'The Repairer of Reputations' does it fully do its damnedest. The story is truly macabre. To start with, it is set in 1920, a quarter of a century after it was written. New York has become very much as it is today, cracking down on immigrants, isolationist, and populist. In a move that is almost inevitable for Trump's second term, New York now boasts a Lethal Chamber in Washington Park. Sitting in the park and watching the euthanists run up the steps to the Chamber is the epitome of popular pastimes. Castaigne, our narrator, has just been released from psychiatric care. He is not mad, he tells us, and never was. He told his psychiatrist he wasn't mad and has offered to prove it by killing him. In the meantime he has cured himself by reading The King in Yellow. Now all manner of things are clear to him. First and foremost he must prevent his cousin from marrying the daughter of Hawberk, the artisan restorer of ancient armour. Castaigne has an ally in Mr Wilde, the repairer of reputations, who happens to live upstairs from Hawberk. Wilde is a midget with a fingerless hand who engages in perpetual strife with an extraordinarily vicious cat. Wilde has a book called The Imperial Dynasty of America, which is naturally of great interest to Castaigne, given that he and his cousin both feature towards the end.

This sounds bizarre, and it really is, startlingly so for 1895. The writing is simply dazzling. Chambers was an art student in Paris and has a tremendous gift for description. My favourite line comes from a story at the other end of the collection, but is typical of the whole book: "when again he raised his eyes, the vast Boulevard was twinkling with gas-jets through which the electric lights stared like moons." This comes from a second cluster of loosely linked stories featuring several re-occurring art students. These are not horror stories or even weird fiction, but they are very good. My second favourite, "The Street of the First Shell' is also set in the Latin Quarter but a generation earlier, in 1870, when Paris was besieged by the Prussians. This prefigures the historical fiction with which Chambers made his fortune.

The King in Yellow is and always was a curiosity. Apparently Chambers never wrote anything else quite as weird. Its influence was certainly telling; the links with Lovecraft are clear. I recommend it to all students of the genre.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

A Casebook of Murder - Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson's reputation seems to have faded slightly since his death in 2013. In life he always seemed to be putting out a new book or giving his take on some arcane subject in the press or on TV. Once, of course, he was very famous indeed, not only an original angry young man but one whose debut book The Outsider sought to create a new philosophy for the era of angst. Now, though, he is very much out of fashion. His vast works on the occult are passé, whereas back in the Seventies they held pride of place on any reputable bookshelf. The same goes - with knobs on - for his many volumes on murderers, of which this (from 1969) was an early example.

The problem here is not the concept, though Wilson's preoccupation with sex sits less comfortably now than it did back in the day/ It is the fact that hundreds of lesser lights have attempted similar compilations and lowered the tone. They cobble together cheap cash-ins, whereas Wilson is absolutely serious in intent. That may be another problem. He does tend to make declamatory assumptions which are easily refuted. I tend to think he can forgiven the odd gaff, given that he was ploughing such a lone furrow.

The overarching idea here is that different eras get different kinds of killer. He starts with the late medieval period, then the time of Sheppard and Wild. The 19th century, in which the western world passed from rural villages to sprawling industrial cities and, finally, to the dawn of scientific criminology, warrants four chapters. We end, of course, with two-thirds of the 20th century. When Wilson signed off his book the Moors Murderers were beginning their life sentences and Mary Bell, the Newcastle child killer of children (whom I had remembered as Glaswegian for some reason) was still on trial.

There are many fascinating ideas here but too much is recycled from Wilson's earlier Encyclopedia of Murder (1961 - co-written with Patricia Pitman) or cobbled together from inherently unreliable newspaper reports. Wilson would go on to recycle lots of it many more times over his remaining forty years. That said, there is one reason for Wilson always standing at the head of his field. His Ritual in the Dark (1960) is the best novel ever written about a serial killer and by a distance the most terrifying.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes -Lawrence Block

Earlier this year I discussed the extraordinary output of the American pulp maestro Lawrence Block. The novel I was reviewing then, Borderline, was one of his first. This is a Hard Line original, published in September 2015, and there is no appreciable difference. Well, perhaps just one. Here, Block borrows his core idea from noir movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. He is perfectly open about it. His hero, ex NYPD officer Doak Miller, is a fan of old movies and gets his idea from watching them.

Now living in Florida, Miller does a little PI work to supplement his pension. The local sheriff, no less, has heard that a local woman is looking for a hit man to rid her of her much older, much richer husband. Miller agrees to meet her, wearing a wire. But first he checks her out, sees how gorgeous she is, especially her deep blue eyes. So he meets her as arranged but slips her a script whereby she changes her mind. Miller knows he will sleep with her - he already has one friend with benefits and he's not long in town - but doesn't realise he will fall in love with her.

It gets complicated, of course. Miller meets with the girl's horrible husband. The horrible husband hires him to investigate his wife, whom he suspects is having an affair. Miller also learns about the pre-nup whereby if they divorce there's no big pay-off. The husband has to die for his widow to get her due. It's all a question of how to do it.

Block still writes like a dream. His characters are multi-faceted, with flaws and predilections. They are ruled by sex and, to a lesser extent, money. What grips the reader, though, is the layering of story, each layer, no matter how bizarre, inextricably linked to the main narrative.

An absolute gem. Essential reading for any fan of modern US crime fiction.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Detective and the Devil - Lloyd Shepherd

The Detective and the Devil is the fourth in Shepherd's historical crime series featuring Charles Horton of the Thames River Police. It is 1815, the year of Waterloo, and Horton is back on Ratcliffe Highway (scene of his debut case in The English Monster, reviewed below), this time investigating the murder of an East India Company clerk and his family. Horton finds himself drawn into the inner workings of "John Company", in those days still a private company but nonetheless ruling an imperial continent, with its own army and indeed investigators. Horton finds himself increasing ostracised but gets funding to visit the Company's most remote and yet most secretive holding, the island of St Helena. Here he finds the secret which the Elizabethan magus John Dee seemed to refer to two hundred years earlier.

The St Helena scenes are greatly enlivened by the presence of Horton's wife Abigail, former nurse and now formidable autodidact. The flashbacks to the days of Dee are great fun. Overall, though, I was slightly disappointed. It certainly isn't as good as The English Monster. Equally, it isn't a bad book and it wouldn't necessarily put me off the next in the series when it comes.