Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Slow Burner and '50s Britain

The plot of William Haggard's Slow Burner (reviewed here) centers on a British program to develop civil nuclear power in the hopes of scoring a major economic coup.

While nuclear energy has never stopped being topical, this idea was especially so at the time because in the '50s the British government really did bet heavily on its scientists achieving a breakthrough in civil nuclear power, both for the sake of cheap domestic power, and as a source of export income with which to achieve a healthy balance of payments (as a country dependent on massive food and energy imports, while its manufacturing and financial position slipped).1 The object of those hopes was the Magnox reactor, which never justified such a confidence (the world generally preferred the American pressurized water reactor, today still the mainstay of civil nuclear power), but the expectations do come to pass in Slow Burner, specifically in the titular, very different technology. A nuclear power source compact enough to be installed in a suburban attic and packed up and driven about in the boot of a car, it put Britain twenty years ahead of the rest of the world in that field--the only way, the book says, that the British economy was not twenty years behind it.

Moreover, the implications of this for Britain's economic life are repeatedly underlined within the story, so much so that the characters worry that the thief might be running West as much as East, and seem more concerned about the implications of losing perhaps their only prospect for a healthy balance of payments than they are about the Soviets upsetting the Cold War balance of power. Indeed, it is Britain's economic predicament that Sir Jeremy Bates has in mind ("Fifty or sixty million . . . and food, at the level of subsistence, for perhaps forty"; manufacturing plant "a generation out of date") when he thinks to himself that a "man who could consider going abroad, selling his knowledge, was worse than a danger, worse than an apostate" (114).

The point comes up in smaller ways, too--a burglar enlisted by Colonel Russell's people for an illegal black bag job told that if things go badly he could be resettled where he likes in the Sterling Area.

Sterling Area? he wonders, surprised by the qualification.

Yes, he's told, because just now dollars are hard to come by.

Next to this any menace from the Soviets in the book appears vague, shadowy.

Unsurprisingly, a good part of the book's interest for me was in its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain, capable of surprising in such ways.

1. While it doesn't say much about the government's specifically nuclear ambitions, David Edgerton's Warfare State nonetheless has a good deal to say about British policy regarding R & D in these years, and the view of some of its critics that it was too devoted to big-ticket prestige projects (of which the Concorde supersonic transport was another example).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

An Un-Bond: William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell

I remember that when reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels I was struck by how much the character and his outlook, his associated image of glamour, the basis of his existence as a globe-trotting British agent (policing the Empire in its last days, playing junior but more skillful partner to the Americans in the Cold War contest) was very much a product of a particular period that has since passed. This has been so much the case that novelists working in the series, less able to rely on brand name and flashy filmmaking than their cinematic counterparts, have in recent years so often seen no option but to go back to those days--Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd taking Bond back to the '60s, Anthony Horowitz taking Bond all the way back to the '50s (or in the case of Jeffrey Deaver, starting with the character again from scratch in the present day).

Still, Fleming's creation has held up considerably better than Haggard's, and his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell, head of the imaginary Special Executive.

Russell, like Bond, is a formidable ex-military counterintelligence operative; like Bond, handsome, suave, urbane; like Bond a man who enjoys good food, drink and the other luxuries. Still, his version of luxury is different. Instead of the dated image of jet air travel and casinos, there is the even more dated image of the club, the country house, enjoyed by this old officer with his regimental moustache and pipe. Bond might brood about the taxi driver's manner, but Russell never has occasion to, appearing to exist untouched by the changes of the world surrounding him.

Indeed, at times Haggard's characters can almost seem caricatures (at least, to an American rather sensitized to "stage Englishmen" by terrible Hollywood writing). This is particularly the case when Haggard writes figures like Sir Jeremy Bates in Slow Burner, with the following line exemplary: "it was barely four. It would be unheard of for Sir Jeremy Bates to leave his office at tea-time" (116); or better still, when Bates comes home after a drunk to a valet who offers no question or comment:
Confound and damn the fellow! His lack of interest was an insult. A gentleman's gentleman--the convention had survived, the convention of the English manservant, secret, uninquiring, impersonal (111-112).
It is much the same with William Nichol, who after nearly getting run over by a would-be assassin in a big truck, and losing his hat, takes a cab because he "was not a man to walk hatless in London" (127).

Such things are even more evident in their social attitudes, the bigotry and snobbery fiercer and more bluntly expressed. While Fleming wrote many a foreign villain, he generally eschewed depicting treachery by Britons. The French unions may have been a Soviet fifth column in Casino Royale--but the British unions (even the Jamaican unions), however much Fleming disliked organized labor, were in the end no traitors to the nation. Many a scientist can be counted among Fleming's villains--but scientists as such were not presented as a perverse lot.

Not so with Haggard, who condemns scientists as such as untrustworthy because their affinity for reason makes them a bunch of damned crypto-Communists; and when the traitor is exposed, the scientist is indeed a man of "the far, far Left," while also being "no gentleman," not solely as a matter of his less than upper-crust social origin but his "character" in his dealings with his wife.1 (And that is not only all we know about him, but, it seems in Haggard's rather old-fashioned view, all that we need to know.)

All that makes it seem less surprising that there was never a Colonel Russell film franchise--and why, even by the standards of series' that did not land successful movie franchises to keep him on people's minds, the books have slipped into comparative obscurity.

1. "Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies" (58)--a prospect the narrator clearly regarded with horror.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard

Boston: Little, Brown, 1965, pp. 192.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

Until recently I had read only one novel by William Haggard, mainly because it was conveniently available at the time--Yesterday's Enemy (discussed here).

In hindsight, that book--a relatively late entry into his long-running Colonel Russell series--seems less characteristic than I took it for. The book had Russell out in the world on his own, away from the milieu of British officialdom that looms so large in his other books.

