Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Permission to Kill has moved

I am proud to announce that Permission to Kill has moved and has an exciting new look. The site can now be found at permissiontokill.com

Don't forget to update your links.


Thursday, 11 March 2010

Vengeance is Ours!

Sexton Blake Library (5th Series / Book 10)
Author: Peter Saxon
Publisher: Mayflower Dell
Release Year: 1965

Of all the hundreds of stories featuring master sleuth, Sexton Blake, I have only read but a small handful, and the majority of these have been from (or set in) the 1940s and ’50s. This is the first time I have encountered a swinging sixties Blake, and while I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say that the character seems out of place, I would say that the publisher has made a concerted effort to modernise Blake and make him appealing for the sixties generation. Therefore he often seems like a different character – rather than an out of place character. In this novelette he doesn’t even do any detecting. He is hired as a bodyguard, but I am getting ahead of myself. First here’s a brief overview of the plot.

The story opens in Africa, in a small country called Lubanda. The people of the Nbanda Valley have gathered to listen to a speech by a political animal named Joseph Dingala. Dingala’s specialty is manipulating audiences and whipping his crowds in mass hysteria. In this instance, his speech encites the poor black villagers to revolt against the white settlers in the area.

Conveniently, the white settlers have gathered for a party at the Kilinzana Club. Not that they have much to celebrate, as they are in the middle of a drought, and the country is dogged with civil unrest.

When a large bush fire is spotted to the south, the men from the club rush off to fight it before it burns down the whole district. The women and children are left at the club until their menfolk return. Well that’s the plan. However, encited by Dingala’s speech an army of native storm the club and kill all the women and children.

A year passes, and Dingala has moved onto become the Minister of Home Affairs of the newly formed Republic of Lubanda. Requiring financial aid, Dingala plans a visit to London for government talks.

In the interim, the men from the Kilinzana Club have sold up their properties in Africa and have moved back to London. When they hear that Dingala is coming to London, they all meet together once again to plan his assassination.

Dingala is set to stay at the very exclusive Golden Towers Hotel, and as Sexton Blake is retained by the insurance company that cover the Hotel, he has no choice but to act as bodyguard during Dingalas visit. So as I mentioned earlier, no detecting from the great detective. He knows what the crime will be – assassination. And he knows the men who will attempt it – the men from the Kilinzana Club. The entertainment comes in the form of reading as Blake outwits each of the twenty men from the Club as they take their turn to kill the Africa Leader. The story also takes a few shortcuts on the way, and a few of the assassins are rounded up by the police, so in effect maybe only eight to ten assassination attempts take place.

The central premise of this story, as you have no doubt gathered, is that Blake has to protect the thoroughly reprehensible character of Dingala. The conflict arises out of the fact that the members of the Kilinzana Club are not necessarily villains, just men who have experienced (and are experiencing) extreme grief and loss. To rub salt into the wound, the man that caused that grief is not only free, but living the high life of an international jet-setter. The men from the Kilinzana Club simply want a modicum of justice and it just so happens that Sexton Blake is standing in their way.

One of the more interesting elements of the book, remembering that it was published in 1965 are the reference and allusions to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Even down to the choice of weapon that one of the Kilinzana Club snipers chooses – a Manlicher – which is alegedly the same rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald used.

The story, Vengeance is Ours!, while being fairly brisk and providing a few small thrills, is pretty poor. There are typos (that maybe the typesetter’s fault), and poor phrasing throughout. It actually reads like a first draft, but where the author was never given the opportunity to revise and correct his story. Then again, the Sexton Blake Library may have been a real ‘bang ‘em out’ proposition and spending time honing and crafting the story may have never really been a consideration.

From the back:

There was blood on the hands of the Right Hon. Joseph Dingala, the blood of women and children massacred in the Kilinzina Club in the confused years before the African state of Lubanda emerged into independence.

And now Dingala was coming to England for Government talks, coming to an England which housed menfolk of the Kilinzina Club, men who had sworn to avenge their families’ deaths.

To Sexton Blake the task was given to save Joseph Dingala from assassination by these fanatical and determined men.

Could even Blake guard an African Statesman in his luxurious penthouse suite – with twenty determined men sworn to killing him – or perishing in the attempt…

Please note: Inside the book, the white settlers club is referred to as the Kilinzana Club. On the cover, it is referred to the Kilinzina Club. I guess that sums up how much care was taken in the preparation of this book.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Churchill's Vixens No 1

Churchill's Vixens No.1 The Breton Butcher

By Leslie McManus
Published by Mews Books 1976

The Breton Butcher, the first in the Churchill's Vixens series is a grubby little book – but one that I strangely enjoyed. Let's be honest, the book is everything it suggests on the cover – sexy girls doing seductive spy stuff and killing Nazi soldiers, and solely on that level the book succeeds admirably. But isn't art. It isn't even that well written, but it is wafer thin and fast paced. A night or two's entertainment at best.

