Monday, May 26, 2014

Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon

The Hour of the Dragon (also published as Conan the Conqueror) was Robert E. Howard’s only Conan novel. Written in 1934, it reworks some material from earlier short stories and was published in serial form in Weird Tales in late 1935 and early 1936. It shows that Howard was quite capable of writing in the longer format although for a pulp writer a novel was not a particularly attractive proposition, short stories being much easier to sell. 

The novel takes place during the period after Conan had become King of Aquilonia. Conan loses his kingdom and spends most of the book trying to regain it. This has the advantage for the author of offering opportunities to show Conan as a king commanding armies and also undertaking the kinds of solitary adventures we expect from a sword and sorcery hero, in which he must rely entirely on his own wits and his own strength and indomitable courage. The Hour of the Dragon was written at the suggestion of a British publisher and Howard’s idea was presumably to offer an overview of Conan’s character and accomplishments as both monarch and lone hero.

Conan’s problems begin with a plot by ambitious neighbouring rules and would-be rulers and a sorcerer who undertakes a particularly daring feat of magic - he brings back to life an infamous sorcerer, Xaltotun, who had died three thousand years earlier. The world of Hyboria had been very different in Xaltotun’s day. The dominant kingdom had been Archeron, a kingdom now only dimly remembered for its cruelties. Xaltotun is a sorcerer of immense powers, powers that exceed those of any sorcerer living in Conan’s age. 

Xaltotun is restored to life by a magical gem, the Heart of Ahriman, a gem that ironically provides the only possible counter to the long-dead wizard’s magic. The gem can nullify Xaltotun’s sorceries, which is why the newly revived wizard is determined to keep it in his own possession. He would prefer to destroy it but unfortunately for him such a thing is impossible.

With the aid of Xaltotun’s evil magic Conan is stricken grievously ill on the eve of a crucial battle and Conan’s armies are defeated and routed. Valerius is placed on the throne of Aquilonia. Valerius and the king of neighbouring Nemedia plunder the land unmercifully. They believe they are safe to do so, Conan having perished in the decisive battle that lost him his throne. They would be a good deal uneasier if they knew the truth, that Conan is most certainly not dead.

Conan might be alive but regaining his throne seems all but impossible. Even a mighty hero like Conan is powerless against Xaltotun’s evil magic. Conan will find however that he has some unlikely allies in the shape of an elderly witch and a shunned religious cult.

In the process of trying to regain his kingdom Conan will find himself having to take up some of his old occupations, such as thieving and piracy.

In the person of Xaltotun The Hour of the Dragon has a memorably nasty villain who proves to be a very formidable opponent indeed. There are some notable lesser villains as well but they are overshadowed by Xaltotun, and indeed they are themselves very much afraid of Xaltotun.

There’s everything you expect in a Conan tale - an abundance of action, some romance, plenty of hints of sex and it’s all done in Howard’s inimitable style. Very few writers have ever approached Howard’s ability to handle action scenes or his ability to maintain a breakneck narrative pace. Almost as impressive are his knack for achieving a mood of brooding evil and his skill in creating an atmosphere of extravagant barbaric savagery and splendour.

Howard was very much a pulp writer and he can be accused of the usual sins of pulp writers - he wrote quickly and was not overly concerned with polish. Nonetheless this is a well-constructed and immensely entertaining adventure tale by the greatest of all sword and sorcery writers. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Lord Edgware Dies

Lord Edgware Dies is a 1933 Hercule Poirot mystery written by Agatha Christie. In this story Poirot becomes involved with the main players before any crime is committed. The celebrated actress Jane Wilkinson is married to the fourth Baron Edgware. Married, but legally separated. Lord Edgware is a man noted for his eccentricities and has a reputation that suggests he would not be an easy man for any wife to live with.

Lady Edgware asks Poirot to see her husband in an attempt to persuade him to give her a divorce, something he has steadfastly refused to do. Poirot is understandably baffled when Lord Edgware not only agrees to a divorce but informs him that he wrote to Lady Edgware some considerable time ago telling her that he was perfectly willing to agree to such a proposal. 

