Friday, 13 May 2022

Book Review: Slow Horses (2010) and Real Tigers (2016) by Mick Herron

I haven't read any spy fiction in years, but at the urging of friends and relatives I decided to give Mick Herron's Slough House series of spy novels a try. Slough House is the name of a squalid London office block in which MI5 agents who've screwed-up royally are sent to perform menial security tasks under the supervision of Jackson Lamb, a one-time star of the service who insults and berates his staff in equal measure. Being sent to Slough House isn't a probationary move; the top brass at MI5 hope that the miscreants will simply quit rather than endure working lives of bureaucratic drudgery while being verbally abused by Lamb. Naturally enough, they end up falling into assorted adventures.

I was both delighted and mildly disappointed by the two I've read so far. The main annoyance for me is that neither novel features much spying, at least not the kind one associates with writers like Deighton and Le Carre. These are straight-up race against the clock thrillers, both, oddly enough, featuring kidnapping plots, and they have more in common with conspiracy thrillers than the world of furtive border crossings and sleeper agents.

While Horses and Tigers can't claim to be pure spy fiction, they are very entertaining. The pacing and prose is excellent, with the banter, always sharp and nasty, often funny, probably being the best feature of the series. Jackson Lamb is the star of the show. He's one part Falstaff, one part insult comic, and one part stroppy genius. He may be in command of a backwater, but his spycraft and acumen are still first-class. He's also rude, arrogant and has a dysfunctional relationship with personal hygiene. One the downside, Lamb also represents a cheat code for middle-aged white writers who want to say naughty, un-PC things without taking any heat. The trick is to create a white, middle-aged character who's larded with bad habits and gross appetites, so that when he tosses off a "witty" racial slur the author can say, well, what do you expect from someone as reprehensible as Lamb? The fact that Lamb is never, outwitted, always gets the last laugh and the best lines, indicates that his visceral disreputableness is merely a way to sugarcoat his Jimmy Carr-isms. 

The other key member of the team is River Cartwright, a young, up and coming agent unjustly accused of fouling up a major training exercise and now marooned at Slough House for his sins. If Lamb provides the brains and wit, River takes care of the legwork and action elements. Other disgraced agents round out the team, all of whom are solidly crafted. Except for Roddy Ho. Every team in a modern spy thriller needs a computer whiz so here the job has to go to...an Asian. And because he's Asian and into computers he has to be nerdy, anti-social, and terrible with women. Ho is a parade of cliches that were getting stale 20 years ago. There are two recurring villains: Diana Taverner, the number two person at MI5 and a ruthless careerist with the bedside manner of a solicitous cobra. The other is Peter Judd, a transparent parody of pre-Downing St Boris Johnson. In both books Judd is angling for political gain through dirty tricks. They make a fine pair of baddies. 

Herron's plotting is clear and finely structured, although there is an overreliance on Ho using his magical computer//hacker skills to solve problems. This is a common fault in so many thrillers; the hero or the team face an apparently insuperable barrier or mystery until the resident keyboard jockey taps a few keys, et voila! Problem solved. It's an example of lazy writing and it shows no signs of going away soon. One odd thing I noticed: the style, tone, and even the sense of humour on offer in the Slough House books is remarkably similar to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. You could even see the crew of Slough House as real world doubles for the Watch of Ankh-Morpork. 

So while both Lamb and Ho, particularly the latter, aren't entirely successful characters (the TV adaptation of Slow Horses has largely fixed this problem), the books are an excellent mix of wit and tension-building plots. And any novel that pillories Boris Johnson deserves bonus marks

Friday, 21 January 2022

The Republic of False Truths (2020) by Alaa Al Aswany

One of the surest indications of the quality of this novel about the popular revolt in Egypt in 2011, is that the author is no longer welcome in his native Egypt and the book is banned there. The Republic of False Truths is turbocharged with anger and outrage at how the Egyptian state and its ruling classes reacted to the mass protests in Tahrir Square with violence and a vicious, hysterical propaganda campaign. 

