Sunday 28 July 2019

Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer

Reading the plays of Agatha Christie, (such as Go Back for Murder) has got me digging into other classic stage mysteries and thrillers, like Ira Levin's Deathtrap...

And, like Ira Levin, Anthony Shaffer is a great admirer of Christie. In fact he calls her "the most revolutionary storyteller of our time."

Anthony Shaffer is the man who wrote Sleuth, a classic in this genre if ever there was one.

First staged in 1970, Sleuth ran for eight and a half years in London's West End, and for four and a half on Broadway.

According to Shaffer it only ended on Broadway because of the release of the movie. (As he observes, the film version didn't seem to deter British audiences.)

Sleuth is also one of only two non-musical stage shows to run over 2,000 performances in both New York and London. Interestingly, the other is Arsenic and Old Lace, also a dark comedy with murder in its heart.

Before Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer had written one stage play and co-written some crime novels with his identical twin brother, Peter, who by 1970 was already a world famous playwright, having written The Royal Hunt of the Sun, among others. Peter would go on to write Equus and Amadeus, two of my all time favourites.

Although Anthony didn't quite achieve a track record like his twin, Sleuth remains one of the great stage successes of the 20th Century. And another all time favourite of yours truly.

It's also a great title, so I was intrigued to learn that it didn't come easily — the play started life as Anyone for Tennis? which I think is somewhat weak and commonplace, and was briefly Deaths Put on by Cunning, a quote from Hamlet, which is evocative but unwieldy.

The script itself also underwent radical transformations. In its first draft Shaffer had included Andrew Wyke's wife and mistress as characters. The play just wasn't working, until he had the inspired notion of removing both the wife and mistress and making them merely offstage presences.

This is particularly interesting in view of Agatha Christie's own principle that a good stage mystery or thriller generally requires simplification — which often means removal of characters. In the case of adapting her own Hercule Poirot novels for the theatre, she invariably removed Poirot altogether!

Sleuth concerns the aforementioned Andrew Wyke, a successful mystery novelist, and Milo Tindall, who is having an affair with Wyke's wife. Wyke doesn't seem at all bothered by this — but is that really the way he feels? 

Some combative, and dangerous games-playing ensues — don't forget, Wyke specialises in fashioning murderous puzzles in his books...

I'm deliberately avoiding saying too much about the plot of Sleuth because I don't want to give away any of the dazzling surprises. But I should at least quote some of the shockingly funny dialogue. 

When Wyke convinces Milo to stage a fake break-in at his house, he insists on him doing so in disguise in case anyone sees him. Milo demands to know who's likely to be outside such an isolated country house. "A passing sheep rapist," suggests Wyke.

There's also a choice bit where Wyke badmouths his wife, who is of course Milo's lover, saying that she, "converses like a child of six, cooks like a Brightlingsea landlady, and makes love like a coelacanth."

(Brightlingsea is, or was, a dingy coastal town in Essex; a coelacanth is a prehistoric fish.)

Sleuth is imbued with a knowledge, and a love, of classic detective stories, populated as they were by brilliant, eccentric amateurs.

And it joyfully creates a clashing dissonance by slamming these tropes against the real world. 

As a police inspector remarks in the second act, "We may not have our pipes, or orchid houses, our shovel hats or deer-stalkers, but we tend to be reasonably effective."

The pipe and deer-stalker are Sherlock Holmes references. The orchid house belonged to Nero Wolfe. The shovel hat to Dr Gideon Fell

Sleuth is a work to stand beside these greats in the genre.

In 2001 Anthony Shaffer could gleefully assert that there was a production of Sleuth being performed somewhere in the world every day since it first appeared.

If there is one near you, I'd urge you to go and see it.

Failing that, get hold of the play script and read it.

Failing that, you might want to see the 1972 film. But avoid the 2007 film like the plague. It's adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter but is a dreadful aberration. 

But that's another story, for another post.

(Image credits: The Bantam movie tie in and the Marion Boyars edition with the black and orange cover are scanned from my own library. The other covers, including one apparently in Farsi, are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 21 July 2019

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death is the 19th Hercule Poirot novel, published in 1938.

It is one of Christie's greatest stories — one of her most original and ingenious set-ups, a truly powerful situation with fascinating, indelible characterisation. 

It is not, however, one of her greatest novels, for a very surprising reason —  which, like Poirot, I will save for a revelation at the very end of this piece.

Certainly the novel has a superb, arresting opening with Hercule Poirot in his hotel in Jerusalem, overhearing a fragment of conversation drifting in through his window:

"You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?"

"The question floated out into the still night air, seemed to hang there a moment and then drift away down into the darkness towards the Dead Sea."

Fantastic stuff, and beautifully written. Certainly one of Christie's best ever beginnings.

And the story just gets better as we're introduced to the Boynton family, a group of young American tourists who are ruled with an iron hand by their elderly "hippopotamus" of a mother.

Old Mrs Boynton turns out to be a "mental sadist" — she loves inflicting mental torment on her children who, despite being adults, are all still under her thumb. 

They all "depend on her financially" (like the family of Gordon Cloade in Taken at the Flood), but it's more than that.

Mrs Boynton is like something out of Stephen King, a "hulk of shapeless flesh, with her evil, gloating eyes."

Christie reveals her to have once been a wardress (i.e. female warden) of a prison. It makes perfect sense. Indeed, it was the ideal job for her — she "became a wardress because she loved tyranny."

Retired now, Mrs Boynton dominates and intimidates her family the way she once did her prisoners. (In fact, effectively they are her prisoners.) 

And she bullies them not physically but psychologically (psychology is a major feature of the novel).

So it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the old hippopotamus is soon bumped off (by lethal injection — hence the syringes which feature on the various covers here) and Poirot is duly enlisted to bring his "highly specialised services" to bear.

In his classic manner, he gathers the various interested parties together at the end of the book, and there is considerable excitement and pleasure as he enumerates the features of the case and ponders who might be guilty.

The slow, inexorable discussion of the possibilities, and the sifting of the suspects, creates almost unbearable suspense. 

And I never could have guessed the final revelation...

But I was, for the first time reading a Christie, disappointed by it.

And that was because I'd previously read the stage play which Christie had adapted from the book — which features a different culprit.

And the solution in the play is truly stunning, reinforcing the central situation and themes of the story in the way that the ending of the novel doesn't.

I believe Christie herself sensed this weakness and that's why she came up with a better ending for the play — and how.

Don't hesitate to read the novel of Appointment with Death. It's fine. But once you've done so — or even before you do so —  get hold of the play and read that.

The denouement is a knockout. One of her best ever.

(Image credits: The covers of the various editions are from the admirable GoodReads except for the fab front and back cover of the Dell Map Back edition which are from Flickr. and the poster for the play is from Foothill Theatre.)

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.)