From the back cover:

They were British Intelligence's most secret and deadly weapon. Young, beautiful and destructive agents as much at home on a midnight mission as in the beds of friend or foe.

Especially trained in languages, the techniques of counter-espionage and the psychology of the enemy, the girls of this group could go anywhere behind the German's lines - and do anything.

They were Churchill's Vixens – a secret group of wartime heroes whose stories are now told for the first time. Stories that might just be true.
The story, which is set in Brittany is about Yvonne Stacey a virginal Frenchwoman living the simple life in the town of Dimand. Well, at least as simple as it can be when your town is over-run with German soldiers. Despite her hatred of the Nazis, Yvonne keeps out of harms way because she loves one of the men in the village, Henri Bellanger. Yvonne and Henri are engaged to be married and she has been saving herself for him.

One pleasant morning, Yvonne pays an unexpected call on Henri, only to find that his home is over-run with Nazi soldiers. Initially she thinks the worst. But she is wrong. Henri is in no danger. He is a Nazi sympathiser. In his home he laughs and jokes with his German comrades.

Yvonne doesn't take the news that her fiance is a traitor well. She bribes a filthy fisherman to ferry her to London. As she has no money, she uses the only thing she has on any value to barter her way across - her virginity.

Yvonne is now a changed woman. In England she is quickly enlisted to become one of Churchill's Vixens -- a special undercover squad of women who are as much at home on the battlefield as the boudoir. She is put through a rigorous training regimen, where she excels as a markswomen and then awaits her assignment.

Naturally, she is sent on a mission in France, in fact in Breton, the province that she grew up in. Her partner in crime, is an American operative named Cy Getz. Getz appears to be pretty good at his job, but has a one track mind -- which focuses on getting Yvonne into the sack.

As the story progresses, Yvonne and Getz join with the resistance and carry out some daring raids. These raids bring them into conflict with some high ranking Nazi brass, and, of course, Henri Bellanger, with who Yvonne has a score to settle.

The Breton Butcher walks a fine line between being a pulp spy adventure or a piece of low-class smut -- I would suggest the smut wins, because the action passages aren't that well written. Even though I enjoyed this book (and that's a sad reflection on my character), I couldn't really recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The World's Greatest Spy Stories

Edited by Kurt Singer
Published by W.H. Allen, 1954

Pictured is the 1957 paperback edition published by WDL.

Also known as 'The World's Best Spy Stories' in the US.

In the past I have looked at Eric Ambler's To Catch a Spy and Alan Williams' The Headline Book of Spy Fiction. Both of them are anthologies of spy stories. Likewise is Kurt Singer's The World's Greatest Spy Stories (as the title would no doubt suggest). But Singer's book is quite different from the other anthologies for two main reasons. The first is that is was initially published in 1954, and although Ian Fleming's Casino Royale was originally published in 1953 in the UK, it wasn't released in paperback in the US (under the title 'You Asked For It') until 1955. Put simply, this book predates the great spy-boom of the sixties and is in no way influenced by James Bond. Likewise it predates Len Deighton and John LeCarré.

The second reason that this book is a bit different to other anthologies, is that interspersed between each of the stories are retellings of factual espionage events by Kurt Singer. If you look at the cover image, you can see that it says 'Fact and Fiction'. The 'Fact' portions are Singer's chapters - or more correctly - other peoples stories as related to Kurt Singer. But before we go any further, it is probably best if I explain a bit about who Kurt Singer is. Firstly here is a snippet from his mini - biography at Portraits of Survival on the Jewish Federation of Santa Barbara website:
When Hitler came to power in 1933, my wife Hilde and I started an anti-Nazi underground newspaper which we published in the basement of our bookstore in Berlin. The newspaper reported on the suffering of the first German concentration camp prisoners. The camps at that time were created for the Nazi opposition including political prisoners and the racially unacceptable. In our newspaper, we asked people to send food packages to inmates of the camps, and we had reports from foreign broadcasts. The newspaper was distributed clandestinely through a group of resistance workers who placed papers in Storm Trooper barracks, government buildings, restaurants and sporting events, and wherever the public was assembled. This was a fight of the mosquito against the elephant.

