Sunday 25 January 2015

Colonel Sun by Kingsley Amis

In my continuing project to read, or re-read, all the fiction of Kingsley Amis, I was particularly looking forward to getting to his James Bond pastiche, Colonel Sun (written under the pseudonym Robert Markham). And I wasn't disappointed. Amis was a genuine Bond fan (just like he genuinely loved science fiction) and he approached the task of penning a post-Fleming 007 novel with respect, love and knowledge. For example, although Amis personally hated Bond's boss M, he is smart enough and fair-minded enough to understand that Bond loves M and write accordingly.

In his earlier novels Amis was accustomed to the sedate pace and minimal plotting of literary fiction so it's impressive to see how effectively he adapts to the need of a high octane thriller. By page 23 of Colonel Sun, M  has been abducted and his household staff murdered. And Bond himself is about to be given an incapacitating injection ("Keep your feet quite still and lower your trousers") and taken prisoner. Our hero escapes, but not before he's injected and there is a great sequence as the drug takes hold while he flees ("he had forgotten everything except the necessity to take the next stride, and the next...").

And, this being 1968, when he stumbles into a police station and receives medical attention, the first thing the doctor does is give Bond a cigarette: "He drew the life-giving smoke deep into his lungs." Given that cigarettes killed Ian Fleming — and didn't do Amis much good — "life-giving" is coming it a bit strong. What's more, in a subsequent meeting when someone has the temerity to ask to open a window to remove some of the metric ton of cigarette smoke hovering in the room, Bond observes "hatred of tobacco was a common psychopathic symptom, from which Hitler among others had been a notable sufferer." And later on Bond's "cigarette tasted wonderful." Of course. Bond ain't no psychopathic tobacco-hater. One begins to speculate that the book might have been partly sponsored by Morland of Grosvenor Street, 007's tobacconist.

Traces of the drug linger in Bond's system, giving an unreal tinge to things, allowing Amis to display his superb gift for disturbing off-kilter surrealism: Bond has the feeling that M's empty house is a "derelict stage set... if he got up and pushed his hand at the wall, what was supposed to be stone would belly inward, like canvas." But the agreeable lightning pace of the novel continues and by page 46 the story shifts to Greece, where M is being held captive, and Bond is soon in Athens (where Amis describes the "calm permanence of the ancient buildings") to track him down.

Kingsley Amis had studied the Bond novels closely — he wrote a book about them — and he has fun with Fleming's tics and tropes and clichés. Amis's is affectionately parodying Bond's creator when he describes not only "firm, dry" handshakes — naturally Bond abhors, limp, wet ones; don't we all? — but also (in Chapter 7) a "firm dry" kiss.

Amis's own gift for description is sharpened by his project to emulate Fleming's vivid concision. So the heroine of the book, Ariadne, has memorable "sherry-coloured eyes". There is also the sensual appreciation of food; "they ate a meal of black olives, fresh bread, delicious plum-shaped tomatoes, sliced raw onion and manouri cheese, followed by peaches and tiny sweet seedless grapes." And drink: "Bond savoured the smooth ferocity of the vodka" (Stolichnaya, in case you're interested).

Incidentally, Ariadne is a terrific Bond girl. Gorgeous, with an interestingly complex background — she is a loyal communist, and the political aspects of the book are deft and convincing, as is all the Russian detail. (I suspect input here from Amis's friend Robert Conquest, who was an expert on such matters.) The impressive Ariadne is also able in a pinch to employ a tommy gun with deadly efficiency — "It was just like you said... vibration and a pull to the right, but mostly I hit him."

Intriguingly, Amis is ahead of the literary spy genre by some decades. At the height of the Cold War he wrote this novel in which the bad guy is not Russian, but Chinese. In fact, the Russians are Bond's allies here. Even more intriguingly, China was also the enemy in Amis's own 'straight' spy novel The Anti Death League. And, being an unreconstructed Fleming-style Bond novel, we get racist references to the Chinese and talk of a "yellow faced devil" (Colonel Sun himself).

The Anti Death League is also referenced in a clever hint about tactical nuclear weapons — "'Atomics," said Bond grimly. 'Close support type'." — which turns out to be a total red herring.