Recently, however, I picked up the first book in the series, Slow Burner, particularly with an eye--again--to the status he once enjoyed as a master of the form, on a level with writers like le Carre or Fleming. Reading it I found Haggard's writing on the whole plain and straightforward (much more so than le Carre, or even Fleming), but not artless. He has an admirable economy with words, and his writing an appealing crispness and polish, especially evident in his use of evocative sentence fragments. ("Afternoon tea on magnificent silver and not enough to eat" (72), he wrote, in a suggestion of the extremely shabby gentility of a family of Irish aristocrats.)

I would add, too, that his interest in character is considerable. Like le Carre Haggard has a deep interest in this particular milieu--the grown-up public schoolboy-senior civil servant-class of which Haggard was a part; indeed, as le Carre has said was the case with himself, this can seem his primary interest, and his writing about espionage just his way of approaching it. The ambitions and anxieties of the people living in this world, their affections and enmities, their jealousies and prejudices, are the stuff of the book to a very great degree--though unlike le Carre Haggard is not terribly critical of his subject. Indeed, while his characters were clearly not of our time, they did not seem nearly so much out of theirs as they do in le Carre's books. There is insecurity about the country's position, and about their class's place within the country--the novel actually opens with senior government scientist William Nichol feeling inhibited about being seen smoking a cigar in the back of the government car in which he is being driven in the current age of austerity and egalitarianism--but one does not get the sense that the country's imperial stature and its traditional ruling class are finished, the way one does reading about Smiley and his people.

The book reflects this in its handling of its two principal plot threads--one, the playing out of the complex of personal antagonisms within the Establishment that eventually leads to attempted murder (particularly that centering on Sir Jeremy Bates and Nichol); and the other, a more conventional spy tale of identifying and stopping a traitorous scientist selling out Queen and Country. The former gets the greater attention, and frankly holds more interest, while the latter is rather slow-moving, and slight on thriller mechanics, the more so because the central character, Colonel Charles Russell, is chief of a counterintelligence service (the imaginary Special Executive) rather than an agent, and one who for the most part acts like a service chief, giving orders and dealing with other officials, rather than playing spy games out in the field in spite of his position. Surveillance is much more often talked about than portrayed; while the one piece of black bag work shown rather than just discussed is essentially played for laughs--and like many an old comedy, concludes with wedding bells.

On the whole the result is uneven, but engaging--if more for its idiosyncracies, the stronger of its characterizations, and its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain (a matter meriting its own post, here) than the actual spy story within it, whether taken from the standpoint of le Carre-like drama, or Fleming-like thrills.

Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton

New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2006, pp. 382.

Before delving into a discussion of Edgerton's book, it is important to remember the context in which he wrote--and especially the "conventional wisdom" about British history to which he opposes his own, different analysis. It goes something like this:
Britain has historically been a pacific, free-trading nation, with a strong anti-statist, anti-militarist tradition--and, perhaps not so science-minded as some of its people might have wished--so that one can think of it as "the un-Germany." Accordingly Britain's creation of massive armies to help resist Germany's attempts to dominate the European continent in the world wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945) was something exceptional. Indeed, the epoch-making character of the change was reflected in the way this mobilization contributed to the transformation of the order at home--most notably in the rise of the Labor Party and the establishment of the welfare state after World War I and especially World War II, which proved the dominant theme of the nation's history for the generation that followed.
Liberals tend to view this reading of the past very favorably, to glorify Britain's being a liberal un-Germany. By contrast, others are more critical. Conservatives, epitomized perhaps by Corelli Barnett, view Britain's anti-statism and anti-militarism, and the lack of enthusiasm for science and especially applied science, as weaknesses which disadvantaged it in industrial and economic competition. They hold, moreover, that this economic weakness, in combination with anti-militarism, left the country ill-prepared for the wars it had to fight, and ultimately cost it a great deal of blood and treasure, prosperity and power. And many on the left, if of a technocratic mold (a C.P. Snow, for example), while not buying all of this critique (they generally do not wish for a more militaristic Britain), do nonetheless espouse significant parts of it--quick enough to attribute Britain's industrial, economic and social failings to the grip of an outmoded ruling class and its prejudices (its disregard for science, etc.) on its political life.

In Edgerton's view all this overlooks the reality of a massive British "warfare state"--a large "military-industrial complex," comparable to that of the United States, which was not an exceptional product of wartime, but was massive through the interwar years and after; which for significant portions of even relatively recent peacetime British history consumed more resources than social services; and in practice represented massive state intervention in industry, the economy, science and British life generally. Indeed, Edgerton argues that acknowledging the warfare state's place in British life--the size and cost of the armed forces, their connections with the political, industrial and scientific establishments--automatically complicates, subverts and even debunks the conventional ideas about British history (the works promulgating which are in his phrasing "anti-histories," for giving us claims so much at odds with the facts).

In arguing this view Edgerton offers both a history of the warfare state for the period identified in the subtitle (1920-1970), and the ways in which its reality clashes with the received historiography--two objects to which almost equal time is devoted (five chapters principally given over to the former, three to the latter). Given the difference, and the scale of his efforts on both accounts, it may be best to discuss them separately.

In presenting the history of the warfare state, Edgerton does not present a complete or comprehensive picture--which would have to begin long before 1920 (the 1880s at the latest), and continue up to the present. Moreover, rather than rendering full coverage even of the 1920-1970 period on which he focuses, the five chapters that deal with its actual history look at paticular aspects over particular periods (the World War II-era research effort, the Harold Wilson-era rhetoric and policymaking about the "white heat" of the scientific-technological revolution). Unsurprisingly, there is much that might be discussed which gets little attention (like how the warfare state interacted with the broader line of British economic history). Still, the various pieces of analysis are underpinned by a copious, often systematic use of evidence ranging from statistics on expenditures and shares of national income devoted to defense, the ranking of Britain as an arms exporter (at times slighted, he reports, because ships and planes have not been counted as weapons!) or post-war R & D (a higher share of national income than any other nation in Europe, actually); to the extensive description of the alphabet soup of military and military-affiliated research agencies and establishments (the book actually has a guide to the acronyms up front); to the profiling of the people in these establishments, and the governments generally (which makes clear the image of a government of classicists had long since lost its salience); to his examination of the context and nature of major initiatives (like Harold Wilson's Ministry of Technology, not intended to redress a lack of investment in technology but to rationalize the prestige-oriented mentality that gave the world the Concorde). Together they add up to a satisfactorily broad and deep image of the existence and weight of the warfare state of which he writes.

