Thursday, December 29, 2016

John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy, which appeared in 1977, was the second installment of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, recounting the epic struggle between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla. 

The Circus (as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 is known in le Carré’s books) is in turmoil. In fact turmoil doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. The activities (as described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) of the highly placed mole run by Karla have completely gutted the service. Their networks have all been blown. Even their legals (agents operating with the protection of diplomatic cover) have been hopelessly compromised. They have had to shut down most of their foreign residencies. Their credibility with the British government is in tatters. Even worse, the CIA (on whom they depend to a humiliating degree) no longer trusts them. George Smiley, who had been brought out of retirement to track down the mole (which he did successfully) is now in charge of the Circus but it’s not a job anyone would envy. 

Smiley is an old hand and he’s not dismayed. He knows that what the Circus needs to do is to pull off a spectacular coup and that’s what he intends to bring about. How to do this with a handful of field agents and no resources? Smiley is not dismayed by this either. What the Circus will do is to comb through their archives, looking for patterns. What Smiley hopes to find is a record of any apparently promising investigation that was inexplicably stifled by London Station. After all if someone like Karla had a very highly placed mole in the Circus it stands to reason that one of the mole’s jobs would have been to block investigations that Karla particularly wanted to have blocked. If Smiley can find such a record then he will have found a weakness - something that Karla cannot afford to have the Circus suddenly taking an interest in. 

And Smiley finds just such a case. It involves some very curious banking transactions in Laos. From there the trail seems to lead to Hong Kong. It looks very promising. Now Smiley’s real problems begin. Karla is a formidable adversary but at least one knows where one stands with an openly declared enemy. It’s the undeclared enemies within one’s own side that cause the trouble. For starters there’s MI5, with whom relations are always at daggers drawn. There’s the Foreign Office. There’s the British Treasury. There are Smiley’s political masters. And then there’s the CIA (known not so affectionately as the Cousins).

Smiley will have to make use of one of his Occasionals (or part time agents). Jerry Westerby may or may not be the son of a lord and may or may not be entitled to be addressed as the Honourable Gerald Westerby. To his neighbours in Tuscany he is known as the Schoolboy. Hence the Honourable Schoolboy of the title. Westerby picks up the trail  and it leads to something bigger than even Smiley could have hoped for. It will take Westerby to Hong Kong, to Laos, to Cambodia, to Saigon and to Thailand and it will cost a number of lives, some innocent and some not-so-innocent.

The first part of the novel is the strongest since it plays very much to le Carré’s strengths - his extraordinary ability to make the minutiae of routine methodical intelligence work fascinating. This is the kind of thing George Smiley loves, it’s the kind of thing le Carré loves and it’s spellbinding. The latter part of the novel involves rather more action than one usually expects from this author and there’s a lengthy interlude as Westerby get himself caught up in the middle of a very hot war indeed. 

There are three themes that run through le Carré’s spy fiction. The first is the usual spy fiction theme, that of deception and betrayal, but made more personal by the fact that le Carré himself during his career as a real-life spy encountered betrayal first-hand in the person of the notorious MI6 traitor Harold ‘Kim’ Philby. The second is the theme of Britain’s disastrous postwar decline into a second-rate power and the third is the related theme of the Special Relationship between the British intelligence services and the CIA, a humiliatingly unequal relationship. It’s obvious that le Carré feels these things personally. The events of the book coincide with the fall of Saigon and le Carré clearly gets a certain amount of pleasure from the humiliation of the US. I wouldn’t say this was an anti-American book as such but le Carré’s dislike of the US government and of the CIA is palpable.

The Circus has so few resources that they cannot undertake even routine surveillance operations without CIA help. The Circus does all the important work in uncovering Karla’s grand plan but the CIA has no intention of allowing the British to get the credit or any of the  benefits. George Smiley is a wily old bird but he is clever enough to keep control of the operation?

In fact the operation threatens to get out of hand entirely and the problem is not caused by the CIA or the KGB. 