The need to be faithful to Fleming has an interesting, bracing, and wholly positive effect on Amis's prose. The heightened sensuality of the proceedings goes beyond an appetitive appreciation of food and sex. It even colours the descriptions — quite literally. 

In his "own" books Amis tends to flat, uninspired monochromatic descriptions (except of course when he's being funny). But here we have "Steel-coloured water, lightly touched with the lilac of the opening dawn" and "fantastic horizontal bands of igneous rock, black lava, porous white and yellow tufa, harder, more violently coloured strata of crimson, royal purple, seaweed-green."  You certainly don't get this richness of evocation in One Fat Englishman. Amis is having fun in Colonel Sun and it shows — and communicates itself to the reader.

Great descriptions abound. Bond receives a disabling blow and "The muscles of his upper arms seemed to turn to thin streams of cold mud." Or we find a giant granite slab on the volcanic island, "canted like the deck of a foundering stone ship." As Bond tells M that his housekeepers have been murdered, "M... flung up a hand in an odd and touching gesture, as if to ward off a blow." (The latter is also a surprisingly moving moment, in which reality enters this world of lurid melodrama for an instant.)

And just as Ariadne is a top notch Bond heroine, the eponymous Colonel Sun is a genuinely first rate Bond villain, with a philosophical and metaphysical basis for his (very scary) sadism. The torture scene is genuinely hair raising and almost unbearable, even though we know that Bond must survive — and triumph.

Colonel Sun is an enthralling thriller. And Amis has genuinely absorbed the lessons of Ian Fleming; we see this most clearly in the way the pace of the novel accelerates towards the end; a hallmark of vintage Bond. (If you ever want a lesson in pace and compression, read the end of Goldfinger.)

The book does have some weaknesses. In one scene there's sloppy uncertainty about just who the hell is in the room (again, oddly reminiscent of The Anti Death League). In another there's a sudden and jarring shift of narrative viewpoint (from Bond to Ariadne). And, considerably worse, the ending involves Bond escaping thanks to the deus ex machina intervention of a character we've seen too little of earlier. But these don't torpedo what is a fine Bond adventure, carefully planned and told vividly and with great gusto.

In achieving what he set out do so successfully with Colonel Sun, Kingsley Amis proved himself to be an outstanding literary craftsman. He also wrote what will I suspect will stand as the best non-Fleming Bond novel for a long time to come. This is partly because Amis was so close to the source, loved the original so honestly, and lived in a world which was still the world of 007 and Ian Fleming.

But it's also because Kingsley Amis was such a bloody good writer.

(Image credits: As usual, the bulk of the covers are from Good Reads. But the Coronet edition with the red cover and the Bantam are from the excellent Piz Gloria. The text free Frank McCarthy Bantam painting is from Good Comics. The original Andy Walker art work for the red Coronet is from Illustrated 007. The glorious Tom Adams original art for the Cape hardcover is from Absolutely James Bond. The intriguing — Chinese devil mask? — Australian book club hard cover is from The Quietus. Incidentally, the best site for Pan Fleming cover images is Cats Paw Dynamics.)

Sunday 18 January 2015

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It's difficult to express the depth of my admiration for Gone Girl. I've already written about the film. Now it's time to concentrate on where it all started, the novel by Gillian Flynn. ("Gillian" is pronounced with a hard "G" — I just thought you should know.)

This novel is dark — it explores some very twisted realms of psychology, like a magnificent modern take on a classic James M. Cain noir (think of the end of Double Indemnity — the book I mean, not the movie; they're radically different). 

Gone Girl is a fantastically engrossing book. Even more than James Cain, it reminds me of John D. MacDonald, like a vintage Travis McGee tale where the hero begins to unravel the chilling background of the implacable psychopath — the cumulative creation of a most memorable monster.

Quite apart from being superbly plotted, it is also beautifully written. It's full of sharp observation: "Sleep is like a cat: It only comes if you ignore it." And vivid evocation: "The canned heat of a closed house in July shimmered over me." Or: "A jet shot over the house, that awful sky-rip noise."

