Friday, July 19, 2024

the last book I read

The Tiger In The Smoke by Margery Allingham.

Meg Elginbrodde has just received a couple of photographs of her husband, supposedly taken quite recently, in London. Nothing so very unusual about that, you might say, but it's a bit unexpected in this particular case as Martin Elginbrodde's last known location was understood to have been scattered over a wide area somewhere in France during World War II. 

So what's happened? Have his discorporated remains been re-assembled in a vat somewhere? Well, it's not really that sort of novel, so no. Have rumours of his death been exaggerated? Well, maybe, but if so there are some pressing questions, most notably: where's he been for the past several years? And where does this leave Meg's current fiancé, Geoffrey Levett?

Meg is a sensible girl, so she realises this is probably someone faking seeing, or even being, Martin for some reason; but why? Fortunately she just happens to be the cousin of the famous amateur sleuth Albert Campion, who in turn has lots of contacts in the police, so she is easily able to gather a posse of people to help her out when the time comes to meet the mysterious photo-sender to find out what he wants. 

The whole rendezvous doesn't really go as planned; while Campion and his Met sidekick Chief Inspector Luke want her to engage discreetly with her contact and allow them to get a good look at him, she instead spots him (still looking like her husband) from across a railway station concourse, shouts at him and causes him to scarper. An odd thing for him to do if he was actually Martin Elginbrodde, you might say, and you'd be right, as once he's been collared it turns out he's a known wrong 'un called Duds Morrison wearing a false moustache, and, more bizarrely, a distinctive old jacket that really did used to belong to Martin.

So how did Duds get hold of the jacket? And what did he hope to gain by impersonating Martin? Well, he isn't telling during the brief period the police can hold him before having to release him (wearing a false 'tache not technically being a crime), and he isn't telling in a more permanent way shortly afterwards as he turns up bludgeoned to death in an alleyway. 

So what's going on? Who offed Duds? How did he come by the jacket? What's Geoffrey - who seems to have disappeared - up to? How is old Mrs. Cash, who has connections to Meg's family but also seems to be a bit of a shady character on the quiet, involved in all this? And what's going on with the motley band of musicians who parade around the town in military uniforms and seem to have been in suspicious proximity to the scene of Duds' murder?

Well, the answer to the Geoffrey question is that he was with Duds when he died, having chased him down the alley in a bid to get some information out of him about the whole Martin Elginbrodde thing. That meant that he got in the way of Duds' assailants - the Army band - and therefore had to be kidnapped to ensure he couldn't identify any of them, so he's been trussed up like a turkey in their basement hideout while they try and work out what to do next. 

The point of all this, it turns out, is that the band all served together in the army, along with Martin Elginbrodde, and took part in a shady black-ops mission somewhere in France to rub out a couple of key enemy agents. The actual rubbing out was done by Jack Havoc, another ex-army colleague and a bit of a dab hand with the old killing. Moreover, Havoc has just escaped from prison after they foolishly entrusted him to a psychiatrist for an evaluation, whereupon he killed him and exited via the window (probably a bit like this). The band are aware that there is some treasure to be retrieved from the house in France where the mission took place, but only Havoc knows the details, and even he doesn't know some key facts.

Sure enough Jack Havoc arrives in the hideout, takes charge of the group and reveals some more details - the nature and location of the treasure were known to Martin Elginbrodde, and he made arrangements to have the information passed to Meg in the event of his death and her getting married again. The actual information resides in some documents which Martin wrote and which Jack means to get his hands on before Meg does the deed. Needless to say Geoffrey, at this point, realises he's in a lot of trouble.

Meanwhile Albert Campion's finely-tuned detectival instincts have led him to smell a rat regarding the Army band and to arrange to pay a call (with the police in tow) to their lodgings, a basement under a shop. They don't have any sort of warrant or any reason to detain the band, who soon make themselves scarce, but a snoop around soon reveals Geoffrey Levett, bound and gagged in a corner.

Good news for Geoffrey, but Jack Havoc remains at large, and fiercely focused on getting to the treasure. Meanwhile Martin's document comes to light - guarded by an old friend of the family until what he deemed to be the right moment to hand it over - and Geoffrey, Campion, Campion's wife Amanda, and Meg, now in possession of the treasure's location, head off to France to find it. 