The Honourable Schoolboy is a classic Cold War spy thriller but with a difference since the Cold War gets tangled up with several hot wars. Smiley is accustomed to dealing with the espionage side of the Cold War in Europe where he knows all the rules but the chaos of South-East Asia in the mid-70s introduces some disturbing imponderables. The book is also a slight change of pace for le Carré with the horrors of actual war at times taking centre stage. It’s a reminder that espionage isn’t just a gentlemanly game. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

R.A.J. Walling’s The Corpse with the Dirty Face

The Corpse with the Dirty Face was the eighth of Englishman R.A.J. Walling’s Philip Tolefree mysteries. This 1936 novel was also published under the title The Crime in Cumberland Court.

I’ve become quite a fan of the Philip Tolefree detective tales. I wouldn’t claim that Walling belongs in the front rank of golden age writers but he was a solid and generally entertaining second-tier practitioner of the art of detective fiction and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Walling’s books also benefit from the author’s deep love of the West Country where he spent his entire life.

Private detective Philip Tolefree is employed to investigate the disappearance of merchant banker Benjamin Broadall. It transpires that this is not just a missing persons case but murder, and a rather ghastly murder at that. Tolefree’s old friend Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard is in charge of the official investigation but Tolefree’s involvement is far from over.

There is nothing impossible about the crime itself. It’s the motive that is impossible. Plenty of people could have killed Broadall, but why would anyone want to do so? Several people have motives but these motives are, in Tolefree’s view, quite unconvincing. Obviously someone did have a sufficient motive and it’s equally obvious that there is something very important that has not been revealed to either Tolefree or the police. There is a secret behind this murder. It’s also clear that no-one is telling the whole truth. Broadall’s daughter Mary, his nephew Dick Silverbridge, his devoted secretary Pollerby, the seedy doorman Wiverton, the lovely widow Mrs Landrake and the two suitors for Mary’s hand, the bluff young son of the local squire Jack Budshead and Broadall’s musical young friend Lionel Causeland - every one of these people had an opportunity to commit the murder and every one of them is hiding something.

The convoluted and ingenious plot provides the basis for a classic fair play mystery. In my view a successful fair play mystery requires more than just a plot that holds together satisfactorily. The solution should also be psychologically plausible. The murderer should be someone capable of committing the deed and the motive, when revealed, must be believable. The Corpse with the Dirty Face satisfies all of these requirements.

This is not one of those books in which the official police are portrayed as well-meaning but bumbling buffoons. Inspector Pierce is an intelligent policeman with a subtle but very effective approach to his job. Tolefree and Pierce co-operate amicably and efficiently. In some of Walling’s books Tolefree does conceal important evidence from the police but in this tale he is scrupulously fair in his dealings with Inspector Pierce. Tolefree’s biggest problem in fact lies in persuading the various witnesses to tell the truth to the police, something they are extremely reluctant to do.

Walling took to writing detective fiction quite late in life after a long and successful career as a newspaperman (working as a reporter, an editor and a publisher). His style is rather breezy with a nice leavening of sly wit.

Walling was a pretty consistent writer. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas, The Five Suspects, The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers, The Corpse in the Coppice and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are all highly entertaining and I’d find it difficult to pick a favourite.

The Corpse with the Dirty Face is a thoroughly enjoyable example of the English golden age detective story. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only was Ian Fleming’s first volume of James Bond short stories. This 1959 collection includes five stories.

The first story is From a View to a Kill. It’s not a bad idea. British motorcycle despatch riders carrying top-secret documents are being killed. There seems to be no explanation - no trace of the killers or their crimes. The secret to how these slayings are carried out is clever enough. The main problem is that there’s no memorable villain.

I have to say that after reading this first story I was not convinced that the short story format really suited Fleming. One of the strengths of the novels is the subtle and patient battle of wills (and wits) between Bond Bond the villain and this takes time to develop. The relationships between Bond and the various women who figure so largely in the novels also need to be woven together gradually. 

For Your Eyes Only opens in Jamaica. With Castro poised to take power rich Cubans are trying to get their money out of Cuba and are buying up properties in Jamaica. One of these rich Cubans wants a property belonging to a Colonel Havelock and the Colonel is made an offer that he literally cannot refuse. A month later a slightly embarrassed and  hesitant M asks Bond to take on a case that is a purely personal matter of no official interest to the Secret Service. This is more than unusual, it is unprecedented. 

