Saturday, 27 June 2009

Billion-Dollar Brain - Len Deighton

In this fourth outing, attention is turned to private intelligence groups and private armies. In a book that is eerily prescient of the late and unlamented Bush administration in America, we learn of a Texan whose ambition, in crude terms, is for America to rule the world. To do this he sets up a super-computer which is used to analyse and control a network of agents in Soviet territory.

Not only does the book highlight the horrifying prospects of such militaristic ambition (there is nothing to choose between Stalinism and the self-righteous right-wing ideologies that ‘oppose’ it – in Darwinist terms these are two dinosaurs competing for the same niche); but it also highlights one of the great failures of intelligence gathering in recent decades. It cannot be done electronically. It cannot be done from a distance. If you are going to play the game, you have to play to win.

This is presented in Deighton’s laid back style. The eponymous hero is still working out run-down offices in Charlotte Street and wrestling with paper-work and coping with inter-departmental rivalry. Minor characters recur. And, as in this work, a minor character from a previous book moves centre stage where the bright lights pick out every flaw with unforgiving clarity. The central character is clearly becoming tired of his job. He does it well, but the futility and the heartbreak become increasingly clear.

Compared with the three previous books, this one is both more relaxed and more trusting of the reader. The tendency to explain (no matter how well handled before) has gone and it is left very much to the reader to work out what has happened. This makes for a compelling read and a book that stands re-reading. And in the end you are always left wondering whether what characters say has happened is in fact the case.

As ever, the writing is sharp, the dialogue superb, and descriptions are both original and accurate. The atmosphere of different parts of the world is well defined and the wintry setting suits the bleakness of the story. All in all, clear signs that Deighton’s writing is maturing and that his powers as a story-teller are undiminished.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Allingham Minibus - Margery Allingham

This collection was put together after Margery Allingham died and brings together a number of miscellaneous pieces that might otherwise have faded into obscurity. As it is, the collection is not that easy to come by and my own is a battered American edition with an Italian price sticker on the back.

Anyone looking for Albert Campion will be disappointed. There are only a couple of stories featuring her near ubiquitous detective and these are both slight tales. There is, however, a feast of other work including a substantial novella. Whilst not her best work, it is an inventive crime tale that might easily have been reworked as one of those Campion novels in which he seems to drift through without doing very much, yet turning up all he information necessary to solve the mystery.

As for the rest, they demonstrate that Allingham was one of those rare authors who writes just as well in the short form as they do at full length. The stories were for magazine publication and many of those in this collection are tales of the supernatural. They do not go for the horror angle, although several of them are genuinely chilling. Rather they provide entertaining tales with a twist that when collected lose a little of their impact as you start looking – although Allingham is astute enough not always to go for the obvious.

What marks them out as great stories is the economy of style. A great deal of characterisation and atmosphere is packed into a few pages, especially in those tales that are set in her beloved Essex. Nothing is wasted, yet they still manage to convey considerable depth. Well worth studying if short stories are your thing. Well worth reading for their entertainment value; and a must at Hallowe’en or Christmas if you want a ghost story for your gathering.

Funeral In Berlin - Len Deighton

Len Deighton’s third novel is a tour de force. Arguably the quintessential cold war spy story (just ahead of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), it contains everything that makes a good novel. A great story, excellent characterisation, flawless plotting, wonderful atmosphere, and just enough irreverence and experimentation with form to give it an edge over its rival(s).

The chapter headings use rules and descriptions of chess in a striking way to add an extra dimension to the story, especially as the protagonist says early in the novel that he prefers games with a better chance of cheating. But he has no choice. He is just a piece on the board and his moves are dictated as much by others as by his own free will.

Revolving around a plot to smuggle a defecting Soviet scientist to the west, we soon see this is one of a number of unfolding strategies. Move and counter move reveal more and more of each player’s motives, revealing the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the world of espionage. Opponents work with each other, friends work against one another. The enemy… No one is really sure. And the deeper into the story we delve, back to the Second World War where the Cold War was started, the more uncertain the world becomes.

Personal greed and corruption are also at play, meeting with political conflict in a surreal borderland called Berlin. It was, perhaps, inevitable that Deighton would set a book in this city and that he would return there much later with his Samson books. The city is presented to us in all its strange glory and we gain a real sense of the bizarre world that existed there in a divided Europe.