In pursuing his second object, the historical debate, Edgerton's coverage is similarly robust. He also makes his fair share of valuable observations here--not least the fact that in a country that really was as unconcerned with the use of science as some have charged, the charges of writers like Barnett and Snow would have not have had any traction. His handling of the material is also nuanced enough that he acknowledges the grain of truth in some of the misperceptions of which he is so critical. (Harsh as he is on C.P. Snow, Edgerton does note that public school-educated, arts degree-holding Oxbridge types really were more likely to be administrators than science degree-holders--and concedes that Snow could have made his correct argument more persuasive by making reference to such facts.)

On the whole, it is a solid defense of his position--though in fairness, it is not a particularly difficult one to find support for, and perhaps easier than he admits. Many of the essential facts to which he points are well known to anyone who has paid much attention to this history. (The post-World War II era may have seen the rise of the welfare state--but that it also saw the hugely expensive Korean War-era rearmament, the advent of Britain as a nuclear power, and unprecedented peacetime National Service until 1961, are hardly obscure information.)

Indeed, it seemed to me that he exaggerated the extent to which historians have adhered to the conventional view, particularly as it affects not just writing about British history specifically, but the historiography of war and technology generally as a scene where "civilian industry, science and technology . . . transformed modern war" rather than the other way around to produce "histories only of civilian science and technology applied to war . . . the civilianisation of war," with "military agencies hardly figur[ing]" in the discussion of "war economies." (It seemed to me that he rather mischaracterized William H. McNeill's classic The Pursuit of Power, in particular.1)

All the same, this is something of a quibble, especially given Edgerton's emphasis on the general trend of the historiography, and British historiography generally. It also detracts very little from the very great deal that he gets right with a massive and generally solid synthesis of information ranging from economic history to popular culture--and which cuts through a good deal of the nonsense surrounding such matters as Britain's economic decline. That Britain went from punching above its weight to below it in manufactures, at great cost to its prosperity, is not refuted here--but the fact cannot be simplistically blamed on a cultural lack of enthusiasm for science; the refusal of the British government to involve itself with science, technology and industry; an inability to produce adequate numbers of scientifically trained personnel; or an unwillingness to fund high levels of research and development. The way in which the British state went about using those resources, and the ends to which it used them, are instead the issue. However, that is a subject for another book altogether.

NOTES
1. Contrary to the impression Edgerton gives of McNeill, he elaborates the military-industrial complex phenomenon in late nineteenth century Britain, and draws comparisons with the United States in this respect, even using that exact terminology less associated with Britain. Indeed, a section of Chapter Eight--Military-Industrial Interaction 1884-1914--in McNeill's book is actually headed "Emergence of the Military-Industrial Complex in Britain," and makes it very clear that the armed forces were not merely passive consumers of civilian technology. (The thesis of McNeill's book is actually that in the industrial age the center of gravity moved back from the marketplace to a "command economy," in warfare as elsewhere.)

McNeill's account of the rise of the naval-industrial complex in Britain in the aforementioned section identifies bureaucratic in-fighting as a key factor, as with the role of John Fisher, and notes that it was his object to use market competition to stimulate the activity of the Navy's own, state supplier. Additionally, while this failed, the Navy became an increasing driver of "deliberate" invention, as
Navy technicians set out to specify the desirable performance characteristics for a new gun, or ship, and, in effect, challenged engineers to come up with appropriate designs . . . Within limits, tactical and strategic planning began to shape warships instead of the other way around. Above all, Admiralty officials ceased to set brakes on innovation by sitting in judgment on novelties proposed by the trade (279). And all this, of course, led to "military technology . . . constitut[ing] the leading edge of British (and world) engineering and technological development" (284).
The page numbers I cite here are from the 1984 University of Chicago Press 1st edition.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Star Wars' Place in Film History

Looking back it is clear that Star Wars was not the first science fiction film--nor the first space-themed science fiction megahit. (2001 was the highest-grosser of 1968, a year that also saw Barbarella and Planet of the Apes become pop culture icons.) It was not even the first film to serve up galactic empire-style space opera. (Barbarella did that, certainly, and in a quieter way, so did Forbidden Planet, among others.)

At any rate, the significance of Star Wars' portrayal of the stuff of pulp space opera, unprecedentedly lavish as it was, ought not to be exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, splashy galactic empires never became all that popular on the big screen. (Get away from Star Wars, and the list of really commercially successful films of the type proves rather short--certainly a lot shorter than the list of, for example, successful superhero films.) Indeed, one can think of the Star Wars as occupying a fairly narrow niche because of this.

What Star Wars really did was point Hollywood to something more basic than that--the pattern of the contemporary blockbuster. Hollywood had been making sequels since forever--but trilogies telling an extended story, and prequels, were something more novel. So was the intensiveness of the merchandising (which was why the executives at Fox let George Lucas have the rights, and doubtless kicked themselves afterward for doing so).

One may be ambivalent about that, seeing it as a simple matter of marketing than the artistic or entertainment value of cinema, but the films' innovation extends, too, to the essential structure of the movies--the structure of the action film specifically. The Bond films of the '60s had established this, organizing an unprecedentedly fast-paced film around giving the viewer a "bump" every three minutes or so, with elaborate set pieces at the center of this, filmed with the help of a battery of techniques (from short takes to exaggerated sound effects) to maximize their visceral impact.

