November 19, 2015


by Edgar Rice Burroughs
256 pages, SF Gateway

Review by Pat Black

Stephen King said two things I suspect he wishes he hadn’t. The first was when he compared himself to a Big Mac and fries. The second is when he said that Edgar Rice Burroughs was “nobody’s choice of great world writer”.

Maybe he isn’t a great writer, but Burroughs is certainly a great pleasure – and I’d bet that lots of great writers were influenced by him. He’s not as well-read these days as contemporaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or John Buchan, but he certainly made his mark.

Tarzan cemented Burroughs’ place in literary history as much as Sherlock Holmes did for Conan Doyle, but away from the king of the swingers the American had an immense impact on popular culture.

Burroughs’ tales of monsters, stiff-upper-lipped heroes, fighting, ape men, alien beings and good old-fashioned adventure continue to inform our stories into the 21st century. As a little boy, I was obsessed by the British-made Burroughs movie adaptations of the 1970s, all of which starred Doug McClure as a pugnacious and occasionally shirtless American hero, menaced by glove-puppet dinosaurs and dinnerplate-browed cavemen. If you’d asked me back then who my favourite actor was, deadly Doug was the man.

Perhaps my favourite was the Burroughs-in-all-but-name Warlords of Atlantis, which features a scene where a giant octopus attacks a boat, drags its crew overboard, takes them all the way to Atlantis at the bottom of the sea, then drops them off on dry land, without any suggestion of, you know… drowning.

These films (all directed by Kevin Connor) might not have been Oscar-worthy, but I cannot over-estimate how much they influenced my daydreams and fantasies – even now, as I stare the big 4-0 in its monobrowed, double-chinned, broken-red-veined face. Alongside Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion marvels, it’s hard to know where my own stories of monsters, adventure and derring-do end and Burroughs’ begin. The Land That Time Forgot, from 1975, is arguably the most technically accomplished of these movies – certainly it had the highest budget - and it’s surprisingly faithful to its source material.

The Land That Time Forgot sees Burroughs mixing men with prehistoric animals, and alongside Tarzan and the Barsoom series (we saw the latter recently on the big screen – or rather, we didn’t – as John Carter), it’s his best-known work.

To get it out of the way, The Land That Time Forgot – the first in this Caspak Trilogy – is a rip-off of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which debuted a couple of years earlier. Conan Doyle’s characters and travelling scenes are superior, but I’d argue that Burroughs edges Conan Doyle when it comes to action and adventure.

Our narrator, Bowen Tyler, an American engineer, is on board a passenger ship that is torpedoed by the Germans during the Great War. Tyler and his dog Nobs clamber onto a lifeboat, before he picks up his love interest, Lys. They then hook up with another boatload of shipwrecked British squaddies, and from there they manage to commandeer the German submarine that sunk them.

The first unlikely coincidence to note is that Tyler is the engineer who built the German sub – so he knows how to pilot it. The second is that the German sub’s commander, von Schoenworts, is Lys’ former love interest. This may be a coincidence too far, but it’s forgivable as it puts a bit of suspicion on the fair lady during those tense scenes in the tin-can, especially when equipment gets sabotaged. Is she with the boche?

Quite a lot of the book is dedicated to the compelling struggle between the Germans and the U-boat invaders, as control swings back and forth. This includes plenty of treachery and subterfuge, as well as hand-to-hand fighting and shoot-outs.

After the navigation equipment is sabotaged, the U-boat heads into strange territory. With the water supply poisoned and food and fuel running out, they are forced to make land on a strange, uncharted island, hinted at by the Italian explorer “Caprona” (or “Maple White”, as Conan Doyle called him), an ancient caldera surrounded by jagged cliffs. They know that flora and fauna exists within these natural walls, and they work out that there must be an underground tunnel pumping fresh water out into the sea. Tyler takes a gamble, and pilots the U-boat into the tunnel to investigate.

The crew emerge out of the depths into a spectacular prehistoric world, teeming with man-eating dinosaurs, savage ape-men and other ancient creatures, totally out of whack with what is known about the passing eons. Not that we care. Plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and allosauruses are encountered, eat the men and are eaten by them, while tribes of ape-men are there to be wrestled with – or rather unsportingly shot in the head by Tyler.

Burroughs’ hero is a stock type which does not work well in fiction today. We don’t take kindly to straight shooters, these days. In two of this year’s biggest films, Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World, we saw attempts to reintroduce this kind of chewy, Meaty O’Forearms male into the wild. I reckon Tom Hardy and Chris Pratt had the most badly-written parts of these films; their characters often seemed badly at odds with the stories they were part of. This was particularly true of Chris Pratt’s dinosaur wrangler, who got over some glaring contradictions in his behaviour and his comments by squinting, folding his arms and occasionally punching people in the face (and I say that as someone who loved Jurassic World). Even in the pulp heroes’ modern-day equivalent, the comic book titans such as the Avengers, we need a slice of irony to temper the chiselled jaws and squinty eyes, and the sheer lack of human-compatible dialogue.

Tyler’s straight as a die, and certainly not much of a wisecracker. He enjoys a tame romance with Lys, but it’s to Burroughs’ credit that he essays the tension between Tyler as a stiff-backed man-o-war and as a prospective lover. Burroughs even has a little will-they won’t-they drama play out with his couple. Von Schoenworts the love rival – a simple dastard here, whereas in the movie adaptation he was a more nuanced character – exists solely to cheese off the prickly, paranoid Tyler.

Burroughs’ hero is resourceful and brave, and handy in a ruck. If you’re here to read fight scenes, be at peace. Gender politics are out the window, though; you’d probably be better served reading about Tarzan and Jane. Lys is there to be fought over, rescued and made love to, nothing more.

Curiously, Burroughs also has Tyler forming a bond with a more evolved type of cave babe late on in the book after he is separated from Lys. Tyler suggests that he’s about to get lucky a second time, never once wondering what Lys might make of this. It reminded me a little bit of James Bond’s average scorecard – usually he has a main love interest and a “spare” (the latter usually ending up dead). Nice work if you can get it. I wonder how Tyler might have reacted had he found Lys in the arms of one of the hang-jawed natives?