One thing that has always struck me about Bond is that he’s a man out of sync with his age. He really doesn’t approve of the modern world at all. This aspect of his character (which might surprise those who are more familiar with the Bond movies than the books) comes through quite strongly in this story. Bond is irritated by the sound of lawn mowers because they’re motor mowers - he doesn’t approve of such horrors. He has to fly to Canada by jet and he dislikes it because it’s too fast - he liked flying the Atlantic in the old piston-engined aircraft because the journey was leisurely and civilised. 

It’s not just modern technology that bothers Bond. He is uncomfortable with the changes in British society since the war. He is in some surprising ways a very old-fashioned man. He likes craftsmanship. He likes good manners. He admires stability and he believes in hierachies. He even, oddly enough, believes in marriage (in theory at least). He is a traditionalist and the Britain that he loved, the Britain in which he grew up, is passing away. His tragedy is that he knows he does not fit in in the modern world. This old-fashioned outlook is implicit in the novels but, unusually, in this short story it is made quite explicit. 

For Your Eyes Only works rather well. It has an effective build-up and an excellent action climax. It also has (within the limitations of the short story format) a reasonably sinister villain and an interesting heroine. 

Risico is a nicely plotted tale. M, much against his wishes, has been forced to send Bond on an operation targeting a drug smuggling operation in Italy. M strongly disapproves of having the Service used for straightforward criminal investigations. This mission turns out to be not quite so straightforward after all. There’s a good little plot twist and another well executed action climax. And there’s a hint of piracy!

The Hildebrand Rarity is something of an odd man out here, not really a typical James Bond story. Bond, having completed a very routine case in the Seychelles, is invited to spend several days on the luxury yacht of American tycoon Milton Krest. The yacht ostensibly belongs to the Krest Foundation, to be used for scientific purposes. In this case the scientific purpose is to find a specimen of a very rare fish, known as the Hildebrand Rarity. Milton Krest turns out to be a decidedly unpleasant individual and his beautiful young English wife has discovered that marrying a man for his money is not always such a great idea. Of course the last thing Bond needs is to get mixed up in someone else’s marital dramas but it seems increasingly likely that this is just what is going to happen.

So where does the action adventure part of the story come in? Where indeed? An odd little story that may have been intended as something of an experiment. It has the typical Fleming atmosphere and the typical Fleming touches of sadism and cruelty but this time mixed with perhaps just a dash of black comedy. Milton Krest is certainly going to get his rare fish but he may get more than he intended. It’s a throwaway story that gives the impression of having been included in the collection as a filler.

Quantum of Solace is even more unusual. In 1928 W. Somerset Maugham had broken new ground with his classic spy thriller Ashenden, or the British Agent. Based on Maugham’s own experiences as a British spy in the First World War this was the world of espionage without the glamour, and with a certain ruthlessness and cynicism and a degree of blundering. Fleming’s approach to spy thrillers may seem to have been the polar opposite of Maugham’s but no-one of Fleming’s age setting out to write spy fiction could have avoided being influenced to some extent by Ashenden. Quantum of Solace has been described as Fleming doing an homage to Maugham.

It certainly has a very Somerset Maugham flavour although it’s the flavour of Maugham’s short stories rather than his spy fiction. Maugham was a master of melodrama in the tropics. Not just melodrama, but a very superior variety of literary melodrama. And tropical melodrama is exactly what Quantum of Solace is. While Bond makes an appearance the story is not about Bond at all, and it’s not a spy story. It’s a tale of domestic unhappiness set against the background of the diplomatic service. Maugham was so good at what he did that trying to equal him at his own game was a risky undertaking but Fleming carries it off pretty well. Perhaps Fleming was trying to prove that his literary range was greater than  critics supposed or perhaps he just thought it would be amusing to try something different. I liked Quantum of Solace but as I said, it’s not a spy story.

This is overall a slightly curious collection. Of the five stories only three are true spy stories and two of them (For Your Eyes Only and Risico) are extremely good. The two non-spy stories are Fleming experimenting a little and they’re certainly interesting. While it’s not as good as the novels For Your Eyes Only is still worth a look.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wings Above the Diamantina

Arthur W. Upfield (1890-1964) was an English-born Australian writer of detective fiction who enjoyed great international success with his Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mysteries. The first of these appeared in the late 1920s and the last was published posthumously in 1966. Wings Above the Diamantina, published in 1936, is one of the better known titles.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is a half-Aboriginal half-white university-educated Queensland policeman. To solve his cases he uses standard police methods combined with his knowledge of tracking and Aboriginal lore and his intimate knowledge of the Outback.