Of course, Star Wars came along quite a few years after the Bond films--fifteen years or so after Dr. No. And Hollywood did cash in on the Bond craze, imitating the movies, but generally in a superficial way. The studios made spy movies, and other kinds of action movies (cop movies like Bullitt and The French Connection each had a big car chase in them)--but the filmmakers there didn't quite get the way they were put together (so that Bullitt, and French Connection are just crime dramas which happen to have a car chase in them, and even the Derek Flint movies look pretty flimsy as action films).

That changed when Lucas came along and served up, as he himself put it, a blend of James Bond with Flash Gordon, which because of that blend went Bond one better--because science fiction, with its exotic aliens, super powers and imaginary vehicles makes it easy to serve up bigger, flashier action than any spy or cop adventure, and because the production entailed a special effects revolution. The key innovation was the computer-controlled camera that, because of its precision, made it easier and cheaper to take lots and lots of effects shots, getting scenes right. That opening shot of the Star Destroyer's underbelly probably couldn't have been done without it.

And so today we're not awash in galactic empire movies--but action movies and science fiction movies and especially science fiction action movies have been playing at the multiplex all year long for about as long as any young person today can remember. Many are ambivalent about this--or outright critical. I don't argue that we could use more diversity in our films--diversity of subject, theme, tone, idea. But all the same, there is no denying the technical accomplishment of the saga, or its influence in this regard, precisely because of how it won over millions of fans, and has gone on winning them down to the present day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress: Thoughts on my First Viewing

I first saw Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958) on Bravo before its lamentable turn to particularly disgusting versions of the reality show format.

I have to admit that I was a bit thrown by that first viewing--and even a bit let down.

One of the reasons I watched it--the first Kurosawa film I saw--was that I had heard about The Hidden Fortress being a basis (the basis?) for Star Wars.

I suppose I expected Star Wars with horses and katana instead of spaceships and light sabers.

But it wasn't that.

We get C-3PO and R-2D2, Leia and Obi-Wan, and even a Darth Vader--redemption and all. But we don't get a Luke--so, no hero's journey.

There are good guys and bad guys--but no epic, cosmic, "universal" battle of good and evil. We have instead a smaller-scale, local conflict between two clans that is deeply rooted in the feudal culture with which we are presented, with its particular ethos and loyalties.

I might add that while there are some fights, it's not really an action movie. Aside from the fact that people just weren't making action movies as we know them back then (that awaited the Bond films in the '60s), the film skews comedic, at times rather darkly comic--just as you'd expect if Lucas decided to put the droids and their misadventures at the center of his film, and also made them a couple of idiot backstabbing freebooters who don't think twice about doing things they would never put in something advertised on the Disney Channel.

It is all a reminder not just of how much Lucas owed Kurosawa, but also how much he owed his numerous other inspirations--to Joseph Campbell, to a long tradition of pulp space opera, to the adrenaline-oriented structure of the James Bond films that he seems to have figured out and indeed mastered and improved upon before anyone else in Hollywood managed to wrap their minds around it (an achievement many seem to intuit, but rarely spell out clearly), among much, much else.

After realizing that, I took another look at this movie--taking it on its own terms, rather than as a prototype for a very different film, and enjoyed it for the work of art that it is.

G.I. Joe and James Bond: A Few More Thoughts

Recently thinking about the G.I. Joe cartoon I was struck by how strong the similarities and connections to the Bond films are--G.I. Joe arguably being derived from Bond by way of Nick Fury, Cobra pretty closely hewing to SPECTRE in its essentials, and so forth.

However, it also seems worth considering the differences-- beyond the obvious fact that, as a syndicated weekday cartoon of the '80s, it was sanitized to a much greater degree. (James Bond stand-in Matthew Burke not allowed to smoke or drink or pursue Lady Jaye in any but the most subtle fashion when he dropped by in "The Spy Who Rooked Me," while any but the most oblique reference to death was rare.)

The most striking difference may be how much more over-the-top G.I. Joe was. This seems partly a matter of how what counts as over-the-top action had escalated since the '60s--big doses of science fiction increasingly necessary by that point. However, it also reflects that it was a drawn and animated rather than a filmed live-action product--meaning that if they could think it up, they could put it on the screen. It reflects, too, the fact that because it was made as a comic book/kid's cartoon there was more latitude to get zany (writing in ghosts, Cthulhu-like monsters and super-villains created from the DNA of famous conquerors), or just plain not make any sense. After all, when Bond blew up a SPECTRE headquarters, it usually took Ernst Stavro Blofeld a year or so to turn up again in another fortress--but Cobra seems to manage comparable feats on something like a monthly, even weekly, basis, with the new facilities usually sufficient to make even the most grandiose Bond villain green(er) with envy. (Hugo Drax could only wish his space station was as large, elaborate and well-equipped as the one we see in "The Pyramid of Darkness.")

Indeed, despite being an outlawed terrorist organization without any sign of a secure territorial base (despite which Cobra temples seem conveniently accessible everywhere), or the resources of a major nation-state sponsor (no nation is ever depicted as allied with them, all opposed to them, even the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperating), Cobra seems to have at its command the conventional military capabilities of a superpower. This extends to the ability to deploy operational fighter squadrons, tank forces, submarines (and even flying aircraft carriers!) anywhere in the world in a hurry--while however many of these the Joes capture or destroy, there are (usually) plenty of replacements available. The situation is in fact such that they regularly use all these weapons in major strikes against Joe facilities and forces on U.S. soil at will.1

The extreme casualness with such detail aside, there is also the focus of the series not on a single protagonist, or even a small, close-knit group of characters, but the big team as a whole, with its attention divided among many different characters, enabling those who ordinarily were just supporting players to often get their own episodes. (In season two, in fact, about half the episodes centered on characters only introduced in that season in one way or the other, with Mainframe, Leatherneck, Lifeline--and of course, the always scenery-chewing Sergeant Slaughter--each getting to be the star of an episode at least once.) Commensurately other earlier or more popular characters scarcely got any screen time at all.

