Wednesday, September 28, 2016

James Mitchell's Russian Roulette

James Mitchell was a very successful television writer, best known as the creator of the best TV spy series ever made, Callan. Mitchell also wrote espionage thrillers. He wrote a series of spy novels under the name James Munro and under his own name wrote several Callan novels. Russian Roulette, published in 1973, was the second of his Callan novels and it’s just a little disappointing.

David Callan works for the Section, a small ultra-secret branch of the British Intelligence services. The Section does the jobs that are too dirty for any other intelligence agency to handle - blackmail, intimidation and on occasion assassination. Callan is the Section’s top operative. He is a very efficient killer. The problem is that Callan has started to develop a conscience.

Callan has a big problem. He is having eyesight difficulties, difficulties that can be temporarily alleviated by eye drops that will very soon require an operation. The operation has a good chance of being successful but in the meantime an even bigger problem has arisen for him. Callan’s boss, referred to only by his code-name Hunter, has done a particularly dirty deal with the KGB. In exchange for the return of a very important British spy recently captured by the KGB Hunter has agreed to allow the KGB to kill Callan (which is something the KGB is very very keen to do). Hunter informs Callan that he is now out of the Section and that the Soviets have despatched their three best assassins to kill him. Hunter has made things easy for the KGB. They have been told where to find Callan, he has had his assets frozen so that he has no money, his passport and his gun have been seized and steps have been to ensure that no-one will dare to sell him a gun legally or illegally.

Callan is now not only a hunted man, he is a hunted man with no chance of survival.

My first reservation about this book is the basic premise. It just isn’t logical. Intelligence agencies may get up to all sorts of dirty tricks (often very dirty indeed) but selling out their own agents in this manner just doesn’t make sense. They would very quickly find themselves without any operatives.

There are other problems with the book. You would think that a novel would offer more opportunities than a TV series to develop characters in depth. That’s exactly what MItchell tries to do, but paradoxically it makes the principal characters less interesting. In the TV series the emotions and motivations of the characters (especially David Callan himself) are conveyed to the viewer, with extraordinary skill, by means of hints and suggestions. In this novel Mitchell makes the mistake of simply telling us what the characters think and feel rather than allowing their words and actions to reveal these things to us. In the TV series it’s obvious that the Section’s number two operative, the smoothly sinister Toby Meres, regards Callan with a complex mixture of admiration, fear, contempt and jealousy. These things are never spelled out - the viewer picks them up gradually through various subtle suggestions. In the novel Mitchell spells these things out very crudely right at the start and as a result the reader is going to find the character to be of no further interest. We already know everything important about him.

Mitchell makes the same mistake, more disastrously, with David Callan. Rather than having Callan’s feelings and motivations slowly revealed he tells us straight-out what makes the character tick. He makes a further error by making Callan not just a killer with a conscience but much too touchy-feely and it isn’t quite convincing.

There’s also an attempt to explore in much greater depth the odd friendship between Callan and the cowardly but extremely useful small-time burglar Lonely. Unfortunately this friendship ends up being a lot less fascinating than it is in the TV series. Mitchell also makes Lonely less interesting by making him a lot less cringing and cowardly. 

Reading this book has led me to the conclusion that the success of the TV series may have been mostly due to the superb acting of Edward Woodward, Anthony Valentine and Russell Hunter.

The plot has some flaws as well. The twists are too predictable. 

The 1960s had seen spy fiction move in a much more cynical and even nihilistic direction and Russian Roulette reflects this trend towards bleakness.

If you’re a fan of the Callan TV series might come away from this novel feeling somewhat let down. It simply isn’t up to the standard of the TV series. My disappointment may have been partly due to the fact that certain key elements are handled in a slightly different way compared to the series and I feel the series did these things more successfully. It might sound like I’m doing a hatchet job on the novel which would be a bit unfair. It has its merits. The action scenes are imaginative and handled extremely well, especially the construction site ambush.

Perhaps I was just expecting too much. Russian Roulette isn’t a bad spy novel and it’s worth a look.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Carter Dickson's The Judas Window

The Judas Window, written in 1938, is one of the more celebrated Carter Dickson mysteries featuring the delightful H.M. (Sir Henry Merrivale).

