CRIME AND ESPIONAGE OF COURSE….THE RETURN OF THE BOOK REPORT (3/17 through 10/17)

Sorry for the delays folks. Eye trouble (minor but annoying); time-time-time; working on my own book; the need to, for the first time in years, monitor what’s left of Politics. Etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, the book report is back. I’ve only read eight books in the eight months it’s been gone. Two will be handled at some point in other venues. The remaining six are all crime or spy novels of one sort or another. It’s been that kind of year.

March through June:

Cop Hater (Ed McBain, 1956)

Ed McBain was the pen name Evan Hunter (of The Blackboard Jungle and Last Summer fame) used for his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. Eventually there were more than fifty. Having never read one, I decided to start with his first.

It’s solid. A good basis for a series. Hunter/McBain liked to pat himself on the back a bit for having policemen–the only people actually authorized to investigate crimes– catch criminals (especially murderers) without the help of private eyes and such. The romance of realism.

Of course, the best private eye fiction doesn’t generally involve solving murders but trying–and most often failing–to prevent them. If a murder to two gets solved along the way, that’s okay, too, as long as it gets smoothly incorporated into the larger narrative.

Then again, a lot of private eye fiction isn’t very good and I think what McBain/Hunter meant was that if you were going to have a lengthy series based entirely on pursuing criminals (as opposed to say, family secrets), then only a cop made sense. Especially if Erle Stanley Gardner had already wrapped up the Fighting Defense Attorney market. He was right in that, and his leap to the next level was in realizing that the idea of a genius operating inside a police department had already been done as well as could be (see below)….but no one had written a series focusing on an entire department. That was his ah-hah moment. Once he perfected the formula it made him millions. The story of Cop Hater is pretty humdrum. But the sharp writing was there from the beginning:

The heat had persisted all day long, a heavy yellow blanket that smothered the city in its wooly grip. Carella did not like the heat. He had never liked summer, even as a kid, and now that he was an adult and a cop, the only memorable characteristic summer seemed to have was that is made dead bodies stink quicker.

I’d change “all day long” to “all day,” but otherwise that’s haiku-perfect. Much more of the book is merely swift and serviceable…And I doubt, at a book a month (the series ran past fifty, more than Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Easy Rawlins combined), he ever made the leap to higher ground for more than a page here and there.

But I’ll be interested in finding out at some point.

World enough and time please.

July/August:

Maigret’s First Case (Georges Simenon, 1949)

Speaking of geniuses working within the system…

I’ve read half a dozen Maigret novels over the years, always with guarded pleasure: Expert writing, a little chilly around the heart.

The chill breaks here. Maigret had debuted, in print, in 1931. By 1949, he and Simenon were world-wide institutions. But this “first” case is set in an earlier time. Much earlier. 1913 to be exact, a year that was, in some ways, closer to 1813 than 1931, and closer to 1318 than 1949.

Simenon remembered that lost world and he lets the reader see and feel what he remembers. The series as a whole worked on many levels–I really do hope I live long enough to read all seventy-six novels–many of which I’m sure have stronger stories. But here the principal value is painterly, as Maigret hurries or marches or strolls through the streets of a lost Paris and Simenon’s inimitable eye catches a telling detail around every corner at every speed.

And, as the young inspector deals with France’s pre-Great War class system, his creator is not above suggesting–ever so subtly–that such systems are bound to fail.

Hardly prescient in 1949, but certainly worth remembering in any year in a world where Franco-level hubris seems almost quaint.

Hostage: London (Geoffrey Household, 1977)

Household was a former British Intelligence officer (WWII) and nearing eighty when he published Hostage: London. He was most famous as the author of Rogue Male. (Big game hunter stalks Hitler for sport but does not kill him, with terrible consequences for much more than the World. Fritz Lang turned it into Manhunt, a film that caught the small scale, insidious evil of the Nazi state and deepened and personalized it in a manner seldom seen in the forties or since–I haven’t read the book so I can only speculate how much of the inspiration derived from the novel). But he hadn’t lost his fastball. After Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (likely unmatchable) this is the best novel I’ve read about the inner workings of a terror cell. Since the modern stakes of nuclear holocaust were barely imaginable in the days of James and Joseph Conrad, this is almost bound to have an air of implausibility, meaning I’m not sure even those writers could have done more with this than Household does. Anyone contemplating blowing up a nuclear device in a major city is truly psyhcopathic. So the only option left to Household is to have his inside man wrestle with a split conscience as he realizes the full implications of his comrades going a bridge too far. Of course he can’t accept the carnage and must turn on them….But what about the cause he still believes in?

The map by which the protagonist slips into madness is skillfully drawn. There are no wasted words.

No real lessons for our time either, Thank God, except this: If someone wants it badly enough, it will happen. And the line between wanting the very worst just badly enough–and not quite enough–is being daily tested somewhere.

The parting gift of a man who, having been born in 1900, when James and Conrad still walked the earth, had, perhaps. lived too long and seen too much.

Highly recommended for those happy few who need no comfort.

