Sunday 28 September 2014

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis

Continuing my survey of Kingsley Amis's fiction, inspired by reading an excellent biography of Amis, we come to The Anti-Death League. Although it has its flaws, this remains one of my favourite Amis novels and, re-reading it now, I was impressed by how vividly I remembered certain sequences in it from literally decades ago.

Amis was a fan of crime and spy fiction and The Anti-Death League is his attempt at a spy novel. He isn't entirely comfortable with the form — plotting was seldom Amis's strong point and the espionage narrative here is stop-start and often crops up in perfunctory chunks, as if the author's real interest is elsewhere. Which indeed it is. On the other hand, this aspect of The Anti-Death League is fascinating for its relationship with Amis's books about James Bond. He wrote two non-fiction volumes about Ian Fleming's character and, after Fleming's death (and shortly after The Anti-Death League), Amis wrote a 007 novel himself called Colonel Sun which probably remains the best Bond story not written by Fleming.

The Anti-Death League centres on a military base guarding a secret weapon and Amis's army experience during the Second World War is put to good use here. There is a sense of veracity to his soldiers, particularly the way they begin energetically swearing whenever their life is made more difficult (invariably by a superior officer).

And there are some classic Amis observations about the army, and the British class system, as when describing a character's batman (this odd English term means an officer's servant or butler): "his contempt for politicians... would have been totally admirable if expressed in a better accent." Elsewhere, it is said of a handsome young soldier, "He would have been a good model for a recruiting poster... had it not been for his air of intelligence."

The book features a large cast of characters, so large in fact that the author himself grows weary of describing them. "Two men in their thirties... One was very tall and very thin with ears at right angles to his skull. The other was just a man." This is one of the flaws of the book — there are so many characters that the reader loses track of who is who among this extensive roll call. 

It doesn't help that the characters are almost all soldiers at the same military base, some with utterly unmemorable names, some of them unmemorable characters, some alternately referred to by their first and last names — some with last names that sound like first names; I give you Captain Brian Leonard.

All this is a recipe for chaos and incomprehension (I'm still trying to work out who the @£$# 'Alistair' might have been...) and this confusion is aggravated by some clumsy and careless proofreading as in the crucial scene where Max Hunter (one of the few characters I could keep track of) suddenly disappears from the narrative without Amis bothering to tell us he has left the room. And the muddle reaches a frustrating climax at the final grand reveal, where we learn the identity of the spy and I thought... Wait a minute, who the hell is that?

Nevertheless, there are occasional fine moments of action and suspense in the novel and some superb comic characterisation, notably a brilliantly nasty shrink who projects his sexual obsessions onto all his psychiatric patients.

And there is also some quite touching characterisation, like the army padre who is very fond of his dog, who has just become agitated in this scene: " 'It's all right,' he said, stroking her head... 'It's nice of you to worry about me, but there's no need.' "

Amis's gift for description is also strongly to the fore, as in the spy hunter's alarm at learning of a minor security breach: "Leonard felt as if a hot sponge had been pressed against the back of his neck." Later in the book Leonard wearily parks his car, drained after a long, hard and unsuccessful night of spy-hunting and there he "sat for some moments accumulating the will to get out."

There is also a memorably terse sex scene — "It was fine; it was successful; it was over." — which would have done credit to Dashiell Hammett describing a heist. Or again, when the hero is asked by his friend to disclose the details of a secret mission, and the tension is resolved by a three word sentence: "Churchill told him."

Amis's love of science fiction is also an influence on the novel, not just on his choice of a highly portable tactical nuclear weapon as a MacGuffin for the story, but in his impressive description of it in action: "There was the sharp knocking bang of an ordinary rifle cartridge, and then what might almost have been a small piece of the sun came into being across the valley." The sound is described as a "summarized thunderclap."

Later on, a sound from a loudspeaker is presented as being "like a brontosaurus clearing its nostrils", an image which recalls the ship's siren which was like an "ogre breaking wind" in Amis's That Uncertain Feeling.

There is also a strong science fiction influence at work here in the notion of a "node" of death which the characters are passing through in their lives — dangerous at the edges, deadly at the centre. Although this is arguably more like supernatural fiction, especially in the vendetta one of the character carries out against god — the book could as easily be called The Anti-God League, though admittedly that would be a much more crappy title.

Perhaps the most agreeable, and successful, spy-novel aspect of The Anti-Death League is when one of the characters goes nuts and begins to hilariously describe himself as a character in a sub-Bond style spy novel, averting a pulp-fiction apocalypse and being waited on hand and foot by nude servants: "[His] last exploit had saved the world from destruction by death rays... [his] eye ran lazily over their naked forms." (I'm being coy about his name here because I don't want to spoil any surprises in the book.)

For all that it's full of fun, this is ultimately one of Amis's darkest novel. I also think, despite  its numerous deficiencies, it's one of his best — although it is merely a warm up for such splendours to come, in the shape not just of a much more successful spy novel (Colonel Sun) but also a classic ghost story (The Green Man).

(Image credits: Sparse pickings, just the striking US hardcover and handsome Penguin Modern Classic from Good Reads. The British hardcover with its elegant Raymond Hawkey/Adrian Flowers jacket photo — Amis's first illustrative cover from Gollancz — is taken from an ABE seller  and the great — and hilariously misleading — Bond style Ballantine cover is from another ABE seller. The earlier Penguin cartoon cover, by the talented Arthur Robins (misspelled "Robbins") is from Amazon UK. The later Penguin cartoon cover is also by Arthur Robins and  is from Amazon dot com.)


  1. Hello Andrew,
    You must have been up and about early this morning if
    this review was posted at nine o'clock.
    I am intrigued by this novel. It certainly sounds as if it
    might be worth reading.
    Thank you for writing these reviews.
    Best regards.

  2. I often write the reviews live, but if I get the chance I also do them in advance, especially when I know I'll be away from home, and then I can put them on the timer for automatic release. This is a distinctive and worthwhile novel but I'm really looking forward to doing Colonel Sun!