Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray (1852)

I am beginning my sampling of historical novels with this mid-19th century work by the author of the classic Vanity Fair, even though Thackeray was not the first English-speaking writer to popularize the genre. That distinction would belong to Sir Walter Scott. However, I have read Ivanhoe and Rob Roy and plan never to read another novel by Scott, ever.

Thackeray's story takes place in the early years of the 18th century in an England which is divided along religious and political lines. The Whigs support the ruling Protestant monarch and the Tories plot for the return of the Catholic Stuart heirs, here specifically James III. The plot centers around the titular Henry Esmond, who is both an observer of and a participant in pivotal events and who interacts with the well-known historical figures of the day, as well as with those prominent in literature. Thackeray obviously knew this era well, and he gives specific details and name-drops to the point of tedium, especially in his recounting of military campaigns. Henry Esmond's personal story line is thin and mostly involves his pining for ten years after an unworthy, though beautiful, girl. Then abruptly, in just a few pages at the end, he switches his affection in a most unbelievable manner.

If a potential reader of this novel is expecting the kind of delicious satire and humor that characterizes Vanity Fair, as I was, he will be sorely disappointed. This novel, for the most part, is deadly serious. And it is often deadly dull. In order to understand it, I did learn everything that Wikipedia knows about the War for the Spanish Succession and Jacobite Restoration. So that's good. And in view of the current divides in our country, it is encouraging to know that other countries have experienced the same, or even worse, and have survived and prospered. And it is amusing to read about historic political figures who struggled to hedge their bets so that they would be in positions of power no matter who won.

Yes, as some sage once said, history does tend to repeat itself.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

To complete my mini-unit of spy/espionage thrillers, I couldn't resist rereading this cynical dark satire by Graham Greene, one of the 20th century's greatest writers. His reluctant secret agent is Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1950s Cuba, who is approached by the British Secret Service (MI6) to be "our man in Havana." Because he badly needs money to support the extravagance of his beautiful teenage daughter, he takes the job, submitting reports of information he has gleaned from newspapers. When that ceases to satisfy his far-away bosses, he resorts to just making things up, inventing many sub-agents who also need to be paid and even given bonuses for daring exploits. In an especially creative move, he provides drawings of the parts of a secret military weapon which is supposedly being assembled in the jungle, using as his model the parts of his company's Atomic Pile Vacuum Cleaner.

But then real people start getting killed.

The first time I read this, many years ago, I perceived it only as a very, very funny black comedy. The second time I read it, I was more appreciative of the clever satire of politics and government bureaucratic ineptness. Only with this reading did I understand how truly cynical Greene is, even going so far as to disparage nationalism. In an impassioned speech to the Chief of MI6, Wormold's secretary says, "And we don't believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers."

As with all really good books, this novel can be appreciated on many levels, with something new emerging with each rereading.


Interesting fact: Graham Greene was himself employed for a time by MI6.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

No mini-unit of espionage/spy novels would be complete without a reading (in this case a rereading) of Conrad's The Secret Agent. His protagonist is neither an adventurous hero, as in The Riddle of the Sands, or a clever hero, as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or even an ingenious anti-hero, as in The Day of the Jackal. The Englishman Mr. Verloc is an agent provocateur for an unnamed foreign embassy, a planted member of an anarchist group, a purveyor of soft-core pornography, and a sometimes police snitch. He is a man of few principles whose chief motivation seems to be a dislike of real work. When he is ordered by his handler at the embassy to persuade the anarchists to blow up Greenwich Observatory, he fears the loss of his primary source of easy income if he does not see that the task is done.
Having obtained explosives from The Professor, a fellow anarchist, Mr. Verloc enlists the help of his wife's mentally handicapped younger brother, who does not understand the import of his actions. The resulting explosion has unintended tragic repercussions for all concerned.

This is a very "dirty" book--the London surroundings and weather are pictured as squalid and ugly and unwholesome; almost all the main characters' actions are prompted by self-serving motivations rather than by idealism of any sort; even the police operate under an agenda of their own rather than in a quest for justice. Conrad is the best ever when it comes to creating an atmosphere of despair.

