Sunday, 14 July 2019

SS GB by Len Deighton

Somehow I'd got hold of the idea that Len Deighton was past his prime when he wrote SS GB. Nothing could be further from the truth. He is at the height of his powers here.

I'm so glad that the excellent TV adaptation spurred me into finally reading this book. I'd say that SS GB is one of Deighton's finest... I only hesitate because it's such a bleak and harrowing narrative...

The novel depicts a Britain which was defeated and subjugated by the Nazis and is set not long after the invasion. It follows the exploits of Douglas Archer, a Scotland Yard detective who is increasingly out of his depth in a murder investigation which leads him into some very dark waters indeed.

This is of course an alternate history novel — and, effectively science fiction, though Deighton's publishers would never use that term, since it would be commercial suicide for a bestselling thriller writer to be categorised in that genre ghetto.

There's a thriving subgenre of alternate history stories, detailing for instance what would happen if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore) or if the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded (Pavane by Keith Roberts). 
Indeed, SS GB isn't the first work of  fiction to depict a Nazi victory (The Sound of His Horn by Sarban). Nor would it be the last (Fatherland by Robert Harris). But it's probably the best.
Deighton's tale is intriguingly reminiscent of The War of the Worlds in its portrait of devastation in recognisable London locations such as Putney Hill and Wimbledon. "Halfway up Wimbledon High Street — at the corner that makes such a perfect spot for an ambush — there was the blackened shell of a Panzer IV."

And Deighton uses the brilliant, offhand device of describing the headlines on a newspaper used to wrap fish and chips (what could be more cheerfully English?): Canterbury declared open city as German tanks enter.

There are also chilling throwaway lines such as the mention of "the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge."

Deighton describes this parallel reality so distinctly and with such telling detail it's as if he's actually seeing it.

The book is immaculately researched, as you'd expect from the author of the brilliant novel Bomber and a series of masterly nonfiction works about World War 2. 

But more than that, it's beautifully written: "the colourless sun only just visible through grey clouds, like an empty plate on a dirty table cloth." 

The story is intensely imagined visually: "the wind was plucking at their coats, and lashing the trees into a demented dance... dark clouds were racing."

A German officer on a motorcycle "craned forward over the handlebars like a witch riding a broomstick" racing through "the evil-smelling London fog that swayed in front of the headlight... sometimes moving aside to reveal long ghostly corridors that ended in miserable grey streets."

And there are superb descriptions which make the reader physically present in the moment: "the shockwave of the explosion punched him in the face like a padded glove." 

And splendid observations, like the parachutist who split his footwear on landing and now "massaged his broken shoe as if it were a small animal that needed comforting."

This is wonderful writing with a real edge of poetry, as with this observation of interned prisoners waiting for interrogation: "But mostly they did no more than stare into space, eyes unfocused as they tried to see tomorrow."

Like I said, Deighton is at the peak of his powers here.

This outstanding novel has only, I think, two flaws. For one chapter in the entire book (Chapter 37) he abandons his hero, Douglas Archer, and moves to the viewpoint of someone entirely different. 

I can see why he did it, but this is an artistic flaw and I'm surprised it didn't offend his sense of craftsmanship; it's certainly jarring to the reader.

And I winced at the cruel, ruthless and casual way he killed off some of his characters. But that was a valid artistic decision — just one I wouldn't have shared. And it's certainly true to the facts of wartime. And it's nothing new in Deighton's work. He did the same in Bomber.

(Image credits: The main illustration is my scan of my own copy of the original Jonathan Cape hardcover, which I greatly enjoyed reading; the Panther paperback with the skull badge is also my own scan of my own copy. All the various other covers are from the excellent Good Reads.)

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

This novel is considered by Martin Amis to be his father's greatest achievement, so we can rest assured it is anything but. (Kingsley's greatest achievement was his superb ghost story The Green Man.)  

But The Old Devils is good. As with Ending Up, it deals with elderly people nearing the end of their lives — although it doesn't have the intense clarity of Ending Up, thanks to the large cast of characters and their complex web of relationships. 

Some of these characters are vivid enough to begin to emerge from the haze around the time philandering poet Alun Weaver enters the story upon his return to Wales. But although a few of them are sufficiently distinctive to intermittently fix themselves in the reader's mind — Peter (fat), Charlie (alcoholic) — others stubbornly remain a mystery. 

