Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill by Sophie Hannah (2020)

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.
What all of them have in common is Hannah’s particular fascination with motive. In an article* from The Irish Times collecting crime writers’ opinions of Agatha Christie, Hannah discusses what she calls the “non-transferable motive”, a motive which no other character in no other novel would have, but which you can sympathise with without necessarily viewing it as something that would drive you to murder. The Hannah Poirots all hinge on a point of psychology that’s always well-orchestrated, whatever you think of her skill at reproducing the Christie style. With Kingfisher Hill Hannah couples that psychological aspect with the most consciously "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" example of her storytelling. Most of what defined detective novels of the 20th-century interwar period can be found here. It’s heavy on dialogue, with descriptive writing kept economical. The settings are picturesque. (It mostly takes place on a country estate where wealthy Londoners live and share facilities like swimming pools, golf courses, etc.) The story is narrated by an audience surrogate for whom Poirot can patiently lay out and remind of the clues, in the form of nice-but-dim Inspector Catchpool. And, of course, the denouement involves the detective gathering everyone in the drawing room to expose the killer. For a while when I started this book I was worried that it had fallen into the same trap as The Monogram Murders, due to it piling mystery upon mystery upon mystery. I think even before the first chapter is finished there’s three distinct, dauntingly complicated puzzles to solve. (Maybe more like two or three chapters.) There are times during the narrative when you feel as Catchpool does, hopelessly lost in a sea of nonsense that can never be worked out. But once I’d read and taken in the solution it all felt surprisingly straightforward, if weighted with lots of details and tangents. The premise is that our favourite fussy Belgian Hercule Poirot, private detective and police consultant of great renown, has been called by Richard Devonport to the Kingfisher Hill estate. His brother Frank was recently murdered in the family home and Frank's fiance, Helen Acton, confessed to the crime. Richard, however, believes that she’s innocent, but living in fear of his monstrous mother and father, for whom the murder of their son amounts to a social scandal that must be ignored at all costs, he has compelled Poirot to investigate in secrecy. Meanwhile, Poirot and Catchpool encounter a young woman on the coach to Kingfisher Hill who insists that if she sits in a particular seat, she’ll be murdered… Critical and fan reaction to Hannah’s continuation of Christie’s work has been mixed, from what I’ve seen. The novels must be successful or else they wouldn’t keep being published, but as you’d expect there’s a contingency of purists for whom the idea of anyone continuing the late writer’s work is abominable. While I can appreciate their protectiveness of a property they’re fond of, I find the attitude silly. Much is made of how the Christie estate held back for decades on allowing other authors to use her characters, but I’d argue that this was less due to their loyalty than the fierce guardianship given by Christie’s daughter, Rosalind Hicks. Hicks resented any and all attempts to modernise her mother's stories. When she died in 2004 the estate went to her son, Mathew Prichard, and after a time it was no doubt decided that some new material to sell wouldn’t go amiss. I’m sure it won’t be an eternity until Hannah’s books are optioned for television. (I’m a bit surprised that they haven’t been already.) Also, profits aside, the Christie canon isn’t sacred, or shouldn’t be. These aren’t the Gospels we’re talking about, they’re detective stories. Why not let a new writer have a whack at entertaining millions of readers, potentially drawing more readers to Christie in the process? With regard to differences between the two, Sophie Hannah is a more textured and thematic writer than Agatha Christie. Christie used what the Oxford Guide to British Women Writers refers to as “storybook settings and playing card characters". Reading her stories, then, is best approached like playing a game of Cluedo. This is part of what makes her work so comforting. Poirot is a lovely little caricature with whom you can identify and like, the supporting cast is drawn from types you can recognise (the spoilt daddy’s girl, the gruff soldier, the weak but handsome young man, etc), and they all live in a comfortable world where moral absolutism wins out. You can enjoy following a fiendishly taut plot as it’s unwound by its creator, challenging your intellect as you go, and in the end it’s all tidied up to everyone’s satisfaction, most importantly yours. Hannah either captures or comes close to a lot of that, but she’s more concerned with subtleties of personality than Christie ever was. So where a Christie plot might hinge on a character hearing only half of a conversation and thus missing the crucial context, or a clue having a different significance than that which you were led to imagine for it, a Hannah more often hinges on someone’s psychological motivation being misunderstood. (That said, Kingfisher Hill is "fairly clued", as mystery buffs say.) Hannah’s Poirots aren’t quite the warm bath that Christie’s are, then, and of course they don't equal the incredible sleight-of-hand narrative tricks that made Christie a genius. (What novel could?) But in lieu of that they do provide meatier characterisation and a little more in the way of psychological suspense. Like Closed Casket and The Mystery of Three Quarters, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is a family murder. On meeting the odious Sir Sidney and Lilian Devonport I was geared up for a good bunch of grotesques, a la one of my favourite classical crime novels, Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard. (In which the aristocratic clan includes a Hitler fanatic, a sadomasochist, and other assorted crazies.) Alas, the story isn’t quite that sort of scene, though I did relish the sheer selfishness and detachment from reality that the elder Devonports exhibit. With parents this bizarre, it’s a wonder their children turned out as normal as they did, even if they do range between the vindictive and the cowed. (Their daughter is Daisy, one of those high-strung and vicious little upper-class madams you see in Golden Age stories.) The Kingfisher Hill estate is pleasantly depicted, in a manner that gives a good flavour of the 1920s. That said, and again like many interwar detective stories (especially Christies), the novel isn’t much anchored in space and time beyond a general sense of its era. I only worked out that it was set in the ‘20s based on one character mentioning debates around the gold standard, which drew me to the Gold Standard Act of 1925. Don’t quote me on the date of the story’s setting, though. The reveal of Frank’s killer is slightly anticlimactic, depending on a bluff that, while clever, is too simple for the sheer amount of twists that Hannah piles on beforehand. You expect something more out of left field, given how much to sort through there’s been. Still, that’s far from all there is to the denouement and there’s plentiful surprises to be had, ending in a story that’s satisfying if unlikely. And whoever wanted their Golden Age detective fiction to be likely? *

