Sophie Hannah’s fourth continuation novel in the Poirot series, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, is aggressively traditional in structure while retaining the psychological approach that marks the author’s work. Each of Hannah’s Poirots has been slightly different from the others. Her debut, The Monogram Murders, was a suspenseful and atmospheric novel about multiple corpses in a hotel which was ultimately too convoluted. (It’s the only one whose solution I can’t recall.) The second, Closed Casket, as if determined to learn from its predecessor’s mistake gave us a mystery with a beautifully simple solution. The Mystery of Three Quarters then followed this trend, before Kingfisher Hill came along and has now cycled back to the complexity of Monogram, but with a much tidier and easier to grasp denouement.
Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Friday, 7 August 2020
The criticisms of plot construction and believability in the Bond novels are not ones I agree with, by and large. Certainly the stories lurched between big set-pieces as opposed to knitting everything into a tidy whole. In this sense Fleming was a lot like one of his admirers, the American detective writer Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely).
Chandler said that when he came to Hollywood he met a producer who said that mystery stories were problematic on screen because they depended on a revelation made at the end of the film "while the audience was reaching for its hat." Chandler therefore set out to write mysteries where the interest is in the moment rather than the conclusion, and Fleming brings much the same style to his spy fiction. As for believability, who cares about that when the book's as exciting as it is? All I ask is that a story be coherent. Given that, I'd rather have atomic warheads and conspiracies over humdrum "realistic" plots any day.
Moonraker utilises the typical Bond formula, with a first act that's a plot unto itself, where Bond is called to a gentleman's club to play Bridge for high stakes against famous industrialist Sir Hugo Drax. Drax has been observed cheating by one of the club's administrators, a friend of Bond's superior, code-named M.
Since Drax is the overseer of a new rocket ("Moonraker") being prepped for demonstration as an example of Britain's postwar nuclear capability, M is keen to avoid the national embarrassment that such a scandal would cause. (This is still the age when gentlemen are judged on their sportsmanship. Cheating at cards would damage Drax's and by extension the Moonraker project's credibility.)
The affair is settled soon enough, but then Bond is obliged to visit the project in Dover. An inspecting officer has died in what looks like a disagreement over a girl, but more sinister motives may be in play.
A particular criticism levelled at Moonraker was from regular Bond readers. They wanted to know why after adventures in Monte Carlo, New York's Harlem neighbourhood, and colonial Jamaica, Bond was having an extended stay by the seaside. Moonraker never leaves Britain, and as one fan wrote, "we want taking out of ourselves, not sitting on the beach at Dover."
Though rarely struck with wanderlust and given to find travel a bore, I can see these readers' point. Especially when you consider that in the mid '50s most people reading novels had likely never travelled abroad unless with the army. Commercial air-travel was in its relative infancy and novels still served as a precious window into exotic cultures. Fleming's descriptive powers, bringing to life these foreign climes with sensual skill, added flavour.
That said, there's no reason why jolly old England needn't be as exciting as anywhere else, and setting the story on home turf has an added advantage for the modern reader in that there's less of the casual racism that Fleming is rather notorious for. You don't get any speeches about how Koreans are feral or cringe-worthy attempts at reproducing Jamaican patois. So, you know, swings and roundabouts. Less exotic vistas, but also less bigotry. (Though I personally view Fleming's racism as less a particular flaw and more just the product of the culture he was raised in; you'd be hard pressed to find a Naval officer of the colonial era who didn't hold assumptions about race.)
This time around the Bond girl is Gala Brand, a policewoman undercover as Drax's secretary. Though definitely viewed with a strong eye for their physical and feminine qualities, Fleming's original Bond girls were rarely bimbos. As much as Brand fits the narrative function of a damsel in distress (it would be a rare action novel in 1955 that depicted the damsel saving the knight), she's clever and resourceful and brave, and more level-headed at times than Bond. It's interesting to note how Bond has softened just a little towards women by this third book. During a car chase in Casino Royale he sounds off about how much of a nuisance they are to the Secret Service, always getting themselves kidnapped. Here he's less aggrieved at having to rescue Gala.
Drax is a fine antagonist, all surface charm and underlying hateful arrogance. When you learn what his plans really are there's some great back-and-forth between him and Bond, especially during the compulsory don't-kill-the-hero-but-do-tell-him-your-top-secret-plans-and-leave-him-in-a-faulty-trap scene. (The one aspect of the Fleming formula that irks me, honestly. Surely he could have smoothed out such a plot convenience if he'd had a mind to.)