When Lord Edgware is found shot to death not long afterwards the case seems to Chief Inspector Japp to be a very simple one indeed. Apparently reliable witnesses are prepared to swear that they saw Lady Edgware not only enter the house on the night of the murder but also saw her enter the library in which the murder was committed at about the time that has been conclusively proven to be the time of death. The icing on the cake for the Chief Inspector is that Lady Edgware had a powerful motive for murder in her husband’s refusal to divorce her. When Poirot points out the very inconvenient facts that Lady Edgware in fact had no such motive and that she has a cast-iron alibi even Japp is somewhat shaken.

What follows is typical Christie, intricately plotted and offering Poirot the opportunity to use his psychological approach to crime solving. Christie was at times prepared to bend the rules of the golden age detective story but on this occasion she mostly plays fair to the reader even if her plot involves a few elements that stretch credibility just a trifle.

Christie also gives the great Belgian detective the opportunity to make a few disparaging observations about fictional detectives. Poirot makes it clear that he has no interest in crawling about the floor looking for clues such as footprints and cigarette ash.

Initially the reader may think that Poirot’s disdain for physical clues is extreme and willfully eccentric. It isn’t really. As Poirot states explicitly in this book when Captain Hastings berates him for not getting out and about in chasing up leads, there are certain things that the police can do much more effectively. The intelligent course of action is therefore to leave those things to the police.

It’s not that Poirot considers physical clues to be completely unimportant. He simply believes that the official police are far better equipped to find and analyse such evidence. And he assumes that Chief Inspector Japp will pass on to him any important forensic evidence. This is partly because Japp is basically a fair-minded man, but it’s also a kind of unspoken agreement between them - Japp will keep Poirot up to speed on any crucial forensic evidence while Poirot will give the Chief Inspector the benefit of his little grey cells.

As an example of Poirot’s methods and his belief in a division of labour in the detective business, in this novel Poirot makes no attempt to question the medical examiner. He has no need to do so. Japp will do this and Japp is perfectly capable of understanding that sort of evidence and of knowing the right questions to ask of a medical examiner.

As Poirot remarks, if you keep a dog why bother barking yourself?

It’s often been noted that the increasing importance of forensic evidence was one of the factors that eventually doomed the amateur detective of fiction. No amateur could possibly match the resources of the official police in such areas. It’s interesting that as early as the 1930s Agatha Christie was aware of the problem and had come up with the solution in the form of Poirot’s division of labour and his willingness to work very closely with the police.

Poirot also offers some shrewd insights into the vexed problem of the reliability of witnesses, pointing out to Captain Hastings that witnesses who are very sure of their facts are precisely the sorts of witnesses whose testimony should be distrusted.

Apart from being a thoroughly entertaining murder mystery Lord Edgware Dies is a fine example of the methodology of Poirot as a detective and of Christie as a crime writer. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

E. E. "Doc" Smith’s Triplanetary

E. E. "Doc" Smith’s novel Triplanetary was initially published in serial form in Astounding Stories in 1934. Smith later extensively reworked the novel to serve as the first of two prequels to his Lensman series. The reworked version was published in book form in 1948.

Triplanetary tells the initial part of the aeons-long struggle between two highly advanced civilisations, the Arisians and the Eddorians. The Arisians are very much the good guys while the Eddorians are equally emphatically the bad guys. The Eddorians, to all practical purposes immortal and formless, have the ability to take on many corporeal forms.

The Arisians are aware of the uncomfortable fact that they cannot defeat the Eddorians. They can however direct the evolution of other life-forms that will eventually (if the Arisians’  long-term plans work out) be able to stop the Eddorians.