The First World War setting and the submarine scenes in particular are arguably the best elements of TLTTF. This type of warfare was new to Burroughs’ readers; torpedoes were a novel seagoing menace. It feels like you’ve wandered into a different book, a prototype Alistair MacLean thriller. This is when the narrative is most coherent. After that, this book breaks down to: fight scene; monster encounter; fight scene; monster encounter; ape men; fight scene. I was cheered by the brute simplicity. I mean no faint praise by saying that Burroughs could write action very well. In these and other works, he was realising his boyhood fantasies, and fostering those of many others.

“Read page one and I will be forgotten”, Tyler says, at the start of his narrative. Well, guess what? We do remember.

John Carter bombed at the box office, but Burroughs has a phenomenal body of work. As Jurassic World proves, people are still crazy about dinosaurs. It stuns me that The Land That Time Forgot movie hasn’t been remade for the cinema (I’m ignoring a 2009 straight-to-TV effort… everyone else did). Until someone takes a crack, you could do worse than check out the original books. I’d been looking for them for years. Thanks to SF Gateway, they’re all collected in one place.

The Caspak trilogy also takes in The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss. People sees Tom Billings, an old friend of Tyler’s, sailing to the lost island to find his mate. He flies over Caspak, only for his plane to be brought down by pterodactyls (the book’s best scene). Billings must survive Caspak’s dangers alone. Although there’s a fair amount of monster-mashing here (there’s a fight scene involving a sabre-tooth tiger and a cave bear), this story is mainly concerned with Billings’ interaction with the various tribes of cavemen, rather than his hunt for Tyler.

Burroughs reveals a curious conceit, which I suppose helps explain how so many different examples of prehistoric life have survived on Caspak: that evolution isn’t a matter of thousands of years of progress, but a series of personal breakthroughs. This can take the cave people from Neanderthal-level existence through to becoming tool-making, house-building humans. In theory this could take a single lifetime.

Billings falls in love with a cave girl, Ajor. He is powerfully attracted to her, and she clearly adores him… but he holds himself back because she’s clearly not in his class.
This is one of several uncomfortable racial echoes in Burroughs’ work. Although Billings does right by his cave babe in the end, there are several references to some people being of inferior genetic stock, or of “a lower order” – an uncomfortable categorisation to modern eyes, but arguably less so in the 1930s. We know where that kind of thinking led us.

Finally, there’s Out of Time’s Abyss, which backtracks to the story of what happened to Bradley and his companions after Tyler was separated from them at Fort Dinosaur in The Land That Time Forgot.

Bradley is British and, like Tyler and Billings before him, he’s handy with his fists and quite liberal about using them. Rather than clobbering dinosaurs or cavemen, this time our hero is punching flying monsters called the Weiroos… tantalisingly close to Weirdos. Burroughs was just one letter away from having invented the term. Such disappointments are the fabric of life.

The Weiroos represent a higher level of evolution in Burroughs’ strange anthropological and biological treatise. They might be able to fly, but they can’t fight, and Bradley paggers his way through a phalanx of these beasties during various forgettable adventures in the Weiroo city, which is (rather brilliantly) made out of skulls. There’s also another fierce but perfectly-formed cave babe for Bradley to look out for, triggering an outburst of hackneyed, but still quaint British manners.

We also have an early monster moment involving a tyrannosaurus rex. This beast is so familiar to us from modern-day entertainment that it’s fun to see it rendered here as looking nothing like its popular depiction – a horned, spiky, armoured beast, though no less adept at devouring unfortunates. It’s a kind of alt-universe T-Rex, like the Red Son Superman, or Batman set in a tech-noir Tokyo.

It reminded me of the Victorian dinosaur diggers, who fit their unearthed fossils together the wrong way and came up with odd, though fascinating reconstructions of what they thought the terrible lizards actually looked like.

Bradley’s story wraps the trilogy up nicely – you find out what became of Tyler and Billings, as well as the surviving personnel of Fort Dinosaur and the more dastardly Germans. Scores are definitively settled. Out of Time’s Abyss is not the best book of the three, but it does bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

You won’t come away from Burroughs’ work feeling particularly enriched, and after three volumes of constant fighting and monstering you may feel somewhat punch-drunk. But a little bit of what you fancy does you good, and it’s nice every now and then to escape into worlds of fantasy and heroism where all you have to worry about are scary monsters. 

November 5, 2015


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Lamppost dodger: Pat Black

I’ll start with a confession: I read the Shannara books before I read Tolkien.

I knew all about Lord of the Rings. I'd seen the truncated Ralph Bakshi cartoon version and my older brother was somewhat obsessed with the book… Ah, but did you actually read that handsome red hardback edition, fella? I have my doubts.

But I didn't reach Middle Earth’s shores until 1995. One year earlier, I took a chance on The Sword of Shannara

Swords, sorcery and heroic fantasy seemed to be everywhere in the early-mid 1980s, when I was a youngster. John Milius’ fantastic Conan The Barbarian adaptation in 1982 led a slew of big budget fantasy films, ranging from blood and boobs schlock such as The Sword and the Sorcerer, to Marc Singer prancing around in a loincloth with a pair of ferrets on his shoulders in Beastmaster, to supercharged fairy tales such as Krull and Neverending Story.

In the UK, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks brought worlds of heroes, monsters and wizards closer to you – as in, second-person perspective “you”.

I found these a little bit of a ballache, though I was maybe a couple of years too young for them.

Roll one die; if you get a 6, you start to give a f*ck;

Roll a 1 to start making up your own rules;

If you get a 2, sack this nonsense off.

In America, the board-bound phenomenon of Dungeons and Dragons took off, delaying sexual experience for many players for years. And let’s not forget He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, mincing their way across children’s hour TV screens in that signature Filmation style.

It’s difficult to know where this 1980s movement started, unless we want to point fingers at Tolkien 30 years earlier. Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara, which first appeared in 1977, is as good a starting point as any.

I bought a copy when I was 17, heading off on an exciting quest of my own at the end of my first year at university, to visit a friend in the magical realm of Doncaster.