Principally a function of the show being a promo for a large and continually expanding line of action figures, I suppose, it nonetheless wound up a far cry from the hardcore individualism of James Bond--and a rarity for American television in that way.

1. Indeed, the show was often iffy even on stuff that wouldn't have compromised the storyline much--like why the chain of command in this large, elite, joint-service military unit goes straight down from General Hawk to noncommissioned and warrant officers Duke, Flint and Beachhead; or how everyone so effortlessly switches between very different and hugely demanding combat specialties, not in a pinch but as a matter of routine. (Shipwreck, according to everything we are told about him a sailor in the narrow sense of the term, who has never been a naval aviator or a member of any other service, casually goes from driving battle tanks to flying attack helicopters to piloting space-capable fighter planes from episode to episode.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Man with the Red Tattoo, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2002, pp. 272.

Just as after the over-the-top High Time to Kill Raymond Benson swung all the way around to a more grounded, more Fleming-esque adventure in DoubleShot, he followed up his even more over-the-top Never Dream of Dying with another grounded, Fleming-esque adventure in The Man with the Red Tattoo.

Granted, some of the weaknesses of DoubleShot are present here--not least his evoking a political theme without developing it beyond the usual broad supervillainy. (Goro Yoshida is a former member of Yukio Mishima's Shield Society, whose personal protest against modern Japan has taken the form of international terrorism--apparently, a decades-long campaign that has included some deadly bombings, one of which was depicted in Never Dream of Dying.)

Nonetheless the effort on the whole is more successful this time around, relying less on hokey plot twists than DoubleShot did--the more grounded thrills on offer the freshest and most credible he achieved in his tenure (as in the intrigue on the train to Hokkaido, which manages to stand on its own in a series replete with them). The novel also offers Bensons' most effective use of older Bond characters (specifically, his incorporation of Tanaka from You Only Live Twice), and presents Benson's best travelogue to date as he zips about a good deal of the country that Bond did not see in his first visit (and the presentation of which is a far cry from the awkwardness of High Time to Kill).1

The result is that while, as I have remarked often before, I generally prefer the Bond adventures over the top, The Man with the Red Tattoo struck me as actually the strongest of Benson's books--and made me feel that he had just been hitting his stride with them when he was pulled off the job.

I even wondered what might have been had he been permitted to continue.

1. After their arrival in Kathmandu, Chandra's comments about the historic sights he and Bond pass sound more like the canned remarks of a professional tour guide than genuine dialogue--and in contrast with the kind of evocative detail that made Fleming's travelogue engaging, it seemed like material copied out of a guide book. Red Tattoo, fortunately, does not suffer from this flaw.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: Never Dream of Dying, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2001, pp. 272.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

Reading Never Dream of Dying the book's title struck me as the most Fleming-esque Benson had yet come up with. It also compares favorably with High Time to Kill in its better fit with the story, evoking one of its more unusual elements rather than simply being a questionable pun forced into the dialogue.

Befitting such a title, the books draws more heavily on Fleming's material. Where Benson had previously tended to limit the appearances by minor Fleming characters to "walk-on roles," here they figure prominently in the plot. The first third or so of the book in fact splits the investigation between Bond and Rene Mathis, whose adventure is actually the more interesting during this portion, with the two threads merging significantly later in the book. Along with Mathis, his father-in-law Marc Ange Draco turns up, and while initially appearing marginal to the story, he quickly proves to be deeply involved in the tale's events.

Still, heavy as the references to the Fleming books are, Never Dream goes for a more contemporary feel in ways large and small. Alongside the old-fashioned Bondian idea of glamour (like gaming at Monte Carlo's Grand Casino), there is also a new generation's idea of high living--Bond attending a fashion show at the Louvre, accompanying movie star Tylyn Mignonne to the on-location shooting of a blockbuster (Pirate Island), and heading off to a premiere at the Cannes film festival for the climax. (Bond is, of course, a stranger to all of this--and in Fleming fashion comes off more senior civil servant than high-living international man of mystery in the process. But the context makes its impression all the same.)

It might be noted as well that the sex is the most graphic Benson ever wrote, Bond and Tylyn engaging in mutual masturbation, with certain parts of the female anatomy explicitly mentioned--unremarkable by today's standards, but going much further in this regard than his predecessors ever had (and apparently it caused a stir in some fan circles).

Consistent with this, it is also the most cinematic of the Benson novels--and perhaps any Bond novel written to date. This is, in part, because it is so action-packed, opening with a massive firefight, and once the story has properly started, keeping the action coming thick and fast, with at least four of the action scenes that follow being equally or even more spectacular. But it is also a matter of the frequent Hollywood hokiness of contemporary action-adventure filmmaking.

The most grandiosely conceived of the novel's action scenes, Bond's escape from the Starfish floating hotel being used by Pirate Island's stars, begins with an ambush reminiscent of the one at Carver's party in Tomorrow Never Dies. Bond escapes his attackers, then steals a speedboat to complete his getaway, resulting in a boat chase that goes right through the movie's shoot of its biggest, most explosion-packed sequence of all as the director shouts "This wasn't in the rehearsal!" right before deciding "No! Keep the cameras rolling. This looks great!" on the way to Bond's "stuffing" a speedboat under a tanker ship just as it explodes--then making his getaway on a conveniently prepositioned underwater vehicle created by Q Branch.

The fights even come complete with the cheesy dialogue associated with the genre. Fighting Union thug Rick Fripp on a catwalk inside a targeted theater, Bond gets his enemy at a disadvantage and tries to make him talk--at which point Fripp yells "Let's go together!" before pulling Bond off with him to drop down to both their deaths. During a different knife fight a different Union thug Antoine says "You want to dance, my friend, let's dance!"