Friday, 4 September 2020

Doctor No by Ian Fleming (1958)


Reviled in its day as a sadomasochistic celebration of pain, death, and snobbery, Doctor No re-emerges as the best of the Bond novels. At least in my opinion. It's also the one that comes closest to the fringes of fantasy. None of the Bonds are exactly realistic, of course. Though they benefit from Ian Fleming's years of experience as a Naval Intelligence office, they're more in the tradition of Victorian adventure stories than the hyper-realistic spy novels of, say, John le Carré.

But of all of them, Doctor No is the only one with a villain ripped straight from Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels (but who's weirder and more menacing in Fleming's hands). In some ways, it's the book that created a lot of the cliches we associate with the Bond franchise and which were parodied by the Austin Powers films, like the outrageous island lair with numerous disposable henchmen. (Though, as always, the book's finer details are grittier and nastier than in any film interpretation.)

For those interested in such things, Fleming's original introduction of the Bond girl, white Jamaican Honeychile "Honey" Rider, immortalised in the Sean Connery film by Ursula Andress, doesn't feature her emerging from the sea but rather viewed from, ahem, behind while standing on the beach stark naked. Fleming makes sure to describe the movement of her gluteal muscles on becoming aware of Bond's presence, as is typical. Bond girls in the books are certainly male fantasies. They're rarely the bimbos they're sometimes unfairly accused of being, however. Innocent Honey may be, weak she ain't.