Al Aswany tells his story through the eyes and voices of the protestors and their oppressors. On one side are the poor and educated twentysomethings who have finally had enough of the corruption, brutality and spectacular hypocrisy of the state and Egyptian society. On the other side are those who benefit from the status quo: businessmen, high officials in politics and state institutions, and careerists in religion and the media who seek to further their ambitions by siding with whomever is in power. When the state cracks down they do so with massacres, torture, sexual violence against female protestors, and an egregious media campaign that tries to paint the protestors as paid accomplices of the CIA and Israel. 

The novel's dozen or so characters range from the head of Egypt's security service to a maid. In general, Al Aswany isn't subtle with his characters; the good ones (protestors) are pure in their intentions, while the bad ones are implacable in their desire to bring harm to the other side. I'm not qualified to say whether the situation was that black and white in Egypt (I suspect it was), but the stark divide between the two groups of characters occasionally gives the novel a melodramatic flavour. 

Two characters, Nourhan and Ashraf, stand out because they're given more interesting shadings. Ashraf is a middle-aged, well-off, barely employed actor, who spends his days smoking hash and conducting an affair with his maid. He and his wife are barely on speaking terms. He witnesses the first massacre in Tahrir Square in which hundreds of protestors were shot by the police and instantly becomes radicalized, throwing in his lot wholeheartedly with the student protestors. Ashraf's Damascene conversion is, perhaps, too abrupt and complete, but he's at least a character who's given a chance to change. Nourhan is the star of the novel, and Al Aswany uses her to paint a picture of Egypt's toxic levels of hypocrisy. She's a popular and beautiful talking head on one of the country's official TV channels, as well as exceedingly and loudly pious. That doesn't prevent her from using Islamic divorce laws to essentially sleep her way to the top, and, once there, as the face of a private TV channel, become the Tucker Carlson/Sean Hannity of Egypt as she spouts officially written and approved propaganda. She's a monster who thinks she's a saint. 

If there's an overriding theme to the novel it's the pernicious role of religion in Egyptian society. The ruling classes use it as a goad, a weapon, and a one-size-fits-all excuse for their worst crimes. And as shown through Nourhan and a religious leader named Sheik Shamel, piety can also be monetized. Although there's nothing subtle about Al Aswany's approach to his subject (not surprisingly, he took part in the Tahrir Square protests), his anger and his clinical descriptions of state-sponsored violence give the novel tremendous energy. And this isn't just a novel for people interested in the Middle East. A lot of what takes place in the novel has an eerie similarity to the recent BLM protests, the fall of Trump, and the Fox News-led backlash against both events. After all, when it comes minting money from religion and manufactured outrage, America leads the world.

Friday, 17 December 2021

Book Review: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and The Far Side of the Dollar (1964) by Ross MacDonald

 

Sometime during my mid-teens in the early 1970s, Ross MacDonald became my favorite writer. I'd had limited experience with "adult" literature, so I was bowled over by his convoluted tales of murder and sleuthing set in California, that impossibly glamorous and faraway land, especially when seen from a Canadian perspective. His stories seemed immeasurably more real and gripping than the cream tea world of Agatha Christie, who was the only other crime writer I was familiar with. I wasn't MacDonald's only fan. In the '60s he began to attract widespread critical acclaim and regular appearances on best-seller lists. He was even dubbed a great novelist, let alone a top crime writer. I'm here to report that we didn't know what we were talking about back then. I've reread a lot of writers I enjoyed when I was young and found them lacking in one regard or another, but I've rarely come across one who has so comprehensively failed the test of time. 

Lew Archer is MacDonald's detective, and the stories are told from his perspective. Stylistically he follows in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The main, and devastating, difference between the two is that Archer is both dull and annoying. He's less a character than a private detective bot that trundles around California asking suspects questions with the tirelessness and borderline rudeness of a customs inspector who's been called in to cover someone else's shift. Where Marlowe dropped ironic, flippant, and caustic remarks as a reaction to the nastiness and weirdness California threw at him, and did so with humor, Archer comes across as petty and nagging, a sort of gumshoe Karen. And his observations about life and the people he encounters are shallow, unimaginative, and seasoned with tidbits of pop psychology that feel like they were gleaned from Reader's Digest articles. MacDonald was, and is, strongly identified with California but his descriptions of the land and architecture are sparse and boilerplate.