And then there's the way Flynn nails people. Like the white trash couple who are "meth-weathered." And the bawdy girl who is brought to life thus: "She laughed a pirate-wench laugh." Or consider this unfortunate: "She already has the righteous, eye rolling cadence of a conspiracy crackpot. She might as well wrap her head in foil." (As you can see, Flynn is also often very funny.)

As you may know, the book is as much about media scrutiny — the feeding frenzy of the press — as it is about a murder. And this brings out some of Flynn's finest moments. Here she is describing what it feels like to be under siege by the press: "The seagull cries of a few female news anchors" ... "Once the shades were pulled, it was like covering a canary for the night. The noise out front stopped."

Not since the masterworks of Thomas Harris have I come across a novel which is both so brilliantly conceived and beautifully written. "I could feel my brain expand and deflate simultaneously — my own cerebral Hitchcock zoom." (Gillian Flynn is here referring to a dolly zoom — those unforgettable moments when they zoom in and pull back the camera simultaneously. You know exactly what she means.)

And it is a very acute piece of writing psychologically — "now that she was gone I could enjoy the idea of her." Particularly on the subject of marriage, where the book throws up some deeply unsettling observations: "Our kind of love can go into remission."

It's amazing the grip Gone Girl has on the reader. I was furious, outraged, sick with dread, even though I knew what was going to happen (as a result of seeing the movie). It's almost unbearable to read as Nick gets in deeper and deeper...

Now having both seen the movie and read the book I am tremendously impressed at how they adapted it into a film. Because although all the essentials are the same, there are also huge differences. If you want a masterclass in turning a novel into a motion picture, then study this. (On the other hand, if you want to see how to turn a novel into a TV show, check out The Slap.) 

It's positively breathtaking, what Gillian Flynn and David Fincher have achieved; the diligence with which they boiled down, re-structured and re-emphasised the book is deeply impressive. They have also set about a ruthless winnowing of the book's secondary characters.

My single complaint (I have to have one): Abbreviating a character's name from the proper noun "Margo" to the presumed verb "Go" is as confusing on the page as it was on the screen. Budding authors beware.

(Image credits: All these covers are from Good Reads, including the Czech edition. I love the Czechs — they've just bought my novel.)

Sunday 11 January 2015

Spartacus by Steven DeKnight

One of my favourite television dramas of recent years was Rome, the brainchild of Bruno Heller, the talented writer who went on to create The Mentalist. Heller had to go on to create the Mentalist because, sadly, Rome only lasted two series. This was due to shortsighted executives at the BBC who cancelled it when their bean-counters calculated that the show wasn't successful enough to justify its budget. 

So they axed Rome, just as DVD sales were going through the roof. And they discovered, to their horror, that they'd killed off a hit show. (In an interview Charles Dance — star of both Rome and Game of Thrones — was asked if the BBC could have produced Game of Thrones. "They would have cancelled it after two series," he said.)

But the spirit of Rome lives on, most unexpectedly, in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This American/Antipodean co-production comes on like a Mickey Spillane rewrite of Rome. It's pulp fiction — crude, energetic, lurid and wonderfully prurient. Full of sex, nudity and bone-crunching, blood-spattering violence, subtle it ain't.

Originally I started watching it as a guilty pleasure, not taking it very seriously. But as I worked my way through the first series I was startled to discover that it is a superbly constructed, beautifully written show. Vivid characterisation and deft manipulation of simple, powerful situations make for entirely gripping and addictive viewing.

And although it's a low-brow, exploitation drama compared to Rome, it is also in some ways more profound and serious. Spartacus is a story inherently slanted from the slaves' point of view and, as such, it manages to powerfully convey the evil of Roman society and institutions in a way its more sophisticated predecessor never achieved. As an indictment of the institution of slavery, it easily eclipses 12 Years a Slave.

The (tragically) late Andy Whitfield plays Spartacus, leading a strong cast which includes John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as the lascivious, conniving and lavishly immoral couple who run the gladiator academy where our hero is imprisoned. Lawless is a revelation — uninhibited and often terrifying in an all-stops-out performance. It's hard to believe she was once that nice Xena the Warrior Princess girl.

Spartacus is, in many ways, the spawn of Xena — starring Lawless, produced by Sam Raimi and featuring music by Joseph LoDuca, all from that series. But really Spartacus is the spawn of Steven DeKnight, the American writer and veteran of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Smallville, who created this terrific series. And we should also take note of Daniel Knauf, who created the intriguing series Carnivàle, and wrote some outstanding episodes of Spartacus.