So, all's well that ends well, then? Well, not quite, as Jack Havoc is still at large, and as well as being a bit stabby is also a shrewd and resourceful guy. Meg's father, Canon Avril, has his number, though, and has twigged that he is in fact old Mrs. Cash's no-good son and a childhood acquaintance of Meg's. Fat lot of good that does him, though, as Jack administers a (for once, non-fatal) stabbing, extracts the location of the treasure and heads off to rustle up a boat to take him across the Channel, with Chief Inspector Luke in hot pursuit. And so the scene is set for all parties to converge on the abandoned clifftop house where the treasure is secreted, and to discover what it is, who's going to get to go home with it, and who isn't going to get to go home at all.

The Tiger In The Smoke is actually the first of the "couple of slim paperbacks" I coyly alluded to here after I picked them up from the shelves in the Acton Trussell village hall. I'd vaguely heard of Margery Allingham before, and I was vaguely aware that there'd been a TV series based on the Campion series, starring ex-Dr Who Peter Davison as Campion. That series adapted eight of the eighteen books in the series that were published during Allingham's lifetime, but didn't include The Tiger In The Smoke (the fourteenth in the series, published in 1952). In many ways, despite it being highly-regarded by many, this isn't that surprising, as a) it's not really an orthodox whodunit and b) Campion himself is a very peripheral character in it. That said, he does provide the single most significant moment of deduction in the whole book, i.e. the realisation that the Army band are the people responsible for Duds' death, a realisation that almost certainly saves Geoffrey Levett's life.

The chapters set in the underground lair while the gang try to work out what to do next and await Jack Havoc's arrival are genuinely thrilling, and there is a significant dissipation of tension when the police come calling and Geoffrey is rescued. This is a good 60-plus pages from the end of the book, though, and at this point the story changes into a somewhat different kind of story as the main characters zoom off to France for a treasure hunt. This is all fine, but structurally it's a bit odd, and Jack Havoc's eventual (apparent) demise is a bit unsatisfactory - basically he's very tired after all his nefarious activities and rather disappointed at the nature of the treasure (i.e. nothing he can nick and sell on for a fortune) and so he slinks off down a drainage ditch to avoid the police and eventually jumps off a cliff. Um, what?

Anyway, it's all good fun and has some sly humour and some atmospheric descriptions of post-war, pre-Clean Air Act London interwoven with all the robbing and murdering. Jack Havoc is an intriguing villain, and Allingham is a much better writer of prose than some of her crime-writing contemporaries (Agatha Christie, for instance). As an aside it's interesting to note that the country legend of the same name didn't release his first records until 1955, and so this short paragraph wouldn't have seemed as oddly jarring  as it does now.

The Tiger In The Smoke was made into a film, Tiger In The Smoke, in 1956. The Wikipedia page says that the film omits the "principal character" of Albert Campion, but actually, as I said above, he's not really that crucial to the plot at all. It is also the second book in this series to have a title of the form The X In The Y, the other being The Catcher In The Rye.

Monday, July 08, 2024

lookeylikey slash headline of the day

Is it just me who has trouble parsing this headline I saw the other day?

OK, so let's start at the beginning: "I'm a Wimbledon champion marrying fan" - well, OK so you're a fan; I might have hyphenated "Wimbledon champion-marrying" or even "Wimbledon-champion-marrying" just to make it clearer, but let's carry on ... wait, now the rest of the sentence doesn't make sense.

Back up all the way to the beginning and it becomes clear that the starting "I'm" relates to "champion" rather than "fan", and that it was the fan who stopped the champion for a selfie. It didn't help that I initially read "help run tennis" as "help ruin tennis", but that's the fault of my appalling age-related vision deterioration, not the headline writers. 

It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that assuming "fan" to be the subject of the first line is the more natural reading. It would really only have taken the addition of an "a" before "fan" to flip the default reading around, though. I'm not sure whether this is more properly classified as a garden-path sentence or a noun pile-up, or maybe even a crash blossom.

Anyway, the actual story relates to 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza, the only player to defeat each of the Williams sisters in Grand Slam finals, and, and I hesitate to say this these days for fear of being LITERALLY CANCELLED, possessor of a very lovely pair of legs. The guy she was accosted by for a selfie in New York just happens to be a top model who was working for Tom Ford at the time, just in case you want to calculate your chances of being able to successfully pull off a similar manoeuvre on the top tennis star of your choice without getting your ass tased and ending up with an ASBO.