Bony is an unorthodox policeman. As a member of the Queensland Police Force he must, in theory, accept whatever cases happen to be assigned to him. In practice things are rather different - if a case doesn’t interest him he declines it. Fortunately the Commissioner, the delightfully named Colonel Splendor, has long since give up trying to impose normal standards of discipline upon Bony. Bony gets results and that’s all that matters. 

Inspector Bonaparte also intensely dislikes being addressed as Sir or Inspector. He insists that everyone just call him Bony. As he explains it isn’t the rank of Inspector that he cares about, it’s the salary attached to it.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a crackerjack opening. Mr Nettlefold, The manager of the Coolibah Station in western Queensland, finds a red monoplane sitting in the middle of the dry Emu Lake. In the front cockpit is a young woman. She is alive but appears to be suffering from some form of total paralysis, unable even to speak. No-one in the district has ever set eyes on her before. The pilot’s cockpit is empty. The logical assumption is that the aircraft was forced down and the pilot went to get help. But there are no tracks at all leading away from the aircraft. The front cockpit is the passenger’s cockpit, with no controls. The girl therefore could not have landed the plane herself.

The monoplane had been stolen the night before from Captain Loveacre’s flying circus (a sort of barnstorming aerial operation).

The identity of the young woman is a complete mystery. Her condition does not improve. With help from the local doctor, a man named Knowles, Mr Nettlefold’s daughter Elizabeth volunteers to nurse the girl. An attempt is made to poison the unknown woman.

The subsequent mysterious destruction of the aeroplane adds to the puzzle. The devastation was much too violent to have been caused by the plane’s fuel tanks exploding.

Sergeant Cox, the police officer at the nearest town, Golden Dawn, is a sensible and methodical man but he knows this case is too big for him. He greets the arrival of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte with relief. 

This is a puzzling case but usually these are exactly the cases that Bony enjoys. This time though there is a much bigger problem - if Bony cannot find the solution to the mystery then the mysterious woman from the plane will die and time is running out. This aspect of the case sets up a thrilling race against time in the last hundred pages and this is the most impressive part of the book. Upfield handles this with consummate skill. Bony believes he is very very close to solving the mystery but it seems like everything is conspiring against him to make him lose the race for the girl’s life.

The book certainly has other very considerable strengths. Upfield spent twenty years in the Outback and his descriptions of this harsh, unforgiving but strangely fascinating land are absolutely first-class. Upfield didn’t just live in the Bush - he took a scientific interest in it and led several scientific expeditions. He knew the geography and the geology of the country and he had the ability to use this knowledge to bring his stories vividly to life. His extensive knowledge of traditional Aboriginal culture adds further intriguing touches.

There are also moments of light relief, especially those provide by Embley and Arriet,  the two pets of one of the Coolibah stockmen. Bony is informed that they’re quite tame but he’s not entirely reassured, given that Embley and Arriet are goannas and they’re both seven-and-a-half feet long.

The only minor flaws I can find in this novel are occasional moment of clunkiness in the dialogue and one or two incident that stretch credibility just a little, but then if the stretching of credibility bothers you you probably shouldn’t be reading golden age detective fiction in the first place.

I read a lot of Upfield’s novels when I was young and to a city-dwelling Australian (who had never been within hundreds of miles of the Outback) they were extraordinarily exotic. I can only imagine that they were even more exotic to non-Australians which undoubtedly explains much of their international success.

Wings Above the Diamantina contains some definite elements of the Impossible Crime sub-genre and the setting ensures that the explanation of these elements will be exotic as well.

Upfield doesn’t ignore the question of race but he doesn’t agonise over it either or succumb to the temptation to lecture the reader. At times Bony encounters some mild initial hostility due to his mixed-race background but he never makes an issue of it - he assumes that his competence and his charm and his natural good humour will quickly win people over and he’s invariably correct.