Humans are the species chosen for the Arisians’ long-range eugenics program. The first half of the novel takes us first to ancient Rome and then to the three great 20th century world wars. A gladiator is the instrument chosen to destroy the emperor Nero, who is in fact an Eddorian whose mission is to destroy Roman civilisation. In the world wars various members of the Kinnison family play a key role. The Kinnisons are one of the blood-lines destined to be the instrument for a final war against the Eddorians.

Human civilisation is all but destroyed but is rebuilt by the Arisians. Human civilisation spreads throughout the solar system in the Triplanetary League. 

The second half of the novel is the saga of an epic struggle between the Triplanetary League and space pirates led by a man called Roger. Like Nero Roger is an Eddorian in human (or at least humanoid) form. The struggle becomes a three-way conflict when another advanced civilisation, that of the Nevians, intervenes. The Nevians are distinctly non-humanoid amphibians. Their spaceships and weapons rely for their awesome power on a very rare element indeed, iron. The Nevians’ discovery that iron is plentiful on Earth, plentiful to an extent beyond their wildest imaginings, will prove to be of crucial importance directly to the Nevians, and indirectly to human civilisation.

Triplanetary’s second half is pure space opera, albeit space opera of a fabulously inventive kind. Triplanetary secret agent Conway Costigan is a classic square-jawed space opera hero of the Flash Gordon type that became so popular in the 1930s. Smith is very adept at  describing epic space battles and is equally skilled in the imagining of strange alien worlds such as the aquatic world of the Nevians. The submarine battles on Nevia are as spectacular as the space battles between the Triplanetary League and the pirates.

The Nevians prove to be formidable adversaries but they are not conventional villains. Their actions make perfect sense from their point of view and Costigan and his fellow adventurers, captured by these amphibian space roamers, develop a grudging respect for them. While the Eddorians are pure evil the Nevians are simply alien, pursuing their own interests as they understand them. The Nevians regard humans with fascinated repugnance but as the story progresses the fascination comes to outweigh the repugnance.

The discovery that iron can be an immensely powerful fuel source allows the Triplanetary League to complete a super spaceship named the Boise. The Boise allows humans to achieve faster-than-light travel and to expand their horizons far beyond the solar system.

Smith’s style is rather pulpy but it’s wonderfully energetic. The scope of his imagination is dazzling and puts the novel in a different league from the Flash Gordon brand of space opera. Triplanetary’s story spans not merely centuries but billions of years. To the Arisians and the Eddorians the span of a human life is so brief as to be inconsequential.

Triplanetary offers excitement combined with ideas on the grand scale and you can’t ask for much more from science fiction. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

John Creasey's The Toff Goes To Market

To call John Creasey (1908-1973) a writing phenomenon would be an understatement of epic proportions. No-one seems to be sure exactly how many books he wrote but most sources estimate the total at over six hundred. Not six hundred short stories - six hundred novels. In 1937 alone he had an astonishing twenty-nine books published.

Not surprisingly given the scale of his output he adopted a number of pseudonyms. Twenty-eight in fact.

His reputation rested mainly on his thrillers but he also wrote mysteries, westerns, adventure stories and even romances.

The Toff was one of the best-known of his many series characters, featuring in no less than fifty-nine books. The Toff Goes To Market, published in 1942, was the eighth book of the Toff series.

The Toff is actually The Honourable Richard Rollison and he’s fairly typical of the gentleman amateur crime-fighters who figure so prominently in the thrillers of the 20s and 30s. He’s more polished than Bulldog Drummond and less flamboyant than The Saint but he’s clearly very much in the same mould. Unlike The Saint Rollison has always stayed on the right side of the law but he has an intimate acquaintance with the underworld and with the slums of the East End where he has gained acceptance through his reputation for fair play. 

Like Bulldog Drummond and Simon Templar The Toff works outside the law. He respects the police and is willing both to help them and to accept help from them but he insists on retaining his freedom of action. And like Simon Templar he is prepared to ignore legal niceties in order to see justice done.