Moonraker is a fast-paced and exciting Bond novel. It's worth reading just for its atypical blighty-bound setting, as well as for the card game in Act I. I first realised what a great storyteller Fleming was when he made me care about complex gambling, which is a subject I knew and cared nothing about before reading him.
Monday, 13 July 2020
Just as four names dominated the Golden Age of Detective Fiction - Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, and New Zealand's own Ngaio Marsh - so four are associated with the whydunnit: Ruth Rendell, PD James, Colin Dexter, and Scotland's Val McDermid (the only one still living, and whose style represents a shift even further away from the Golden Age, towards gruesome serial killer fiction of sexual and psycho-pathology).
Of the four, Rendell was the most prolific and perhaps the most innovative in terms of genre. She started out writing police procedurals starring Inspector Wexford, and although the early Wexfords make fairly dry reading today, they were groundbreaking in some of the themes they explored. Right from the beginning, she was also writing standalone novels that developed into some of her most renowned work, psychological thrillers that eschewed traditional mystery structures in favour of presenting the reasons why crime happens.
(Incidentally, The Reasons Why was a 1995 non-fiction work in which Rendell collects various examples from literature - including novels, history, and religious texts - dealing with murder.)
These days the whydunnits of Rendell, James, and Dexter are rare (McDermid's serial killer fictions are still popular, given the public's obsession with true crime). Certainly Rendell's particular voice is hard to come by. Though she wrote largely in the third-person, she's not afraid to make moral judgements regarding her characters and her touch is probably too influenced by her personal values for the modern taste. Her gift was for presenting even the worst people with empathy, while drawing a clear line between right and wrong behaviour.
All that brings us to One Across, Two Down, the fourth of her standalone novels before she really hit her stride with 1976's A Demon in My View. As such, One Across is fairly atypical when placed in the larger context of her thrillers. The criminal protagonist isn't presented in as empathetic a light and the narrative voice is a little colder.
The main character is Stanley Manning, a frequently unemployed ne'er-do-well in his mid-forties and married to Vera Kinnaway, whose mother Maud is the bane of his life. The widow Maud is a controlling monster who's despised Stanley for all twenty years of his marriage to her daughter, owing to his having spent two years in prison as a teenager for mugging an old woman, and being generally of a sort she considers far beneath her family. Stanley's treasured hobby is crosswords, and he devises a complex puzzle of his own on learning that his mother-in-law has £20,000 tucked away for her daughter's inheritance.
If there's a flaw in the novel it's that Stanley's unlike-ability sometimes threatens to hinder interest in his fate. It never quite does that, however, because of Rendell's brilliance with characterisation. If Maud was even slightly sympathetic Stanley wouldn't work as a protagonist at all, and the story would just be a lot of sordid goings-on around a scumbag preying on an elderly widow. But although Stanley is a childish, churlish, misogynistic prick who uses his wife like a domestic servant, Maud is a bigoted and equally selfish control freak who's just as exploitative of Vera, all too eager to judge people for their failings without ever pausing to look at her own.
At one point Rendell compares Maud and Stanley to predators of equal stature facing off against each other, and that has a ring of truth to it. If you wonder why Vera stays with Stanley when she gets no emotional and very little financial or even domestic support from him, the book is a window into British social mores once upon a time. Unhappy marriages were a frequent motif in Rendell's books. She came from a time when couples stayed together out of obligation, be it "for the children", to avoid the shame of being a divorcee (something that women had to worry about a lot more than men), or just because seeing it through was the respectable thing, even when all the love had gone.
The book's plot is elegantly and fiendishly constructed. It was only in the last years of her life that Rendell began to lose her grip on story structure somewhat, and One Across depicts her at the absolute peak of her powers as to narrative, developing threads with a relentlessness that backs characters into corners without ever feeling too contrived. One of the interesting aspects of Stanley's story is that he's not exactly a monster, as much as he does terrible things. He's more swept along by fate and terrible decision-making. So long as you have some tolerance for a slightly slower pace, I'd recommend One Across as a great psychological thriller.