I was gradually climbing out of the horror fiction hole I’d fallen into in the previous couple of years and branching out into other kinds of yarn. Having spent my first, chaotic academic year grappling with texts read out of obligation rather than desire, it was nice to cool my head in a bucket of sticky, fizzy pop.

The Del Rey doorstopper followed Shea Ohmsford’s quest to bring peace and justice to a place of mystical and heroic fantasy - the Four Lands.

Had I read Tolkien first, I might have noticed a few odd things about The Sword of Shannara. There’s a dark lord, the Warlock King. He has strange, demonic hooded servants, called Skull Bearers. The hero, Shea Ohmsford - who lives in a peaceful, somewhat lazy bucolic land called Shady Vale - is a descendant of an Elven King, and part of the House of Shannara.

Shea is entrusted with a quest by a wizard named Allanon (surely to god, that’s intentional?): to find a magical object which can destroy the Warlock King – the Sword of Shannara.

Along the way, Shea and his cousin Flick are aided by a pair of Elves who are excellent at archery, a tough, taciturn dwarf, and a swordsman who is the heir to the throne of his people. Meanwhile, in the land of Callahorn, there’s a mad king on the throne, with a dark plot to have him replaced, and -

Are you kidding me??!

The Sword of Shannara’s painfully obvious debt to Tolkien sailed over my head at the time, I’m pleased to say. I remember it as a very enjoyable novel – quests, adventure, friendship, battles, goodies, baddies, monsters, good clean fun. But there are an awful lot of similarities to novels of a Hobbitish persuasion.

To give Terry Brooks his due, Tolkien wasn’t doing anything new, either - at least, on a conceptual level. I knew of the world of Middle Earth, but I assumed that stories of warriors, wizards, dwarves, trolls, elves, dragons and evil kings were common usage for authors, as old as storytelling itself. And I was right; Tolkien didn’t invent these elements.

He took his inspiration from a variety of Celtic and Norse legends – as well as Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, much though he denied it (the same way he denied that The Lord of Rings was an allegorical retelling of World War Two and the defeat of the Nazis… yeah, pull the other one). We should never underestimate Robert E Howard’s input, either – brawnier in tone and narrower in scope, but his heroes, villains and monsters were forebears of Tolkien’s. Another tip of the hat must also go to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ripping yarns.

So, while some riffs and rhythms in Terry Brooks’ story might seem familiar, the same was true of Tolkien’s work. It’s not fair to beat up Brooks while ignoring Tolkien as he swans through the schoolyard.

Brooks had an interesting concept for his Four Lands. The world of the Shannara books is a post-apocalyptic reclamation by nature of our own Earth, thousands of years after nuclear war has wiped away modern civilisation. Ruins and part-mechanised monsters the gang encounter in freakish wastelands point towards this, as well as some of the ancient legends bandied about by the druids.

Allanon the druid is clearly cut from the same grey cloth as Gandalf, but he’s a much sterner character, baleful and surly with his heroes as he guides them through their troubles. I liked him, but he’s also an ars*hole. It reminded me of when we finally saw the Jedi Council in The Phantom Menace. Rather than the Zen-like magicians who know the secret of existence and consciousness we were expecting, they came across as priggish, irritable civil servants. Allanon would have fit right in. (Indeed, now that I think on it, there’s a link: Terry Brooks wrote The Phantom Menace novelisation back in 1999.)

So, the characters and the story don’t fit into an exact template. That being said… when Shea is separated from his mates to complete his journey to the Skull Kingdom alone, after he seems to fall to his doom down a mountain… and then the gang encounter a dreaded monster, Valg the serpent, which crawls away after a grand battle and may or may not be dying… Yeah, you can see where a lot of Brooks’ critics are coming from.

The Sword of Shannara is a cracking romp, and sports some amazing battle scenes and good old fashioned sword n’ sorcery. I’m very curious to return to it, to see what it’s like with adult eyes. Having fun and being thrilled never gets old.

Its sequel, The Elfstones of Shannara (1982), is arguably a better book. It sees Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, taking possession of the magical stones in the title. An enchanted tree called the Ellcrys, which keeps some horrible demons in a nightmare un-world at bay by maintaining a barrier called the Forbidding, is growing sick. Wil and his companion Amberle Ellesedil are charged with a quest to find a new Ellcrys before the barrier completely fails and the world is overrun by trans-dimensional nasties.

Meanwhile, three absolute bastards are loose in the Four Lands: the Dagda Mor, an evil wizard; the terrifying and seemingly invincible Reaper, which kills everyone in its path; and a crafty Shapeshifter with designs on assassinating the king of the elves. This trio are at the vanguard of a host of demons who pour through the rift in the Forbidding, swelling the numbers of a mighty army.

I remember much more about Elfstones than I do about the original Sword of Shannara. Small wonder that the producers of a forthcoming TV series have focused on this book to start with; it is strong work, flying on its own merit without any help from more illustrious fantasy predecessors.

The Reaper sections really stick in the mind; the principal characters only just escape its clutches several times, before Wil finally confronts it. Minor characters we’d gotten to like are snuffed out in its chill clutches, and Brooks suffuses the novel with a terrible dread at the demon’s approach.

In the Dagda Mor, we have the anti-Allanon. You know they’re going to have a wizard-off, and you won’t be disappointed when they throw down with their staffs in the final battle. Add to that a shocking conclusion, and we’ve got a terrific follow-up, one of the rare few that outstrip their better-known predecessor.

The Wishsong of Shannara (1985) concludes the original trilogy. It sees Jair and Brin Ohmsford – the children of the Elfstones’ Wil – seeking to destroy an evil book, the Ildatch. Brin sings the wishsong in the title, a powerful magic apparently triggered by vocal cords. Allanon the wizard takes his 12 steps back into the land of the living after his long sleep in order to help out. Along the way they must fight the Mord Wraiths, descendants of the Skull Kingdom’s original Skull Bearers, and a terrible demon called the Jachyra. They’re aided by the usual retinue of interesting supporting characters, in particular Garat Jax, the weapons master, and an immense jungle cat. It’s not as good as the preceding book, but it brings the arc to a satisfying close, with plenty of fights, sieges, court intrigue and peril.