And of course, reading it all on the printed page, putting it together in one's head, it's harder to overlook their silliness than when passively watching a flickering screen.

Indeed, taken altogether the climax put me much more in mind of the finale of Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle (which similarly involved a bomb attack on a big movie premiere, and the heroes hanging on to the villain's getaway vehicle on the way to its inevitable crash) than anything ever before put into a Bond novel or film.1 And increasingly I found myself wondering just how we were supposed to take it. Up to this point Benson kept the humor in his books limited, writing in jokes but not making a joke of major plot points, let alone the plot itself, the way Gardner so often did.

However, this exceptionally metafictional adventure often feels as if, after several years and several novels, he too is going this way.

The plot twists correspond to the action in this respect. The "mystical" abilities earlier attributed to the Union chief are revealed not to be a Mr. Big-like fraud for the benefit of credulous subordinates, but actually real, while Bond encounters another character possessing such prophetic powers--making for by far the most unambiguous intrusion of the occult into a Bond novel to date. Bond and Le Gerant also turn out to be connected in a most unlikely way--and Benson kills off not just one but two of Fleming's creations, and his more memorable ones at that.

More significant to the plot than its differing handling of glamour, sex and cinematic action, the supernatural and the soap operatic, and the unprecedented level of summer blockbuster hokiness that results--and certainly less welcome than these novelties--is the book's callousness. In an early scene an action sequence ends explosively--in the process, killing a child, and indeed, a child who turns out to have been dear to someone close to Bond himself, and whose death made revenge a not insignificant element in the goings-on. Bond scarcely reacts to it all, suffering over it less than he had before over the death of many a villain, even when all has been said and done. Additionally, while the situation (for all its melodrama) is the sort of thing that raises questions about the real ethical implications and human consequences of secret service stuff in the real world, the narration likewise shrugs it off in what struck me as an unfortunate sign of the "dark and gritty" times--one which made it harder to enjoy the turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-ride experience it is sometimes quite successful at serving up.

Still, love it or hate it, it does conclude the Union saga--and in a big way--while also setting up the next book in one of its plot threads, namely the Union's association with an ultranationalist Japanese terrorist, Goro Yoshida, the villain of the next book, The Man with the Red Tattoo (coming soon).

1. Of course, Never Dream came first--Charlie's Angels II being a 2003 release.

Brokenclaw, by John Gardner

New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1990, pp. 304.

After an uneventful year of service has made Bond restless, M orders his top agent to take a vacation, which carries him to Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he sees and becomes curious about the wealthy and philanthropic "Brokenclaw" Lee Fu-Chu. As usual, what is supposed to be rest and relaxation is interrupted when M orders Bond to San Francisco, where he has run-ins with the FBI—apparently, building up a suitable cover for Bond's next assignment. As it happens, the rich philanthropist Bond saw in Canada is not a mere businessman, but a crime lord and an agent of Chinese intelligence, to which he is selling a new Anglo-American anti-submarine technology. British and American intelligence are undertaking a joint operation to stop the transfer and finally bring Brokenclaw down, with Bond, and his American counterpart CIA agent Sue Chi-Ho, going undercover as Chinese agents to help run Lee down . . .

Perhaps more than any other Gardner novel, Brokenclaw evokes the premise of a specific work of Ian Fleming's, namely Live and Let Die. Like Mr. Big, Lee is a very large, physically formidable and exceptionally articulate mixed-race, foreign gangster in control of the underworld of an ethnic enclave in a major American city who also happens to be working with a foreign intelligence service hostile to the U.S. government. Bond goes into said enclave, and quickly gets himself into trouble that causes him to run afoul of the American authorities.

However, unlike in Live and Let Die, and more like Gardner's earlier Icebreaker, Bond here is a comparatively passive actor, being maneuvered about by M and the villains until he sets off for a final showdown with the bad guy on his own initiative after the main threat has been quashed. And the novel's finale, like a crucial scene in that earlier Gardner novel, has Bond among tents in the wilderness, surrounded by an indigenous people living in the old ways.

Unfortunately in contrast with both Live and Icebreaker, Brokenclaw is awkwardly structured. Its early portion is exceptionally heavy on coincidence: Bond's spotting Lee in Vancouver and becoming vaguely curious about him; Bond going on to San Francisco, noticing an FBI man tailing him, seeing the tail attacked by gangsters. A fifth of the book in Bond meets up with M, who finally tells him what this is all about—in a briefing that lasts another fifth of the book, from Chapters Four to Eight (including a lengthy flashback sequence). The result is that Gardner is two-fifths of the way into the story before he sends Bond off on his mission, and it is some time after that before things pick up, as the mission entails a very roundabout trip to meet the villain, and the clutter of two underdeveloped subplots (besides selling American technology to China, Brokenclaw is plotting to engineer a financial crash, and building a private army in the Northwest). In fact there is very little action until the final quarter of the book, which is again rather drawn-out as Brokenclaw escapes his home and Bond and Ed have to hunt him down on his reservation, with Bond ultimately taking on Lee in an elaborate, ritualized confrontation, the "okeepah" contest.

The overall impression all this creates is of a limited idea extended into a full-length novel through the stretching of its material, helped by the cramming of still more material inside, not all of which fits together well. This is the case with, for example, Lee's sale of the technology to China for five million dollars—far less than what Karl Stromberg offered for just one of those technologies in the film version of The Spy Who Loved Me (twenty million, divided between the accounts of the two developers) thirteen inflationary years earlier, and even that had been a steal at the time.1

The extraordinary cheapness of the item aside, it is hard to believe that such a sum would mean very much to Brokenclaw, given the apparent vastness of his business empire, which affords him resources adequate to launch that attack on the American financial system, creating yet another implausibility. His massive investment in American assets makes such a crash not in his interests, an inconsistency so obvious that Bond himself makes the point in the novel. Lee brushes it off with the remark that Switzerland and Lichtenstein remain safe—unconvincingly. Lee does express some hostility to the United States within the story, but the book never affords a reason to think ideology or any other motivation trumps profit with him.