Carter Dickson was of course John Dickson Carr so you won’t be surprised to hear that this novel includes a locked room puzzle. This is however a locked room mystery with a difference. The essence of the locked room sub-genre is that the body of the murder victim should be found in a room that is locked from the inside so that  the murderer could not possibly have made his escape. In this case the police are faced with a much simpler problem. The murderer is found locked in the room with his victim. There can be no doubt whatsoever of his guilt. The arrest is made and when the case comes up at the Old Bailey no-one has any doubt that a speedy conviction will ensue and that Jimmy Answell will be hanged.

The only puzzling thing is that Answell’s defence counsel, the irascible Sir Henry Merrivale KC, seems quite confident that he will secure Answell’s acquittal.

Jimmy Answell, a wealthy and quite respectable young man, had been engaged to be married to Mary Hume. Jimmy had been summoned to the London home of Mary’s father, Mr Avory Hume, to receive his formal blessing to the union. Jimmy arrived at 6.10 pm. By 6.30 pm Avory Hume was dead, with an arrow through his heart. Avory Hume had been an archery enthusiast and the arrow, a much-prized trophy, had been affixed to the wall of his study. It is clear that the arrow had not been fired from a bow but used as a dagger. Jimmy’s fingerprints are on the shaft of the arrow. Raised voices had been heard emanating from the room. The two men had obviously quarreled and Jimmy had stabbed his prospective father-in-law with the arrow. It’s as close to being an open-and-shut case as one could ever hope to encounter.

In spite of all this H.M. not only intends to fight the case, he intends to win.

I must confess that I have mixed feelings about locked room mysteries. Even in the hands of a master like John Dickson Carr they can be a little contrived. In this instance however locked room mystery is only one element in a plot constructed with fiendish ingenuity. And it is by no means the most impressive aspect of the plot. There is another crucial element that (in my opinion at least) easily surpasses it in cleverness.

A great golden age detective story requires more than an ingenious murder. It has to conform to the conventions of the fair play mystery which means that not only must the reader be provided with all the clue necessary to solve the puzzle, the way in which the detective uses those clues to unravel the mystery must be plausible and logical without any wild leaps of intuition. The Judas Window succeeds admirably in this regard.

Courtroom scenes can be a little risky - they can be talky and a trifle dull if not handled carefully. Even Erle Stanley Gardner, the grand master of courtroom dramas, generally kept his courtroom scenes in reserve for a vital moment. In The Judas Window Carr chooses a particularly daring option - virtually the whole book is courtroom scenes. It’s a gamble that pays off. A significant chunk of the story is told through the testimony of various witnesses but Carr is able to make it consistently vivid and entertaining. Of course it helps that H.M. is even more fun than usual when he’s in full cry in court. 

It’s to be expected that Carr’s plotting will be top-notch but in this book he also manages to make the motivations of all the suspects (not just the murderer) believable. The actual motive for the murder is perfectly convincing.

This is Carr in very good form indeed. He gives us a carefully constructed and very satisfying plot with a good locked-room mystery component. There’s a judicious leavening of humour but it’s never overdone. The Judas Window is representative of the golden age detective story at its very best. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, published in 1974, is one of John le Carré’s most celebrated spy novels. It deals with the hunt for a mole in the British intelligence agency known as the Circus. It was the fifth of the George Smiley novels.

The Circus is a fictionalised version of the British Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6), known as the Circus because it has its headquarters in Cambridge Circus.

I certainly do not intend to offer any hints as to the mole’s identity (although in fact it’s blindingly obvious right from the start).

An important Soviet spy had been trying to defect to the British but the defection went badly wrong. There is the possibility the Russians might have been tipped off and that the tip-off may have come from London. A couple of years earlier another Circus operation, in Czechoslovakia, had also ended in disaster with a top Circus field agent being betrayed and shot and with the Circus’s spy networks in that country being comprehensively blown.

The awful possibility must be faced that there is a mole in the Circus, a mole being an enemy agent planted years earlier who has now worked himself into a position of considerable power and influence. In fact this particular mole, if he exists, must logically be one of the five or so top men in the Circus. Given that the mole (who has been given the codename Gerald) is lodged very close to the top of the Circus hierarchy it’s obvious that the investigation cannot be an internal one. There is the option of calling in the Security Service (MI5) - catching spies is after all their job. That however is quite unthinkable. If there’s one organisation the Circus hates more than the KGB it’s MI5. The only remaining option is to have the investigation carried out by an outsider, but he has to be an outsider who knows the workings of the Circus intimately. A retired senior Circus officer would be ideal. Someone like George Smiley for instance.

