Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels: Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (ed.)

The name of Leslie Charteris jumped out from the cover: it was both attractive and worrying. Attractive because any Saint adventure is unlikely to be uninteresting; worrying because the Saint is more a detective than a spy. The suspicion got stronger when I opened the book and noticed that the first story was The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans – one of those rare stories featuring the Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. I succumbed nevertheless, or more truthfully, because I saw these names. Add to Charteris and Holmes Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, a bit of James Bond and Modesty Blaise and an Erle Stanley Gardner piece (though not featuring that crack lawyer Perry Mason), and I reckoned it fair to expect some reasonable pulp here, even if I hadn’t read anything from any of the other authors featured in this collection.

To begin with, my suspicions were not misplaced. None of the twelve stories featured in the collection involve espionage, at least in the sense you would perhaps expect in the full-length Ashenden novels or the John le Carré ones. Yes, most of the stories involve a spy, but they don’t involve spying. And in the case of Holmes, the spy is not even the protagonist.

If Octopussy is not the weakest Bond adventure ever, then I would be hard put to understand the legend of 007. I remember the film being very different from the short story featured here, and the reason is not difficult to see. There is just no action worth a spy in the tale – Bond hardly does any spying, any racing or any death-defying stunts. And, horror of horrors, 007 doesn’t even kill Major Dexter Smythe.

The anti-climax in the Modesty Blaise starrer The Giggle-Wrecker, while funny, is just too daft to be believable; The Danger Zone suggests that Erle Stanley Gardner is clearly lost without Perry Mason; the Ashenden tale, The Traitor, is almost a family drama in its poignancy; and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans is certainly not one of the better Holmes adventures, notwithstanding the presence of the almost unbelievably impressive Mycroft – the villain is captured and exposed a bit too easily.

The biggest disappointment of the collection has to be the Saint caper, The Sizzling Saboteur. But for the absence of techno-gadgetry and the aggressive cavorting with women, I rate the Saint a more interesting character than Bond. But in this novella, the real Saint just doesn’t show up. And the bartender being the “butler” as it were, while admittedly a nice twist, did bring down the intensity of the narrative, lacking as the bartender did the organisation to be a real threat to the Saint.

And then there are the one that make up the numbers. John D. MacDonald’s Betrayed is unbelievably amateurish, Cornell Woolrich’s Tokyo, 1941 too full of maudlin patriotism and Edward D. Hoch’s The People of the Peacock just has too many elements to make for a coherent tale.

Three tales in the collection could perhaps have progressed to a passable level if they had been treated as full-length novels: Bruce Cassiday’s Deep-Sleep, John Jakes’ Dr. Sweetkill and Michael Gilbert’s The Spoilers. However, the format (more short story than novella in most cases in the collection, except perhaps the Charteris one) makes them hurried, and all three fall into the same trap: a weak villain organisation though an unmistakeably strong villain.

Bill Pronzini and that other great aggregator, Maxim Jakubowski, did for a living what people like me do on the side – read crime fiction. They have spent most of their working life providing such collections. The usual trend with these collections is that they tend to be a mixed bag – some average works from well-known names, some hidden gems and some indifferent authors peddling some inane ware. But Pronzini and Greenberg are much more consistent in their pick here – all the selections are consistently disappointing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Travels with Herodotus: Ryszard Kapuściński

Struck by a desire to cross the border, even if to just cross it and come right back, Ryszard Kapuściński tells his editor in chief Irena Tarlowska that he would like to go abroad, perhaps to Czechoslovakia. As fate would have it, he is identified to go slightly further than that: to India.

At the end of our conversation, during which I learned that I would indeed be going forth into the world, Tarlowska reached into a cabinet, took out a book, and handing it to me said: “Here, a present, for the road.” It was a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, The Histories.

A simple and rather uneventful start to a great friendship.

Kapuściński arrives in India and let alone the sundry Indian languages, he doesn’t even know English. So he reads Ernest Hemingway, yes, Ernest Hemingway, to learn English. And as he gets going on that, he marvels (or should that be shudders?) at the power of language.

Language stuck me at that moment as something material, something with a physical dimension, a wall rising up in the middle of the road and preventing my going further, closing off the world, making it unattainable.

This fear of language persists with Kapuściński as he moves on to China and to some of the other countries he travels to as well. Thankfully, it didn’t deter the man who had lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, been jailed 40 times and survived four death sentences according to his Wikipedia entry.