This type of character is of course deeply unfashionable today and tends to be misunderstood by modern readers. There are those who insist on seeing characters like Bulldog Drummond as a  species of proto-fascist, a completely erroneous judgment that betrays a total lack of understanding of both fascism and of the characters of these fictional heroes. A dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Bulldog Drummond would have no more patience with fascism than with any of the other fashionable isms of the 20th century. These types of heroes are in fact politically rather ambiguous. They are always intensely patriotic and instinctive supporters of traditional institutions but on the other hand the very fact that they are kept busy implies that the established system of law enforcement is not only often inadequate but does not always deliver justice. The Toff, like Drummond and Templar, will bend or even break the law in order to see justice done.

The Toff has a sidekick, in the person of his gentleman’s gentleman Jolly. Jolly is essentially Jeeves, if Jeeves had decided to take up crime-fighting. Jolly is indispensable. He rarely needs to be given instructions. He already knows what needs to be done and he has already done it before Rollison has time to tell him. Jolly is certainly a servant but in common with all the gentleman detectives and thriller heroes of that era Rollison treats his servant with unfailing respect, in fact at times almost with the kind of awe with which Bertie Wooster regards Jeeves. And Jolly can certainly handle himself when it comes to dealing with villains.

The Toff Goes To Market was written in 1942 so it has a wartime background. The Toff takes leave from his regiment (being a gentleman of the upper class it goes without saying that he immediately joined the army when the war broke out) to tackle a black market racket. The racket turns out to be on the grand scale, much bigger and more sinister than either Rollison or the police suspected. In fact it’s such a large-scale operation that it has the potential to cause serious damage to the war effort.

These racketeers aren’t just offering goods for sale on the black market, they are using strong-arm tactics to force shop-keepers and publicans to sell their illegal goods. And they are prepared to go further than mere intimidation - they are quite willing to resort to murder.

This is a thriller rather than a mystery so it follows the usual thriller convention whereby both the hero and the reader know who the chief bad guy is right from the start.  What we don’t know is how The Toff is going to bring such a ruthless and powerful criminal to justice. The Toff also doesn’t know the identities of everyone involved in the racket so he can’t be sure whom he can trust.

Of course there’s an attractive young woman mixed up in the events, Rollison being a man who is by no mean indifferent to the charms of attractive young women.

The novel also follows the established convention for thrillers of that period in being concerned with crime, but with crime that may have implications for the safety of the realm. This is crime, but with at least a hint of the possibility of international intrigue and diabolical plots that threaten civilisation itself.

Given the incredible speed with which Creasey wrote (he once claimed to have two written novels in a single week while still having time to play in a cricket match) you would expect the results to be somewhat slap-dash. In fact this isn’t really the case. There’s a decent plot with some clever twists and it all hangs together remarkably well. Creasey’s style might not be over-literary but overall it’s a surprisingly well-constructed thriller.

And it’s certainly entertaining. I wouldn’t rate this particular book quite as highly as the best of the Bulldog Drummond books or the best of Leslie Chateris’s Saint stories but it’s a very competent thriller. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness was one of H. P. Lovecraft’s few long stories. Some regard it as a novella while others consider it a short novel. Structurally it’s probably best considered a longish novella. Either way it’s the most ambitious entry in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle.

It was written in 1931 but rejected by Weird Tales as being too long. It was finally published in three parts in Astounding Stories in 1936.

The Antarctic setting is evidence of the influence of Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, written nearly a century earlier. Poe’s 1838 novel is mentioned several times and At the Mountains of Madness is thus an attempt to link Lovecraft’s own Cthulhu Mythos to Poe’s work. The Antarctic setting also appealed to Lovecraft because of his own horror of the cold.

Lovecraft’s novella tells the story of the extraordinary and horrifying discoveries made by a Miskatonic University expedition in the late 1920s. The narrator, geologist William Dyer (one of the leaders of the expedition), has decided to reveal the full extent of the discoveries in order to argue that  the proposed Starkweather-Moore Expedition must not take place. There are some places that should not be explored and some secrets that should remain forever secret.