There’s plenty more in the Shannara series – fans have had loads to read since Brooks first began to write The Sword as an undergrad in the 1960s. I did make it through the next four books in the cycle, collectively known as The Heritage of Shannara, but aside from Walker Boh losing his arm and the Elfstones coming into play again, I’m afraid a lot of the events overlapped, or are lost to my memory. I do know I was never bored, though.

The Shannara books deserve to be rediscovered. Hopefully the new TV series will bring the novels to a new generation.

Now… I’ve got this great idea for a fantasy series, based on a dream I had.

The story involves some little guys going on a quest. They rub their powerful stones to make them glow, and when they enter the ring of power - it’s magic.

Any agents interested? Contact me at the usual address.

:: Next time: We recall a writer who managed some magical feats of his own - making lawyers interesting, and briefly stirring curiosity about a career in the law. Yes, it’s John “The Gris” Grisham! 

October 22, 2015


by Anthony Horowitz
320 pages, Harper

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I make no secret about my fondness for Ian Fleming. Although his 007 stories have been criticised by the sneering literary establishment for their “sex, snobbery and sadism”, I still return to them when needing my fix of perfectly-paced action and adventure. James Bond has been my favourite literary (and cinematic) hero since I was a young lad. I grew up with a pile of VHS cassettes full of Bond movies taped off the television. My first proper crush was on Carole Bouquet, whose swimsuit-clad escapades with Roger Moore in “For Your Eyes Only” are indelibly stamped on my memory. I can’t choose between Connery or Moore, Dalton, Brosnan or Craig… I like them all. Hell, I can even see the good in George Lazenby’s single performance as the British secret agent. In my own writing, the relationship between Inspector Forrester and Chief Inspector Pardoe was always intended as a tribute to the wonderful dynamic Fleming created between Bond and M. I am more excited about seeing Daniel Craig’s next outing as Bond than JJ Abram’s new Star Wars film and have already planned my trip to the cinema to see it the week it is released.

I think it is safe to say I’m a 007-nerd.

Whilst 007’s recent cinematic outings have all been pretty solid affairs, it’s a shame the same can’t be said for the recent Bond novels authorised by the Fleming estate. William Boyd’s “Solo” was just-about readable, but was lacking Fleming’s tight prose and the customary glamorous settings. Jeffery Deaver’s “Carte Blanche” took Bond into the twenty-first century with a modern setting. I felt that it had a decent villain and some enjoyable action sequences but others found it over-long and the 007-faithful damned Deaver’s attempt to explore Bond’s backstory. It’s probably safest to say little about Sebastian Faulks’ truly dreadful “Devil May Care” as the mere memory of it is known to make me vomit blood. One awful book, one bad book, one pretty-good-but-poorly-received book. Not a great record, Mister Bond. Until now...

When I heard that Anthony Horowitz had taken the job to write the next Bond novel, I allowed myself to relax a little, knowing my favourite secret agent was in safe hands. Horowitz is a huge Bond fan and his series of YA books about the teenage spy Alex Rider make no bones of hiding how they have been influenced by Ian Fleming. With fast-paced action, outlandish plots and over-the-top villains, Horowitz’s books were bound to be well-received. Just like Fleming’s novels about 007 turned a number of adolescent boys in the 1950s and 1960s into avid readers, Horowitz’s Alex Rider books have given young lads something thrilling to pick up in their school library that doesn’t involve schoolboy wizards or simpering Hobbits.

Trigger Mortis” does not disappoint. In fact, it is entirely fair to say that Horowitz’s book surpasses all expectations by being not just a fantastic Bond novel but also the first genuinely Fleming-esque Bond novel of the twenty-first century. Writers who take on the challenge of writing a 007 novel are faced with a difficult choice before they even set pen to paper. Do they try to emulate Fleming’s tight prose and meticulous attention to detail or do they write in their own style? Faulks had a stab at Fleming’s prose, and whilst he got the attention to detail right, he fell flat on his face when writing punchy dialogue and believable action sequences. Deaver jettisoned the Fleming-style and wrote a Bond novel his own way, the result being that the book felt curiously detached from the original series. Being set shortly after the events of “Goldfinger”, Horowitz’s novel allies itself closely with the original Fleming stories and so requires the writer to stick to the Fleming formula. What is most impressive about “Trigger Mortis” is that it does not read like a modern writer trying to write like Fleming, it feels like the genuine article. There’s no embarrassment about this being, at its heart, a goofy adventure story. This means that it is totally free from the tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-ironic style that hamstrung Faulks’ effort. Horowitz isn’t an apologist for Bond’s questionable behaviour. He knows that the real Fleming fans don’t care that Bond is an insufferable snob, obsessed with designer labels and expensive wines. In Fleming’s books, Bond was never particularly likeable and Horowitz makes no effort to soften Bond’s 1950s world view for the modern audience. This isn’t imitation or pastiche but a tribute-act so damn good it is difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

The book opens at the tail-end of Bond’s and Pussy Galore’s relationship. Horowitz is not content to go with the inaccurate and oversimplified interpretation of Bond’s bed-hopping behaviour as being misogynistic. Like Fleming, Horowitz understands that the nature of Bond’s work means that healthy sexual relationships with women and normal friendships with men are impossible. Bond is an isolated, lonely figure, his job demands that he remain so. It is inevitable that the fling with Pussy will turn sour, it’s just a matter of time and circumstance as to how and when it will happen. As in all great Bond stories, he is summoned to M’s office to be given his latest mission. This time it is to protect a top British race car driver who has been targeted for assassination by Bond’s old adversaries, SMERSH. Already fond of high performance vehicles, it doesn’t take long for Bond to get behind the wheel of a car and act as guardian angel to the targeted driver. The race around Nürburgring is the first of many thrilling scenes of pulse-pounding excitement in the book and pays homage to the game of baccarat in “Casino Royale” and the game of golf in “Goldfinger”. What makes this sequence all the more fascinating is the knowledge that the idea of Bond taking part in a car race came from Fleming himself in the form of an outline for a never-filmed television series pilot. Horowitz even had access to four or five hundred words of Fleming’s own dialogue that he included in the book.