Anyway. it also struck me while looking through some photos of Muguruza for, hem hem, "research purposes" that she looks a bit like Imogen Heap, who I see I used the phrase "strange equine beauty" in connection with here, and also compared with Ronni Ancona. I actually think the Muguruza-Heap resemblance is closer, but I include all three anyway; make up your own mind.

Monday, July 01, 2024

the last book I read

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson.

Kumiko Yanaka is just like any normal teenager, really: Snapchatting, squeezing spots, being hastily packed off to London by her father, a high-ranking yakuza boss, lest she become a kidnapping (or worse) target in the gang war that's about to break out in Japan. 

Kumiko ends up in the house of, and under the protection of, one Roger Swain, apparently indebted to her father and therefore motivated to keep her safe, but to an external observer a bit of a dodgy-seeming character himself, and with a few other suspicious characters on his payroll, notably Sally Shears, who gets assigned the job of keeping an eye on Kumiko. Sally has mirrored lens implants instead of eyes and a general air of simmering dangerousness, and of being a bit of a loose cannon not necessarily inclined to do Swain's exact bidding.

Meanwhile, in a warehouse in a former landfill site in New Jersey, Slick Henry and his mates are taking a delivery - not your usual couple of Amazon parcels, this one is a comatose man shackled to, and wired into, a giant block of computer hardware.

Meanwhile, in a beach house in Malibu, Angie Mitchell, the world's foremost simstim star (basically immersive virtual reality films), is having some time to herself after getting off a pretty brutal drug habit, and contemplating a return to film-making.

Meanwhile, Mona lies in bed in her slum bedroom in Florida after another hard day getting pimped out to various punters by her boyfriend, Eddy. It's grim and dangerous work, but it pays the rent, and her recounting the tales of what the punters make her get up to is the only way old Eddy can get it up these days.

So if you've been paying attention, and have ever read a book before, you'll expect that these threads will start to come together and interweave as the story progresses. Now read on, etc.

So firstly Eddy returns very excited from a meeting with a prospective business associate: he's made a deal for a substantial amount of money and all Mona has to do is travel to this private clinic and submit to a full medical examination, all strictly above board and definitely not suspicious at all. 

Readers who are doing things in the prescribed order and have read Neuromancer and Count Zero will already know Angie Mitchell from Count Zero - daughter of a prominent bioscientist who fitted her with some state-of-the-art cranial bio-implants (which enable her to access cyberspace without having to plug any wires into anything) before arranging her escape from the clutches of the mega-corporation he was employed by. Unfettered access to cyberspace turns out to be a two-way street, though, and Angie is plagued by visitations from various self-aware AI entities which appear to take the form of Haitian voodoo gods.

In a further echo of Count Zero, the comatose guy entrusted to Slick's care turns out to be Bobby Newmark, Count Zero himself and Angie's former boyfriend. And in a callback to Neuromancer, Sally Shears turns out to be that book's principal female protagonist Molly Millions. The fate of her ex-partner Case, expert cyber-jockey and Neuromancer's other main protagonist, is unclear.

That's all very cute, but what's actually going on? Well, Mona's visit to the mysterious clinic provides a clue - she wakes up after surgery to find that she's been surgically altered - some face work, new teeth, new tits - to resemble Angie Mitchell. But why? Barely any time to contemplate this as Sally Shears arrives, beats the shit out of various medical people and the goons minding Mona, and bundles her into a car. Not long after this, following some more ass-kicking courtesy of Sally, Mona is joined by the actual Angie Mitchell and they speed off to a rendezvous in New Jersey, guided by Angie's voodoo gods. They arrive shortly after some other interested parties - interested specifically in Bobby Newmark and the entity he's wired into - arrive and start killing people. Fortunately Angie has special connections both to the voodoo entities and to Bobby, and equally fortunately Sally/Molly is a one-woman ass-kicking machine, and the other parties are swiftly rubbed out, in time for some stuff to play out which might give a small amount of insight into What The Hell Is Going On.