Yet the book never gets above itself. Whilst the ideologies of west and east face off across the Wall, this is about the individuals whose job was as much to keep the Cold War cold as it was to spy on the other side. And we see it from both perspectives. The well-rounded anonymous protagonist finds a wonderful foil in the KGB’s Colonel Stok. And these characters inhabit the real world – a place of bills and milkmen, of petty jealousies and small betrayals.

As a portrait of the time it is far better than many literary novels as it sets out to tell a particular story. In recounting that tale, we are treated to a wonderfully detailed picture that is drawn with great skill, coloured with subtlety, and displayed without pretension.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

R. U. R. and The Insect Play - Josef and Karel Čapek

R. U. R. – which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots – is credited with giving us the word robot (from the Slavic robota meaning ‘hard work’ or ‘drudgery’). Robot these days is generally used to refer to a mechanical construct, whereas in the play, these are artificial humans, redesigned and grown using a secret process. The play is set on a remote island where the company, R. U. R., creates its robots. It covers a period of several years from the time when one of he scientists in charge of production is encouraged by a visitor to try to give robots a soul. The project backfires and as robots become aware of their position (used as slaves and as expendable soldiers in increasing numbers of wars) they begin to revolt. Eventually they reach the island where their kind are produced and the final confrontation is played out.

The Insect Play tells of a tramp and his observations of the insect world – butterflies, beetles, and ants – with one act devoted to each of the groups of insects. On the surface it sounds whimsical. The butterflies chase each other about like empty-headed beautiful people, the beetles slave away to make their pile, and the ants engage in all out warfare that reminds the tramp of his own experiences in the trenches of the First World War.

Not much there, one would think, yet these two plays (along with other work by the Čapeks) are important in a number of ways. To begin with they are part of the tradition of highly political and philosophical science fiction to emerge from Eastern Europe. They are also a key part of the tradition of theatre as social conscience. Both plays in this volume are concerned with the way in which we treat others and the consequences of mistreatment. They are highly critical of totalitarian regimes. Had the Čapeks survived beyond the Second World War, it is highly likely they would have fallen victim of Stalin.

If only to keep the voice of dissent alive these plays should be read and performed. Totalitarianism and the exploitation of other people come in many forms and disguises and we need to be reminded of the terror and degradation this brings. Yet these plays are also worth keeping alive because they are good plays. Perhaps a touch dated, but that’s just fashion. They are not heavy with their message, but offer good, simple storytelling with a moral we can all draw for ourselves.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Third Man - Graham Greene

Greene wrote this novella as a means of exploring the atmosphere, characterization, and plot prior to producing the screenplay for the film. It was not originally intended for publication. That these private notes are in fact a compelling piece of prose in their own right says a great deal about Greene as a writer.

Set in Vienna in the aftermath of the Second World War, it tells of how Holly Martins arrives to take up a job for his old friend Harry Lime. He arrives just in time to attend Lime’s funeral. Enraged by the suggestion that Lime was involved with the more unpleasant end of the black market economy, Martins sets out to clear Lime’s name and ends up learning a great deal more than he bargained for.

The constraints of the form (novella and film) mean that the plot is pared down to a minimum and the emphasis is on character and on atmosphere. For all that, the plot is still intriguing enough to sustain interest. And it shows what can be done when real talent is brought together and allowed to innovate.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the novella is the way in which it captures the seedy atmosphere and frozen streets of the post-War Viennese winter. The political background is captured and explained without clunky exposition. The weariness of all involved, stirred up by the confused energies of Martins, is subtly portrayed.

All in all, this is a classic of storytelling. Read the book (it is usually coupled with The Fallen Idol). See the movie. Enjoy the quality.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Horse Under Water - Len Deighton

When you debut with a novel like The IPCRESS File, expectations on the second book are high. Very high. And Len Deighton did not disappoint. His central character returns, still working for the same department, still viewing the world with a cynical and unsentimental eye.

This story begins as an operation to provide covert funding for an opposition group in Portugal at a time when it was still controlled by the right-wing government of Salazar. The money is to be forged US dollars recovered from a sunken German submarine. However this soon develops with a sub-plot concerning heroin (hence the title) and a much more alarming legacy of the Second World War.

Deighton provides an immense amount of detailed background, both historical and technical, without once making the book feel like a lecture. Exposition is kept to a minimum and even then it is worked into scenes quite naturally. And we are also treated to further background on the life of an Intelligence operative – the office routines, committee work, and tedium.

The plot and the writing are tighter than the first book, and it examines a subject (Nazi sympathies amongst the British) that many authors would have treated with far greater bias and a great deal less subtlety. The trademark humour and descriptions are still present, as are the intriguing chapter headings and appendices.

