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.