The implausibilities also extend to the mechanics of the plot, not least the visit by a very senior Chinese intelligence official to Brokenclaw's compound on American soil in person, when two of his operatives had just been subjected to a very elaborate procedure to collect the material he wanted to see anyway. There is, too, Bond's subjection to not one but two bouts of appalling torture. In the first the series' castration-themed tortures attain a new peak of indignity, with Bond stripped and his genitals smeared with fat so as to induce Brokenclaw's pet wolves to emasculate him (about which purpose the villain is very blunt). Adding to the indignity is Bond's failure to save himself; instead he is rescued by his American colleague Ed Rushia, and American special forces, with Bill Tanner tagging along (who all become well aware of what has been going on), and their code names adding yet another bad joke to a mix of questionable taste.

Indeed, where in Fleming's Bond novels Felix Leiter often seemed a nonentity, his successor Rushia often threatens to overshadow Bond. It is Rushia who locates Brokenclaw's base of operations, and narrowly saves Bond from a gruesome and humiliating death. After the subsequent raid fails to catch the villain, leaving him free to strike again, he helps Bond catch a flight north to his redoubt, and goes with him to arrest a pair of traitorous FBI agents, then save Bond's life again at the end of the o-kee-pah contest. In fact, one could make the case that his actions were more important to stopping Brokenclaw than anything Bond did this time around.

Of course, if the book has considerable flaws of structure and focus, it is also not without its strengths. Lee is a satisfactorily villainous presence (especially in comparison with a nonentity like Baradj in the preceding novel), complete with the requisite personal charisma, extravagant tastes and revolting sadism. He also has at least some of the trappings that go with the position, like a suitably high-tech lair, and freakish henchmen (like Bone Bender Ding). And on the whole Brokenclaw manages to be a smooth, brisk read. Still, it is not one of Gardner's stronger efforts.

1. Indeed, naval analyst Norman Friedman mentioned in the notes to his book Seapower and Space (2000) that watching the film at the time of its release, a colleague quipped to him that such a device would actually be worth orders of magnitude more.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review: DoubleShot, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 2000, pp. 272.

As if conscious of having deviated too much from the usual pattern of the Bond adventures in High Time to Kill, DoubleShot hews more closely to Fleming's novels--actually appearing assembled from parts taken from several of them. As with Casino Royale the book is rather nonlinear, opening in media res--at a climactic moment, in fact--and then flashes back to trace the development of the situation. In that opening we see a Bond apparently brainwashed by the enemy to strike a blow against his country, as in the opening of The Man With the Golden Gun; and then it cuts to the bad guys' plotting revenge on Bond and Britain in the course of pursuing larger goals, like From Russia With Love. Afterward it cuts back to Bond coping with the loss of a woman with whom he had been personally involved, a result of the blackmail directed against her--a touch of Casino Royale again, but more than a touch of You Only Live Twice (Benson referencing the events of that book in case we missed it, and even writing in James Molony--old Sir Miles Messervy's psychiatrist friend).

There is, too, a Fleming-like emphasis on Bond's being a long-battered soldier of the secret wars--if with a new spin. That Bond has taken so many blows to the head (the most recent in the oxygen-deprived conditions atop Kangchenjunga in High Time) is a crucial plot point. As a result, Bond is suffering from blackouts, and perhaps worse than that--which not only leads to Bond pulled from the field, but to his being on the wrong side of his own Service once more. It might be added that in contrast with the movie-like action of previous Benson novels, there is an emphasis on grounded fight scenes rather than high-tech equipment, protracted vehicular chases and big explosions.

The result is that the earlier chapters often feel more like a psychological thriller, but it is back to the accustomed international intrigue well before the midpoint--and Benson does not wholly eschew the cinematic touches. Bond is again on the run from the Service--and his involvement with twin CIA agents Heidi and Hedy Taunt (the womens' characterizations, the type of comedy their initial meeting entailed, and of course, where it all leads up), is the sort of thing fans of the Roger Moore movies are prepared to enjoy and which their detractors hate. There is, too, something not often associated with Bond, namely a rather political plot: the villain, Domingo Espada, means to take over Spain as a Franco-like dictator, with his movement to recover Gibraltar from Britain a major move in the game.

The result is a mix of the derivative, and of the awkward. While I am more favorably disposed than many to the Moore era, the fact remains that we are ultimately expected to take the Taunt twins seriously in a way the Moore era would have, and Benson does not manage that (though I don't think anyone else would have either). Additionally the rather political scenario mixes poorly with the usual hand-waving regarding supervillain motivations and the matching of means to end. More development was required to make the premise credible, and the book not only suffers from the weakness of this element, but gave the impression of a missed opportunity.

Still, DoubleShot has its strengths. The unlikely combination of old and new elements geled better in the reading experience than it had a right to do, as a result of which it was not just a brisker read than the preceding book (bogged down as it was by its chronicle of Bond and company stop-and-going up a mountain), but a smoother one--the tale undeniably hokey, but not without fun.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: High Time to Kill, by Raymond Benson

New York: Putnam, 1999, pp. 304.

Raymond Benson's High Time to Kill, his third James Bond novel (film novelizations apart), is also the first in a trilogy depicting a multi-volume war between 007 and the international criminal organization known as "the Union."

That war opens with a murder at a dinner party Bond attends, and only narrowly misses stopping, then gets seriously underway when Union agents steal the data from a secret British government technical breakthrough relevant to the development of hypersonic aircraft, "Skin 17." Bond is assigned to recover the microfilm containing the key information, setting in motion an international chase that leads to the plane carrying the Union agent with the goods crashing atop Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. To enable Bond to continue the pursuit M assigns him to join the mountain-climbing expedition ostensibly going to recover the bodies, as other nations (the Russians, the Chinese) send teams of their own, and a Union agent on Bond's own team contrives to beat him to the punch . . .