Only two characters are truly impassioned, rather than just casually corrupt. Mrs. Verloc is motivated to violence by the love she has for her brother. The Professor is motivated by his belief that the world must be remade by violence. "Exterminate, exterminate," he says. "That is the only way of progress." Surprisingly, they emerge as the only two even marginally admirable characters in the book because they alone think outside themselves.

The Secret Agent is so much more than a mere spy novel that it is perhaps unfair to compare it to others in the genre. It's like comparing Hamlet and The Lion King. They may contain many of the same elements, but.....


Interesting side information gleaned from background reading: The Professor in The Secret Agent served as a primary inspiration for Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. He reportedly read the book a dozen times and urged his family members to read it so that they could understand him.


I previously reviewed this book in May of 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

It is surprising and a tribute to the author that this book is as exciting as it is. It concerns the planning and actions of an assassin who has been paid to kill French President Charles de Gaulle and the efforts of the police and several other government agencies to stop him. Since the reader already knows that de Gaulle was not in reality assassinated, one might assume that all suspense would be lost, but that is not the case.

Forsyth divides his book into three sections. The first, titled "Anatomy of a Plot," describes the political situation behind the hiring of the killer. It includes a description of a previous assassination attempt which failed, one which actually happened just as depicted here. This book's assassin is a foreigner whose true identity is known only to three men. His chosen code name is The Jackal. Almost by accident, French authorities learn of the existence of the plot, but they have no idea as to the identity of the killer or of the time of the attempt. This part moves a little slowly.

Things heat up in the next section, "Anatomy of a Manhunt," which focuses on the meticulous preparations of The Jackal for his mission and on the efforts of "the best detective in France," Claude Lebel, to find the culprit and prevent the murder. This part is fascinating, particularly since the reader has not learned the details of The Jackal's plan, and thus the reason behind most of his preparation is unclear. Suspense intensifies as time after time The Jackal is almost caught, always changing plans and identities at the last minute, as if he is being forewarned.

Suspense ramps to a high point in the third section, "Anatomy of a Kill." As Lebel continues to investigate, he is able to identify the source of the information leak that has allowed The Jackal to escape apprehension. Meanwhile, The Jackal makes his final preparations, including a highly ingenious disguise and method of transporting his high-powered rifle. It appears that he is bound to succeed in his mission. Of course, the reader knows that the assassination didn't happen, so the question of how The Jackal is to be stopped takes center stage.

Despite what one would expect, The Jackal is the most interesting character in the book. His various disguises and clever devices even invite admiration for his resourcefulness. His dispassionate dedication to a task he has undertaken purely for the monetary reward provides insight into the mind of an amoral killer for hire.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Unlike The Riddle of the Sands (the 1903 spy novel I reviewed earlier this month), the 1915 spy novel The 39 Steps reads like a modern book. Its language is direct and uncomplicated; the action is non-stop; it abounds in improbable coincidences and derring-do and narrow escapes which are often implausible; its hero is larger than life and clever beyond belief. It comes as no surprise to learn that Buchan was an influence for Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond spy thrillers. And like Fleming, Buchan is great fun to read.

The story begins when an American journalist-turned-spy confides in the Englishman Richard Hannay before being murdered by persons unknown in Hannay's apartment. Hannay goes on the run, both from the police who he assumes will blame him for the murder and from the foreign government agents who he believes committed the murder. The rest of the novel is a fast moving account of one narrow escape after another, ending as one would expect.

This is not a book to be taken seriously, unlike The Riddle of the Sands. It is light entertainment, pure and simple. I was surprised to find out that the highly regarded British newspaper The Guardian included it in their list of 100 Best English Language Novels. Perhaps they gave it a place because of the stylistic influence it has had on later espionage fiction.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1951)

Prolific author Alfred Bester wrote science fiction short stories, comic books (Green Lantern, Superman), travel essays, radio scripts, television scripts, mainstream novels, and two science fiction novels, which have become his main claim to fame. The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination (reviewed in September), are considered by many to be among the best ever written in that genre.