This was the only one of the first quartet of Deighton’s works that was not filmed. It is a shame, as it would have provided excellent material. On the other hand it does allow the book to be read without the shadow of Michael Caine falling across the page. Whilst it is true he made an excellent job of the films, it always clashes in my head with the knowledge of the character’s background as given in the books.

If you want a lesson in subtlety and in constructing a complex plot that mystifies without confusing, this is an excellent book to study. And you’ll get great entertainment from it as well.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Sea-Kings Of Mars and Otherworldly Stories - Leigh Brackett

This is a wonderful collection of the best, not just of Leigh Brackett's work, but also of any work in the science fantasy genre. More specifically, of scientific romances set on Mars and Venus. This is a huge sub-genre, and much of it is truly awful. Some of it is sublime.

I have always been fascinated by these stories even though, from an early interest in astronomy, I knew the worlds were fantasies. Mars in particular seems to lend itself perfectly as a setting. Close to Earth, yet wholly alien with an aura of ancient times and of something now lost forever.

This aura has been exploited to the full by Brackett. To begin with, she is a superb writer. Her style suits the subject matter to perfection. In any other genre it would be florid to the point of Imperial Purple, but in this context it is suitably exotic. One gets a sense of otherness, of other cultures and strange scents and sights. But Brackett did something else with the genre that raised her stories well above most of the others. Because, underlying the exotic nature of science fantasy, she introduced a bedrock of Chandleresque realism. Her central characters would not have been out of place as private investigators or adventurers in 30s and 40s California (and she wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye). They are flawed outsiders living by their own moral codes, losing just as readily as winning. That noirish sensibility works superbly in the sumptuous setting of a Mars long past its prime.

Furthermore, the stories are unpretentious. Brackett may have introduced a touch of realism and dealt with certain moral issues in her work, but above all she was producing entertainments. Vivid, lively, fun, and engrossing. And she succeeded in a way that many writers do not. If science fantasy is your thing, these are the sturdy roots of what has become a turgid and bloated genre. They are well worth visiting for their freshness and for showing us all how it should be done.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The IPCRESS File - Len Deighton

Every so often I feel compelled to pull this book off the shelf and read it. I've lost count of how many times I have done this, but it must be at least twenty. The book itself is showing distinct signs of wear. I am reluctant to replace it as it is the edition with the classic Raymond Hawkey cover.

As with every other time I have read this book (and subsequently gone on to read the other anonymous protagonist Deighton books) I found it intriguing, fresh, and a great read. True, there are annoying typos (which may have been corrected in later editions for all I know), but I am past the stage with this book where I care about those. Because this is a true original.

The story involves mind control techniques and how they are being used to set up a network of scientists who feed information to an individual who then sells it to the highest bidder. The operation is protected in the UK by a traitor within the Intelligence Services. The anonymous narrator is dropped blind into the middle of this situation and allowed to blunder about until he knocks down the secret house of cards.

Published at the height of the country's love affair with the James Bond books and in the same year as the first Bond film, Deighton's book quietly and efficiently dismantled the whole of Fleming's glamorous image of espionage to convey a seemingly more realistic world. Deighton did this in a number of ways. To begin with, it was a book very much in tune with its time (rather than past glories of war and empire), although the book has not dated. Its central character has the same concerns as everyone else (including junk mail, gas bills, and pay), nor is he any kind of superman. And it is so much better written than anything of its type at that time (le Carré's first proper spy novel would not appear until the following year).

Whilst it may, at first, seem disjointed, the story reflects the nature of intelligence work and the difficulties one side has when the other is determined to keep things secret and protect their secret at all costs. The style is cool and witty without an ounce of false sentimentality, and Deighton of surprises with a delicious turn of phrase or original description. And we have the joys of an unreliable narrator. Although Deighton was not to exploit this to its full until his Samson series, we know we are being told a story by someone whose profession is to dissemble.

I will probably now feel compelled to revisit the other books, not least because they are great stories and well told, but also because we can see how Deighton's writing improves with time from this very high starting point.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Intangibles Inc. and Other Stories - Brian Aldiss

A collection of five novellas written between 1959 and 1968, this displays Aldiss’s wide ranging talent and the influence (intended or otherwise) of other notable writers of the period. The oldest and, to my mind, the best story is ‘Intangibles Inc.’ It has the feel of a Bradbury story – small town America captured in fine if incidental detail – and is not remotely science fictional. Yet it does have an otherworldliness about it that puts it almost in the class of being a fairy tale. It is a moral fable in which a man, peddling Intangibles, allows a person to argue themselves into a wager, saying they have sufficient will-power to leave a cruet set where it is and never move it again. We visit the man and his family at periods through his life to find out just what he has sacrificed in order to stick to a worthless principle. Cleverly told, beautifully written, it leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions.