When one of our co-workers was caught and brutally beaten, she gave away our address. I was wanted for high treason - I was considered a traitor to the state, and if caught I would have been executed. I escaped first to Prague, then Vienna, and then via Danzig on a cargo ship to Sweden. Hilde was caught, and received a lenient one year prison sentence due to the fact that she was represented by a high Nazi attorney hired by her family. When she was released, she joined me in Sweden. There, Hilde wrote and published the book ‘I was Hitler's Prisoner.’

While in Sweden, I published several books on topics related to the Nazi regime - on the Nazi policy of forced sterilization, on Hitler’s Olympics, and the coming air war. I wrote the first biography of Carl von Ossietzky, a Liberal editor of a Democratic magazine called ‘Die Weltbuhne’ which was strongly anti-Nazi. This book was instrumental in getting Ossietzky, a concentration camp prisoner, the Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded in 1936. In 1940, I wrote a biography of Hermann Göring - the Nazi Air Force chief who ordered the aerial bombardment of England. Göring asked that the book be banned and confiscated, and that I should be extradited to Germany. To avoid extradition, I was able to arrange a visa to the U.S. as a correspondent for a Swedish newspaper. We left from Petsamo, a town in north Finland, on the ship named Matilde Thoren; Hilde and I and our six month old baby arrived safely to Ellis Island in New York.
This next snippet is from Kurt Singer's introduction in The World's Greatest Spy Stories:
Odyssey into Spyland

Fourteen years ago I was held on Ellis Island in New York harbour. From my barred window I saw the Statue of Liberty. My wife and five-months-old daughter
Marian were also held by the United States Immigration Department in a different wing of this old building.

It was America's Independence Day - the 4th of July. France had fallen while we were in mid-ocean. Hitler eas ready for the invasion of England. The United States was officially neutral.

The detention did not disturb me. I knew I was safe. I had escaped both the Nazis and Communists in Finland. I knew the Lord would protect me and my family. America would not send me back. But I could not talk. To avoid legal complications it was advisable not to disclose that i had close contacts with the British Secret Service, with the Norwegian Secret Service and the police chiefs of several countries. America was neutral. I was not. I hated Hitler. I hated Stalin. I could not be neutral.

Little did I know then what was ahead of me in the field of espionage and counter-intelligence. I never dreamed at the time that the United States Atomic Energy Commission would utilize my reports on atomic espionage and that I would write half a dozen books on spies and traitors.
At the risk of trivialising, what is no doubt a truly remarkable life (and if it comes off as trivialisation - I apologise), Singer's life could serve as the template for Victor Laszlo in the film Casablanca - as portrayed by Paul Heinreid. I can find no reference to this, and who actually wrote the script to Casablanca is a contentious issue, but I just wonder if one of the Hollywood scribes who worked on Casablanca had heard Singer's tale? Ah, that's just the way my mind works...jumping off at tangents. Anyway... back to the book under discussion.

Apart from the writers from the sixties, most of spy-lit's usual suspects are represented in The World's Greatest Spy Stories. There is Sommerset Maugham's Ashendon and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This book also includes Belgrade 1926 from Eric Ambler's Mask of Dimitrios. Ambler also took that chapter for his contribution to To Catch a Spy, but Ambler 'tweaked' his story slightly in his anthology, so it read more like a short story rather than an extract from a larger novel.

One of the more interesting stories is Hilda Jung's The Execution (as told to Kurt Singer). Initially it seems like a parallel to Singer's own story, because Hilda Jung also ran a secret printing press in her basement with her husband, Paul. But despite the initial similarities, the story actually concerns the fate of two aristocratic German women who Hilda Jung ended up being imprisoned with. The women in question were Benita von Berg and Charlotte von Natzmer who were manipulated by a Polish spymaster named Serge Sosnowski. It's a sad tale and shows what a dirty business, espionage is.

The chapters are as follows:

Introduction: Odyssey into Spyland - Kurt Singer
The Secret Agent’s Badge of Courage · Ernest Hemingway
The Spy School in Leningrad · Jan Valtin
Belgrade, 1926 · Eric Ambler
The Executioner - Hilda Jung (as told to KS)
The Man Who Did Business with Himmler - Edwin Mueller
The Traitor - W. Somerset Maugham
I Was a Red Spy in Korea · Serge Molonkev (as told to KS)
A Man’s Foes · Pearl S. Buck
The Informer · Joseph Conrad
The Dark Invader - Franz von Rintelen
Code No 2 - Edgar Wallace
Guilty Without Trial · Victoria Wolff
The Death of a Communist - Douglas hyde
Blowing up a Train - T.E. Lawrence

Apparently this book was re-issued as The Secret Agent's Badge of Courage (after the story by Ernest Hemmingway) and an additional chapter, called Francis G. Powers: Modern Space Spy was added.

