August 15, 2014

MR. MERCEDES

by Stephen King
405 pages, Hodder & Stoughton

Review by Pat Black

If you’ve never read Stephen King, and you’re wondering what the fuss is about, I would urge you to sample the opening chapter of Mr Mercedes.

It doesn’t feel like too long ago that I reviewed Doctor Sleep, and it wasn’t. In that time, King has released this new novel, there’s a fresh one on the way, and for all I know he has another half a dozen torpedoes ready to fire whenever his publishers catch their breath. “Prolific” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word.

Mr Mercedes starts off in a foggy night in 2009, with an overnight queue outside a jobs fair in a large Midwestern US city. This is right at the point where the western world’s financial rollercoaster plummeted downwards – not exactly a thrill-ride, although plenty of stomachs dropped. The people who bed down in sleeping bags at the head of the queue are poor, they’ve had back luck, and they’re struggling in lots of ways.

We focus on two characters: a middle-aged guy, divorced, with some uneven road behind him, and a single mother with a newborn baby at her breast. In a very few pages we get to know them. There are some short stories which cover half as much story in twice the space. We might start to believe we’re seeing a new future for this pair as a couple; that miracles can happen.

Then King reminds us: this isn’t an age of miracles.

The chappie in the title is already on his way, cutting through the fog in a prime piece of German engineering. He deliberately drives the stolen car through a jobs fair queue – a premeditated act, a means of doing something, in the Trent Reznor sense, that matters.

They do not stand a chance. Eight are killed, including the man, woman and baby you’ve just met, and fifteen more are injured.

What makes it worse is that the situation already felt like an atrocity before Mr Mercedes applied pedal to metal. These were desperate people, struggling thanks to the efforts of some bankers, deep-mining their humanity. King even references The Grapes of Wrath.

And then… wallop.

If you don’t want to read Mr Mercedes after this opening then drive on, brothers and sisters, straight ahead past this review, and on until dawn. I’ll happily call it the author’s best opening since little Georgie Denborough’s paper boat sailed down a storm drain.

We leap forward a couple of years for an introduction to retired cop K. William Hodges. The K stands for Kermit. For all I know, Kermit might well have been a popular name in the United States before The Muppets mna-mna’d their way onto our television screens. But seeing it here felt like that moment you discover you have a crack in your filling. While eating peanuts.

But (like the peanuts), we’ll pass.

Hodges is retired, divorced and bored, utterly exhausted with daytime TV, piling on weight, and having little to do with the outside world apart from conversations with Jerome, the Harvard-bound 17-year-old who cuts his lawn.

Hodges has a few medals in his drawer, but he never closed the Mercedes killer case, and this bothers him. He’s also taken to fiddling with a revolver while he sits in his chair – a habit noticed by the Mercedes killer, who has begun stalking him.

The killer, a troubled young man named Brady Hartsfield, inadvertently relights Hodges’ fire by writing the corpulent ex-copper a letter, reminding him of his failure. Brady intends to goad and guilt-trip Hodges into suicide – much like he did with the woman he stole the Mercedes from.

This plan backfires. Hodges’ instincts kick in, and he begins an investigation under his own steam, seeking to play the killer at his own game and entrap him. In this quest he enlists Jerome, a smart cookie with computers and much else besides, while his expenses are paid by Janey, the hot sister of the Mercedes’ tragic original owner.

Mr Mercedes is King’s attempt at a classic American murder mystery, a world away from his supernatural output. I suspect he has always wanted to write an Ed McBain/John D Macdonald style thriller ever since The Dark Half; I reckon he enjoyed creating Alexis Machine. Who wouldn’t?

There are a couple of references to King’s own work running through Mr Mercedes. I found these cute, although King’s penchant for intertextuality can be annoying. I loved it in one novel (was it Pet Sematary?) where a character driving through the night gets the chills when they pass a signpost for “Jerusalem’s Lot”.

However, I don’t love what he did with The Dark Tower and other stories, cramming in references to his other novels in a bid to make them all connect. It’s his toybox - but for me, this renders those tales slightly less than the sum of their parts.

In Mr Mercedes this is done obliquely, starting with a reference to the Mercedes having screamed out of the fog “like that movie with the old Plymouth Fury”. Furthermore, the killer behind the wheel wears a mask, which Hodges is told “looks like the clown in that show with the monster in the sewers”.

This is different from the way King normally refers to his own work in that he is acknowledging it as fiction, and not a component of the new world he’s creating. He seems to be making a statement: “That was fantasy; here’s some stuff that’s a bit closer to real life.”

The present tense style is punchy and immediate. But rather than a terse tough-guy narrative, a sprawling whodunnit or a plodding police procedural, this novel is a surprisingly intimate creature, happy to slip its genre leash and allow us to spend time at home with the characters.

Jerome the teenage computer genius is black, and he starts off the story by addressing Hodges in a mock Jim Crow accent under a comic persona. King gets away with this through sheer cheek, but is wise enough to dial it down before it gets too irritating.

I didn’t buy into Hodges’ romantic entanglement with Janey quite so much. It happens conveniently fast for the pair, although great credit must go to King for addressing something of a taboo in written romance: the anxiety and awkwardness of a big-bellied man going to bed with a fit woman.

(flesh duvet)

The author is never afraid to get his hands dirty when it comes to seamier content. In outlining the lifestyle of our killer, King isn’t so much getting his hands dirty as rubbing the grime into the carpet; grease, bits, beasties and all. Brady – literally, a basement-dwelling computer geek – lives with his alcoholic mother, a manipulative character who enjoys a perversely close relationship with her “honeyboy”.

She’s yet another entry in King’s pantheon of monstrous, controlling parental figures. Mrs Hartsfield is a close relative of Carrietta White’s bible-thumping mother and Annie Wilkes, Misery Chastain’s “Number One Fan”.