Like all of MacDonald's work, these two novels feature murders caused by ruined or poisonous family relationships that have their roots in the past, usually with a psychological motive. People don't often murder for money in Archer's world. In Zebra, a young woman kills because she's jealous of her father's affection for a girl he regards as a surrogate daughter. In Dollar, jealousy rooted in parentage becomes the reason for murder. MacDonald is certainly skillful at constructing mystery plots that move quickly and hang together logically. Where he runs into trouble is in showing how Archer deconstructs the puzzles he's faced with. The plots are absurdly dependent on Archer sub-contracting his investigations to contacts he has in law enforcement all over California. He picks up a phone and asks a detective to check out this or that, et voila, a few pages later he gets a gift-wrapped piece of crucial information. In a similar vein, when  Archer questions someone they frequently spill their guts to him faster than you can say "I don't think so." This makes the novels brutally efficient examples of storytelling, and yet lazy at the same time. 

MacDonald's writing has aged poorly in the usual ways: teenagers and young adults are faintly ridiculous creatures with their interest in music and surfing and not wearing fedoras; modern art (modern anything, really) is weird and pretentious; and the defining characteristic of women is how attractive or unattractive they are, with a special emphasis on the size, shape and movement of their breasts. Not surprising stuff for the era, but coupled with his other deficiencies it makes MacDonald a tough author to look back on with fondness. So what can I say? We had lousy taste in detective fiction back then. Sorry.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Film Review: Only the Animals (2019)

Quick, think of a film with the most devious and startling plot twists you've ever seen...Got it? Whatever you chose, it's not a patch on this one. Compared to this film, The Usual Suspects is an episode of Murder, She Wrote. This fiendishly-plotted French mystery-thriller came out in France two years ago, but has just been released this year (subtitled) on streaming services. Why did they make us wait? French filmmakers and writers have a definite affinity for twisted storytelling that confounds the viewer/reader, going back to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955). Sebastian Japrisot ranks as the grandmaster in this field having created classics of deception and intrigue on screen and in print, as have the novelists Frederic Dard and Boileau-Narcejac. Dominik Moll, the director of Only the Animals, has form in this Gallic genre, having directed the scary/nasty With a Friend Like Harry in 2000. He's created a classic this time out.

Now here's the hard part: doing a synopsis without spoilers. The plot is so finely crafted, so filled with small but crucial elements, that saying anything about it beyond generalities risks ruining it. The first scene takes place in the Cote d'Ivoire and follows a young man delivering a goat to an apartment building. The next scene is set on a snowy plateau in rural France where an abandoned car is found. And that's all that's safe to say. The story follows a handful of characters whose seemingly separate lives are invisibly linked in ways that will result in a murder. The delicate architecture of the plot and the economy with which it's told are breathtaking. But this film doesn't succeed just because of its engineering; it's not simply a technical exercise in misdirection and clue-finding like an Agatha Christie story in which the characters are merely pieces on a chessboard. These people are linked, and in some cases doomed, by their extreme need for different kinds of love, and the film, using only a few deft, narrative strokes, sketches in the causes of their heartache. 

Several reviews I've read have comparted its plot structure to Rashomon, which is somewhat misleading. Kurosawa's film looked at one event from the perspective of various characters, each of whom saw it differently as filtered through their memory and moral point of view. This film shows a series of events as seen by different characters. They all see exactly the same things, but they don't fully realize what they're looking at. Is the story farfetched? Yes, definitely. But that's what's required in a film of this type, it's what makes them so audaciously entertaining. And, like the best mystery films, Only the Animals saves one of it's most stunning reveals for the very last scene. 