Usefully, though, all three of those characters appear in this nimble trio of sentences: 

"Charlie appeared. He was followed by someone who at first looked to Alun like an incredibly offensive but all too believable caricature of Peter Thomas aged about eighty-five and weighing half a ton. At second glance he saw that it was Peter Thomas."

Which gives some idea of how Amis is operating in his classic comic mode in this novel.

Here he is giving an account of a hangover: "He felt as if about two-thirds of his head had recently been sliced off and his heart seemed to be beating somewhere inside his stomach, but otherwise he was fine."

Even more acute is his depiction of the psychological consequences of heavy boozing (of which there is a great deal in this book) — "he felt that everything he had was lost and everyone he knew was gone." 

There's also a fond moment when Charlie thinks the drink has caused him to lose his mind and that the sounds emanating from a man have no meaning...

Then he realises it's just an American tourist trying to speak Welsh to him.

You'll find some other classic Amis gags here — such as the insulting reference to a Welsh person as a "violator of siblings"; and great use of language as in the description of "uncommonly horrible china dogs." 

Or his evocation of a modern high tech shower with "a massive control-dial calibrated and colour-coded like something on the bridge of a nuclear warship."

The Old Devils is often a very dark novel but Amis includes some impressively contrasting moments of affirmation. The wedding at the end of the book is often cited...

But I personally preferred, indeed rather adored, the scene of the male old devils listening to trad jazz records: "through a roaring fuzz of needle-damage the sounds of 'Cakewalkin' Babies' emerged."
Amis goes on to describe "an oldster capering about on his own like a mad thing." And the effect of the music on Malcolm — who previously seemed a bit of a twat — is really quite moving, especially when he has to wipe his eyes.

If you haven't read anything by Kingsley Amis, don't start with this novel. Instead grab the aforementioned The Green Man. 

But once you've read that, you may want to take a crack at this highly regarded late offering.

And if you do, you might find this (by no means complete) list helpful:

Malcom (infatuated with Rhiannon) married to Gwen (who is shagging Alun, and horrible to Rhiannon); Peter (fat, sympathetic) married to Muriel (incredibly nasty);
Alun (poet) married to Rhiannon (toothless, indulging Malcolm, mother of Rosemary); Charlie (alcoholic) married to Sophie (shagging Alun); Dorothy (toxic bore).

Happy reading!

(Image credits: The main image is my scan of my own copy of the New York Review Books edition which, despite some annoying typos, is the one I'd recommend. The other covers are from Good Reads. You may notice that receptacles for booze are a popular theme.)

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie

"I really didn't see that coming," could well be my motto when reading Agatha Christie.

And, boy, does it ever apply to this novel, which throws some tremendous surprises at the reader in its final pages.

This is a superior Hercule Poirot mystery with a genuinely terrific set up. It is the 28th Poirot novel, first published in 1948 ,and the shadow of World War 2 falls emphatically across the story.

The book begins with an air raid and bombs falling on the house of a millionaire, Gordon Cloade. Cloade is killed, as are all the servants. Cloade's beautiful young bride and her brother survive.

In the first few pages Hercule Poirot, taking shelter at a gentleman's club from another air raid, hears this tale. 

And what's more, he hears how the beautiful young bride has deprived Gordon Cloade's family of all the money they thought was guaranteed to them —  through Gordon's characteristic generosity.

And what's even more, he hears the rumour that the bride's first husband, reportedly dead of a fever in the African bush, may actually be alive.

In which case Cloade's fortune will go to his family after all...

Two years later the pot really begins to boil and Poirot re-enters the story at the behest of the Cloade family.

This fascinating story is studded with equally fascinating characters. I particularly liked Frances, the wife of lawyer Jeremy Cloade. She's utterly unscrupulous, and completely unashamed about it.

When Frances and Jeremy are discussing what would happen if Rosaleen, that inconvenient young bride, was to suddenly die, "something seemed to pass through the room — a cold air — the shadow of a thought..."

But the whole Cloade clan has a motive for murder and Rosaleen is so obviously a target that considerable suspense soon starts to ratchet up. 

Luckily she's under the protection of her brother, a former commando, as unscrupulous as Frances and another great character.