This awful figure crops up rather a lot in King’s stories, but I don’t think it was ever so overtly Oedipal before (are we counting that dreadful Vampire/Cat People movie King made about 25 years ago… Sleepwalkers?). This lends texture to the characters, much like mould does to a shower curtain, but I dunno if we needed to know about Brady and Mrs Hartsfield’s unique mother-son bonding experience. Wasn’t it disgusting enough that Brady skittled those poor people?

Part of me wonders if King moulded the idea for this book out of little nuggets unearthed from his recent short stories. In his taunting communications with Hodges, Brady reminded me of the letter-writing serial killer, Beadie, from “A Good Marriage” in Full Dark, No Stars. In the OCD tendencies of the doomed Mercedes owner, I wondered if King was returning to ground he’d already covered in “N”, from Just After Sunset. It rang a wee bell, anyway.

A bit like the old Columbo teleplays, the question to be answered in Mr Mercedes is not whodunnit (we meet our rogue early on), but: how will they catch him? It’s not a foregone conclusion. There is what I would term a “Nick Andros moment” that punches us in the guts halfway through, before events build up to a tense finale as Brady seeks to commit another atrocity at a teenybopper concert.

It isn’t a great novel; it’s tense, but loses its way a little when it brings three too-unlikely crimefighters together. And Hodges’ behaviour wasn’t plausible – I liked him as a character, but I refused to believe he would have kept all that new evidence to himself rather than sharing it with his police pals.

But – truism time – King can engineer a story better than most. It’s what he does for a living. You should expect no less. His books are always a smooth drive.

I see he’s got another book out in November, Revival. Also - evidently pleased with his handiwork here - King has said that we’ll probably see the surviving cast of Mr Mercedes return in a couple of sequels.

Our author is a busy boy. Stephen King is working full tilt, machine-gunning us with new titles. He seems to be writing them quicker than I read them.

That’s the way it goes; that’s the way it has to be. We wouldn’t want it any other way. Floor it, brother. 

August 7, 2014

THE WHITE TOWER

by Dorothy Johnston
232 pages, Wakefield Press

Review by Bill Kirton

Progressively, computer mysteries are establishing themselves as a powerful strand of the modern crime genre, but while Dorothy Johnston’s sleuth, Sandra Mahoney, and her partner Ivan have the necessary skills and expertise to hunt through servers, online identities and all those other esoteric things which are way beyond my comprehension, their actions and investigations are founded in a solid, tangible place peopled by very real characters.

The setting is the Australian capital which (at least for this northern hemisphere reader), added to the slight disorientation that threads through all good mysteries. Being reminded that spring arrives in October challenges one’s perceptions and increases receptivity to the sensation that all’s not right with the world.

Sandra’s quest is to find the truth behind the apparent suicide of Neil Howley. Neil worked in a hospital but spent many of his leisure hours online in a role-playing game. Johnston creates structures, hierarchies and circumstances in both his workplace and the game which reflect one another very cleverly; indeed his actual ‘suicide’ more or less coincides with the ‘execution’ of his character in the game. The master of the game destroyed Neil’s avatar because he thought he was trying to steal his source code while, in the real world, his superiors at the hospital had begun to mistrust him. All of which gives Johnston the chance to create two narrative layers between which Sandra moves, trying to separate ‘virtual’ motives from ‘real’ ones, interviewing real people but also the creators of avatars, teasing out the threads of two separate but eerily linked stories. Effectively, she’s pursuing parallel investigations which prove strikingly similar.

But in case this begins to sound fanciful, don’t worry, these characters are real. Johnston gives them distinct features and voices, her dialogue is as assured as her descriptive narrative. They all have secrets, resentments and other personal ‘truths’ that get in the way of the ‘truths’ she's seeking. And Sandra herself is far more than an investigator, she’s a partner and a mother. Not only that, she has a baby to feed, and Johnston even manages to use that special relationship to anchor her character even more firmly in the real world.

Immediacy is the watchword here. We’re forever in an intense present, each moment is filled. The double narrative dispenses with the need for sub-plots since they’re inherent in its structure. It's an intelligent, careful construction. Nothing is contrived, there are no clumsy clues or blatant red herrings; Sandra manages to unravel the mystery by her sensitivity to nuances and the application of reason.

And, all the time, there are the delicious little signs of a writer in control of her material. Johnston uses innocuous, seemingly irrelevant details to ground her narrative, the ‘little, true facts’ so beloved of Stendhal. At one point, Sandra ‘turned from the computer to stare out a window at a square of grass. A magpie hopped across it, dragging a tangled piece of string’. Neither the magpie, nor the string reappears. They’re there as a part of the incidental reality in which we all live. A skirt is the ‘colour of mustard that has been in the fridge too long’, some ducks ‘quacked appropriately’ – all delicate little touches that add to the pleasure of a very satisfying read.

The White Tower is one of a quartet of Sandra Mahoney mysteries. I’ll definitely be reading the others.




August 3, 2014

JAMES BOND: THE SPY WHO LOVED ME

by Christopher Wood
176 pages, Ian Fleming Publications (Kindle version)

Review by Pat Black

When I’m on the motorway and the traffic gets a bit hairy, I pull a Roger Moore squint.

It’s for no-one else’s benefit, and I only do it when I check the wing mirror - even though I can’t see my face.

I glance to the side, set my jaw… and squint.

This is a primping technique, essentially – a silly psychological tic employed to give me a little bit more confidence.

It’s on the same wavelength as some sub-Partridge saddo, putting on a tuxedo in his hotel room ahead of a corporate do, striding along the length of a mirror, turning on his heel, and

James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me is a novelisation of the 1977 Bond movie – and certainly not the “original canon” novel by Ian Fleming, a total oddity which would take a Booksquawk post of its own to explain.

The movie is Sir Roger Moore’s best outing as 007 and arguably the high point of the entire series. It’s the one with Jaws, the metal-mouthed henchman; the undersea base that swallows submarines; the shark chute; the amphibious Lotus Esprit; and the disco ski chase culminating in the union flag parachute base-jump – the greatest stunt ever filmed.