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Book Review: The N'Gustro Affair (1971) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Jean-Patrick Manchette is one of several French crime writers (Dominique Manotti, Didier Daeninckx, Pascal Garnier) who combine hard-boiled prose and characters with equally savage political and social commentary from a left-wing perspective. It's not a combination often found in Anglo-American crime writing. Julian Rathbone and early Eric Ambler come to mind, but neither were as cold-blooded and forceful as their French brethren. And in the U.S.? I can't think of any authors who fit that mold, with the possible exception of Ross Thomas.

The N'Gustro Affair is a fictionalized account of a political kidnapping and assassination that took place in France in 1965 and involved the Moroccan security services, crooked French cops, and a petty criminal. Manchette makes Henri Butron, a career thug and sociopath, the centre of his novel, which unfolds in two interlocking narratives, one told by Butron through a tape recording he makes before his (unexpected) death, the other observing two African politicians as they listen to Butron's tape. Butron tells his entire life story as one long boast about his scheming, nihilism, and cruelty. There was never a time when he was anything other than a petty monster. From a youth spent in brawls against parties of the left and right, he moves on to porn films and gun running, and finally becomes an unwitting and expendable pawn in an assassination plot. 

Butron is a truly appalling character: boastful, racist, misogynist, sadistic; I could go on and on, but suffice to say no tears are shed when he dies. Manchette has no sympathy for Butron, and doesn't try to explain his maliciousness through psychology. As in his later novels (The Prone Gunman, Fatale), Manchette sees his sociopathic central characters as natural by-products of their toxic political and cultural environment. Butron is the effluvia of a France poisoned by colonial wars and a reactionary petit bourgeois mentality. This also makes him a useful idiot/tool for bigger, more predatory fish. 

Manchette is an uncompromising chronicler of how brutal humanity can be, so much so, in fact, that at points it becomes difficult to stay with the novel. His prose, however, is always sharp and clever, and he never, ever glamorizes or humanizes his heinous characters. What mars this novel is his presentation of the African ringleaders of the conspiracy, which is filled with racist imagery. This can be partly explained by Manchette trying to portray them in as bad a light as Butron, but he does this with, at times, excessive zeal. This isn't Manchette's best novel (that would be Fatale), but it's a good introduction to a French sub-genre of crime fiction that deserves more attention.

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Book Review: Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep (2021) by Philip Reeve

Let's talk about world-building. It's the keystone of sci-fi and fantasy novels, but in my reading experience it's the rare author in those fields who can do it well. Some writers over egg their pudding by cramming details about customs, languages, laws, and zoology into their writing until their "world" begins to feel like a fussy, claustrophobia-inducing, overfurnished apartment filled with things and people who apparently got their names as the result of a tragic draw of tiles from a Scrabble bag. These are the writers who probably spend their spare time building extravagant model train layouts. Frank Herbert and Iain Banks must have been enthusiastic hobbyists. On the other hand, there are authors who pay as little attention to world-building as I do to maintaining my lawn. I can recall an SF novel set on a planet that was one big ocean and yet contained only one described type of fish. One! N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is very well-written but I couldn't finish it because the world-building was so threadbare. And that's the unique thing about world-building; otherwise good writers can be duds at that particular craft. 

The kings and queens of world-building would be Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Diane Wynne Jones. So where does that leave Philip Reeve, author of the Mortal Engines Quartet and a wide variety of other SF/F novels for the YA and JF crowd? I'd rank him as a princeling or dauphin, able to shape and populate living, breathing new worlds that fire the imagination without resorting to boxcar-sized info dumps. In Utterly Dark, the setting is an alternate reality Britain in the early Victorian period(?). Utterly Dark is also the name of a girl, a foundling who washed up on a beach in a basket on the island of Wildsea off the coast of England. She was adopted and raised by Andrewe Dark, who has the ancestral, but boring, task of watching the western seas from a tower at sundown every night. He's on the lookout for a legendary sea monster called the Gorm, who, so far, has never shown up. Andrewe drowns and Utterly takes over his job, at least until Will, Andrewe's brother, arrives from England. Soon enough, the Gorm goes from legend to kraken-ish reality, a cohort of Seaweed Men appear, as well as a sunken city and an irate Queen of the Deeps. 