Upfield doesn’t worry too much about detailed characterisation. This is a mystery novel and in this genre such things are an unnecessary distraction. Dr Knowles though is a genuinely interesting character. He has his own aircraft and operates a kind of private flying doctor service. When he’s drunk he’s an excellent pilot. When he’s sober he’s a menace to aerial navigation. Luckily he’s nearly always drunk. Curiously enough he’s also a better doctor when he’s drunk.

Bony himself is an interesting variation on the maverick cop trope. He doesn’t rebel against authority. He’s much too easy-going to do that (and he does like his salary). He simply ignores any rules that irritate him, and he ignores them in such a good-humoured way that nobody ever seems to mind.

Wings Above the Diamantina has a wonderfully offbeat and exotic setting, an unusual detective, an intriguing setup and a classic golden age plot with ample quantities of twists and turns and red herrings. It all adds up to great entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gavin Lyall’s Shooting Script

Shooting Script was the fourth of Gavin Lyall’s very successful thrillers. It appeared in 1966. 

Gavin Lyall (1932-2003) had been an RAF fighter pilot before turning to journalism. He was for a time an aviation correspondent. Not surprisingly aviation plays a very major role in several of his early thrillers including the superb The Most Dangerous Game.

Shooting Script is another aviation thriller. Keith Carr is an ex-RAF fighter pilot who makes a precarious living as a charter pilot in the Caribbean, flying his own twin-engined De Havilland Dove. He is both surprised and annoyed when he is jumped by two Vampire jet fighters from the air force of Republica Libra, a mythical tinpot dictatorship. He is even more surprised when he discovers that he has attracted the attention of the FBI. They apparently believe he is involved in flying arms to rebels in Republica Libra. This is rather odd. He is a British subject and in any case why is the FBI interested in goings-on in Republica Libra - surely that would be a matter for the CIA?

An encounter with an old flying buddy, an Australian, from the Korean War deepens his mystification. Ned Rafter now runs the air force of Republica Libra (a grand total of twelve ancient De Havilland Vampire jet fighters). It appears that the joint dictators of Republica Libra also believe Keith is aiding the rebels but Ned offers him a job (an extraordinarily well-paid job) as his second-in-command. The most puzzling thing of all is that Keith is determinedly non-political and has no involvement whatsoever with rebels in Republica Libra or anywhere else. He declines the job.

He does get another fairly lucrative job, with a film company operating in Jamaica. The company is run by Walt Whitmore, an ageing but very successful cowboy/action movie star universally referred to as the Boss Man (and bearing more than a passing resemblance to John Wayne). They want Keith to fly a camera plane, an old B-25 medium bomber, for Whitmore’s latest  action epic. In the meantime Keith is to fly them to Republica Libra to scout locations. He has another encounter with a Vampire jet fighter, this time with much more serious consequences. 

Keith might not be interested in Caribbean politics but it soon becomes clear that Caribbean politics is interested in him. In fact he finds himself right slap bang in the middle of it, and there are some very unlikely players in this particular political game. And an extraordinary scheme that is more like something from a Walt Whitmore action movie.

Lyall was exceptionally good at incorporating aerial action into his thrillers. The dogfight between Keith’s lumbering unarmed Dove and a Vampire jet fighter is imaginative and exciting, made all the more tense by the fact that it’s a deadly game of chicken with no-one quite sure just how serious the dogfight is.

Gambling scenes in thrillers were the specialty of Ian Fleming but in this novel Lyall proves himself to be equally adept at using gambling as a metaphor for much more dangerous games.

The single greatest strength of this novel is the way Lyall uses both gambling and movie-making not just as colourful background but as the central engines of the plot (along with aviation of course). Keith Carr is caught up in an adventure that really does play out like a shooting script for a movie.

There are some fine and very imaginative action set-pieces. There’s plenty of sardonic humour and wise-cracking dialogue with more than a hint of the hardboiled school. There’s  romance, there are unexpected betrayals and equally unexpected loyalties.

Keith Carr is a fine and somewhat complex hero, a man who has found that killing is the one thing he’s really good at which is why he doesn’t want to do it any more. He was too good at it and started liking it too much. There are plenty of colourful larger-than-life characters but no real villains - all the major players in this story are a bit cynical but they all have some honour in them somewhere.

This really is a superb tautly-plotted thriller, possibly even better than his earlier The Most Dangerous Game (which was superb). Very highly recommended.