‘Neanderthal Planet’ and ‘Randy’s Syndrome’ are explorations of inner space within futuristic settings and here, Aldiss’s own voice and preoccupations are becoming apparent. Whilst they may be coloured with a touch of Ballard, it is clear that Aldiss has found his own voice by this period. Indeed, the latter was written during that remarkable latter half of the ‘60s when Aldiss produced what I consider his finest work.

The other two novellas are also explorations of inner space. ‘Send Her Victorious’ reads like a sketch for a novel that was wisely left as a shorter piece. It has elements of Harry Harrison that wander swiftly into P K Dick territory. Whilst interesting, it feels like it never quite gets off the ground. The same is true of ‘Since The Assassination’. The elements of politics, thriller and sci fi don’t quite meld as the political/thriller aspect is not well realised, although the underlying sci fi conceit (of overpopulation, an anti-aging serum, and the possibility that the ‘problems’ have been solved by time travel) deserves a great deal more exploration.

It is difficult to know whether Aldiss’s chameleon like writing is an intentional homage to writers he admires or whether it is someone trying to find his own voice at a time when strong voices were already making themselves heard. Perhaps a bit of both as Aldiss certainly displays a unique style in both earlier and later works; and we certainly see many of the ideas that have preoccupied him throughout his writing in these and other stories of the period. And even if you pick this up just for the title story, you will be well rewarded by the others in the volume.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Roaring Trumpet - L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt

This is the first of several novels and novellas featuring Harold Shea and his companions. Making use of the Mathematics of Magic, Shea is able to transport himself into other, parallel, metaphysical realms – lands of ancient myth and legend. In itself this sounds an interesting concept, especially as it posits the notion that the world we live in exists in part because we think it exists in that way. However, in the hands of these authors, it becomes so much more.

The writing and story are fairly straightforward. Stylistically there is nothing special about this book, but it does tell a roaring good tale with the language getting in the way; which is no mean feat. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the humour. Understated, dry, and reliant entirely on the world and characters they create, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Shea is a wonderful creation. A psychologist whose own inner life is a mass of neuroses and who has a somewhat inflated opinion of himself and his abilities, he is ripe for humour and the authors don’t miss a thing. Yet it is never cruel. Shea is also reasonably amiable, and the authors seem fond of him.

This is whimsical fantasy at its best, gently subverting the genre without ever getting pompous. Pure entertainment that is all the better for a rigorous approach. And at 105 pages it passes an evening in the most agreeable fashion.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Mr Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I would like to apply the adjective ‘delightful’ to this book, but its meaning has become somewhat watered down over the years. Yet it really does apply, for the book is highly pleasing and it is charming. It is a great deal more, of course, but that will do for a start.

Timothy Fortune, after many years in a bank is released from servitude by a bequest. He trains and is ordained as a minister, undertaking missionary work in the Pacific. At his request (a whimsical fancy, hence ‘maggot’) he is sent to an extremely isolated island. As an earnest and hopelessly naïve Christian (not to mention one encumbered by all the baggage of a cultural superiority complex), he is immediately out of his depth.

The island is paradise. No one goes hungry. There is no violence. Discord rarely occurs and disputes are quickly settled. Fortune flounders. He does not know how to cope. His one convert, a young boy called Lueli, turns out to be no such thing. When the long dormant volcano on the island erupts Fortune and Lueli both have their faith put to the test and must work through to an accommodation.

A novel like this could have been deeply intense and highly pretentious. It could have been about a clash of cultures (as in Pratchett’s Nation – which has a similar setting and explores similar themes) and full of the kind of symbolism that strips characters of any reality. Instead, Warner has used a light touch with an undercurrent of dry humour to make the story a very personal one. That it has universal overtones is inevitable, simply because Fortune and Lueli and such wonderfully drawn and believable characters.

Written in Warner’s easy style, this really is a delightful book. It was an enjoyable read, thoughtful, and it wove a magic spell all of its own. As a bonus, I read the 1948 Penguin edition. One shilling and sixpence (7½ pence), four square and straightforward, and just the one typo that I noticed. These are books that are as much a pleasure to handle as they are to read.