Reeve's is on top of his world-building game here. Wildsea is a recognizably English world, but one seasoned with enough subtle differences to make it pleasingly new and intriguing. When the action moves on and under the ocean, things kick up a notch. The highlight is the sight of the phosphorescent souls/spirits of drowned men and women bobbing below the surface of the water like so many ethereal jellyfish. It's a brilliantly haunting image. Utterly Dark delivers in terms of imagination and adventure, but if there's problem with the novel is that it feels like an amuse bouche setting up the planned sequel(s). The undersea section is the most compelling part of the story, but, unfortunately, it doesn't take up enough of the plot. Here's hoping for an entirely sub-aqueous sequel. 

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Book Review: The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma (1932) by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz

This Polish satirical novel first gained fame when it became known that Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski had plagiarized it for his novel Being There (1970), which later became a critically-acclaimed film starring Peter Sellers. It's only recently been translated, and it's easy to see what made it a tempting target for Kosinki: the story is wrapped up in details of Polish political and cultural life from the 1930s, but the basic concept of a ne'er-do-well making a meteoric rise from the gutter to the top thanks to a chance remark is clearly and easily transferable to other countries and times.

We meet Nicodemus, the titular rascal, just as he fails an audition to be a "taxi dancer," a job that entails being paid to dance with any and all partners at a low-rent dance hall. This is the latest in a lifetime of setbacks for Nicodemus, who's approaching forty and lives in the corner of a grotty Warsaw apartment with a prostitute and an unsympathetic landlady. Nicodemus is wandering the city when he comes into possession of an invitation for a banquet at one of Warsaw's top hotels. Since his worldly wealth consists of the evening suit which he'd hoped to use to get a dancing job, Nicodemus decides to don this disguise and go to the banquet in the hope of scarfing as much food as possible before he's thrown out. The banquet is attended by the country's political elite, and Nicodemus is just about to start gobbling some food when a man bumps into him and sends his food to the floor. In his rage at losing some nice grub, Nicodemus loudly curses the man out. The man is Terkowski, a minister in the government, who, it turns out, has many enemies and rivals, all of whom are delighted that he's been cut down a notch in public. Nicodemus harsh words are mangled and revised in the retelling, and within the space of an hour he's a hero. 

From there, Nicodemus rides a rising tide of rumor, dumb luck, and baseless supposition that casts him in the role of a financial savant who can solve Poland's economic woes. Nicodemus is avaricious enough to seize this opportunity, and cunning and ruthless enough to rise still further. The only person who sees through him immediately is an aristocratic madman, the brother of a wealthy heiress Nicodemus eventually marries. As the novel ends, Nicodemus is contemplating an offer to form Poland's next government.

The novel's satire is broad and savage, and Nicodemus's rise to the top is cleverly plotted. The author is particularly good at showing how the elites Nicodemus moves among are eager and willing to interpret his ignorant and clueless statements as pearls of wisdom, and a lot of the humour arises from this dichotomy. Any comparisons to Donald Trump are entirely appropriate. A sub-plot about a cult of devil-worshipping women who appoint Nicodemus as their leader feels out of place, but I'll assume it would have had some meaning for the novel's original audience. It's clear Kosinski stole this novel's plot, but I'd guess Dolega-Mostowicz was inspired by the story of Wilhelm Voigt. In 1906 Voigt disguised himself as a German Army captain, commandeered a group of soldiers in the small town of Kopenick, marched to the town hall and had the town's mayor arrested on fraud charges. He then took 4,000 marks from the town coffers as "evidence" and promptly disappeared. Voigt was a career petty criminal, and the success of his scam relied on the automatic and unthinking respect Germans gave to army officers. Voigt and his ruse became famous (he made a personal appearance tour!), and his story was told in films and a play called The Captain of Kopenick. The Big Lie, it seems, works equally well in fiction and real life.