Then there’s the sublime theme song, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” (can we ever be sure of her sincerity?), and perhaps the two greatest Bond girls in Barbara Bach and Caroline Munro (though my heart still aches for Carole Bouquet in For Your Eyes Only).

Nearly 40 years on, despite some incredible advances in special effects which were unimaginable back then, few if any of these elements have been topped in the series. Small wonder The Spy Who Loved Me is such a favourite of Alan Partridge. It’s hard to take in any way seriously, it’s deeply flawed - but it’s still kind of awesome.

Alongside Alan Dean Foster’s take on the original Star Wars from the same year (though George Lucas still gets the credit on the cover), Christopher Wood’s book was one of the first great mass market novelisations – an entirely new piece of literature that takes a cinema film as its source, rather than the other way around. This book – adapted from Wood’s own script, co-written with Richard Maibaum – retains only two elements from Ian Fleming’s source novel: the title, and a villain whose dentist who was a bit over-zealous when it came to fillings.

This project would have represented an open goal for any writer, but Wood makes a fine achievement of what could have been a simple hack job. The story follows 007 as he investigates the disappearance of a British nuclear submarine. He is joined on his mission by Major Anya Amasova, a Russian agent who is also on the trail of a similarly-misplaced Soviet sub.

There’s a bit of added tension in this Iron Curtain-spreading relationship after it emerges that Bond killed Amasova’s lover, right before his base-jump heroics in the knockout opening scene. Amasova swears revenge, once their mission is over. But if there’s one man who can charm his way out of that predicament, it’s Bond.

The pair link the missing submarines to Sigmund Stroemberg, a megalomaniac industrialist with an underwater base and some pretty left-field civic planning ambitions. Lunging at this odd couple from the shadows is Stroemberg’s button man, Jaws, whose teeth have been replaced with metal fangs, which he puts to gruesome use.

The globe-trotting adventure takes Bond and Amasova to Egypt and Italy, before a final showdown at Stroemberg’s hi-tech Atlantean base.

Wood didn’t have to do so, but he makes a valiant effort at linking this Bond to Ian Fleming’s original creation. Although Sir Roger Moore will always be synonymous with the title, I read Wood’s rendering of the character as more like Fleming’s 007 – a curiously humourless thrill-seeker with very expensive tastes. The shift in tone is striking; many of Bond’s one-liners from the film - such as “Egyptian builders!”, “What a helpful chap!” and “How does that grab you?” - are not to be found here.

There are also references to previous Bond adventures, with nods to his “treasure” of a Scottish housekeeper, the evil spy network SMERSH and the death of 007’s wife at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Bond is attracted to Amasova chiefly because her figure and demeanour reminds him of Tracy. This seems to imply that Bond has a definitive preference in types of women, which I didn’t buy. He may have been a bit one-dimensional when it came to cocktails, but with women, Bond liked to work his way around the menu. However, having Bond’s heartstrings tugged at the memory of his wife was a nice link between the past and the present.

Take some advice, though, James: do not mention this to her.

Wood is fully immersed in Fleming’s milieu and writing style. He takes great care to describe Bond’s tailoring, as well as the food and drink he consumes on his travels. All that’s missing is a high-stakes gambling duel with his nemesis to complete the job.

Our author’s career is a fascinating one. Before hitting the jackpot with Bond, Christopher Wood already had a successful, if curious CV under the pen-name of Timothy Lea with his comic-erotica Confessions books - later made famous on the big screen by seventies jackanapes Robin Askwith.

Wood also wrote the similarly-naughty Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse, as well as dabbling in aggro-lit (also extremely popular during the seventies) with Soccer Thug, under the pseudonym Frank Clegg.

Christ only knows how he got from there to writing Bond. There’s hope for us all.

One scene in particular might have been excised from one of Wood’s Confessions novels: the part where Major Amasova rubs suntan oil into her lovingly-described breasts, before chiding herself for indulging in bourgeois luxuries like sunbathing and bikinis and pledging to read some Engels as penance.

This passage conjured a brief image of Robin Askwith in a tuxedo, falling off a ladder outside her window. It could only have been written by a man - and a man in the mid-1970s, at that.

Wood is no hack, though. The book’s tone is different to the movie; there are a few laughs in The Spy Who Loved Me, and even its silliest concoctions are imbibed in deadly earnest.

Beartrap-mouthed Jaws is given a detailed backstory as well as a plausible explanation of how he came to receive his defining dental characteristic. When Bond tangles with this foe in the film, there’s an element of slapstick; here, it’s played straight, even when Jaws tries to bite his way into a van Bond is driving.

The villain, Stroemberg, also benefits from a textured, if disturbing history that places him in the same bracket as Fleming’s classic rogues’ gallery. He ticks all the boxes: sexually odd, megalomaniacal, psychotic, and with a curious deformity (in this case, webbed fingers).

Much like Fleming, Wood packs in a lot of prima facie low-rent content, but writes it beautifully. There were some phrases that leapt off the page. In a grisly scene where a treacherous secretary is served up to a hungry shark, Wood describes an “obscene candy floss of blood” erupting from her severed leg. A lift which Bond takes in a hotel “stops to collect itself like an old lady preparing to cross a road”. After killing a couple of henchmen, Bond wonders how long it will take for “armies of homeless vermin” to stream from their bodies in the hot Egyptian climate. And in pondering a possible sexual conquest, Bond ruminates on whether “the mind of the puritan” is more lubricious than that of the libertine – a canny nod, perhaps, to vicarious thrill-seekers getting their jollies second-hand from cinema screens or 200-page paperbacks.

The Lotus Esprit submarine convertible is given a lot more to do in this version, dodging a motorcycle sidecar which turns into a missile. It’s also called into more action beneath the waves than you see on screen - scripted activity almost certainly cut for budgetary reasons.

Also excised from the final draft of the screenplay is a torture scene in which James Junior is imperilled. This is of a piece with the corporal punishment 007 endures in Casino Royale - except that this time, instead of being clobbered with a carpet-beater, 003-and-a-half literally gets a short, sharp shock via some delicately-placed electrodes.