The structure of the book is interesting. The narrator first tells us what might be termed the official version of the ill-fated expedition, the survivors having considered that this version contained as much information as you could safely be made public at the time. The narrator then tells us the real story. He is reluctant to do so but believes this is the only way to prevent the Starkweather-Moore Expedition from setting out.

The expedition had been lavishly funded, to the extent of having two ships and four large Dornier aircraft at its disposal. One of the four leaders of the expedition, the biologist Lake,  had set off on a side expedition with several of the aircraft. Lake had sent a series of radio messages announcing discoveries that would revolutionise our understanding of cosmology, evolution and human history. Lake’s messages became more and more excited and then suddenly ceased. Fearing disaster Dyer had set off with several companions in one of the remaining aircraft. Upon reaching Lake’s camp they found grisly evidences of disaster, and other evidence that confirmed Lake’s extraordinary discoveries. The decision was made to attribute the calamity to madness induced by a storm of unbelievable intensity. 

This is essentially the official version that was released to the public at the time. What had not been publicly revealed was that before returning to their base camp Dyer and graduate student Danforth had set off in a specially lightened Dornier to cross the gigantic mountain chain that Lake had discovered, a mountain chain that dwarfed the Himalayas. Hints dropped by Lake and certain strange and inexplicably regular features of these mountains made such a crossing seem essential.

After crossing the mountain range Dyer and Danforth discovered the remains of a vast city. Explorations of the ruins revealed a series of relief carvings that told the history of the builders of that city. That history was enough to drive Danforth permanently mad and to persuade Dyer that Antarctic exploration must never again be attempted.

It is the history of those who built the city, the Old Ones, that forms the core of the book. In this history Lovecraft develops the myth of the Old Ones in great detail and touches on the origins of Cthulhu and of other fabulous and terrifying entities such as the Shoggoth and the Mi-Go. It also explains much that had hitherto been incomprehensible in the Necronomicon and in various obscure cults, folklores and other esoteric writings. It is Lovecraft’s fullest and most ambitious treatment of the mythology he had created.

The book’s structure is rather daring. With so much space devoted to the explication of the story of the Old Ones there was a real danger that the book, being somewhat lacking in action, would be excessively slowly paced. Lovecraft avoids the danger in two ways. Firstly, his account of the Old Ones is such an imaginative tour-de-force that the reader is unlikely to be wearied by it. Secondly, he uses his favoured technique of revealing the true dimension of his horrors as slowly as possible by throwing out hints whilst concealing their full implications. At first we find Dyer’s attitude puzzling. The expedition’s discoveries are disturbing and provocative but we feel that any scientist worth his salt would be clamouring  to have them more fully investigated. Dyer does have a very good for his attitude but Lovecraft builds the tension by keeping us in the dark for as long as possible as to what it really was that sent poor Danfoth mad.

Lovecraft gives his tale added verisimilitude by adding references to real Antarctic explorers, including Australia’s Sir Douglas Mawson who really was, as stated in Lovecraft’s novel,  leading an important expedition at the same time as the fictional Miskatonic University expedition. Lovecraft had obviously done his homework on Antarctic exploration.

This book is also in some respects a lost world tale. Lovecraft was well-read in fantastic fiction and there is a certain H. Rider Haggard influence at work here, Haggard being the acknowledged master of the lost world tale.

At the Mountains of Madness is an essential part of the Cthulhu Mythos and it’s a masterful tale of imagination and terror. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Gauntlet of Alceste

The two 1920s Addison Kent mystery novels of Hopkins Moorhouse have been published in one volume by Coachwhip Press as The Addison Kent Mysteries. The Gauntlet of Alceste was originally published in 1921. The Golden Scarab followed in 1926. I have no idea if these were Moorhouse’s only attempts at detective fiction. The Coachwhip Press edition lacks an introduction, possibly because the author is so obscure that there was insufficient information to provide such an introduction. All that I can tell you is that Hopkins Moorhouse was a pseudonym used by Herbert Joseph Moorhouse (1882-1960).