The Demolished Man is a police procedural story set in a future when a few people have developed varying levels of extrasensory perception. Known as Espers, and more colloquially as peepers, these individuals form an elite group who are pledged to act only for the public good and are particularly employed in the police force to stop a crime before it is committed, or to apprehend the rare exception who succeeds in criminal activity.

With the help of a peeper he has bribed to help him hide his intentions and actions, the head of a vast corporation plans and carries out the murder of his chief business rival. It is up to a peeper policeman to prove his guilt based on evidence alone, without the benefit of telepathy, to the satisfaction of the computer which serves as District Attorney.

This is a fast-moving and entertaining story, but it falls short of the excellence of The Stars My Destination. In particular, the ending is weak and more than a bit contrived. I would recommend it to die-hard Sci-Fi fans, but I do not consider it to be one of the best of the best.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)

This early spy novel is considered a classic of the genre. Written in 1903, it tells the story of two young English yachtsmen who stumble upon the fact that a fellow countryman has most likely allied himself with the Germans in planning for warfare against the British. In an effort to find actual proof that they can convey to authorities they undertake many risky escapades, both on land and sea.

The writing is typical of the period in which it was written, formal and not the easiest to read. Complicating the readability, Childers spends a great deal of the novel in detailed reporting of the men's maneuvers in their sailing yacht, complete with technical and nautical terms, which are essentially meaningless to a landlubber. But when Childers gets his characters on land, the tale becomes quite suspenseful and exciting.

The Riddle of the Sands was written more than a decade before the start of World War I and is credited with alerting the public to the possibility of German aggression and is reported to be partly responsible for the British strengthening of their sea defenses. It is also an interesting adventure yarn.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup (2008)

I initially assumed Six Suspects to be a conventional mystery, because of the title. The crime is the gunshot murder of a playboy businessman at a party celebrating his acquittal for a crime which he actually committed. When the police close off the house, they find six suspects who have guns--a crooked bureaucrat who sometimes thinks he is Mohatma Gandhi, a Bollywood actress (This takes place in India.) who has had her identity stolen, a tribesman from a remote island who is searching for a sacred artifact which has been stolen from his tribe, a mobile phone thief who has fallen in love with the dead man's sister, a corrupt politician who just happens to be the dead man's father, and a clueless American forklift driver from Waco, Texas, who is looking for the actress. It's like the board game Clue: Who did it at the party with a gun?

The majority of the book consists of the backstories of the suspects, the events leading each one to attend the party carrying a gun. Here's where a problem arises. A good mystery writer provides all the clues, those that are valid along with those that mislead. Swarup does not follow this formula. Not even Miss Marple could guess the killer from the clues given here.

Then I decided that maybe this is not meant to be a mystery at all, but a lampoon of a mystery. The tone is humorous and many of the events are so unlikely as to be ridiculous. The characters are obviously all exaggerated stereotypes. Swarup particularly has fun with his Texas character, giving his first-person narration a constant stream of backwoods sayings, such as "the wind was blowing like a tornado in a trailer park" and "if brains were gasoline, he wouldn't have enough to run a piss ant's go-cart around the inside of a donut." But here's where a problem arises as to viewing this as a comedy. It takes more than ridicule and exaggeration to be funny.

The review blurbs on the inside book flap let me know that some of the events and characters in the book are thinly veiled references to happenings and people in today's India, and that some reviewers consider this novel to be a satiric social commentary. I obviously cannot speak to the accuracy of the commentary about India, but I can attest that I have known some pretty dense and backwoodsy Texans, but I have never met anyone like Swarup's character. His portrayal is so inaccurate as to be beyond satire. This makes me wonder how accurate his comments are about India.

I can't decide exactly what Swarup intended; maybe a combination mystery/comedy/social commentary. I don't find him very successful at any of those.