The plot involves Bond being sent for some R&R in idyllic colonial Jamaica after a painful tangle with assassins in his previous adventure, From Russia, with Love. Of course, there's no rest for the double 0s, and soon what seems like a standard enquiry as to the whereabouts of a missing agent and his secretary turns into a journey to the dark heart of an almost mythical nemesis. For the native Jamaican fishermen live in fear of a mysterious entrepreneur and his private island, on which he harvests guano (seabird dung) to be made into fertiliser. Rumour has it that the island is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and that the island owner's influence stretches far...

The Bond formula is one I've always enjoyed. It's simple:

1. Take Bond, then add a megalomaniac villain and a sexy/spunky young heroine.
2. The heroes are captured by the villain. They are then treated to an exquisite reception (luxury dinner, booze, the works).
3. Bond is then tortured in some exotic fashion. (Allowing Fleming to indulge his "sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me" side.)
4. The villain relates his life story (my favourite part of the formula, as the monologue is always an intriguing and amusing one).
5. The villain places Bond and the heroine in what he thinks is an impregnable death-trap (my least favourite part; as many have wondered before me: why not just shoot them?).
6. Bond and the heroine escape, the villain dies in a gruesomely picturesque/ironic fashion, and then the romantic side of things with the girl is tied-up.

Despite its abundance of outré elements, Doctor No is one of the most adherent to this formula. Much more so than From Russia, and with reason. At points in his career as a novelist Fleming tried to vary the formula, with results that are mixed at best. For instance, the short story "Quantum of Solace" (made into one of the more mediocre Bond films, which is an in-name-only adaptation), collected in For Your Eyes Only, tried to explore human nature in the style of mainstream novelist W Somerset Maugham. 

In a similar vein and most infamously, The Spy Who Loved Me is a novella about a depressed young woman for the first two-thirds, before James Bond belatedly wanders on. Understandably, the Roger Moore film of the same name threw out this plot and replaced it with a mad scientist who wants to drown the world.

With From Russia, Fleming experimented with the formula by introducing Bond relatively late in the narrative, and although the book received largely positive reviews, there was a contingent that wasn't happy. As always seemed to be the case with the Bond books, honestly. Popular as they were, there always seemed to be a group of "haters", so to speak. These were largely professional critics, who seemed to have an issue with violent escapist thrillers in the first place.

Well, shucks to them, because Doctor No is brilliant. While it closely follows the formula, it also turns it up to 11, so that the megalomaniac is really megalomaniacal, the torture really bizarre, and the heroine like something from a dream (a heterosexual male's dream, anyway). There's a lot of racialist stuff that unfortunately comes with the territory when talking about a book written by an Englishman during the colonial era (even if is at the end of that era), but if you can make allowances for the time, it won't matter.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Moonraker by Ian Fleming (1955)

The third in the original James Bond series by ex-Naval intelligence officer turned novelist Ian Fleming, Moonraker was praised by Fleming's pal (and neighbour in colonial Jamaica), playwright Noel Coward. Like many critics of the time Coward noted Fleming's vivid descriptive material and skilled pacing while calling the plot too far-fetched (though less so than the previous two Bond novels, Casino Royale and Live and Let Die, in Coward's estimation).

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

One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell (1971)

Out of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in Britain there grew a different style, the "whydunnit", distinct from the "whodunnit" in that motivation was just as important as identity. The plots in such novels were often just as complex as those from the golden age, but they had a realistic and psychological element not always associated with the drawing room mysteries of the prior generation, with their gentleman sleuths and storybook settings. In this way the British crime novel drew closer to the American school, which prioritised a "hardboiled" atmosphere or (as Raymond Chandler put it when describing Dashiell Hammett) taking the corpse out of the rose garden and dropping it into the alley.

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

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1963)

I've always preferred Fleming's original James Bond novels to the films, even the vaunted Sean Connerys, I think because they have a touch more eccentricity. Their individuality isn't always edifying, as in Fleming's racialist remarks about Koreans, weird obsession with torture (each novel has one such scene embedded into its structure), bizarre Freudian theories about sexuality, and of course the man's world sexism that was prevalent back then.

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.