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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (librae commeatus)

Just Books

John le Carré’s new book Agent Running in the Field is the best thing he’s written in years. The man is well into his eighties now, but on the evidence of this story, he’s still firing on all cylinders. It’s a brilliantly complex, and deeply cynical, tale of espionage, politics, love and redemption. The story takes place in 2018, and it pulls no punches in its political analysis of the "clusterfuck" (to quote one of the characters) that is Brexit on one side of the pond, and and the Presidency of Donald Trump on the other side. What’s not to like and admire about that?

Usually a novel suffers when it becomes a vehicle for a political message. All too often and all too easily, such a novel will turn into a polemic (sometimes quite a shrill one). Le Carré’s own real-life opinions on Trump and the Brexit fiasco are matters of public record – he’s written many articles and given lots of interviews on the subject here, there and everywhere for the last year or so. But he’s an artist first and foremost and the political subtext that lies behind the story that this book tells is never intrusive, and the novel never turns into a lecture. Instead the theme is integrated quite neatly into the story of Nat, a semi-retired secret service agent whose speciality in his golden years was the running of agents in place, agents in the field. Nat is now working out his twilight years in the secret world by directing a small and quiet intelligence station known as Haven which specialises in small and usually rather unimportant operations. However Nat soon finds himself on the outside looking in when a surveillance operation brings him into direct conflict with his own service. A chance encounter (that may not have been a chance encounter) puts him in a position where he is able to show off his expertise and which allows him to do what he does best. For one last time, he will guide and manipulate an agent in the field, using his skills to play off the great and the good, one against the other, pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes (especially the eyes of his superiors) and, along the way, rescuing and redeeming a person who is doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons…

As always, le Carré shines in his detailed depiction of the dirty, practical realities of espionage (especially in the way it has adapted itself to the technical world of twenty-first century life). He delves deeply into the thoughtful complexities of character that are exhibited by the wheelers and dealers of the secret world – these are people who see conspiracies where none exist, people who draw conclusions from the flimsiest of clues based purely on their own cynical experiences. But these people are not just ciphers, none of them are puppets being pulled on authorial strings – they all have real lives outside of the office and despite the political machinations in which Nat is involved, he’s actually far more concerned with the minutiae of his day to day life; mainly the relationship he has with his wife and his daughter, and the badminton games that are his ruling passion. In other words, Nat is a well rounded person living a real and, in many respects, a very ordinary life. There is much to admire about Nat despite (or maybe because of) his Machiavellian manipulations. He is Everyman.

Agent Running in the Field is, in my opinion, the best thing that John le Carré has written since his stunningly brilliant 1970’s trilogy of George Smiley novels (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy et al). Those novels cemented his reputation. It is praise indeed, I think, to compare this novel with those masterpieces. But I believe the comparison is justified...

I read James Clavell’s novel King Rat when it was first published in 1962 and I thoroughly enjoyed the story about allied servicemen held captive in Changi, the Japanese prisoner of war camp.  The King Rat of the title is an American corporal who, unlike the other prisoners in the camp, has actually managed to carve out a fairly comfortable niche for himself by trading on the black market with the local Malays and Chinese. For a price, he is willing to share some of that largesse. The bulk of the novel deals with the King’s relationship with Peter Marlowe, a British flight-lieutenant. Peter speaks fluent Malay, a talent that the King finds very useful…

The prisoners are very dependant on the King – they live and die at his whim (and sometimes he has a whim of iron). They get nothing beyond the bare necessities of life from their Japanese captors (and often even those bare necessities are denied them). If they need food, or medicine or help of any kind they have to go cap in hand to the King, and the King’s services do not come cheap. The King would simply claim that he was just a businessman doing business, but there is much more to it than that – despite his very low army rank he finds himself in a position of power. Captains, majors and colonels all have to come to him cap in hand. They have no other choice but to deal through him. The King’s influence among the prisoners clearly fulfils some kind of deep psychological need for him, and he milks it for all he is worth. But when the Japanese surrender and the war ends, the King finds himself left with nothing. His "friends" and "colleagues" desert and shun him, leaving him isolated. How the mighty are fallen.

In a very real sense the book, as well as telling a thrilling story, is also an extended essay on the fragility of power structures and on the nature of the human condition that has to cope (or not) with those structures. The characters who live this life are all vividly drawn. They drag you in to the story, and as a consequence their triumphs and their tragedies feel very, very real. The book was (and is) a tour de force.

And back in 1962 that was all there was to the novel. It was a powerful and impressive debut which immediately shot to the top of the best seller lists. It was much talked about – somebody even made a film of it! Clavell built on his overnight success and went on to fame and fortune with novels such as Shogun and Tai-Pan and Noble House (in an amusing homage, a couple of the characters from King Rat re-appear in Noble House).