So: Bobby has been using his bespoke cyberspace rig to investigate the appearance of a new and mysterious entity in cyberspace - the rig having been acquired, not entirely legitimately, from the legendary and insane Tessier-Ashpool family, whose sole survivor, 3Jane, a wholly cyberspace entity these days following the demise of her physical self, has taken the whole thing quite badly and hatched plans for various acts of revenge, including the kidnap of Angie Mitchell and the planting of Mona's body (augmented to look like Angie) to make it look as if she'd died. At the same time the voodoo entities (you'll remember I'm sure that these are the avatars of the various fragmentary remains of the merged single AI that was created at the end of Neuromancer) have become aware of the new artifact and have concluded that it is the handiwork of yet another AI, this one a representative of a wholly alien civilisation. Bobby and Angie, now freed from their physical bodies, head off within cyberspace to seek out the new arrivals.

This is the third book in the Sprawl trilogy (or the Neuromancer trilogy, take your pick). Standard sequelitis means it isn't as good as either of its predecessors, largely because the plot doesn't really make sense. In particular, while the alien incursion into cyberspace is easy enough to grasp (it's a theme used, with a twist, in a few other works including Excession), the whole thing about the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and the nature of the Tessier-Ashpool family's involvement is just baffling (especially since, as this lengthy analysis points out, the whole bit involving planting Mona's body assumes a future world where DNA analysis doesn't exist). Sure, it gives Sally/Molly an excuse to kick some ass, and maybe that's good enough. Kumiko's role is all a bit confusing as well, being seemingly just required to facilitate the stitching together of some otherwise unrelated plot strands but not otherwise actually, you know, do anything.

The beauty of Gibson's writing, though, is that this doesn't particularly matter. Again, like Count Zero, this is more of a wham-bam futuristic thriller than Neuromancer, with much less focus on the inner-space world of the cyber-jockeys, but that's fine. As always, if you start with Neuromancer and then just read as many of the sequels as you feel inclined to, that'd be fine. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

the last book I read

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.

So there's this woman, erm ... *checks notes* ... Charlotte Gray. Daughter of a First World War veteran, with whom she has a slightly prickly relationship, keen to help out with the Allied war effort now that it's 1942 and the Second World War is in full swing but a bit removed from the action in her native Scotland. 

So she relocates to London, that being the centre of the war effort, and takes a job at a doctor's surgery. It's not long before opportunities of various kinds come her way, though, largely through the time-honoured route of meeting people at parties: firstly a man called Cannerley who has some connections with the shady G Section who seem to organise clandestine activities in France, and secondly Peter Gregory, an RAF pilot, haunted by the loss of most of his friends over the past few years but still seemingly keen to conduct a daring sortie, all guns blazing, into Charlotte's knickers. 

Charlotte happens to be fluent in French after spending a lot of time there during her childhood, a thing that for obvious reasons is of intense interest to Cannerley and his organisation. After a few discreet meetings Charlotte is inducted into the organisation and given an initial mission: parachute into the occupied part of France, make contact with some local representatives of the Resistance and distribute some vital radio components. At the same time Peter Gregory is being given some orders of his own for an airborne mission into France.

Peter's mission starts first and Charlotte soon gets some bad news: he's gone missing. She decides that the best thing to do is get on with her own mission and see if she can locate him while she's over there. So after some rudimentary spy training (basically: don't do this) and some equally rudimentary parachute training (open door, jump out, try not to die) Charlotte finds herself jumping out of a plane and making contact with some people in the village of Lavaurette, including Julien Levade (codename Octave) who leads the Resistance operation. His father, a semi-retired painter, provides some cover for Charlotte (now going by the name Dominique) by employing her as a housekeeper in his rambling old mansion on the outskirts of the village.

Charlotte conducts various side quests while she's staying in Lavaurette, including travelling as far as Limoges to deliver some vital radio parts, all the while keeping an ear out for news of the fate of Peter Gregory. Charlotte's calmness and efficiency gain the respect of her Resistance colleagues and her superiors in London, but then Shit Gets Real as the flimsy pretence of the independence of the Vichy regime is crushed and the Nazis roll into town, bringing with them a ramping up of the existing regime of rounding up Jews and deporting them. This includes the parents of local boys André and Jacob, the boys subsequently being hidden by the Resistance in various locations around the village, but also old man Levade, betrayed by some weaselly local collaborators. After an I ASK ZE KVESTIONS show-trial at the Levade house the old man is carted off and loaded onto a train, while the local police are charged with guarding Julien and Charlotte. Julien facilitates Charlotte's escape, kills the collaborator and then flees into hiding. Charlotte, meanwhile, heads for Paris, partly with the intention of making contact with someone who can facilitate her return to England, but also partly to attempt to intercept André and Jacob, who were inevitably discovered by the Gestapo and taken away.