Smiley will get some help from inside the Circus and from his friend Inspector Mendel from Special Branch. The investigation will be frustrating, and dangerous. The biggest danger is that if Gerald or his Soviet controllers get wind of it then the people who might be able to provide Smiley with vital information could suddenly meet with fatal accidents.

For Smiley the investigation is a voyage into the past. The clues he needs could be buried a long long way into the past, probably as far back as the years before the Second World War. The likely suspects were all recruited by the Circus in the 1930s and Gerald might well have been recruited by the Soviets at roughly the same time. Smiley will also have to delve very deeply indeed into the events surrounding those two disastrous failed operations.

It’s a case that requires painstaking attention to detail. This is not the kind of spy tale that involves a lot of action, but then le Carré has never be interested in writing action thrillers. His aim has been to write rather cerebral and somewhat literary spy thrillers with an emphasis on character and psychology.

Unfortunately George Smiley is not a very interesting character. We find out all we need to know about him very early on and the remainder of the book adds nothing to our understanding of him. We know he is a very good spy and that his personal life is a shambles. We know that his wife has treated him appallingly and that he is either too weak or too apathetic to do anything about it. What we don’t learn is why these things are so. We don’t find out what it is that makes him a very successful spy (in fact we don’t even find out why he became a spy) and a very unsuccessful human being. George Smiley is the absolute antithesis of James Bond but Bond is actually a far more interesting and complex character.

This problem extends to most of the other characters as well. When we discover Gerald’s motivations they are disappointingly vague and banal. Smiley’s nemesis, the KGB spymaster Karla, is an even thinner character.

While le Carré proves himself to be very weak in the area of characterisation he does have other strengths as a writer. He is particularly good at describing what might be called institutional psychology. He describes in vivid and fascinating detail the culture of the Circus, an organisation based not merely on deception (as any espionage organisation has to be) but on a fatal web of self-deception. Those who work for the Circus might believe they are essential to Britain’s security but it’s really an illusion. The Soviets aren’t interested in stealing British military secrets because Britain doesn’t have any military secrets worth stealing. They aren’t interested in British political or foreign policy secrets because Britain just isn’t important enough. The only players who count in the Cold War are the US and the Soviet Union and infiltrating the Circus is merely a way for the Soviets to strike indirectly at the US - any phony intelligence they feed to the British will be passed on to the US. In the world of the Cold War Britain counts for very little but at the Circus they’re still reliving the glory days of the Second World War and the British Empire.

There’s also a refusal to admit that maybe the KGB is more disciplined and more professional (and more realistic) than the spies of the Circus who are little more than enthusiastic amateurs. Most fatally, the Circus is vulnerable because they desperately want to believe they have pulled off an amazing coup and they don’t want to consider the possibility that Karla is several steps ahead of them.

Another major strength of the book is the lovingly intricate depiction of the “tradecraft” of the professional spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is fascinating reading for its insights into group psychology, the inner workings of espionage and the moral dilemmas that are unavoidable elements of the world of the spy. Recommended (although nowhere near as good as le Carré’s earlier The Looking Glass War).

I reviewed the 1979 BBC TV adaptation recently - it's also worth a look.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night

One Lonely Night was the fourth of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. It was published in 1951.

This time Mike is up against nothing less than a communist conspiracy on the grand scale. The story starts on a bridge at night with a frightened woman and a cold-blooded killer. Mike Hammer just happens to be there and as you might expect the encounter ends in death, in fact more than one death but one of these deaths does not follow the expected pattern. Curiously enough Mike finds two green cards at the scene. The cards are cut off at the corners in an odd way.

Mike’s old friend Captain Pat Chambers of the Homicide Squad is very interested indeed in these green cards. He knows what they mean. They’re used by the Communist Party as a means of identification. If you try to get into a Party meeting and your green card is not cut in the correct way you won’t get in (and you might well suffer rather more serious consequences). It’s not at all clear to Mike how these cards fit in with the incident on the bridge but he’s determined to find out.

Mike has stumbled into something really big. It involves not only communists but an escaped madman, an MVD assassin, a crusading politician and of course lots more killings. Mike is happy to get some help from Pat Chambers but he realises that this is a situation in which the police  are so hamstrung that he will mostly have to play a lone hand. He will naturally get some help from his faithful secretary Velda. Velda is in fact a good deal more than just a secretary. She has a Private Investigator’s Licence of her own and she has a gun licence and she most certainly knows how to use a gun (and she is prepared to use it when she has to).