Generally Christie doesn't do much in the way of reflecting the period her books are set in, but this one conveys a vivid picture of England just after the war, with its rationing, bureaucracy and high taxes. 

Indeed it is the most period-conscious of the Poirot's I've read so far except for Hallowe'en Party, where everybody was complaining about allowing dangerous lunatics to run around loose instead of locking them up in asylums.

She also has some rather more profound things to say about what "war did to you. It was not the physical danger... the crisp ping of a rifle bullet as you drove over a desert track. No, it was the spiritual danger of learning how much easier life was if you ceased to think..."

Once this intricate and explosive situation has been fully delineated, along with the characters — and once the killing begins — Poirot decisively enters the story.

He's particularly good value this time around, quoting Sherlock Holmes ("I have my methods"), making an "unsuccessful attempt to look modest" and outlining his approach to investigation.

"Talking to people. That is what I do. Just talk to people."

Finally, having employed his technique, Poirot is ready to reveal all. He goes to the denouement. "Into an atmosphere quivering with danger... Once more, Poirot dominated the situation."  

And what a superb revelation it is.  I never saw it coming.  
(Image credits: The Tom Adams cover for the main image is from Pinterest. The other covers (isn't the Italian Mondadori version fab?) are from  Good Reads, including the Swedish version which has taken "taken at the flood" rather too literally. Except for the Brazilian Colecção Vampiro edition — I'm very fond of this series — which is from Sebo do Messias.)

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Yellowstone (Series 1) by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson

Regular readers of this blog may be aware of my high regard for Taylor Sheridan. In my opinion he is the finest screenwriter working in America today. 

Here's a list of the films he's written: Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River and Sicario 2. Every one of them gets my highest recommendation, as you'll see if you check out the links.

Recently Taylor Sheridan has branched out into directing — doing an outstanding job on his own script for Wind River. 

And now he is masterminding a television series, carrying out the mammoth task of both writing and directing all the episodes of Series 1 of Yellowstone.

The show is co-created by John Linson, and Linson wrote the first drafts of the first two episodes, which were then rewritten by Sheridan.

John is the son of Art Linson, a distinguished movie producer who has written two excellent and bitingly funny books about working in Hollywood.

I mention the Linsons because Taylor Sheridan used to work for them as an actor on their series Sons of Anarchy. And they fired him when he asked for a raise — which goes to show that, admirably, no grudges were held, or Yellowstone couldn't have happened.

Yellowstone is the name of the vast ranch in Montana owned by John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner. (The show is actually shot in magnificent locations in Utah.)

At first Dutton seems to be a noble, upright man. A multi-millionaire modern cowboy who is standing staunchly against the corrupt forces of the 21st Century...

Which are personified by Danny Huston as Dan Jenkins, a weaselly property developer. 

We applaud Dutton when he outwits Jenkins and prevents him building a vast housing development on the virgin land adjoining Dutton's ranch.

But it becomes evident that John Dutton is far from untarnished. This is emphatically brought home when he sends his enforcer, Rip (Cole Hauser) to murder someone who is making life difficult for him.

Indeed, it turns out John Dutton is pretty much Don Corleone on horseback, and Yellowstone is The Godfather on the Range.

At the heart of this engrossing, cut-throat saga is Dutton's tangled, indeed tormented, relationship with his children:

His son Jamie (Wes Bentley) who has been groomed as a legal and political fixer to protect his father's empire, but who is set to fall out with him in a spectacular fashion...

His hard drinking, hard nosed daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly), who has a lot of hilarious dialogue, and a truly tragic backstory.

And, most of all, his youngest son Kayce (Luke Grimes) who is a violent ex Navy SEAL who has forsaken his father and all his wealth to marry a Native American woman, Monica (Kelsey Asbille, who was also excellent in Wind River) and live on the reservation with her.

The reservation and the Native American population is an important presence in the show, spearheaded by Thomas Rainwater (played by Gil Birmingham, a regular collaborator of Sheridan's, who was terrific in both Hell or High Water and Wind River).

Rainwater embodies the watchful bitterness of the original Americans, who were slaughtered and had their land stolen out from under them by the likes of John Dutton.

And he is carefully plotting his revenge against Dutton. And with his political connections, and the wealth of a casino behind him, Rainwater may well prevail in this fascinating reworking of the classic Hollywood tale of cowboys versus Indians.