After an explosive climax to the race, Bond finds himself digging deeper into the past of the mysterious Korean business magnate Jason Sin. Like all great Bond villains, Sin is foreign, has a silly name, a dastardly plan and is completely insane. To reveal the details of Sin’s diabolical scheme would be to spoil the masterful way in which Horowitz allows the book’s relatively thin plot to develop. Revolving around the 1950s space race between the US and the Russians, Horowitz manages to take aspects of Fleming’s “Moonraker” (the book, not the preposterous Roger Moore movie), tie up some loose ends from “Goldfinger” and add some thrills of his own invention.

No Bond story would be complete without a Bond girl and, in this regard, Horowitz comes up trumps again. Whilst the book opens with the end of Bond’s dalliance with Pussy Galore, the foxy head of a lesbian crime syndicate (no, really), the main female character comes in the form of the wonderfully-named Jeopardy Lane. Bond girls often take a lot of flak for being one-dimensional window-dressing, pandering to a male juvenile fantasy. Look a little closer at the Bond girls in Fleming’s novels and you see that many of them are strong, independent and sexually adventurous. For books written at a time when many women were expected to be stay-at-home mothers or humble secretaries, Fleming’s female characters could almost be said to be the forerunners of modern emancipated women. Jeopardy Lane takes her seat amongst the strongest of Bond’s women. She’s tough, resourceful and instrumental to Bond’s eventual victory over the evil Jason Sin. Her suitably improbable background as a wall of death motorbike rider at a carnival provides her with a skill that is put to good use in the thrilling chase sequence towards the end of the book. In fact, the chapter where Bond and Jeopardy tear through the streets of New York to stop Sin’s evil plan is as breathtakingly paced and as gripping as anything you’ve seen in Bond’s recent adventures on the big screen. When Jeopardy eventually sleeps with Bond at the end of the novel, it is on terms that are amenable to both of them. Horowitz clearly knows that some aspects of Fleming’s portrayal of women (such as the sado-masochistic rescue-fantasy of “The Spy Who Loved Me”) are uncomfortable to modern readers and has, quite wisely, avoided them.

“Trigger Mortis” is a splendid book and is certainly the best modern Bond novel for many years. Horowitz manages that tricky balancing act of sticking to the Fleming formula without seeming like a crass imitation. By keeping Bond in the original historical setting, Horowitz is able to ensure that his secret agent retains the 1950s period flavour. Through judicious handling of a supporting cast of characters, Horowitz manages to prevent the novel from slipping into the unreconstructed attitudes that make a number Fleming’s original works look hopelessly dated. Perfectly paced, eminently readable, and enormously fun, this latest addition to the Bond canon is one of the best.

Hereward L.M. Proops

October 8, 2015


by Sarah Lotz
470 pages, Hodder and Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

Adventure reading assignment: buy this one in an airport departure lounge and read the opening chapters before you get on a plane.

Sarah Lotz’s The Three starts with four aviation disasters. Yes, on-board trolley service, I did say I wanted two G&Ts.

It is horribly plausible, particularly when it comes to examining rescue workers’ and first responders’ experiences. We go into the nuts and bolts of catastrophic events, the gory details that people have to deal with somewhere in the world every single day.

So, with your nerves nicely shredded and spring rolled as an appetiser, things move from a story about mass tragedy to full-on weirdness.

Out of the four plane crashes, only three people survive: children, all roughly the same age, around 10 or younger. The fact of their survival seems to be a miracle. Is there something supernatural about it? Every religious nutjob and conspiracy theorist on the planet seems to think so…

None of the four crashes are down to terrorism – they all seem to have plausible technical explanations, like mechanical problems, bird strike, engineering botch jobs. The jets come down in the sea off Portugal, in the Florida Everglades, in the heart of a South African township and, creepily of all, into the heart of the Aokigahara woodland at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan – which you may have heard referred to as the “suicide forest”.

The book mostly takes the form of a fake “non-fiction” book by a journalist called Elspeth Martins, which in itself takes in first-person interviews from leading players in the drama, as well as other media such as online chat forums, transcribed radio shows and news reports. This epistolary style put me in mind of how Stephen King handled Carrie, with various sources and multiple perspectives giving the story a rich sense of texture, but on a more global scale.

We never directly interact with The Three, as the survivors of the Black Thursday disasters soon become known in the media frenzy to follow. We instead look at the principal characters who help look after them – including a New York grandmother who takes in the American child; Paul Craddock, the uncle of the British girl who survives the sea crash; and the young cousin of the Japanese boy who walks away from the Fuji disaster.

Lotz skilfully blends in a sense of location in each of the sections. The parts with Paul Craddock and the young survivor, Jess, felt authentically British, especially when it came to the behaviour of the press. The Japanese section mainly concerns the interaction between Chiyoko, the cousin of Hiro, the Japanese survivor, and a shut-in called Ryu on a message board. However, the main American part doesn’t look at Bobby Small’s family as much as it looks at Pastor Len, a bible belt loon.

Pastor Len gets excited about a message sent by one of his flock to her sister as she lies dying in the wreckage at Aokigahara. This seems to refer to the miracle boy, and appears to carry a warning about him just before she expires. Pastor Len makes a link between The Three and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned in the bible. Soon, a cult known as the “Pamelists” grows up around the supposed prophecy of the American lady who died in the forest.

A lot of the testimony about Pastor Len comes from Lolo, the sex worker he spends a lot of his spare time with. That should tell you all you need to know about Pastor Len, but he sets a dangerous example to unhinged, desperate people who look to the world of conspiracy theories and half-baked crypto-spirituality to get a sense of belief, and fulfilment.

This hysteria reaches fever pitch when Pastor Len looks at the passenger list of the South African crash – the one where there were no survivors – and picks out a young boy about the same age as The Three. This lad, Len asserts, must have survived. He is the Fourth Horseman. He must be found. Soon, Len and his backers put up a $200,000 reward for anyone who can find Kenneth, with predictably chaotic results.