King Rat has recently been reissued and, probably on the strength of Clavell’s later reputation, the new edition contains a lot of material that was cut from the initial publication. The 1962 novel takes place exclusively in Changi and environs, and it concerns itself only with the prisoners themselves. The new edition is about half as long again, and the extra material tells us what happens to the wives and sweethearts that the prisoners left behind when they went off to war. So, while the prisoners themselves endure the day to day hardships of their life in Changi, we can see how their families suffer and sometimes die, even as the prisoners themselves suffer and sometimes die. And of course neither party knows anything at all about what the other is experiencing because, by and large, the Japanese did not allow their prisoners to send or receive letters. The new material adds a depth and a perspective that raises the novel from the merely brilliant to the utterly magnificent. Unlike the prisoners, the reader knows just what is happening back home. And unlike the families, the reader knows just what is happening to the prisoners. This knowledge makes both the prisoners and their families situations even more poignant, even more terrible, even more heart-rending. King Rat was, and still remains, an absolute tour de force.

Full Throttle is Joe Hill’s second collection of stories. In the introduction, Hill talks about his literary influences. First and foremost among those influences, of course, are the stories written by his father Stephen King – and two of the stories in this collection are actually collaborations with his dad! But even when Joe Hill is writing by himself, Stephen King’s themes and even sometimes Stephen King’s voice are still very identifiable in his work. This is not to belittle Joe Hill – he’s learned his trade from a master and those lessons have sunk in deeply. They have taken root in his writerly soul. Joe Hill is not a poor man’s Stephen King. He’s not a poor man’s anything. He’s Joe Hill and he’s a writer. That’s all you need to know.

Other influences on Hill’s work that he mentions are stories from the 1950s and 1960s by people such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Lawrence Block et al. Oddly, Hill also mentions Bernard Malamud as an influence. This last took me by surprise. I’ve never met anyone whose read Bernard Malamud before. Even I’ve never read anything by Bernard Malamud!

Hill also found movies very inspiring and one that he singles out for a special mention is Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Perhaps this is why one of the major stories in this collection is essentially a re-write of Duel. As I remember Spielberg’s film, we never really learn very much at all about the motives of the people (and machines) involved in the chase that makes up the bulk of the movie. The truck and its anonymous driver (assuming it does have a driver – we are never quite certain about this) remain faceless, and we never learn just why the truck is so intent on duelling with and persecuting the other people on the road. That mystery lends the movie an almost Kafka-like sense of doom, an invocation of mysterious forces collaborating for unknown reasons to bring about an undefined armageddon. The movie is paranoia personified. In his re-write, Joe Hill tones down the mystery. We know perfectly well why the truck driver is doing what he is doing, and we are quite horrified by what we know. Spielberg’s movie starts to seem quite cosy in comparison to the very real terror and disgust that drive Joe Hill’s story. Make sure to read it with the lights on.

My favourite story in the collection is Late Returns. It’s about a man who drives a bookmobile, a mobile library that takes books out to far away places that are difficult to get to. And sometimes the people who climb in to his bookmobile are people who need to read books that were published after they died… Hill claims that he wrote this story because he has a horror of dying with a book half-read. I know just how he feels and possibly that’s why this beautiful story spoke to me so powerfully.

In the introduction to Full Throttle, Joe Hill also talks about the mechanics of writing. Writing a novel, he claims, is just simple arithmetic (actually, he says it’s just simple math – revolting neologism – but what he really means is simple arithmetic). He says that all you have to do is write three pages a day for a hundred days. Three hundred pages is a novel. Simple arithmetic, just like that. But, of course, writing a good novel is a lot more than just simple arithmetic. Joe Hill applied the arithmetic formula and wrote his first novel when he was just fourteen years old. He tells us that the novel was so bad that nobody except his mother ever read it all the way to the end. He continued to apply the formula and he wrote three more novels before he was twenty and every one of them sucked. In his twenties he wrote four more novels that also didn’t go anywhere. Eventually he decided that perhaps he really wasn’t a novelist after all, and maybe he should just stick to writing short stories. He was in his early thirties before he finally managed to escape from writing arithmetic novels. A short story he was working on about a man who bought a ghost on the internet got away from him and he ended up with his first publishable novel. (It was called The Heart Shaped Box, if you want to read it – it’s well worth reading). Those of us who like to think that we are writers can take heart from Joe Hill’s experience, I think.

There isn’t a dud story in this collection – every single one is powerful and often very moving. You owe it to yourself to read them.

In my last column I reviewed John Varley’s novel Red Thunder. I enjoyed the book a lot and, on the strength of that enjoyment, I decided to read the sequels. Friends assured me that I’d regret making that decision, claiming that each novel in the series was only half as good as the one that preceded it. But I paid no attention to their advice.