Peter Gregory, meanwhile, is alive and mostly well, though limping a bit after breaking his leg parachuting into a tree. By extraordinary good luck he was rescued by some people sympathetic to the Allied cause, and by further extraordinary good luck (his French being rudimentary at best) they manage to arrange his transit to Marseille where he meets up with some English-speaking contacts and is spirited back to England by a circuitous route traversing North Africa.

Charlotte makes contact with her man in Paris and arranges her transport back to England; she also visits the internment camp at Drancy where most of the deportees from the village are held, but the massive industrial scale of the operation prevents her from seeing any of the individuals she's looking out for, still less effecting some sort of daring rescue. With ruthless inevitability the process grinds on to its conclusion, with the internees either dying en route to the death camps (as old man Levade does) or surviving the trip only to then be exterminated in the gas chambers (as André and Jacob are).

Charlotte returns to London to be debriefed by G Section and mildly scolded for exceeding the terms of her original mission, and to be tearfully reunited with (and subsequently de-briefed by, oy oy) Peter Gregory. 

This is the third novel in Sebastian Faulks' loose trilogy of books about France - the other two are The Girl At The Lion d'Or, which I haven't read (although I was present at a book-signing for it with Faulks himself about 35 years ago), and Birdsong, which featured here in February 2015. All three feature the First World War as a major theme - Birdsong is mostly set during it and includes many scenes set in the trenches, and while Charlotte Gray is set during the Second World War it carries heavy echoes of the earlier conflict. Both the older Levade and Charlotte's own father are haunted by their memories of what took place, and Lavaurette is oddly demographically skewed by having a large proportion of a whole generation of men wiped out. 

I think on the whole Birdsong is a better book, as enjoyable as Charlotte Gray is - I think most of this is related to pacing; the Nazis only turn up and things Kick Off in a big way fully two-thirds of the way through the book. Before that we get a fair bit of scene-setting in England, including a brief sex scene which won Faulks the Bad Sex Award in 1998 (which he slightly humourlessly did not turn up to collect), and quite a lot of Charlotte hanging out with Julien and his father and blissfully bicycling from village to village in the sunshine delivering radio crystals and the like, which is lovely but oddly peril-free. The flipside of this is that when Charlotte encounters the full industrial efficiency of the Nazi killing machine she is, as resourceful as she is, utterly powerless to do anything about it, and André and Jacob's harrowing journey to their inevitable end is genuinely quite difficult to read.

Narratively that's obviously the right thing to do, a daring James Bond-style rescue mission being completely implausible, but it's a bit of a downer, and it makes the subsequent tearful reunions in England a bit hollow. This is no doubt intentional - my only quibble would be that the neatness of Charlotte's resolution of her mysterious childhood trauma involving her father is a bit nice and convenient, and the implication that, hey, the boys' deaths in the gas chamber weren't completely in vain because it in some way enabled Charlotte to get over being a bit upset about some childhood shit from twenty years earlier is a bit hard to swallow. Indeed you might reasonably ask: what was the sum total of Charlotte's achievements in France? Some minor courier work and encouragement to the Resistance, sure, but aside from making some cursory enquiries with his contacts she discovered next to nothing about Gregory's whereabouts while she was there and contributed precisely nothing to his safe return home, and, as mentioned previously, didn't manage to save any of the Lavaurette villagers from the gas chambers.

The World War II theme puts Charlotte Gray in the company of quite a long list of earlier books featured here - the review of The Reader has a list. Its having a person's full name as a title puts it on a slightly shorter list which also includes Laura Blundy, Riddley Walker and Fanny Hill. It was also filmed (starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte) in 2001.

Monday, June 17, 2024

snorklebrity lookeyspikey of the day

Today's pairing features my son Huw, in the pool at our holiday house in Brittany a couple of weeks ago and borrowing some of his big sister's swimming accessories, in particular her face-mounted snorkel, and also the strange underwater artificial dinosaur hybrid submarine that I drew for my school yearbook at Bandung International School in Java in about 1979 (when I would have been about nine). Obviously the shape and positioning of the snorkel is the thing that brought the two together in my mind.