Where The Three works best is when it plays with its central mystery. At certain points, you’ll be convinced that there is some sort of supernatural agency at play. At others, you’ll be swayed by the idea that it’s all a delusion – a mixture of hysteria and trauma causing people to believe that The Three are not what they appear to be.

This is most harrowing in the mental breakdown of Paul, the uncle of Jess. First of all, the notoriously sensitive and mature British press feast on Paul’s life – he is gay, and an out-of-work actor – causing him to go to ground with the little girl who was plucked from the sea. Traumatised by the disaster in his own right, Paul begins to experience strange things in the night. He believes his brother, who died in the crash, is haunting him, with a particular warning about the girl.

Paul begins to pay attention to one of the competing theories about The Three: that they have all been replaced by extraterrestrials, intent on harming the human race. He begins to drink heavily.

In America, Bobby Small’s grandfather, Reuben, seems to make a miraculous recovery from Alzheimer’s. In Japan, the boy Hiro’s guardian – another uncle – appears overly fond of a new type of android which mimics human beings to a spookily accurate degree – even down to simulated breathing. Locked away from the world, Hiro will only communicate to others through his Surrabot – an exact mechanised replica of the boy.

Lotz is adept in the art of the small twist – little bits of information which alter your perception of events, but not necessarily the course of the story at large. For a novel printed on good old paper, The Three is plugged into how the international media has changed beyond all recognition in just 15 years, and how our notions of obscure, occult things have evolved along with technology.

I once lamented how the digital revolution - particularly the popularisation of instant, pixel-perfect photography - all but killed crypto-zoology, ghost-hunting and UFO-spotting across the world. Nowadays those Loch Ness Monster/Bigfoot/Spacers shots have to be Hollywood-grade in order for us to take them in any way seriously. A few bubbles or a sparkly weather balloon in thick cloud isn’t going to cut it any more. But this hasn’t turned us into hard-bitten cynics overnight. If anything, thanks to the internet, people have become even more credulous of totally made-up stuff.

In place of the old unseen world has come a new set of quasi-beliefs – mostly regarding conspiracy theories. To delve into some of these online is to gain a brief glimpse into the inside of a maniac’s head. For a laugh, I once looked at conspiracy theories relating to the film director Stanley Kubrick. My head was soon spinning with it, and that’s just the stuff about Eyes Wide Shut.

Lotz looks at how these theories, no matter how daft or implausible, begin to affect the minds of people who are either suffering from severe mental illness or in the grip of paranoid delusions. It leaves us in no doubt that there are exploiters and exploited, but never sacrifices the central mystery - are The Three simply incredibly lucky people who survived against astronomical odds, or is there something paranormal at work?

You’ll have to read it to find out. I recommend that you do.  

September 29, 2015


by Irvine Welsh
546 pages, Jonathan Cape

Review by Pat Black

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raffaele. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi. Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud. 

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting boys are part of the furniture now - like a fag burn on the couch, or a toenail you find embedded Excalibur-style down the back when you’re trawling for change. The Edinburgh quartet returned – with mixed results – in Porno, back in 2006. Skagboys looks at the earlier years of Leith’s finest in a prequel, set in 1984/85.

We start with Mark Renton’s handwritten diaries, a record of when he stood alongside his father and striking miners during their pitched battle with the police at Orgreave. We’re still unknotting the state’s tentacles from around the throat of that industrial dispute today. The clash, representing Margaret Thatcher’s ultimate victory over the unions, serves to lay out the slippery slope down which Welsh’s assortment of misfits, wasters and scumbags must travel. 

Aside from a policeman’s attempts to wedge a baton between Renton’s shoulder blades, he’s none the worse for his class war efforts as he returns to his summer job with a builder, before resuming his studies at Aberdeen University. There’s a girl up there that he likes, a fellow student from Newcastle. After an inter-railing holiday, they fall in love. Renton is a straight-A student, a driven young man with lots to prove. Things are looking up for our hero.

We know already that Renton throws it all away. This predestination lends Skagboys a sense of dread. You read these touchstone moments of a young man embarking on his first serious adult relationship almost through your fingers, knowing what lies ahead. Specifically, heroin.

Land of opportunity

The catalyst for Renton’s plunge into addiction is his disabled wee brother Davie’s death. But there’s already a sense of self-destruction about these working class boys, born out of a lack of choices and employment prospects as Mrs Thatcher’s free market war on the state and the heavy industries cranks up.

Renton’s the only one of the main characters with an arc, defined by heroin. We see his first contact with it, his growing addiction, and the way it squeezes everything of value out of his existence.

Spud, the one everyone likes, doesn’t get long in the spotlight, although his bleak experiences on the gear are more heart-rending than Renton’s. Begbie is already a well-established thug, and gets incrementally worse. Similarly, Sick Boy is just as cocksure and oversexed as his later incarnation. We see him embark on his charming entrepreneurial strategy of seducing young girls, getting them hooked on smack and then pimping them out. This leads to an almost unspeakably malicious encounter between a teenager and the man who killed her father.

In many ways, Sick Boy’s sociopathy is worse than Begbie’s psychosis. At least Begbie has animal instinct as an excuse. Sick Boy, the arch-schemer and manipulator, has everything planned out. Our Simon is definitely a thinker, if not quite a philosopher.

Renton’s journey from lad o’ pairts to junkie aside, we follow a pungent saga where Begbie impregnates a local girl, only to be threatened with vengeance by her brothers. They are made to regret this. In any aggregate of toxic masculinity, dear Franco is always going to come out on top.

I wouldn’t say Begbie inhabits a cycle of violence; that implies some sort of change in how he behaves, plotted points where he makes a turn, deviations. Begbie doesn’t have that subtlety. He’s a hurricane which can never be downgraded, destroying everything wherever he goes. Even a stretch in prison comes across as a slightly irritating but not insurmountable obstacle – another environment for Begbie to thrive in.