The style is typical Spillane. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste. You either like the hardboiled school or you don’t and you either like Spillane’s distinctive approach to hardboiled crime or you don’t. Personally I quite enjoy his approach. Spillane started his writing career on comic books and his crime novels have the somewhat cinematic and wham-bang style of comics. 

There’s a great deal of violence and a fair amount of sex. At the time the sex and violence in his books were considered to be very shocking indeed. By today’s standards the violence really isn’t excessively gruesome and the sex is fairly tame.

Fortunately the effectiveness of Spillane’s style doesn’t depend entirely on the shock value of the sex and violence. There’s a manic energy to the writing and there’s real passion. There’s even at times a kind of hardboiled lyricism. There’s certainly plenty of wonderfully atmospheric writing. 

Mike Hammer is not an amoral thug. He isn’t bothered by the idea of killing people, as long as they’re people who deserve killing. He is very bothered indeed when innocent people get caught up in crime. He has a crusading zeal which certainly has elements of vigilante justice to it but in his own way he’s a very moral man. It’s just that in the somewhat confused and disillusioned postwar world a crusader has to get his hands dirty.

One Lonely Night is exceptionally interesting for the light it sheds on that immediate postwar world. Mike is a veteran and he’s proud of his wartime military service. His inclination is to see things in a fairly black-and-white way. To Mike communists are the bad guys and they’re a threat to American democracy and American democracy is self-evidently a good thing. The interesting thing though is that Mike despises politicians and considers them to be a bunch of worthless crooks. His views on this subject are echoed by  both Pat Chambers and by Velda. Velda describes politicians as slime. While Mike’s faith in America and democracy remains unshakeable he is certainly aware that all is not well in postwar America.

What distinguishes this book from so much crime fiction of the 1970s and later is the lack of cynicism or despair or nihilism. If society has its problems then Mike Hammer believes the answer is to do something about those problems. If there’s a conflict between good and evil then the answer is to fight for good. Mike has no illusions about what he’s up against but he is confident that a good man armed with a good reliable .45 automatic can overcome a great deal of evil.

This is a slightly more introspective Mike Hammer. The reason he’s walking alone on a bridge at night is that he’s brooding after a judge described him as a vicious cold-blooded killer. The judge was sore because there wasn’t a damned thing he could do since it was clearly a case of self-defence but Mike starts wondering if maybe he is a bit too fond of killing. If this is true then he has to figure out what to do about it and that provides the book’s main theme.

It goes without saying that the political incorrectness level in this novel is off the scale, but then if you demand political correctness in books and you’re reading Mickey Spillane you may have picked the wrong author!

If you’re not bothered about political correctness there’s plenty to enjoy in One Lonely Night. It’s a roller-coaster ride of action and mayhem done in inimitable Mickey Spillane style. If you’ve liked other Spillane books you’ll like this one. If you’ve hated other Spillane books you’ll hate this one. If you haven’t read any Spillane then My Gun Is Quick or Kiss Me, Deadly might be better places to start, being more typical Mike Hammer books. One Lonely Night is good but it’s more spy thriller than mystery thriller. It’s still recommended for those who appreciate Spillane (and that definitely includes me).

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra

Ice Station Zebra is in my view one of the very best of Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, published at a time (1963) when he was at the peak of his powers. It not only benefits from superb use of classic MacLean settings it’s also one of his most cleverly plotted novels.

A radio message has been picked up from Drift Ice Station Zebra. Drift ice stations, temporary bases located on ice floes or ice islands that slowly drift through the Arctic Ocean, have been used extensively by the Russians and other nations for various kinds of scientific research. During the Cold War both the Soviet Union and the US used them also for intelligence-gathering purposes. The fictional Drift Ice Station Zebra is a British station ostensibly involved in meteorological research.

The radio message is garbled but it is clear that something has gone very wrong and that the nineteen men at Zebra are in desperate trouble. The problem is that drift ice stations do not stay in the one place and nobody knows the current precise location of Ice Station Zebra. British, US and Soviet aircraft have been unable to locate the station. The new US nuclear submarine Dolphin has been despatched from its Scottish base on a rescue mission. The Dolphin’s ability to sail beneath the ice cap gives it a better chance than even the most powerful icebreakers of finding the station.

Just before the Dolphin sails its captain, Commander Swanson, is informed that he will have a passenger. The passenger is a British civilian. This is contrary to all US naval regulations but the passenger, a Dr Carpenter, has authorisation at the very highest levels. Commander Swanson is bewildered and suspicious - why should a civilian doctor be sent when the Dolphin has its own very competent ship’s doctor? Dr Carpenter’s story is that he has particular expertise in treating the effects of extreme cold but Swanson knows quite well that the US Navy has plenty of doctors with that kind of expertise. He is sceptical of Carpenter’s explanation.