The drawing was accompanied by the following explanatory (well, sort of) text:

It's interesting to unpick all the things that (consciously or unconsciously) influenced both the drawing and the text in my nine-year-old mind:
  • The BBRFC on the creature's sleeve, and indeed the rest of the design of the T-shirt the creature is wearing, is a reference to Bandung Barbarians Rugby Football Club, a loosely-organised group of expatriates from various countries (mainly the UK, Australia and New Zealand) for which my father used to turn out. My recollection of the various rugby days out we went to during our time in Java was that they were mainly a pretext for epic beer consumption, probably mainly the product of the Anker brewery with whom the club seemed to have cooked up some sort of endorsement/sponsorship deal, judging by the club T-shirt I am wearing in the images below (probably taken at Pangandaran). The beardy guy piloting the craft is also probably modelled on my Dad, though I should point out he has never smoked a pipe as far as I know.

  • The general concept for the creature is clearly adapted/stolen from the Tintin book Red Rackham's Treasure which I read approximately a gazillion times. The smaller shark-based craft there was the brainchild of eccentric genius Professor Calculus. That's his English name, anyway, he was called Tournesol in the original French books. Translations into other languages are available, including, rather marvellously, Welsh; who knows what his name is there. 
  • Obviously kids love dinosaurs, and you can see bits from at least three separate dinosaurs in the design of the creature: the head with its distinctive crest is clearly a parasaurolophus, the big fin thing on its back looks as if it's from a dimetrodon, and the spiked tail is a bit like that of a stegosaurus, informally known in slightly tedious paleontological nerd humour circles as a thagomizer. The fins at the rear are presumably a hangover from the fish design I stole the idea from, and I have no idea why the front limbs seem to have their elbows on backwards.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

our father who art in heaven, I lost my mess in pew eleven

One other thing, also tangentially book-related: we went to a family gathering last week and it was held in the Community Centre in the village of Acton Trussell, which we've been to before as it's conveniently located near to several of Hazel's extended family. I see that I mentioned it briefly once before, as the book I was reviewing (William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows) was one that I'd acquired from their quite extensive shelves on a previous visit. I see that at the time there was an honesty box in place; this seems to have gone now, probably as a result of no-one carrying small-denomination coins around any more post-COVID. Instead there seems to be some sort of loose book-swap scheme in place where you're encouraged to swap in a book when you take one out. Sadly I didn't come armed with any spare books, so I am now in credit to the tune of a couple of slim paperbacks and need to redress the balance on my next visit. 

I was also musing over the name of the village in my head on the drive up as it seemed faintly reminiscent of something I remembered from somewhere else, and it finally came to me in the latter stages of the journey (somewhere on the M6 I'd guess) - the name of the fictitious village of Stackton Tressell inhabited by cross-dressing comedy duo Hinge & Bracket in their various radio and TV programmes (and the occasional sherry advert) in the 1970s and 1980s was (a bit of Googling revealed) based on the real-life village of Acton Trussell, which just happens to have been where Patrick Fyffe, who played Dame Hilda Bracket, was born. George Logan, who played Dr. Evadne Hinge, was born near Glasgow, since you ask. Dear Ladies, which ran on BBC2 from 1983 to 1985, is the particular Hinge & Bracket vehicle that I remember - I would describe it as gentle comedy evoking the occasional wry chuckle rather than any pant-wetting hilarity.

Also spotted on one of the notice boards in the main hall while I was there was this frankly mind-boggling bit of groovy-vicar desperate grasping at young-person relevance and engagement. I mean I genuinely think that if Jesus were with us today - and, in a very real sense, he is, of course - he'd be rolling about in a paddling pool full of custard, or whatever it is that Messy Church implies.

I mean, even if you can get past the Charlotte Church jokes, there's still a faintly sniggery element here, and it would be highly advisable for their promotional video segments to be a bit more careful about phrasing than they seem to have been about ten seconds in here; the phrase "people just coming in all their mess" would probably have best been avoided.

infiltrate my maoist falange

Just to illustrate the point about Shibumi, as fascinating and intermittently thrilling as it is, not being meant to be taken entirely seriously, here's a footnote which appears at the bottom of page 179 of my Headline paperback edition:

A couple of things to unpick here: firstly the reference to "Naked/Kill" is to a sort of unarmed combat technique, possibly of Hel's own devising (I can't remember), which allows you to kill people by sticking a styrofoam coffee cup up their nose, and the like. The later reference to "certain advanced sexual techniques" reflects some of the (fairly coy) descriptions of what Hel and Hana get up to in the evenings and inevitably prompts thoughts of Sting's infamous claims of seven-hour tantric sex sessions with the missus, poor woman. As this Guardian article says, that claim mainly derives from a drunken interview Sting and Bob Geldof did for Q magazine back in the 1990s.