The key to Kapuściński’s success perhaps lies in his curiosity. Even as he encounters Herodotus, he wonders about how he was as a boy, what his toys were, what his father did, even what his memories of his childhood were.

Curiosity naturally leads to observation, a trait manifested when, after going through India and China, he wonders about the faces of Hindus and Chinese.

The face of the Hindu contains surprise: a red dot on a forehead, colourful patterns on cheeks, or a smile that reveals teeth stained dark brown. The face of a Chinese holds no such surprises. It is smooth and has unvarying features. It seems as if nothing can ruffle its still surface. It is a face that communicates that it is hiding something about which we know nothing and never will.

Kapuściński’s readings of Herodotus are as interesting as his discoveries in this travel. His profile of Herodotus indicates his veneration for the Greek historian.

He is a consummate reporter: he wanders, looks, talks, listens, in order that he can later note down what he learned and saw, or simply to remember better.

And his verdict on The Histories?

The Histories is the product of natural talent but also an example of writerly craft, of technical mastery.

Kapuściński’s insight on the Greeks of Herodotus’ era suggests that he follows Herodotus’ approach as well.

They are far from being born killers. They do not have a taste for soldiering. If there is an opportunity to avoid a clash, they eagerly seize it. Sometimes they will go to great lengths just to avoid as a skirmish. Unless the opponent is another Greek, of course—in which case they will wrestle with them furiously.

Herodotus believes that history is the narrative of conflict. Kapuściński layers that by wondering: if reason ruled the world, would history even exist?

Kapuściński’s adoration of Herodotus perhaps emerges because of the latter’s view of the subjectivity of history.

…however evolved our methods, we are never in the presence of unmediated history, but of history recounted, presented, history as it appeared to someone, as he or she believes it to have been.

This is precisely what Kapuściński does for a living – listening and recounting. So when he asserts that reportage comes from travel, people you meet and homework (from his Lettre Ulysses Award Key Note Speech 2003), he is referring to history as well.

Travels with Herodotus is part travelogue, part memoir, part biography and part book review. You can quibble on whether it is too much of one and perhaps a little less of another, but you are unlikely to disagree that it is a great book.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Murder in Memoriam: Didier Daeninckx

It’s October 1961, and the Algerians are rebelling against the French, and one such demonstration is in progress in Paris. But that shouldn’t really matter to the Latin and History teacher, Roger Thiraud. His wife is pregnant, a situation that induces in him a passion for the history of childhood. Sure he has a guilty secret, but a love for horror movies, even in the 1960s, is hardly something that will attract the attention of the French government, or the Algerian rebels for that matter. As the demonstration gathers momentum, Roger stops just outside his home, and watches both fascinated and horrified by what was taking place in front of him. That is when a man armed with a gun walks up to Roger Thiraud and shoots him dead.

Twenty years later, Roger’s son Bernard Thiraud and his fiancée Claudine Chenet stop over at Toulouse for a couple of days en route to Morocco. In those two days, Bernard spends all his time rummaging through the archives at the town hall. As he wraps up his research on the second day and heads to the hotel and to Claudine, a man armed with a gun shoots Bernard Thiraud dead.

The first murder is brushed under the carpet of the demonstration, with Roger Thiraud being considered an accidental albeit unfortunate victim. Inspector Cadin in Toulouse investigates the second murder. And that is the crime fiction part of Murder in Memoriam.

The Algerian demonstrations of 1961 form the searing sub-plot. What happens when there is political unrest in the country? How does it impact the men in power, the men in authority and the common man? That’s the underbelly of Murder in Memoriam.

As a murder mystery, it is tempting to poke holes at some aspects of the investigation. Like how Muriel Thiraud, Roger’s wife, comes out of her twenty-year reverie and helps Inspector Cadin rather effortlessly. Like how Inspector Cadin almost misses as simple a trick as the killer taking an alternate, longer escape route from Toulouse to Paris. In the absence of the political sub-text, those slips would have mattered more. But not in Murder in Memoriam. The power with which Daeninckx lays bare the events behind events of 1960s France overpowers all other aspects of this book. And if that doesn’t satisfy you, the denouement should – as chilling as any I have come across in a long long time. And then there is the post-script.

I’d already been told to soft pedal it. At the Ministry they were drawing up a version more in keeping with the idea that the citizenry had of the guardians of public order.