September/October:

XPD  (Len Deighton, 1981)

Skilled. Deighton was always skilled. 1981 was just about the last moment when the old “What If Churchill secretly met with Hitler to negotiate a truce and what if the modern world found him out!” premise could be taken with at least a grain of far-fetched credibility.

Maybe England really would have fallen apart! Within those limits Deighton sustains a certain tension and keeps a complicated story moving without let it sink in too deep or run completely off the rails. But there’s now attached a kind of poignance I’m not sure he intended. He seems to have still believed, as late as 1981, that there would always be an England.

We know better now.

The Player on the Other Side (Ellery Queen, 1963)

“Ellery Queen” was a pseudonym deployed by two New York cousins, David Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky, who wrote “professionally” under the names Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, respectively.

Got that?

The Player on the Other Side was a comeback novel, after the pair had dried up in the late fifties (whether writer’s block or that other old bugaboo, “creative differences” was to blame may have been unclear, even to them). Apparently the writer’s block part was a legitimate problem, because Science Fiction ace, Theodore Sturgeon (pictured below the cousins above), was called in to ghost-write, with how much supervision from the cousins, one can only guess.

The result?

A very fine whodunit–exemplary of the form, especially coming so late in the game. I read it in my early teens and hadn’t revisited since (or any Queen for probably twenty-five years or more). It’s still highly engaging and even has some haunted qualities in the early scenes. It ran out of steam at the very end, mostly because, by then, the revealing of the murderer wasn’t really surprising, even to someone like me, who always makes a point of not guessing. But the ride was still enjoyable and I envy at least some aspects of an age where the quality of pulp writing was better than anything we can expect from “literary” magazines today.

Breakout (Richard Stark, 2002)

I wrote about Richard Stark (a nom de plume for pulp genius Donald Westlake) in the last book report. Long story short, I put a lot of effort into reading Stark/Westlake’s Parker novels in order….and missed one!

Well, now I’ve read it and all I said about Stark/Westlake/Parker previously still stands. This one had a neat and memorable premise. Parker gets caught and sent to a holding prison somewhere in the midwest. Facing life in prison if he’s extradited to California, he rounds up a couple of confederates and makes a break. One of the confederates has a job (breaking into a jewelry warehouse, but that hardly matters) lined up and his price for helping Parker and one of his cellmates make the break is they have to help him with the robbery.

if you know Stark/Westlake/Parker, you know things will not run smooth. Suffice it say that Parker keeps jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. Really a kind of transitional novel between running storylines, but it more than holds it pace and place.

Now I just gotta decide if I want to spring for those last three in the new editions! In any case, one more check mark on the “done” side of the Life List, with much fun had by all!

THE RIGHT WORD (Adventures in Language: Second Journey)

It’s a short journey this time, but I just came across a bit of writing in Geoffrey Household’s Hostage: London (1977 and promising to compete with Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima as the best novel ever written about the inner workings of a terror cell–see Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes and Eric Ambler’s pre-war spy novels for the best novels written about innocents caught up in a terror web, which isn’t quite the same thing), that made me smile:

When the patrol had reached the millpond and turned back on their beat, Mick slipped away ahead of them. From where I was I could not see the pool of light flickering over the ground and in and among the tree roots, but its effect on the police was immediate.

Almost any good writer could have written those sentences and conceived the simple actions involved (a member of the cell drawing off the police so the narrator can proceed with his appointed rounds). But I like the clarity and specificity of “tree roots.” Leaving it at “trees” would have been perfectly acceptable to most writers and nearly all readers. But the “pool of light” is in the mind’s eye of the character. If the light were “flickering over the ground and in and among the trees” if would raise a conflict–subconscious in all but the most attentive reader’s mind, but likely to nag all but the least attentive–that the first rate writer would hate himself for accepting. If the light is playing among the trees, how has it remained only in the Narrator’s mind’s eye and not come to his actual vision? Plus, even if the light were shining directly behind him, not only would it flood his vision, it would find him out.

But among the “tree roots?”….All eyes–in the Narrator’s mind, the police patrol’s heads, or the reader’s imagination–are looking down…while the man trying to save London from a nuclear blast by betraying his fellow terrorists slips away.

Conflict resolved. Intensity heightened. Plot moving. All due to a right word, which, if it were not present, would have the best readers wondering what it is that’s….not quite right.

That’s the kind of writing that will put you in competition with Henry James.

And make your fellow writers take a moment to offer a salute.

SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

This month’s offerings are both from the world of pitch-black secret ops: a re-read of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic sixties-era spy novel, The Anti-Death League, and, Compromised, Terry Reed’s account (with John Cummings) of his days triangulating between the gun-running, money-laundering and dope-dealing elements of the eighties’-era CIA and the multi-generational power struggle for political control of the U.S. government that ensued, the effects of which linger on.

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Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA (Terry Reed and John Cummings, 1995)

“There’s a lot goin’ on here besides patriotism.”

(C.I.A./D.E.A. operative, Barry Seal, shortly before his murder, which occurred right after a judge “misguidedly” ordered him kept in plain sight, where his enemies could find him.)