Red Lightning opens with a mysterious object travelling at almost the speed of light that collides with the Earth. The object crashes into the Pacific ocean and the resulting tsunami is devastating. The first half of the book describes this devastation in magnificent dramatic detail and it held me quite spellbound. The rest of the novel, which deals with exactly what the object was, and with why the collision took place at all, was a little anticlimactic after the drama of the first half, but nevertheless it held my interest, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Feeling confident that the assurances from my friends about the quality of the subsequent books in the series must be incorrect, I embarked on Rolling Thunder, the third novel in the sequence. I got about half way through it before I abandoned the book in disgust. By the time I gave up on it, absolutely nothing of any interest or significance had happened. As far as I could tell, the novel consisted of nothing but paragraph after tedious paragraph whose one and only purpose seemed to be to force the reader into playing a game of spot the Robert Heinlein reference or, just for the sake of variety,  spot the 1960s counter-culture reference. Boredom set in very quickly and I was forced to admit that perhaps my friends had been correct in their assessment of the books after all.

I am told that there is a fourth novel in the series. It’s called Dark Lightning and I have no idea what it’s about. I’ve never read it and I almost certainly never will. Take my advice and read only the first two books – each stands pretty much alone and each tells a jolly good story. I suggest that you pretend that the third and fourth books don’t exist.

A God in Chains is a fix up novel by Matthew Hughes which is based on a series of novellas that were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story is set in Hughes’ vaguely Jack Vancian world of the Archonate, a far, far future Earth where the sun is starting to die and thaumaturges are great powers in the land. As the story opens, a man finds himself walking along a dirt road. He has no memory of how he got there and he does not know who he is. The whole novel, of course involves him in a quest to find his identity, to discover what has been done to him, and why it has been done at all.

It’s a rattling good yarn, full of wit and invention, but nevertheless it left me feeling vaguely disappointed. It’s a baroque adventure, as are all of the Archonate tales, but the language that Hughes uses to tell his story is only intermittently baroque. Mostly the story is told in a straightforward and rather flat utilitarian prose which exhibits very little of the subtle circumlocutions that are the chief delight of other Archonate stories (and of Jack Vance’s own stories as well, of course). On the few occasions when Hughes does indulge himself in properly prolix descriptions of the devious Vancian double crosses that the characters pull on each other, and when the characters themselves chance upon deliciously outré social and political organisations, the story really sings – but mostly, it just hums along...

Night Music is a collection of short stories (and one autobiographical essay) by John Connolly. The stories are perhaps best classified as supernatural tales – ghost stories, horror stories and the like – and all of the stories involve books in some way, shape or form. Scary books, haunted books, books that go bump in the night. Who could resist a theme like that?

The best story in the collection is undoubtedly The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository. The story opens with the narrator watching in horror as a woman carrying a red handbag throws herself in front of a train. Worryingly, the emergency services cannot find any trace of a body when they examine the track, and the engine driver claims that his journey was uneventful and routine. Nobody jumped in front of his train, he says…

If you’ve ever read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, you might find this incident slightly familiar. Certainly the narrator does, and he embarks on an obsessional quest to discover just what is going on; to try and find an explanation for what he is sure that he saw. If I were to tell you any more of the plot I would be guilty of revealing a massive spoiler, so I’ll stop there. Suffice it to say that the story held me enthralled and left me feeling very satisfied. In fairness though, I probably ought to tell you that by the time I got to the end of the story, I really felt rather jealous of the narrator. I wanted to be that person very, very much...

The collection closes with a long autobiographical essay called I Live Here. Connolly grew up surrounded by books. As a child, he particularly enjoyed ghost stories and horror stories and he spends a lot of the essay describing his appreciation of Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker and M. R. James – all classic authors who I too read and enjoyed when I was at the same impressionable age that John Connolly was when he first discovered them. It was quite clear to me that Connolly and I had a lot in common, so it wasn’t at all surprising that I found the stories in Night Music to be so very entertaining.

Connolly made his authorial reputation as the writer of a series of hard-boiled mystery thrillers about one Charlie Parker, a private detective. So, on the strength of Night Music, I decided to read Every Dead Thing, the first of the Charlie Parker novels. The story opens with Parker coming home to find that his wife and daughter have been brutally murdered. The shadow of this unsolved crime leaves him feeling full of guilt and regret, and he is consumed by a very understandable desire for revenge. Against his better judgement, he is persuaded to take on a case that requires him to track down a missing girl. The solution to this case draws him into a world where a serial killer, inspired it seems by obscure literary and religious references, uses the corpses of his victims to create works of art, mutilating them in much the same way that the bodies of Parker’s wife and daughter had been mutilated. A Louisiana psychic who talks with the ghost of the killer’s first victim refers to the killer as the Travelling Man. Eventually she meets the Travelling Man face to face. She does not survive her encounter with him. But by now Parker has enough clues to put him on the track of the murderer. The stage is set for a final confrontation...