Away from the principals, Tommy’s story was the most troubling, because we know how it ends. This gives the handsome, morally upright athlete a tragic air, as he’s the only person in the book whom you would call heroic. He helps out his mates in a tight spot, and is more than capable of meeting violence with violence. We find out that he bested the seemingly unstoppable Begbie in the boxing ring - “a lesson in sweet science” for the street-fighting sluggard. Begbie even respects this; we suspect that in a square go, Tommy might be too strong and too brave for even that monster. He has a conscience, knowing that Begbie’s lust for urban warfare is fundamentally wrong. Tommy helps the weak, and provides comfort to those who need it. You can see he was raised well.

When Renton’s love life dies horribly, Tommy embarks on one of his own with Liz, an art student. He falls in love for the first time, a 22-year-old with a chance to get out of a bad situation. Salvation, Tommy realises, doesn’t mean moving anywhere. He just has to “step into a parallel dimension” and meet someone nice.

His heroism is underlined when other characters mention his likeness to Harrison Ford, as Tommy and Liz go to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Tommy’s fate in Trainspotting is a bitter finale to all this promise.

Mary Marquis

Violence, nihilism, cruelty and disgust come fitted as standard in Skagboys. Some episodes could happily slither into Trainspotting’s septic tank of horrors and barely cause a ripple. Wee Davie’s infatuation with the raven-haired, dark-eyed BBC newsreader Mary Marquis messed with my own childhood memories of TV news bulletins, just for a start… and then we find out how the poor lad gained release from his sexual torment.

One character’s rescue of a puppy in a filthy tower block basement after it is shoved down a rubbish chute, only to discover the foetus of his aborted child in its jaws, was literally a new level of depravity. There’s also a workplace “competition” among Renton’s happy band of labourers which I can’t see being copied any time soon by giggling office workers in social media videos.

You know this type of thing will happen in an Irvine Welsh book, though. For me, the erosion or perversion of a sense of family and the literal destruction of children – both recurring themes in Welsh’s work – were more disturbing than the urban myth-toned set pieces. His fathers are treacherous, unreliable, feckless or simply brutal; mothers are stupid, out-of-touch and befuddled, for all their warmth. Siblings spin off in their own directions, often in sharp opposition to the main characters, causing nasty collisions when they revolve back towards each other.

In a wider sense of fraternity, circles of friends become toxic. Tommy realises the only answer is to escape from it all, and build something else. This parallels Renton’s final treachery in Trainspotting. What a pity he can’t quite go through with it.

High seas

One thing has remained consistent in Welsh’s writing, and that’s the contempt he has for “straight pegs”. The ones holding down jobs, and not addicted to drink, drugs or violence. This attitude towards - let’s be honest - most of Welsh’s readership is most apparent in the “high seas” section. Here, Renton, Sick Boy and their London connection Nicksy get jobs with Sealink as a means of smuggling heroin from mainland Europe to the UK. We are presented with an officious middle manager with a cream shirt, spectacles and a clipboard. He appears to be gay, as well. A full house, you might say, in the eyes of Welsh’s 1980s Leith progressives.

I thought: “This guy is going to get smacked within two chapters, tops, and we’re supposed to enjoy it.” And so it proved.

Cream Shirt is a stock type, akin to Walter the Softy in Dennis the Menace; a walking excuse for a sore face. He has the full kit. There are lots of people like this in Welsh’s fiction - boring jobsworths and fond of rulebooks, to be sure, but basically harmless. Welsh snaffles these characters up like a shark meandering through a sh*t-slick seeping out the back of a ferry. The guy might well be inspired by a real-life figure, but he comes across as cartoonish. Renton and Sick Boy, clearly more talented and charismatic than Cream Shirt, snicker and sneer at his ilk as they buccaneer their way through picaresque adventures, streetwise hustlers in a world of grey drones. They’re always one step ahead of this stage of the Thatcherite game – though as Welsh craftily points out, lurking just two moves ahead on the board lies the McJobs generation.

Welsh had a surer hand at the helm nearly 25 years ago, when he showed the Leith gang for the small-timers they really were as they tried to sort out a drug deal in London. They get ripped off by the big dogs, but never know it. It’s strange that Skagboys’ earlier iteration of Renton and Sick Boy cotton on quickly that they are being exploited – capitalism’s long arm reaches every area of society, Welsh reminds us - and yet they’re so easily conned a couple of years later.

Inner peace

To be fair, although Welsh’s heroes fling out disgust, disillusionment or sarcasm for breakfast, by lunchtime it has usually boomeranged back. This is the prism of disgust through which everything is visualised. Welsh surely knows that in the rat race it’s the Cream Shirts and Clipboards who end up sitting pretty, or at least doing alright, not the Rentons and Sick Boys. Perhaps the author is simply venting against dull, austere authority and petty rule-making. Fair enough. I’ll drink to that.

Welsh is better with personal confrontations, particularly those involving the short-fused, yet spine-chillingly canny Begbie. He’s from the stone age, assaulting friend and foe alike as a means of keeping tight control of his territory. We also see him take his first steps in the world of organised crime. Begbie’s eagerness to impress leads to a clash with a family member which he resolves with what must seem like perfect logic to someone who is absolutely, certifiably off their nut.

How beautifully Welsh sketches his monster. That chilling plunge in temperature when someone says something Begbie doesn’t agree with; the million and one ways you can offend him; the hair-trigger outbursts and burst mouths; the palpable fear and loathing among supposed friends, conditioned to dread his approach, his very voice.

I especially liked the way Begbie’s highly-strung antennae twitch at the merest hint that some of his friends are doing something without his consent, such as spending a day in bed with a girlfriend as opposed to joining an organised brawl between football casuals. Begbie’s cousin lives in the flat below Tommy’s girlfriend, and so, armed with the knowledge of where his mate might be hiding out, he stomps over to drag Tommy out of bed. “There’s nothing going on in Leith I don’t know about,” Begbie says, to the astonished Tommy.

Generalissimo Franco also gets one of the most poignant moments, when he reveals his beautiful singing voice at a New Year party. After he is praised for his performance (the song is never identified, though someone says it’s Rod Stewart), Begbie, of course, Takes It The Wrong Way. “It’s just f*ckin’ singin’,” he snarls.

I saw this as an inversion of that glorious part in Porno, when Spud helps a girl tidy her house. (“Come on! Let’s just get intae it! We can dae this!”) It said so much about the character, without resorting to showering us with muck.