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Terry Reed was a mid-level CIA asset in the eighties who, through a combination of misguided self-will, cruel luck and the peculiar brand of stupidity that often strikes intelligent people in the name of patriotism, got his ass caught in a muddy sling during the “Iran-Contra” phase of American decline-and-fall. This is his story, told with co-author John Cummings (a veteran journalist who had cut his teeth covering the mob), so, of course, you have to discount some inevitably self-serving elements.

That said, a book like this isn’t really about what’s “true.” In the real spook world Reed and Cummings describe, in sometimes excruciating detail, truth is a commodity and “facts” are the most uncertain things of all. It depends on who’s telling the tale and all that. The real issue is whether any given story is credible. Not, did it happen just this way, but could it have happened pretty much this way.

On that level, I found Reed’s account credible to the point of mind-numbing obviousness.

It’s not an easy read. Neither Reed nor Cummings seems to have possessed any knack for story-telling and a good editor could have probably cut two hundred turgid pages out of this nearly seven-hundred-page affair. And, of course, this is hardly a book that will be worth the slog for anyone who carries even a single drop of water for any member of the Bush or Clinton families.

For the rest of us, this is chilling stuff

Compromised‘s very mundanity makes the book’s tales of the Security State’s kudzu-like growth and rapacity in the go-go eighties all the more throat-grabbing. Get deep enough inside something so very much like the most reasonable assumptions behind the otherwise inexplicable rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bush Empire in Texas, the Clinton Empire in neighboring Arkansas, and the Security State everywhere, and you don’t know whether to gag or just stop breathing. The condemnation is thorough-going. If this thing had any style I might have just slipped into a bathtub about half-way through and opened a vein.

To put it in shorthand: This is as close a look as we’ll ever likely have at the exact machinations used by the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, Bush and Clinton cabals, to turn Texas and Arkansas into full-fledged Banana Republics, on the way to doing the same for the good old U.S. of A.

The point man running the game in between what, at that point, were the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas (then home ground for a secret base training Nicaraguan rebels), was a wide-eyed, gung-ho C.I.A. operative who Reed knew in his operational days as John Cathey. His real name, of course, turned out to be Oliver North, the modern era’s Edward Lansdale.

This was a fact Reed discovered about the same time everyone else did, long after he had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how the Clintons and Bushes each thought they had used the C.I.A. to get dirt on the other, only to discover that the Security State, of which the C.I.A. was/is only the most visible tip, had used their own mendacity (which, in Clinton’s case, had included the incredibly stupid move of skimming from the C.I.A.s cash-laundering operation embedded in his state’s banking system) to get a vice grip on them in turn.

Wild-eyed notions to be sure.

But, knowing what we know now, nothing in this book–a virtual, organic sequel to both Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (better, as it happens, than McCoy’s own update, The Politics of Heroin), and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s fictionalized account of Lansdale’s early career in Southeast Asia–seems the least bit outlandish. If it does no other service, it certainly debunks the old notion that “wild-eyed” conspiracy theories are just that because, in the land of the free, there’s NO WAY you could ever hush a thing like that up!

If you believe that, Compromised should be mandatory reading.

That being the case, the appropriate response to the shrill phrase “this country,” so prominent in any political season, and nauseatingly so in this one, is affirmed yet again by this tale of days supposedly gone by.

What country?

The Anti-Death League (Kingsley Amis, 1966)

He was handed the transcript of a wireless message announcing Jaggers’ arrival by helicopter at the exact moment when the machine could be heard taking off from the meadow. No further information was given.

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I know I swore off Sir Kingsley a while back on the basis of life being too short to spend any more time with his world-weary nihilism, even if he still made me laugh.

But I wanted to re-read this, after a quarter-century plus, to confirm or deny my suspicion of its atypicality.

Consider my suspicion confirmed. Perhaps the cover of genre was good for him.

In The Anti-Death League, Amis pulled off the impossible and applied his trademark acerbic wit to a genuinely riveting, even moving, spy novel. Spy novels rivet and move–when they do–by casting small men (they seem to always be men) as improbable movers and shakers in large events that sweep over them and leave them, and us, scarred by the experience. There probably haven’t been more than ten really good ones, all, so far as I know, by Brits or adopted Brits (like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, whose heart-stopping The Princess Casamassima qualifies directly, even if you don’t accept the proposition that all his best novels qualify indirectly).

I have no idea what prompted Amis the Elder to adopt, for the length of this one novel, the view that human beings might be a source of something other than misery and crapulence, but the evidence that he managed it is on every page. In addition to an engrossing spy-narrative (rare in itself), he manages a fine love story and a real philosophical treatise on the nature of God and the Universe, all so beautifully interwoven that you can forgive a bit of awkwardness in dove-tailing his several plots and even his inability to keep nature from taking its course on a thud of a last page where he can’t help killing a dog, of all things, to prove how meaningless it all is here, among the humans he had, for once, so fiercely and painstakingly evoked.