I must admit that I found the book a little disappointing. I felt that the novel went on for far too long and that it had far too many characters in it. I quickly got very confused about just who was who, and what their relationships were. Furthermore, all the reviews I read about the novel praised the ingenuity of its ending. Well, maybe I’ve read too many of these kinds of books, because the ending didn’t take me by surprise at all. I’d worked out who the villain had to be long before the final dramatic revelation (and I was very pleased to discover that I’d been correct in my assumptions). All I really needed the ending for was to dot the t’s and cross the i’s of the reasons that lay behind the villain’s actions.

I’m told that there is a supernatural subtext to all the Parker novels in the sense that something always remains unexplained, hovering on the borderline between fantasy and reality. In this case, of course, that element was supplied by the psychic who gave Parker his first inkling about the existence of the Travelling Man. However despite the supernatural aspects, generally speaking Connolly always plays fair with the reader – Parker doesn’t make use of the supernatural to solve the cases he is involved with. Rather, the supernatural elements underpin the narrative, reinforcing the structure of the story and seasoning it with a modicum of woo. I was reminded very much of the skilful way that James Lee Burke introduces the supernatural into his Dave Robicheaux novels. And that’s very high praise indeed.

Certainly Every Dead Thing wasn’t a bad book, and I’m sure I’ll read more of Connolly’s novels about Charlie Parker – he’s written seventeen of them so far, so he must be doing something right. But really, I must say that I much preferred the short stories collected in Night Music.

Got to Get Theroux This is the autobiography of TV journalist Louis Theroux. I really only know Theroux from the occasional documentaries that I caught more or less by accident on the haunted fish-tank in the corner of the room. But although I never actively sought them out, whenever I stumbled across them, the programmes were always sufficiently odd to hold my interest. Partly this was because of their strange subject matter (racist US survivalist militias, porn movie actors…) and partly it was because of the character of Louis Theroux himself who always came across as socially awkward and seemingly more than a little out of his depth as he asked faux naive questions that got him deeper and deeper into some very strange territory indeed. And yet despite this, somehow he always managed to persuade his interview subjects to open up about themselves and he made them say things that perhaps they might later come to regret… All of which made for great television, of course.

It turns out that the only Theroux programmes I have seen actually date from quite early in his career when he deliberately set out to inject a comedic note into his subject matter (he has a subtle and wicked sense of humour and at one time he had ambitions to write TV sitcoms). It seems that his later programmes take a much more serious view of the world, though they are still not without a humour all of their own. I don’t think Theroux could ever completely abandon that aspect of his personality. But the programmes have, on occasion, forced him to look closely at some unpleasant realities and have required him to consider his own position very carefully indeed. A very large part of Theroux’s autobiography deals with him trying to come to terms with his own relationship with Jimmy Savile...

He made a documentary about Savile while Savile was still alive. Theroux was well aware of the rumours that were starting to circulate about Savile’s behaviour and he went into the programme with his eyes wide open. He even met two women who informed him that they had been sexually abused by Savile when they were children. He certainly didn’t ignore the topic in his documentary, but he didn’t push it either, something he later came to regret.  Despite accurately reporting Savile’s creepiness, rudeness and often quite toxic behaviour, he somehow found within himself a grudging respect for the man and he ended up quite liking Jimmy Savile. But after Savile died, too many details about his misdeeds came to light to be ignored and so Theroux felt compelled to re-examine his attitude towards the man. He made another documentary about Savile, this time complete with warts and all. It was an agonising reappraisal, and Theroux is still not sure if he did the right thing in either, or both of the programmes. He debates this point with himself again and again and again. Clearly the whole experience was very traumatic for him.

I really didn’t know what I would learn from Theroux’s autobiography. After all, I hardly knew the man or his work. But after reading it, I have learned to have a great respect for him. He is nowhere near as shallow a person as I had suspected him to be. He has depths, some of them hidden, some of them not. I am very, very glad that I took the trouble to read this book.

John le Carré Agent Running In The Field Viking
James Clavell King Rat Hodder & Stoughton
Joe Hill Full Throttle William Morrow
John Varley Red Lightning Ace
John Varley Rolling Thunder Ace
Matthew Hughes A God in Chains Edge SFF Publishing
John Connolly Night Music Hodder & Stoughton
John Connolly Every Dead Thing Pocket Books
Louis Theroux Got to Get Theroux This Pan Macmillan
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