As for the other claims, the first relates to the filming of The Eiger Sanction and describes a real-life incident, the death of British climber David Knowles during filming in 1974. The claim about the Milan art theft relates to The Loo Sanction, which is a loose sequel to The Eiger Sanction and features the same protagonist, Jonathan Hemlock. I have no idea whether the claim has any basis in truth, and I certainly can't find any citation apart from articles specifically relating to this footnote. 

And the choice of name for one of the fictitious terrorist organisations in Shibumi invites two responses: firstly the bit of rudimentary childish image-editing below to clip out a couple of letters, and secondly: Asian Dawn?

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

the last book I read

Shibumi by Trevanian.

Dangerous places, airports. Not only have you got to grapple with the unpalatable prospect of being strapped into a claustrophobic metal tube with 200+ sweaty malodorous strangers for many hours, with the low but nonetheless very real possibility of it all ending in screaming fiery death, but it's possible that you may stray into a check-in queue next to someone who someone else wants to make sure never gets on the plane in the first place, and get rubbed out in a hail of bullets instead.

When this happens at the airport in Rome to a group of passengers about to board a flight to Tel Aviv, it sets a whole series of balls rolling. Firstly, the CIA, who organised the whole thing as an operation designed to take out some Israelis who were on their way to do a bit of the old murdering of their own, of some Palestinians involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, conduct a lengthy investigation. The reasons why the CIA would want to intervene in such an activity are obscure and tortuous but basically involve oil and America's access to it; the reasons they do the in-depth post mortem is that there was a bit more of the old mortem than they'd envisaged, several random civilians regrettably having been ventilated as well. The other problem is that despite all the hot lead flying around the assassins only managed to take out two of the three suspects; the third, Hannah Stern, managed to escape.

Hannah is strictly an amateur at this sort of thing but has the address of a man who is very much a professional: Nicholai Hel, the world's greatest and deadliest assassin, a man who can kill you in a dozen different ways with a dozen different seemingly innocuous household items - a playing card, a paper clip, a fried egg, you name it. He is, if you will, a Hel of a guy. Hel also just happens to have been a friend of Hannah's uncle, Asa Stern, and she hopes that she can use this as leverage to persuade him to intervene to help her. The trouble is, Hel is basically retired these days, having made enough money killing the president of Paraguay with a fork to be able to afford a few nice houses, including the mansion in the French Basque country where he passes most of his time with his exotic Oriental girlfriend, Hana, occupying himself tending his garden, perfecting his go technique, exploring the extensive local cave systems and having eye-wateringly athletic tantric sex. 

But how, you may or may not be asking at this point, did Nicholai Hel become the man he is today? Anyone not asking that question, and perhaps just wanting the plot to crack on in an orthodox thriller-y fashion, is going to be a bit frustrated for the next couple of hundred pages, as we now get an in-depth back-story describing Hel's early years. And they are interesting and unusual: offspring of a Russian mother and Prussian father, both vaguely aristocratic, early years spent in Shanghai, fluent in Chinese, English, Russian, French, taken into the care of a Japanese general after the fall of Shangai and raised for the next few years in Japan (thereby adding Japanese to the language list), where he learned the rudiments of go and eventually became a master player.

After the Second World War Hel makes his killing debut in slightly odd circumstances: learning of his old mentor General Kishikawa's imprisonment he visits him and agrees to preserve the old man's honour and fulfil his debt to him by giving him the old judo chop instant death treatment under the noses of his captors. During his subsequent imprisonment he hones his physical fitness and unarmed combat skills and keeps his language skills sharp by talking to himself in multiple languages and learning Basque from some books that happen to be lying around. Eventually the CIA take an interest in Hel's unique abilities, suggest a deal whereby he does a bit of killing for them in exchange for his freedom, and his career is off and running.