It is The Gauntlet of Alceste with which we’re concerned at the moment.

This book seems at first to be a typical English country house murder mystery except that the setting in this case, the author being American, is in the United States. Henry C. Radcliffe lives with his daughter Rose in Hillcrest, a large and comfortable mansion in Westchester county in New York State. As is usual in this type of mystery several guests are staying at the house. Mrs St Anton, a handsome lady of mature years, and her nephew Roger Levering seem to be rather unwelcome guests and their presence at Hillcrest is a matter of some perplexity to Rose Radcliffe. The other guest is far more welcome - Tommy Traynor is a personable young man who works for a new York City gem merchant. Traynor is in love with Rose, a matter of which her father is unaware. Traynor has not yet achieved sufficient wealth or social standing to ask for Rose’s hand but he is a young man on the way up and he is confident that this unfortunate circumstance will soon be remedied.

Naturally there is a murder and it occurs quite early in the book. Everyone in the house is a potential suspect. Tommy Traynor feels that it might be advisable at this stage to call in his friend Addison Kent, a popular writer of murder mysteries who has had some success as an amateur detective. Kent is well-known to Detective-Lieutenant Bob Fargey, the investigating officer. Fargey has a reputation as an ambitious publicity-seeker who is nonetheless an honest and efficient police officer. He and Kent get on well and he is quite happy to have Kent’s assistance.

So far it all seems like a by-the-numbers fair-play country house murder mystery but two-thirds of the way through the book that changes dramatically. One of the characters introduces an outlandish and incredibly complex backstory that has no connection with anything that has happened so far and that introduces important new motives and new suspects the existence of which was entirely unknown to the reader up to that point. This in itself is just about enough to disqualify this novel as a fair-play mystery.

Worse is to come. The book proceeds to break most of the rules that would come to govern the golden age detective story. Those rules had not yet been codified of course, and most of the detective story writers of the golden age would at some time bend or break some of those rules. Nevertheless The Gauntlet of Alceste demonstrates the necessity for some sort of rules, and it tellingly demonstrates that while you might get away with breaking one of those rules if you break a whole swag of the rules then the reader is entitled to feel that the author is most definitely not playing fair.

The Gauntlet of Alceste also relies to a perilous extent on coincidence. Not just one coincidence either, but a whole series of very unlikely coincidences.

Despite its 1921 publication date The Gauntlet of Alceste has little in common with the classic puzle-plot mystery of the 1920s and 1930s. It has much more in common with Edwardian crime fiction, and in some ways it has even more in common with the Victorian sensation novel. I am personally quite fond of the sensation novel but it is as well for the reader approaching this book to be prepared for the fact that it does not conform to the pattern of the crime novel of the 20s and 30s.

If you are prepared to make such allowances you might enjoy the sheer outrageousness of the plot, involving as it does secret passage-ways, ghostly apparitions, masked balls, disguises, duels and characters who are not the characters we were led to believe they were.

The key role played by the master jewel-thief Alceste also suggests the influence of the gentleman-thief crime thrillers of the preceding age such as Hornung’s Raffles stories and Leblanc’s adventures of Arsène Lupin.

The characterisation, such as it is, is what you would expect from a Victorian penny dreadful or from melodrama.

Judged by the standards of the contemporary crime novels of Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Van Dine and company The Gauntlet of Alceste just won’t do at all and if that’s the sort of thing you’re expecting you may be tempted to throw this one across the room. If you accept it as an outlandish anachronism, a throwback to an earlier age, then you might find some enjoyment here.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever was the fourth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. By this time Fleming was well and truly in the groove and had things humming along like a well-oiled machine. Fleming, like all thriller writers, worked to a formula but in his case the formula allowed for a surprising (and often overlooked) degree of psychological and moral complexity.