Moonraker? Legcrosser, more like.

It’s a quick read, ideal for the beach, and a nostalgia trip for people over a certain age. I’d be interested to know what today’s twenty-something men think of this novel (and its source) in comparison to modern-day spy stories, where technology is as much a driver of the plot as deception. What do they make of this jovial, suave Bond; would they ever in a million years model themselves on dear old Sir Roger? An undoubtedly handsome man, but he looked old enough to be your dad even then.

This amounts to blasphemy coming from a Scot, but Sir Roger is my favourite Bond. It helps that he was in the job when I was a boy. Like your favourite Doctor Who, there’s an imprinting mechanism at work when it comes to “your” Bond. You follow him like a newly-hatched duckling.

For me, Bond was never better than when he was played tongue-in-cheek. Moore never intended anyone to take James Bond seriously – he understood better than anyone before or since that the role is simple escapism and male fantasy, no more reflective of real espionage or geopolitical tensions than Sherlock Holmes is of detective work.

The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moore’s Bond, has a distinctly British quality peculiar to that era, which I noted after the sad passing of Professionals star Lewis Collins last year.

I call it rugged naffness. It’s hard to think of an American leading man of this time who could possibly have played Bond the same way.

You don’t really buy Moore as a tough guy, although I can picture him as a 50-year-old lothario, the apple of many a yacht club trophy wife’s eye, immaculate in his navy blue jacket and gold slacks. He’s the sort of charming bugger who might make a Russian oligarch or dot-com billionaire just that wee bit insecure.

And yet, there’s a certain something in his portrayal of Bond that an untutored part of the male psyche might seek to emulate, no matter how silly. Not a thug, but wins fights; has his pick of the women; carries a subtle, but distinct, stench of money.

Nowadays, looking the part isn’t just a matter of dressing expensively, or staying in just enough shape to blag it from a certain camera angle (forgive me, Sir Rog, but you don’t half wear a lot of black in these films).

Now, leading men have to thrash themselves into almost grotesque shape through laser-guided gym regimes and dietary interventions that would rival those endured by Olympic athletes. Young men are following this trend. I’d guess younger fellows would probably be sceptical about 007’s eating, drinking and smoking habits in this book – a sure way of killing your athletic prowess and swaddling those abs, lats, pecs n’ biceps in fat.

I’ve heard very few straight ladies or gay gentlemen complain about this sort of body sculpting extremism with regards to Daniel Craig – indeed, they suffer themselves near silence when he emerges from the sea in Casino Royale - but I find it curious to note the mutation of what leading men must look like in today’s entertainment world. Will we see Bond with tattoos, soon? Will he put away the old-fashioned pommel brush and razor blades shaving kit and let the stubble come in? Will he swap the midnight blue Saville Row suits for a pair of low-slung, ironically-worn Chinos, or whatever the hell it is hipsters wear now?

That British side-parting-cum-comb-over has already gone, thank goodness.

Perhaps the objectification of Daniel Craig’s body is some form of recompense for all the blatant, brutal sexism in these stories. There’s still a lot of it about. It’s curious to note that although Amasova ends up having to be rescued by 007, she’s still better than just about any Bond girl who followed her. I bought her as a capable, flint-hearted spy much more than I did Halle Berry’s Jinx, 25 years later.

James Bond: The Spy Who Loved Me allows us a fresh look at a piece of art familiar from screenings at Christmas or, latterly, on ITV2 seemingly every second Sunday. It’s also a fine homage to the style of 007’s creator.


A host of suitors have taken a stab at James Bond in the past couple of decades, the famous and unknown alike. But I should be surprised if anyone does it better than Christopher Wood.

July 20, 2014

SMILEY'S PEOPLE

by John le Carre
468 pages, Sceptre

Review by Pat Black

“I used to love those double-double games,” says an old intelligence researcher in Smiley’s People. “All of life was there.”

Smiley’s People is the final part of John Le Carre’s “Karla” trilogy, concluding the long-term, long-distance battle of wits between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, the head of the Thirteenth Directorate of Intelligence in Moscow – the man with the curiously feminine codename.

Smiley, the hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the reluctant leader of the decimated British secret service in The Honourable Schoolboy, is once again in retirement at the start of this novel. Old, fat, owlish, short-sighted, with the air of a thoroughly repressed Oxford don, Smiley is the anti-Bond. It’s difficult to imagine him cocking a gun without pursing his lips in distaste, and it’s almost as difficult to think of him slipping between the sheets with pretty young things. Indeed, his wife, Ann, is quite famously unfaithful, having proven to be Smiley’s great weakness and the entry point, pun intended, for Karla’s mole in Tinker Tailor.

Smiley might well have been a librarian in another life, burrowed deep in a section of dusty, forgotten books in dead languages which no-one ever, ever borrows. Indeed, there’s a hint that this is precisely what he has done, dedicating his attention to abstruse academic interests and idling towards the grave in a dingy house in London, while his wife whoops it up with ballet dancers and actors down in their country pile in Cornwall.

But, as in Tinker Tailor, Smiley is brought back to do what he does best. An Estonian general Smiley once acted as case officer for has been found in Hampstead Heath with his face turned into raw mince by Soviet bullets. The old general, Vladimir, had been active of late, seemingly chasing ghosts, before being assassinated. The current incumbents of the Circus had written the general off as a crank, a relic from the early days of the Cold War, paying a heavy price for a cry for attention. Smiley’s superiors at the Circus and Whitehall want him to bury the case. But Smiley, in his inimitable way, smells a rat.

Earlier, in Paris, a Soviet defector is approached by an amateurish Russian agent, offering her a chance to be reunited with her daughter, left behind following defection. The woman begins to suspect that the person who is to be spirited out of Russia is not in fact her daughter. She, too, sniffs a rat, and decides to get in touch with a contact in the espionage world she has long left behind: an old Estonian general, now living in London.