Back to the present day, then, and once Hel has emerged from the complex bit of cave exploration he and his caving companion, bluff beardy Basque poet Le Cagot, have been busy with he hears what Hannah has come to say, and soon realises that there is really no decision to make, as the trail that Hannah will have left will be enough for the CIA, or rather the mysterious organisation called the Mother Company that oversees their activities, to pinpoint her destination and identify him.

Sure enough Hel's local Basque informer network soon lights up with news of strangers in the village. Rather than get into a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Hel siezes the initiative by inviting them to dinner and seeing what they want, which basically boils down to: leave the Palestinians alone to do their thing, whatever it is, and your various retirement assets will be left alone, bar a small token punishment for inconveniencing the Mother Company. Also, nice house and girlfriend you have here, shame if they were to, you know, CATCH FIRE or something. 

Dinner is over, the goons leave, and Hel is considering accepting these terms, but then the Americans, in a bid to exert further persuasion, clumsily murder Hannah Stern, and Hel decides that the only way to proceed with honour is to get freakin' MEDIAEVAL ON THEIR ASS. So with the help of his old friend The Gnome, acquirer of spicy blackmail material and other negotiable items, Hel heads for London, cooks up an arrangement with the British Secret Service, and finishes the job that Hannah wanted him to do by rubbing out the Palestinians. 

But the Americans are bound to find out, and Hannah's death suggests that there's a rat in Hel's local informer network. And sure enough while Hel and Le Cagot are up in the mountains exploring a new cave, they return, cut Le Cagot's rope so he falls to his death, and roll some big rocks over the entrance to entomb Hel for ever.

Fortunately, during their previous explorations of the cave Hel and Le Cagot found what appeared to be a possible exit, via a sump occupied by a fast-flowing river. It's unclear whether a human could survive going through it without getting drowned and/or bashed to bits, but hey, whaddaya gonna do? It turns out that, as long as you're fairly slim and bendy, you can get through while only getting mostly drowned and bashed to bits, and Hel escapes, only to find that the Americans have also bombed his home, badly injured Hana, and, most unforgivably of all, mussed up the carefully-combed gravel in his Oriental garden.

So now comes the time for the this-time-it's-personal acts of revenge. Armed with The Gnome's choicest morsels (some papers relating to the Kennedy assassination) Hel confronts the Mother Company and persuades them to hand over the individuals responsible so that he can deal with them personally. This done, he retreats to the still-standing bits of his Basque mansion with Hana to consider his future. The leverage he currently has won't hold forever, and eventually they will come for him again, with more mess and danger and killing and the like. If the overall game cannot be won, how should one exit from the endgame with honour and dignity, at a time and in a manner of your choosing?

Trevanian (spoiler alert: not his real name) is best known for his 1972 debut novel The Eiger Sanction, made into a fairly so-so Clint Eastwood film in 1975. Interestingly it too revolves around a professional assassin persuaded reluctantly out of retirement for One Last Job - the other crucial thing about the book (bulldozed somewhat for the film version) is that it was meant as a spoof of the James Bond-style action hero thriller genre. The best way to look at Shibumi is as a similar sort of thing, maybe not a spoof exactly, but an exercise in knowingly testing what the boundaries of the genre will stand. Well, that's all very cute, you might say, but it's really a way of having your cake and eating it, isn't it - writing what basically amounts to a thriller, albeit an unusual one, and then loftily proclaiming your disdain for the whole genre while watching the dollars roll in from the paperback sales. 

Perhaps it's best just to enjoy the book on what appear to be its own terms, an exciting, highly idiosyncratic adventure story with an intriguing protagonist whose back-story is given an unusual amount of attention and depth. Some of this is just an excuse for Trevanian to indulge in writing at some length about subjects that clearly interest him: go and Japanese culture, the Basque region and its people and language, caving and rock-climbing.

The parts of the novel concerned with the fall of Shanghai and the subsequent Japanese occupation are highly reminiscent of Empire Of The Sun, while the two lengthy episodes inside the cave system are reminiscent of the thrilling escape sequence in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, though shorn of all the supernatural elements, and also Richard Church's classic children's book The Cave, which I see I mentioned here

Anyway, if you like a thrilling adventure story, but are a bit jaded with the standard stuff, and want something a bit more quirky and aware of its own inherent absurdity, then this will probably do you quite nicely.