And Dr Carpenter, who is both the hero and the narrator of the tale, makes it clear to the reader that Swanson’s scepticism  is more than justified. Dr Carpenter’s story is a complete fabrication. So what exactly is Carpenter doing on board the Dolphin? That is something we will not discover until the end of the book.

The voyage is eventful to say the least. What should have been a relatively straightforward mission of mercy turns out to be frighteningly dangerous. Nothing is quite what it appears to be and a major surprise awaits Commander Swanson and his crew when they reach Ice Station Zebra. And the surprises, and the dangers, are far from over. 

The novel was inspired by a number of real life incidents during the Cold War. MacLean’s spy thrillers were general fairly realistic - he avoided the flights of fancy that writers like Ian Fleming indulged in. 

This is not only a wonderfully entertaining spy story it’s also satisfyingly complex. While MacLean did not attract the kind of critical adulation that was directed towards writers like Len Deighton and John le Carre books like Ice Station Zebra show that at his best he deserved to be taken a good deal more seriously than he was. 

Dr Carpenter is not quite an unreliable narrator but he is certainly economical with the truth. He not only conceals things from Commander Swanson but also from the reader. The narrator does not actively mislead us - he simply chooses not to reveal certain things. He is not being dishonest - he makes it clear to us that he is not telling us the whole truth. This was a technique MacLean used in many of his best novels and he used it with great skill. It’s done particularly well in this book.

One of the things that makes MacLean’s spy fiction unusual is that more often than not the underlying structure of his novels is that of the classic detective novels of the golden age. This is very much the case here. It has in fact a scrupulously fair-play mystery plot. And at the end of the book the hero brings all the suspects together before revealing the identity of the criminal and then explaining how the crime was committed and how he solved the mystery - this is all done exactly the way Hercule Poirot would have done it. In fact, just as in so many of Poirot’s cases, MacLean’s detective knows the identity of the criminal well before the end of the book but he cannot reveal this because he does not yet have proof.

The resemblance to classic detective fiction is even closer - both Drift Ice Station Zebra and the USS Dolphin serve the same purpose as a country house in a detective story - they limit the number of suspects and they prevent any of the suspects from leaving the scene. This is a classic golden age detective story, but with a spy background and some superb and highly suspenseful action set-pieces added. The result is a true (and remarkably successful) hybrid of the mystery and thriller genres.

MacLean also gives us quite a lot of technical details about nuclear submarines, but these are not mere info-dumps - some are actually vital clues.

The 1968 movie Ice Station Zebra is an entertaining but very loose adaptation. It’s worth a look.

Ice Station Zebra is MacLean at the top of his form and it’s a terrific spy mystery thriller. Very highly recommended.

Friday, September 2, 2016

phones, letters and detectives

In her recent review of T H White’s Darkness at Pemberley Kate Macdonald makes the following observation:

Our frustration from the characters having to rely on leaving messages for each other from public telephones is something that readers have only experienced in the last 15 years: before that, public telephones were the only way for amateur detectives to stay in touch with a manhunt, and we took them for granted. So much necessary tension has been lost from modern detective fiction by the mobile phone.

I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. I love the use of telephones in old detective stories (and old thrillers as well). The hero would not only have to find a public telephone at the vital moment - the villain could cut the phone lines and even more fun would ensue.

In fact it’s a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine that technological advance has been extremely bad for the detective novel. It’s not just telephones. Many crucial plot points in classic detective fiction hinge on the arrival (or sometimes non-arrival of letters), or on knowing exactly when a letter was posted or delivered. And the fun didn’t stop there - there was also the nature of the letter itself. What make of typewriter was used? If handwritten there was the question of identifying the handwriting. The paper itself could provide vital clues. All that enjoyment is simply lost with emails.

Telegrams could also be very useful to the writer of detective stories.

It seems like a certain amount of technology is beneficial to the detective story. Cars and telephones were a definite asset and even aircraft could be advantageously worked in. Trains of course were absolutely essential. I’d even go so far as to say that the detective story could never have flourished in the days before railways.

The detective story required a society with some degree of technological sophistication but  the Law of Diminishing Returns has certainly kicked in with a vengeance. Digital technology is just not as much fun.