Sunday, 5 July 2020
But even those elements make up a strong personality that gives the books dimension, and no doubt feed the all-out bonkers aspects that I love in the stories, like the lesbian dominatrix Rosa Klebb and her muscleman assistant who's driven to murderous fury by the full moon (From Russia, with Love). By and large, the original Bond stories were an odd but successful mix of realistic detail (Fleming himself was a naval intelligence officer) and folklore, a bridge between the Victorian adventure serial (King Solomon's Mines, Treasure Island) and modern spy novel (The Day of the Jackal, The Hunt for Red October).
Bond's debut, Casino Royale, is among the briefer and more loosely plotted of the series. American author and critic Anthony Boucher (rhymes with "voucher"), later described as "an avid anti-Bond and an anti-Fleming man" by biographer John Pearson, was enthusiastic about Fleming's prose style when it came to the card game at Royale's core ("as exciting a gambling sequence as I've ever read") but otherwise decried the storytelling, as he'd go on to do in reviews of other Bond books. Perhaps his most damning assessment is from a review of the short story collection For Your Eyes Only: "[Fleming's] basic weakness as a storyteller ... can be summed up in two words: 'no story.'"
I find this latter criticism at once strange and understandable. If you define "story" as "something happening to someone" (the definition made by crime writer John D MacDonald) then the Bond novels are full of it. But Boucher, I think, was a disciple of the intricately plotted thriller school (his locked room mystery, Nine Times Nine, has been voted the ninth best of its kind) and Fleming was a lot more about set-piece than plot.
In Royale the big set-piece is the card game, rounds of baccarat played at a French resort against "Le Chiffre", an alias meaning "The Number". Le Chiffre is the financial manager of a trade union secretly controlled by Soviet counterintelligence.
(Trade unions were popular boogeymen for conservative writers of the era. Their fictional puppet-masters included such groups as communists and even Satanists.)
This is our first introduction to SMERSH, the fictional Russian outfit whose motto is "death to spies", and was the precursor in the Bond universe to SPECTRE. Le Chiffre has been careless with his overseers' funds, it seems, and is trying to win them back at the baccarat tables of Casino Royale. British intelligence spots a chance to empty the enemy's coffers and neutralise one of their agents in one fell swoop, so gives keen card-player James Bond, one of the licensed to kill double-O unit, a wad of cash with which to defeat Le Chiffre.
If the plot seems contrived so as to give Fleming a chance to write what he knows, ie cards, that's no flaw, since he writes about it beautifully. I know nothing about card games beyond rounds of Benny and UNO played with my grandparents at their beach hut, and yet I was able to follow everything that was going on, and was put on the edge of my seat by it.
The game is followed by the requisite torture scene, which became famous when it was enacted in the 2006 film. If you don't know, let's just say it involves a chair without a seat and the most delicate part of the male anatomy. Sadomasochism is a dark undercurrent in the Bond books, no doubt inspired by Fleming's own flirtations with S&M. Those used to the rather more innocent, cowboys-and-Indians tone of the early movies may be startled by a discourse on how prisoners of war come to develop an erotic fascination with their tormentors.
It must be said that once the baccarat game is over and a gruesome round with Le Chiffre has been decided, the plot is basically over and the previously fast-paced narrative shifts gear into an almost superfluous third act. This involves Bond and Vesper Lynd, a female agent he's picked up along the way, moaning about a shabby French hotel and working out how they feel about each other. The story does end with a sharp sting, illustrating Bond's unforgiving nature, but it's preceded by an awful lot of fluff that feels plucked from a novelette. It's been observed that Fleming was likely more suited to short stories and novellas than the longer form, and Casino Royale is brief at 213 pages
The character of Bond is a lot colder in the books than he is in the films. Of the movie interpretations, Sean Connery's is undoubtedly the most faithful, radiating brute and unsentimental masculinity. But even Connery isn't quite as icy as Fleming's original, who does have a strong moral code and sense of right and wrong, but is never once woolly about what it is he has to do or whom he has to destroy. Daniel Craig's Bonds contain a bit more of the books' darkness, though in appealing to modern audiences place themselves an age away from the cocktails, fine dining, and gentleman's club atmosphere that Fleming evoked.
The reading of a Bond book, whatever structural flaws or outdated attitudes there may be, is pure pleasure. A journalist before he became a novelist, Fleming's eye for detail when writing scenes and characters is formidable.