This time Bond is not facing Russian spies or international super-criminals. His enemies are American gangsters and most of the story takes place in the US. No less an authority than Raymond Chandler was impressed by Fleming’s handling of the US setting.

As the title suggests diamonds are at the heart of this case. Large quantities of diamonds are being smuggled out of Africa. From there they apparently make their way to London and then on to the United States. Diamonds being one of Britain’s major exports the matter has been deemed important enough to be put in the hands of the Secret Intelligence Service. M is not entirely happy about this but he has his orders and he assigns Bond to the case.

The trail will eventually lead Bond to Las Vegas, allowing Fleming to include the gambling scenes which were one of the trade-marks of the Bond novels. Fleming was no gambler himself but he had very quickly decided that high-stakes gambling added exactly the right touch of glamour and danger to his stories. Here, as always, Fleming handles the gambling sequences with consummate skill.

Initially Bond finds it difficult to take American gangsters altogether seriously despite the warnings of his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter. Bond’s contempt for men he considers to be little more than jumped-up small-time hoodlums will prove to be something of a mistake.

Bond villains need to be colourful and larger-than-life and so Fleming gives his chief villain these necessary characteristics by making him a wild west fanatic who owns his own western town including an 1870 steam locomotive called the Cannonball. This locomotive provides a suitably inventive ingredient for the book’s major action set-piece.

There is a girl of course, and Tiffany Case is by any standards a very suitable Bond girl. She is blonde, beautiful, possibly dangerous and psychologically damaged. The James Bond of the movies has a casual attitude towards women and this is one of the major differences between the novels and the films. The Bond of the books is in fact a man who falls in love rather easily, and he falls hard. He also has, surprisingly (if you’re only familiar with the movies), a rather old-fashioned and romantic view of women. Bond not only believes in marriage, he also yearns for children. That he has not married (at this stage of the Bond cycle) is due primarily to the fact that he takes marriage very seriously and he fears that his career is not likely to be compatible with such a commitment. Those who glibly assume that Bond is something of a misogynist will find Diamonds Are Forever rather a surprise. Bond’s view of women might not fit today’s politically correct climate but they are far from misogynistic. Bond is protective of Tiffany Case but also in many ways far more respectful to her than are most modern movie thriller heroes.

The Bond of the books is also a long way from the wise-cracking Bond of the movies. He has little time for wise-cracks, and little inclination for them. He is also far from being a sadistic killer. He will kill without hesitation and without compunction, but only when it is necessary. It is an unpleasant but unavoidable part of the job. On occasions, when dealing with particularly vicious enemies, he may take a certain grim satisfaction in killing but it is never a matter for glib wise-cracks. The books are violent, violent to an extent that outraged many contemporary reviewers, but the violence (on Bond’s part at least) is never casual.

Fleming took spy fiction quite seriously and while he may not have deluded himself that he was writing literature he certainly believed that it was possible to write what he called  “thrillers designed to be read as literature” and that is what he attempted to do, with considerable success. Fleming was no hack writer. His books are polished and superbly constructed. The action scenes are important and skillfully executed but he gives even more attention to the process of building up the tension, this giving the action scenes the impact they require.

Fleming was always a believer in the virtues of properly researching a novel and his researches for this one were extensive enough to form the basis for his 1957 non-fiction book The Diamond Smugglers.

The story is nicely book-ended by scenes set in the thorn scrub of west Africa, providing a neat contrast to the glamour of Las Vegas and the opportunity for some philosophical musing on death, diamonds and eternity. The opening scene with the scorpion establishes the book’s mood particularly well.

Those who like their thrillers well-laced with unfashionable political incorrectness will not be disappointed but here again Fleming proves to be more complex than he is usually given credit for being. While their morality may not be today’s morality they are from being amoral.

Diamonds Are Forever is spy fiction done with both skill and style (not to mention a great deal of entertainment value) and his James Bond is a fascinatingly complex and contradictory hero. Highly recommended.