Welsh isn’t quite so good when the action moves out of the tenements and crappy pubs, into the world of middle class people, offices, suits, wine bars, tawdry affairs and quick paddles in dangerous waters. The sub-plot involving one of the female characters, her boss and a scam his brother’s got going with some bikers was vital to the historical context, but not to the novel. It’s curious that even though Irvine Welsh has enjoyed a successful career and presumably doesn’t live anywhere near a tenement flat, it’s his depictions of working class strata which he is at least 25 years removed from that are the most convincing and compelling parts of his work.

Cultural capital of Europe

Heroin forms a prolific double act with HIV, which went on to claim dozens of lives in a spate of cases in the 1980s and 90s linked to shared needles which saw Edinburgh branded the “Aids capital of Europe”. Its growing effect on the main characters is fully chronicled by Welsh, who intrudes on the narrative at key points to give us an overview.

By far the best set-piece is Renton’s Moment of Crisis. Badly needing to fix, Renton and a couple of jangly friends decide on a whim to rob a newsagent’s of a collection for a cat charity. The ensuing farce involves a junkie jailbreak from a parental balcony, a woman playing host to baby budgies in her bra and a desperate attempt to break open the charity box from the fourth floor of a block of flats, while chittering schoolchildren lie in wait below. It was my favourite part of Skagboys, and it recalled Trainspotting’s best qualities. No matter how grim the scenario, and perhaps even despite yourself, you laugh.

From there, at the invitation of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, Renton has a stretch in a pioneering rehab facility. The isolated setting features some mystery guest stars from Leith, and the stint begins to resemble some sort of internal war between discrete shards of Renton’s psyche. His handwriting reappears, if not quite his soul. With the junk gone, cracks begin to appear in Renton’s foundations. Mates, getting wasted, burds, fitba; if that all goes, what else is there?

Anyone expecting some sort of redemption for our favourite Alex McLeish lookalike shouldn’t hold their breath, though. There’s some deft probing by the counsellors and fellow “guests” at rehab, but Renton either doesn’t remember what it was like to have a good life, or dismisses the idea completely. W*nking and passive-aggressive contempt fills his days, with the odd foray into weightlifting alongside the foreboding bulk of Seeker, the biker and drugs kingpin. Only when he writes, page after page in his diary, does something purer, less wasteful, quicken in his blood. Once Renton’s out the door, and has negotiated a surprise party thrown to celebrate his mockery of a graduation, he’s back on the gear within hours.

Renton has made his choice, and doesn’t care what others think about it. This looks awfully like freedom, but not as we know it.

The book finally shudders to a halt opposite Trainspotting’s platform. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and a couple of other cellar dwellers attempt a ludicrous heist at the motherlode, a pharmaceutical complex on the outskirts of Edinburgh next to a railway line, from which the initial flood of pure, uncut white heroin once gushed. The fact that the jangly Renton puts his big old brain into gear to formulate his laughable plan, and the rest of them all buy into it so readily, shows the corrosive effect of the drug on even the sharpest minds. Their whole lives, all their efforts, are sacrificed for the sake of one thing: scoring. Everything else is just a pointless habit. Like trainspotting.

Acceptable in the eighties

It’s never nice to think of our lives as minuscule, often insignificant parts in a larger historical narrative. Welsh is on the same page as Tolstoy in this respect. Skagboys is an examination of a blighted part of modern Scottish history, tying together the toxic threads of Thatcherism and concomitant mass unemployment, the ready availability of heroin and the spread of HIV. It is an indictment of the age and its masters. I’m from a Scottish town which gurgled down a plughole during the 1980s, and it still strikes me as astonishing that there are lots of people out there for whom that decade was a non-stop success story, who might have only the dimmest concept of the social and cultural trauma that was inflicted, quite deliberately, on working communities in Scotland, the North East of England, Wales and elsewhere (to say nothing of Northern Ireland). It was a neat move by Welsh to relocate part of the story from Edinburgh to London, with this effect undiminished, against my expectations. There are no yuppies, wine bars or Loadsamoney moments here; just simulacrums of Leith’s sh*tholes, but on a bigger scale.

But you could wring your hands over societal injustice all you like. They’ve no excuses. Renton’s a pr*ck. Sick Boy’s a pr*ck. Spud deserves better friends. Begbie should be put down.  

It took me a horribly long time to read this book. It’s a strong meal, even sampled in small bites. Sweet moments are few and far between; you could have said the same of Trainspotting in this regard, but this prequel is ponderous in comparison, even as it ships filth and fury by the bucketload. Trainspotting, for a novel which had heroin use front and centre, was ironically more like a dab of speed in a carpeted nightclub. In comparison, Skagboys, despite its depiction of men just out of their teens - all piss, balls and gristle - comes across as more of a comedown after a few days away; that point when you just want to get away from your mates and the weekend at large and find blissful unconsciousness in your own bed.

Skagboys is stripped of the glee – my blasphemous soul wants to call it “the joy” – that characterised Trainspotting, that celebration of casual malevolence and grubby debauchery which makes it so beloved of teenagers desperate to be known, and to be in the know. It was similar to Porno in that regard, but it doesn’t drag quite so much.

Skagboys was clearly written by a much older man, a guy in his fifties a long way from the streets he illustrates so memorably. There’s analysis being offered here, but I would stop short of calling it “cool”. Welsh’s wrath at a squandered generation and the appalling forces that converged on it may be buried beneath a growing eloquence in his prose, but it’s there, all right.

What of modern Scotland? I’d like to read Welsh’s views on the rise of the SNP, the disconnection between Labour and its heartlands, and a new Tory government at Westminster which threatens to make Thatcher look almost benign, the same way George W Bush did for Richard Nixon. I want to see the Trainspotting boys in middle age, grappling with the modern world as it bypasses them in favour of a new cast of disenfranchised youngsters – no longer the poster boys for a generation, but old, and worse still, irrelevant.

Please don’t film it, though. And certainly, don’t film Porno. We all know deep down that Trainspotting’s lightning can’t strike twice.