As might be expected given that High Time is a Bond novel, it reads rather like a Pierce Brosnan-era film--not least in its opening which gets Bond into an early action sequence that also hints at the stuff of the later plot, its gadget-packed car chase heavy on late '90s digital technology (for better or worse), and Bond's generally less stoic and more flamboyant demeanor (more on which later). There is also considerable use of Fleming's material, including Benson's by this point familiar incorporation of minor Fleming characters into the storyline (the Governor of the Bahamas--now ex-Governor, of course--from "Quantum of Solace" and the shooting range Instructor from Moonraker).

However, less expectedly Benson evokes very strong parallels between the events of this novel, and Fleming's earlier works. The parallel one might suspect between the Union and SPECTRE is played up rather than down, Benson making it explicit when he has Bond himself think that what he saw of the Union recalled to him his battles with SPECTRE early in the novel, while the Union's boss makes a very Blofeld-like initial appearance. (Le Gerant, like Ernst Stavro before him, heads up a meeting of the Union's senior chiefs at which he metes out deadly and exemplary summary punishment of a traitor to the organization.) A key relationship in the story also contains a good deal of Casino Royale . . .

More surprising still is the mid-point turn in the course of the story, from typical Bondian globetrotting heroics to the Kangchenjunga expedition. The insertion of Bond into a group in this manner, his having to be a Team Player (rather than his being attached to a team) is much less Bond movie or Fleming novel than it is John Gardner. The same goes for the emphasis on that team battling the elements in a cold and remote place--as Gardner had it do in his own third book, Icebreaker.1

The mix of elements struck me as problematic. The Union's effectively being SPECTRE II, and the evocation of Vesper Lynd in Bond's central romance ended up weak repetitions of past adventures, rather than resonant echoes of them--and they made an unsatisfactory fit with the newer material. The industrial espionage that is the chase after the vaguely described Skin 17 is a questionable choice of opening battle for Bond to fight with these successors to Blofeld and company. And time and again, the mix of screen Bond with book Bond proves problematic, with the Fleming evocation highlighting this. As in Moonraker, Bond has a scene on the SIS shooting range with the Instructor, a man extremely grudging in his praise who would never let Bond know he is the best shot in the Service--but where Fleming's Bond showed no need for such validation from the man, professionally concerning himself only with his proper business on the range, Benson's Bond, in rather undignified fashion, tries to force him to admit that his performance was in fact pretty good, wasn't it? Wasn't it?

However, perhaps the biggest problem of all is the awkwardness of the fit of the Kangchenjunga episode with the stuff of Bond's adventures. Making the ultra-individualistic Bond--this Bond who wouldn't even let the Instructor's stinginess with praise slide--over into a functional, effective member of a larger team is far from easy. And while the ultra-urbane Bond is an outdoorsman and a sportsman, competent on the slopes and in tropical waters, something seems lost when he doesn't return from them to his fast car to drive to his luxury hotel to enjoy a fine meal at the end of the day. Immersed in a group, doing right by it, especially without the familiar Bondian props, the Team Player in the Wilderness is reduced to a cipher, as Gardner unintentionally demonstrated time and again in the various novels where he pursued such an approach.

High Time to Kill did not change my mind about this--and unlike in some of Gardner's efforts (Win, Lose or Die notably) the adventure element did not really compensate for this break with the accustomed pattern of the adventures. After all, the climb dominating the second half of the book is rather a glaring plot hole. That a helicopter could have been used to reach the site and recover the microfilm almost immediately is not even mentioned, though in fact the Aerospatiale Lama helicopter developed specifically to meet the requirements of the Indian and Nepalese militaries for helicopters suited for high-altitude operations in the Himalayas, would have been up to the job and not at all difficult to come by. (And its appearance would certainly have been more logical than the use the Union made of a Hind helicopter earlier in the story.)

Additionally, there is the drawn-out, repetitive, stop-and-go nature of high-altitude climbing, to which the book is all too faithful--the team ascending partway, then establishing a Base Camp and acclimatizing before starting the next phase of the climb. This does not help foster a sense of urgency, or flow, instead setting us up for a sequence of disconnected incidents--alas, not very interesting incidents. The rivals to Bond's team are not much of a presence in the book, mentioned more than seen, save in one confrontation that plays more like a prank (not least, on account of its scatological element) than anything else, and the reader easily forgets they are out there for much of the rest of the narrative.

Meanwhile, Benson derives little suspense from Bond's relations with the other members of his own team. This is partly a matter of Bond not getting to be Bond here--but partly also of the characterization of his rival and eventual foe on the team, Roland Marquis. Even while the reader knows that he is a traitor intent on nasty business from the start, he seems more dangerous for his oafishness than his treacherousness, the principal worry for a significant part of the narrative that his stupid one-upsmanship and showing-off (amplified by the altitude sickness to which they are subject) will get them into some kind of trouble—-as when he starts shooting cans and bottles on ground their Sherpa porters consider sacred.

Indeed, it all makes for an at best passable first half, followed by a weak second half. Things pick up somewhat in the characters' final approach to the peak and the microfilm, at which point they get to finally start making their real moves--but these are far from enough to save the adventure. In the end this leaves High Time working as neither a Bond tale of the more grounded type (as DoubleShot does), nor as an over-the-top, blockbuster-movie-crammed-between-covers (at which Never Dream of Dying is far more effective). In fact, it strikes me as the least satisfying of the novels he penned for the series--and it does not surprise me that Benson's subsequent books took different courses.

1. Some of these elements cropped up in many a subsequent Gardner novel--among them Role of Honor, where Bond wound up working a programmer in a video game company (how un-Bondian is that?!); and Win, Lose or Die, where Bond was in the Royal Navy and in charge of a superpower conference's security aboard the HMS Invincible.

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