To describe the rest of the plot in any kind of haste would be to do it a disservice. Smiley’s People pays its threads out slowly. Although you’ve got plenty of time to slow down and take a good look at what’s happening, the tangle of contacts, aliases, double agents and double-crosses can take a while to unravel. It’s a ponderous book, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. At the expense of repeating myself, it’s this considered, measured quality that I enjoyed the most about the Karla trilogy. To me it was unusual and therefore addictive, this slow-burning tension, this perfectly-plotted pathway, that finally leads us to a confrontation between the two heavyweights.

As before, the contrast between “tradecraft” in a novel written in 1981 and what we see in today’s espionage fiction is stark. I can just about remember the early 1980s, but this era’s buttonhole photography, radio microphones and hair-across-the-crack-in-the-door-style security arrangements, as described by Le Carre, seems like the Stone Age. Today’s surveillance and intelligence gathering culture is science fiction in comparison, all of it underpinned by that great esoteric language, the electric Sanskrit of machine code.

One particular section where operatives strive to capture a photo of a Russian agent embracing his mistress seems quaint in a world where people are using tiny hand-held computers to take pictures of themselves, and the world around them, constantly.

And then there’s CCTV to consider, automatic number plate recognition, computer passwords, keystroke mirroring, internet banking and mobile phone technology which can tell security services precisely where you are and where you’ve been, should they be minded to check. Smiley and Co’s trails of breadcrumbs and gingerbread houses look like fun in comparison to our time’s cold, brutal, technical world of instant recognition and retribution.

Smiley’s Englishness is his blessing as well as his curse. He got my dander up good and early, remarking on Circus operative Strickland’s Scottishness, his “Aberdonian brogue”, as a shorthand way of saying that he is brash, obnoxious and aggressive. That’s the kind of observation that I would tend to peg out on the same line as racism.

Smiley wonders why it is that Scotsmen are drawn to the world of espionage. What’s it to you, George? I might wonder the same of moneyed English public school boys and positions of power, their cane-crossed buttocks nestled in hot seats all across Westminster and Whitehall. But, that slip aside, Smiley is a compelling character with a solid moral core. His deep-rooted snobbery could be upsetting in any other context except national security, but his mannered priggishness and protestant work ethic serve him well.

Tough times call for tough measures, though. Ultimately, Smiley the white knight is forced to use the kind of tactics his nemesis is famous for in order to bring him to account. This is portrayed as a defeat, but personally, I think Karla has caused enough chaos in Smiley’s life to merit a bit of George’s marvellous medicine. Endearingly, Smiley retains enough of his poise and moral certainty to know that resorting to the tactics of the brigand is just not cricket, old bean.

This is perhaps the book’s most ludicrous aspect, as far-fetched as underwater bases and satellite-swallowing spacecraft in James Bond; the notion that the men of the Circus are somehow morally superior to their counterparts in Moscow.

Perhaps the concept of western “freedom” carried more weight in 1981, an ideal not quite so corrupted by casino capitalism, neoliberal abuses of power and geopolitical sabre-rattling. Perhaps having an enemy firmly fixed in one location and one political bracket gave us some kind of moral compass which we’ve been lacking since the end of the Cold War.

Smiley finally confronts his one-woman sexual earthquake of a wife in this book, although the kiss-off is done in an oblique, restrained way. This is one time when you realise the real world would have been far harsher on flighty Ann – she would probably have had to answer to treason charges, given her behaviour with the mole in Tinker Tailor. This is done, we feel, to cut away Smiley’s ties with his private life and matters of the heart, to focus all his efforts on bringing Karla down.

Because Karla has made a mistake – the oldest one in history – and Smiley is all over it like Bank Holiday rain. With one mild twitch of a stalk of wheat, the old man spreads his wings over the fields like a golden-eyed owl in the night.

In Tinker Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and now Smiley’s People, it is always women who underpin the motivations of the principals, opening the door to their betrayal or downfall. In Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s weak point is Ann – a factor exploited over a period of years by Karla after he stole Smiley’s cigarette lighter, which bears a simple inscription from his wife. In The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby is doomed the minute he meets his scarlet woman in the east. In this novel, it’s Karla’s turn to have his heart turned inside out, his emotions leaving a trail as clear and bright as a streamer of blood in the open sea.

The portrayal of women is far less sexist to modern eyes than in the first two books; indeed, in Ostrakova, and in Estonian information mule Willem’s wife, there is an attempt to get into women’s minds that doesn’t paint them as silly, dependent mares, giggling strumpets or flat-shoed harridans - although the depiction of mentally ill “Alexandra”, the key to the whole affair, had a nasty whiff of the Victorian loony in the attic.

With his usual understated cunning and fine-honed intelligence, Smiley closes in on his quarry. Pleasingly, he is not just restricted to ledgers, libraries and sealed reports in this book, taking on the role of active fieldman in order to unpick the knots. There are moments of suspense and the odd bout of violence, but this is more about Smiley covering his tracks, and uncovering those of people who went before him in Switzerland, Hamburg and Paris, than car chases or gun battles. For the most part, the book is a series of tense conversations, but Smiley’s sabbatical out in the field shifts the story into a higher gear.

Likeable sidekick and man of action Peter Guillam makes a brief appearance, an easier bedfellow for James Bond than Smiley. Guillam is about fifty, has a wife half his age, drives a fast car and likes the buzz of the job. Here, at last, is a spy fantasy figure we can relate to. Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian agent, is also called back into action in Smiley’s service, and provides vital assistance as the noose is placed round Karla’s neck.

A problem you may run into is that the sumptuous 1983 TV adaptation, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, follows the book pretty much to the letter. There are even lines of dialogue which gave me a flashback to the show. So if, like me, you knew the Karla story through the DVDs first, then there will be no surprises for you in Smiley’s People.

In turn, though, the old TV show did something the novel could not. It revealed to me Alec Guinness’s acting secret: react to everything as if someone has just farted. Watch his face, next time, and tell me I’m wrong.