These description just scratch the surface of Yellowstone, which is dense with fascinating characters and situations and which crackles with intense drama, sudden violence, and dark humour.

It's currently my favourite TV series. Do check it out if you get the chance.

(Image credits: The main poster — chaps and Winchester, "original scripted series" — is from Pinterest. The bulk of the posters are from The Movie DB. The photo of Costner, Hauser and Taylor Sheirdan is from the BTS Look at Yellowstone on Youtube. The superb black and white photo of Nicole Sheridan and Taylor Sheridan is by Christian Anwander and is from a first rate feature on Sheridan at Esquire. The image of Costner looking from the right of the frame in profile is from The Daily Caller where they provide the welcome news that the second series is confirmed.)

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

Thomas Harris is my favourite living crime novelist... maybe my favourite living novelist. He writes slowly, sometimes a paragraph a day, sometimes nothing. 

So perhaps it isn't surprising, though it is frustrating, that it's taken 13 years for his new novel to arrive.

It was however, worth the wait. I've read some snotty reviews of Cari Mora, motivated by the fact there is nothing of Hannibal Lecter in this book. But I actually think it's all the better for that.

In fact I think this might be Harris's masterpiece. It's a short book — probably more like a novella in length. But it is beautifully, perfectly wrought.

The novel focuses on the woman named in the title. And Cari Mora is a magnificent character. Clearly Thomas Harris wants to write about people we can care about — love, even.
Towards the end of his spate of Hannibal Lecter novels, Harris started trying to humanise Lecter and justify him. Culminating in Hannibal Rising and some questionable results. 

But here he is starting with a clean slate, and a wonderful new character and we can care about Cari without restraint. As a result, this book is — despite the terrible things it depicts — more positive and life affirming than his previous ones. 

Once more we have the monster and maiden dichotomy, with a gruesome psychopathic killer pitted against a strong, compassionate heroine. The heroine in this case of course is Cari, a refugee with considerable experience of violence.
And the monster is Hans-Peter Schneider. Hans-Peter is a human trafficker — unlike Hannibal, a commercially motivated monster. And Cari is in his sights because she might expedite access to a fortune in gold.

For all its horrors, this is a sunnier tale than any of the Hannibal Lecter stories, both figuratively and literally — we're back in the Florida Harrison has so lovingly evoked before in portions of Red Dragon — but here it's the location for the entire book. 

And it's such a beautifully written book. Consider this description of the aftermath of an attack on a village by Marxist guerrillas:

"They had blown some walls off the schoolhouse and the wind was blowing through the strings of a burning piano, sighing, sighing and whining through the strings in the gusts that blew sheet music across the road."

I also adored the fact that Cari is an animal lover (as is Harris; see him here at a bird sanctuary and above, hugging a possum called Bruce) and animal life is a constant, splendidly evoked presence in the book. 

Like the cockatoo standing on Cari's wrist "eyeing her earrings" and who has a repertoire of salty phrases garnered from its "checkered life."

And did I mention that Harris is funny? But his humour sits in constant proximity to menace and potential mayhem: "The bedrooms were a piggish mess... The one made-up bed had some lewd comic books and the five parts of a field-stripped AK-47 scattered on it."

Of course Harris knows how many parts there are to an AK-47, and exactly how to assemble one, as he will show us on the next page. His research is exemplary.

Thomas Harris is the master of the super-charged policier. His sardonic tone, the brilliance of his prose, his supreme command of suspense and his gift for violent action were all, I believe, honed by his reading the works of John D. MacDonald.

(There is an echo of MacDonald's The Drowner in a terrifying moment in Cari Mora.)

Thomas Harris is John D. MacDonald's true successor in these regards and also in his concerns for animals and the environment, and his loving depiction of Florida.

Thank heavens Harris is still with us, and still writing. May he write many more novels. And perhaps even speed up a little...

(Image credits: The book covers — there are only two so far — are from Good Reads. The cover of The Drowner by John D. MacDonald is also from Good Reads. The photo of Thomas Harris in a blue blazer is by Robin Hill and is from Penguin. The other photos of Thomas Harris are by Rose Marie Cromwell and come from an excellent interview with Harris by Alexandra Alter in the New York Times. The AK-47 diagram is from Mouse Guns. The much more lovely white cockatoo is from Pinterest.)