I need to leaven my praise just a little, though. If Spartacus has an Achilles heel (excuse me mixing Roman and Greek mythology), it's the dialogue. In their attempts to invent stuff that sounds suitably ancient, the writers occasionally come up with gibberish. 

Their verbal contortions turn nonsensical, and sometimes end up reversing the very meaning of a sentence — "He never ceases to tire of the games" is my current favourite. This sort of tosh would never have been permitted in Bruno Heller's Rome.

But that's a small point. Here's the big picture... Spartacus is a heady mix. Stunning, transgressive and beautifully done. It's magnificently constructed, a model of television screenwriting. Minimal, powerful, extremely dramatic and a masterpiece of clarity — all the characters' motivations are strong and clear, and everything makes sense. It shows what a great chef (Steven DeKnight — and his writing team) can do with simple ingredients. It's a classic.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Movie Poster DB.)

Sunday 4 January 2015

Best Films of 2014

I am going to nominate 14 movies as the best of 2014 (I realise this tendency can't continue year after year, or we'll end up with very lengthy lists. But I just couldn't cut it down to 12 or even 13, like last year.)

First, the movies that almost made the cut... I was a little reluctant to lose Starred Up, but there was another Jack O'Connell vehicle in the list, and it has the edge. (Just.) And David Ayer's Sabotage deserves recognition for its furious, ruthless darkness of tone and uncompromising blood-thirstiness. But there's another Ayer film, very near the top of this year's honours... 

Then The Purge: Anarchy missed out because there is an even better low budget American thriller high on my list. Guardians of the Galaxy was sheer oddball pleasure and in a weaker field would have received recognition. And mention must be made of Peter Jackson's last two Hobbit movies (Smaug and, especially, Five Armies)...

Okay, so on to the list proper. We will begin at the bottom of the ladder and work our way to the top spot. Let's start with a really unlikely nomination at number 14. Robocop. Yes, I loved the original, but this remake has virtues all its own. Veronica Mars had to be included due to my sheer love of the TV show. It also helped that Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggerio did a great job. I seem to be alone in recognising the brilliance of Aronofsky's Noah, but brilliant it is.

'71 by Burke and Demange was the other Jack O'Connell picture which, despite some flaws, demands recognition. Then comes a real surprise, The Judge was a family drama and courtroom thriller with a strong line of comedy, beautifully played by Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. It vanished without a trace, but I loved it despite a weak ending. Co-written by Nick Schenk, who also worked on Gran Torino.

Then we have Charlie Countryman, a beautiful, touching, oddball little movie which also happens to be a great comedy and a gripping thriller with an outstanding cast. And David Cronenberg (who had bored me beyond belief with Cosmopolis) surprised and gratified me with a terrific left-field entry, the savage Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars written by Bruce Wagner.

Now we come to my real favourites. Edge of Tomorrow. Who would have thought a Tom Cruise SF shoot-em-up could be so wonderful? And then the James Brown biopic Get On Up which had a script by the Butterworth brothers, who also worked on Edge of Tomorrow.

From this point on, we are looking at strong candidates for the number one spot. Hovering just under that top honour are David Fincher and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (based on Flynn's novel); the dark and delightful nightmare-thriller The Guest by Barrett and Wingard (which eclipsed The Purge: Anarchy) and David Ayer's hellishly majestic war movie Fury, which knocked his Sabotage into the long grass. I'd put all this trio together in a very honourable third place — but if I had to chose my favourite among them, it would be Gone Girl.

In at number 2, and closely contending for the very top honour, is a real dark horse, a low budget one-man movie called Locke, starring the superb Tom Hardy and written and directed by Steven Knight.

But the best film of 2014, by a country mile, was Wolf of Wall Street. A magnificent return to form by Scorsese this movie, written by Terence Winter (who also created Boardwalk Empire) was unhinged, sulphurous, brilliant, hilarious and sexy. Just writing about it makes me want to see it again. 
(Image credits: the posters are from Ace Show Biz, except The Guest, which is from The Consulting Detective.)