It’s the best novel in the trilogy. But what a contast to today’s world – even the fictional one. Compare the “Moscow rules” Le Carre follows to bring us his story, set just 30-odd years ago, with the microchip tempest of 24, or Spooks, with their lightning-strike editing, instant global connectivity and flying saucer technology. In another 30 years our spy stories and the landscape they operate in will look completely different, again, and it’s today’s technology that will seem creaky in comparison.


By that time, we might even have a geographically and ideologically fixed enemy with which to cross swords, to help us delude ourselves that we are in some way morally superior. 

July 13, 2014

THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE

by Rebecca Makkai
339 pages, Viking Adult, Digital Review Copy

Review by J. S. Colley

I should have written this review a week ago, but I was on jury duty and, to be honest, this is going to be a very hard review for me to write, so I've been procrastinating. How to not sound self-righteous nor like a pedant? I don’t know, but I will try, because my intention is not to be either of those things. I will say this author is a talented writer. I highlighted many passages that I found well-crafted or otherwise remarkable. But one’s overall reaction to a novel is very subjective and this review will be just that—one person’s opinion.

I’ve had debates with readers (and writers) about the fairness of judging a book by the “likeability” of the characters. Is it the responsibility of the writer to make the reader love every character? Do we expect to agree with the protagonist on all issues in order to enjoy a book? My answer is, of course not!  How boring would that be? Don’t we learn something about human nature when we read fiction? Isn't that what writers do—reveal, unwashed, the innermost workings of the human mind and take us places we might never go in real life? But where is the line drawn between unlikeable characters and characters so shallow that, because of their very lack of depth, there is no room for us to gain any insight? There is only room for us to wallow around in the muck with them; only wanting to escape.

This story is told in a reverse timeline, starting with the present inhabitants of The Hundred-Year House and working back to the original occupants. The book covers, as indicated by the title, one century. The decisions and actions of the characters during each of the eras are, at best, mean-spirited and, at worst, unethical and immoral. Do all protagonists have to be ethical to be compelling? Again, no. But the actions of these characters—which ranged from blackmail (twice) to stolen identity—were excused by the author for the flimsiest, most selfish of reasons. An example is when one of the several protagonists sets up her colleague to be falsely charged with watching porn on his work computer so her husband might have his job after he’s fired. This woman sees nothing wrong with her actions, in fact she feels supremely justified, because she doesn't hold the same ideological views. Here’s the problem: when the writer has an agenda and it shines through, with no subtly or attempt to make the reader work for it—shoving it in their face like a shaving-cream pie—it jars (if not offends) them.

As viewers, we didn't “like” Norman Bates as he was stabbing Janet Leigh in “Psycho” but neither were we expected to think his behavior was acceptable, no matter that Ms. Leigh had just robbed a bank. He was a compelling character because we knew he was off-balance. And here’s where we might find the real problem: if the author of this novel intended the reader to see that these characters were somehow unhinged, then it was not apparent, at least not to this reader. Was the house supposed to be possessed? Was it evil and made anyone who inhabited it become evil too? In fact, it would have made the book more gripping. If there was even a hint of this, then I missed it and, if I did, then I apologize.

I could go on and on to try and explain my visceral reaction to this book. I could quote and give more examples, but it's probably better to just fall back on that old standard of book reviewers; the characters weren't likeable. Unfortunately, this trumped everything for me, even the splendid writing skills of the author.

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy.


July 6, 2014

THE SEVENTH PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

Edited by Herbert van Thal
240 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

Nineteen sixty-six; now there’s a year. 

Swinging London… mini-skirts… Twiggy… Pet Sounds… the Beatles and Stones in excelsis… LSD is made illegal… America boosts its presence in North Vietnam to 250,000 personnel… the Space Race heats up… Star Trek beams itself into American homes for the first time… Bob Dylan breaks his neck… Charles Whitman breaks records as America’s first mass shooter… and England lift the World Cup at Wembley.

And of course, the Pan Book of Horror Stories continued its gruesome journey, with editor Herbert van Thal at the helm once more for its seventh volume.

Your Yucky Cover: The original 1966 edition sported a bloated, hairy bat with a face like Nick Nolte’s mugshot. But the copy I have is an early 1970s reprint, and its cover is a beauty: a silhouette of one of the walking dead, black against a blood-red sky. 

There’s no gore here - in fact, not much detail at all - but it is the stuff of nightmares. There’s something about the ragged clothing, the shadowplay of the wrist bones, the weird tilt of the fleshless jaw; a suggestion of shambling, inexorable strides… perhaps taken in the direction of your house, while you sleep. I wouldn’t have liked looking at this before lights out, as a boy. The Yucky Covers have now entered their imperial phase.

In the past couple of Pans I’d noticed a dip in general quality. The series isn’t renowned for subtlety, but far too many of the tales concerned the murder of women, sometimes within a domestic scenario. You could argue that the same is true of real life – most murders happen within the home, committed by someone the victim knows. Prowlers, serial killers and multi-purpose weirdos get the headlines, but the majority of homicides have a depressingly prosaic setting. The problem the Pans had in translating this to the page is that a growing proportion of the stories were simple cheap n’ nasties, designed to shock and disgust. 

“Well, Pat, it is The Pan Book of Horror Stories,” you say. “You want The Pan Book of Dainty Shudders? Review that instead.”

Fair enough, but these stories became samey, rather than sinister – some crime scenes were revisited a little too often for my liking.

So I’m pleased to report that number Seven is a return to form, with a little bit more to its game than Grand Guignol shocks. Anyone with a penchant for women being stabbed to death may rest assured – there is some of that in this volume, but the narratives are made to work harder for their gruel.

Charles J Benfleet kicks us off with “The Man Who Hated Flies”. It’s a spiritual inquiry, following a narrator who converses with a colleague who believes in reincarnation. This belief is put to the test in a brutally ironic fashion.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes is a very familiar name to readers of British anthologies. He’s probably been around for most of your reading life, editing horror anthologies for children as well as adults. Dear Ronald left the building in 2001, and his effort, “The Thing”, must count as one of his earliest tales. There is some of his trademark humour, but it’s more subtle than much of his later output. It follows a barfly who encounters a strange apparition which appears to be attaching itself to other pub-goers. Only he can see it, and he wonders if it’s the DTs. It isn’t quite clear what this creature wants, but its effect is plain to see.

GM Glaiskin’s “The Return” looked at what appears to be a little girl, playing out in the sunshine and ruminating on her bucolic life with her father and sisters. The pay-off here was a little bit Loony-In-The-Attic, but again, it’s not a hysterical piece of work, and I enjoyed it the better for that.

David Grant’s “The Bats” looked at a weird kid with weird pets. It’s pretty obvious where this one is going, but it’s a giggle to imagine teenagers reading this story by torchlight, cackling at the murderous conclusion. Was that teenager you, Julian? Jessica sent you her love on the flyleaf of this book, with three kisses, dated 1973. Is there any greater love than being sent the Pans for your Christmas or birthday?

Dulcie Gray, a Pan stalwart, bags a brace of stories, next. “The Fur Brooch” sees a girl in the first glorious bloom of womanhood agreeing to meet up with a young man whose marriage suit she has turned down.  The young man gives her a brooch in the shape of some odd, furry, toothed creature. It turns out that the brooch has other skills aside from looking cute on evening attire; chief among them, getting a lot bigger and chasing people down pitch-dark roads.

The girl in the story is doomed - it’s never in doubt. This idea of a young and beautiful woman being punished in fiction for choosing who she wants to be with is nothing new. From Penelope onwards, women are constantly depicted as something to covet, to seize and to possess. It’s the centrepoint of so much romantic literature; Shakespeare’s line about faint hearts and fair hands resounds through the centuries. When this desire to possess, to win, is thwarted, violent passions can be triggered, even in meek men. In this story, we have a young woman destroyed for being true to herself. It could be The Virgin Spring, except for one troubling aspect: Gray does not intend the girl to engage our sympathies.

You might disregard “The Fur Brooch” as a monster-of-the-week tale, not really worthy of close analysis. But it has applications for our own times. It’s worth pointing out that although most of us have felt the alienation and hurt of rejection in love at some point, hardly any of us carry out horrific acts as a result. But the themes in “The Fur Brooch” endure. We may not commit murder after being rejected, but some people do.

What I’m trying to say is, there’s sometimes a sense of glee about destroying women in some of the tales. It’s part of the experience of horror, and horror story anthologies. But I just don’t like it. As a theme, I find it repellent.

Gray returns with “The Dream House”, a story about a grasping wife and a mild-mannered husband, intermingled with some first-rate DIY and home renovation skills. Again, the story is uxoricidal, and perhaps, just perhaps, you are meant to applaud the villain’s handiwork as a job well done.

The meat is much more to my liking in Harry Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelton”. A classic of horror as well as sci-fi, this sees a human trader on an alien planet living in harmony with its intelligent, but naïve half-monkey, half-amphibian inhabitants. One day he is joined on Wesker’s World by another human - a man with a dog collar. When the Christian missionary begins to introduce scripture into the lives of the literal-minded Weskers, trouble ensues. Trader Garth sees it coming just a bit too late.

The pay-off to this story is undeniably horrific. When I first read it at the age of 13 in the Dark Voices* compilation, Ashkelton’s rigid anti-theism struck a very deep chord. However, its message blurs when you consider Trader Garth. This man is exploiting Wesker’s World, no matter how much he provides the godless Weskers with logical guidance, empirical evidence and scholarship. Proselytising clerics and religious dogma are easy to criticise, but the narrative is soft on the forces of capitalism, industrialisation and technical intervention. Trader Garth isn’t a nice person. His initial welcome to Father Mark is delivered with the back of his hand. I wonder if Harrison intended us to see the irony inherent in secular Garth’s exploitative role on Wesker’s World, or if it bypassed him completely? After all, this story was written before the Kennedy assassination, a time when people had strong memories of the Second World War and a firm concept of America’s status as the Leader of the Free World.  

Another big name, next: Ripley creator Patricia Highsmith, with “The Snail Watcher”. Entranced by the oddly sensuous mating ritual of the creatures in the title, the story’s main character goes about filling his house with the blighters, until he finds himself in a very slippery situation.

This one was gruesome, but there’s an interesting footnote: Highsmith was keen on snails, herself. You’d have thought the story was written by a molluscophobic, but apparently not.

So, we’ve had a couple of big hitters. But for me, this next tale is in the all-time bracket: WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a masterpiece of dread and suspense, and if you’ve stuck with our review this far then it’s likely you have read it. Just in case you haven’t, I shall not spoil it; but I do envy you. This story proves beyond doubt that the menace we can’t see is the scariest.

John D Keefauver, another familiar name from the early Pans, brings us two stories next. The first, “The Last Experiment”, harkens back to the golden age of morally dubious psychological tests; the era of the Milgram or Stanford experiments. In this story, a soldier is locked in a dark, silent room, to allow psychologists to examine how he gets on with near-total sensory deprivation. Not too well, as it turns out.

Keefauver’s second tale, “Mareta”, features another horrid wife and another gory finish, although this one attains pass marks for a lovely piece of misdirection when the narrator stumbles upon “bottles in the cupboard”.

“I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” doesn’t sound too good. It’s all down to the Sinister Dash. “This could be a serious issue – very serious indeed.” It puts me in mind of the Patronising Comma, usually inserted before and after your name. “You know, Pat, we need to have a talk about the length of these reviews. Because I can assure you, Pat, that people will be asleep by now.”

Rene Morris’ story about a highland lassie who is in love with another man while her husband wastes away with a terminal illness would seem to turn the “let’s get rid of annoying wifie” paradigm on its head, but the girl is soundly punished for love. She consults a witch, who offers the girl a voodoo route out of her predicament. As ever, things don’t quite work out as planned.

Pan serial appearer William Sansom next, with the most unfortunate title in the book: “A Smell of Fear”. Maybe some specifics might have worked better? “A Smell of Cabbage”; or “A Smell of Ralgex”… But fear?

All joking aside, it addresses some of the series’ more troublesome themes. We follow a neurotic single girl – is there any other type of single girl in fiction from this time? – as she appears to be stalked around London by a curious man with a limp, a black leather bag and mauve-stained hands, “like a birthmark all over”. The girl is “an arty type”, and while she’s quite good-looking, she is sneered at by her work colleagues and tweed-wearing neighbours. She is not allowed to be herself, but more annoyingly, she doesn’t allow herself to be herself, either. She’s paranoid about the men who surround her, a feeling crystallised in the form of her curious stalker. He may as well have been masked. I was reminded of the Phantom of the Opera, or William Friedkin’s kinky-ass video for Laura Brannigan’s “Self Control”. Does this man represent the uglier outer edge of male sexuality, the mindless desire to possess at all costs?

It all seems to be heading in one obvious direction, but this beautifully-written story’s final shock – its ultimate tragedy, really – was totally unexpected, as grim as it is ironic. Out of Sansom’s output for the Pans so far, this is his best.

I’d like to think there was a snickering sense of humour behind the title of Sansom’s second story, “The Little Room”. The sort of place where one might smell fear? 

It details the last hours of a nun, walled up in a room and left to suffocate. There’s a suggestion of some scientific design behind this atrocity; this is no medieval horror, but one in which the nun can watch her oxygen slowly eaten up on a manometer set into the wall. This one was more of a curiosity, a tad over-written without the plot dynamics seen in “A Smell of Fear” to sustain the interest. But there is horror, as it slowly dawns on our meek protagonist that she is not long for this life – although her heart still beats, blood pumps through her veins and her mind is clear.

Perhaps the blackest aspect of this story for some readers may be its godlessness. As in “The Streets of Ashkelton”, one might expect a god, or thoughts of a god, to intrude upon the narrative’s grim conclusion. But none arrives.

Rosemary Timperley’s “Street of the Blind Donkey” examined a woman escaping from peril, rather than in peril. Having left her controlling husband behind, she’s taking a holiday in Bruges, a place where she enjoyed happy times as a girl. But it seems that her husband’s stout shadow falls over many things – not only the uncertain future, but, more horrifyingly, the untrammelled past.

Martin Waddell brings us back into familiar Pan territory with “Cannibals”, a sardonic look at a pathetic cuckold’s route to the status in the title, via the society bride he has impregnated, her toothsome lover and some blustering blue-blooded in-laws.      

Waddell returns with “The Old Adam” next. It’s a sci-fi story, with lots of sci-fi irritants; awkward code names and acronyms (223367/Qlt/MZ-2 before they decide to give someone or something a name… in this case, Adam) and tooth-grindingly awkward terms for future tech (“he turned on his vocordiemordimer and vapbanged his wumqwaz”… I made those up, but you get the idea). It looks at the sad life of a synthetic human, grown in a bottle in a Soviet research lab. It’s not clear what Adam’s purpose is, but he suffers from the same plague of loneliness as the rest of us. Hope rises in the form of a strange creature with hundreds of mandibles in the jar next to Adam. It looks like it wants to hug him; if only they could be together…

 “The Island of Regrets” by Elizabeth Walter caught me at the wrong time, I guess. It was too long, took too many tangents and took too much time to get going. It tells the story of an engaged couple who visit the island in the title off Brittany. It’s got a bad reputation, though. Lots of stories of ill luck, early death and madness abound, and the villagers, hoteliers and café owners are palsied with dread when the couple suggest they want to visit. The man is superstitious, but the woman is spirited, and bullies him into going to the island. Apparently setting foot on the island grants you your first wish – but you always come to regret it.

This one devolved into the story of panic, anxiety and delusion, as the girl falls sick, and the man grows frantic in his attempts to put matters right, believing himself to be responsible. The supernatural may be responsible for the events that transpire, but maybe not. Were we to step outside the horror genre, this would be a fascinating, well-written story about an odd place, unusual people and unhappy coincidences befalling a mis-matched couple. But it just exhausted me. I was in a rush to finish it before lights-out, eyes closing over mid-flow more than once. A shame, as it’s one of the few stories written by a woman (unless it’s a pseudonym; the Pans are crawling with these). As such, it’s interesting to have a woman depict an unsatisfactory relationship and disillusioned lovers, but… I regretted reading it. It was dull. I needed a bit more punch.

Careful what you wish for, as they say. Alex White brings proceedings to a close with “Never Talk To Strangers”. It puts us squarely in the zone the rest of the book had tried hard to avoid. We’ve got a naïve young girl in London, with a ripper on the loose. She arrives in Paddington, hoping to meet her friend, but the friend doesn’t arrive. Soon, unsavoury people take notice of the girl on her own, and they approach… If only there was a gentleman around, someone to pay for dinner and provide her with shelter?

Like “The Island of Regrets”, this one couldn’t have been more obviously signposted. The impact comes in the final few pars, when an atrocity is described. The best thing about this – and many of the other “London murderer” Pan stories – is the image of the old London it conjures up. This is a London of guest houses, dripping taps, grubby linen, dilapidated houses and bombsites, a world away from the chrome and glass city-state it has become, gentrified and burdened with colossal house prices, with the less salubrious places and the poorer people clinging to the outskirts.

As for the murder and horror… I was a bit tired, and fed up with it. I’ve read a few horror books in the past few months, maybe too many. I think I’ll take a wee break.

But when I come back… it’ll be Pan Eight. And Pan fans will know what that means.
Head. In. Hat. Box. 


*The Best of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, printed to coincide with the title’s 30th anniversary in 1990. In the context of the original series it’s worthy, but inaccurate. The editors chose to play it safe, whereas the books gloried in doing the opposite.