The World's Greatest Spy Stories is a very entertaining read, with easy to digest bite size portions. Dotted with personal non-fiction tales, the book has a certain weight and poignancy that many other compilations of spy stories fail to capture.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

High Citadel

Written by Desmond Bagley
First published by William Collins & Co. 1965

While not a spy story per-se, High Citadel is a rip-roaring adventure tale. When I go scouring through second hand book shops looking for old spy thrillers, I inevitably see the same authors on the shelves. Many of them I have never read, which is to my shame and detriment. One such author is Desmond Bagley.

For years I have had a copy of The Freedom Trap. I only picked it up because it was turned into the film, The MacIntosh Man with Paul Newman, but like so many books, I just haven't gotten around to reading it and it has since been left languishing at the bottom of a cupboard somewhere.

Recently though, around the corner from where I live, the local Lions Club were having a charity sale with mountains of books. I went along and picked up a bag full on novels for a few measly coins. Among them was Desmond Bagley's High Citadel, which I only picked up on the strength of the cover art.

Later that day, as I often do, I flicked through the first few pages from each of my new acquisitions to see how they fared. High Citadel grabbed me immediately and what started out as flicking through a few pages turned into reading the whole book.

Tim O'Hara is pretty much washed up as a pilot. During the Korean War he was shot down and captured and tortured by the North Koreans. No much of a man remains, except a drunk who can fly a plane. Now he ekes out a living, flying for a second rate airline service in the Andes.

One night he is called in to make a special flight. It seem that one of the major airlines has had mechanical problems with one of their planes en route and have been forced to land. O'Hara is ordered to ferry some of the passengers from that flight onto their final destination, Santillana, over the mountains.

During O'Hara's flight, the co-pilot, Grivas, tries to hi-jack the plane, and at gunpoint, orders O'Hara to land the plane on a tiny air-strip at high altitude. This landing strip had been built to service a mine in the mountains, but the mine has since closed down and the air-strip is overgrown and neglected. O'Hara protests that the plane is too large to land safely, but this is of no concern to the Grivas. O'Hara attempts the landing and the plane is torn apart as it is bounced along the landing strip. Several of the passengers are killed including the hi-jacker.

Now stranded high in the Andes, wher it is cold and the air is thin, O'Hara must lead a rag-tag band of survivors to safety. But this isn't as easy as it seems. It appears that one of the passengers, Snr. Aguillar is the ex-President of the country of Cordillera and is about to be re-instated to rule the country. But communist forces do not want Aguillar re-instated and have sent a small army of soldiers up the mountain to kill him.

But O'Hara and his Motley Crew have an ounce of luck. The road up the mountain crosses over a canyon - and the bridge that crosses that canyon has been damaged in a storm. The soldiers cannot cross until the bridge is rebuilt. In the meantime O'Hara, with the aid of Armstrong, one of the passengers who is fanatical about ancient warfare, devise some crude weapons, including primitive crossbows and a trebuchet (catapault) to keep the soldiers from crossing over.

High Citadel is a great physical adventure, and the sections where Rohde, Forrester, and Peabody attempt to cross the treacherous icy peaks is well written and gripping.

Admittedly, the story is far-fetched, but the characters - although stereotypical - are so well drawn that the plot contrivances matter very little. This is old fashioned 'Boys Own Adventure' stuff and thoroughly entertaining it is too. As an antidote to the coldness of the modern high-tech thriller, I highly recommend High Citadel. Bagley weaves his tale so well, that these are characters that you will enjoy spending time and sharing the adventure with, and actually care about the outcome.

The blurb from The Book Club dust jacket reads:
The setting of High Citadel is the towering peaks of the Andes. A non-scheduled passenger plane is hi-jacked in mid-air and forced down among the forbidding mountains.

The surviving passengers, stranded at 16,000 feet, embark on a perilous descent – only to find themselves trapped by a formidably armed Communist force whose prey is one particular passenger, the ex-president of Cordillera, and his lovely niece. But it soon becomes clear that the ambushers are intent on wiping out all the other survivors as well: “dead men tell no tales.”

As the trapped men and women grimly realise the odds at stake, two intensely exciting stories unfold. On the lower slopes, a desperate delaying action is fought with ingeniously contrived weapons. At the same time, three of the men set out to brave the higher regions of the rock and glacier in a gruelling race for help. The climax, as unexpected as it is hair-raising, brings a wonderful at at times deeply moving adventure – thriller to a worthy close.

This is a good one!

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Lost Symbol

Written by Dan Brown
Published by Random House 2009

We have in Australia what we call the 'Tall Poppy Syndrome'. It is where someone who is very successful is pulled back a notch or two as a punishment for their success. Dan Brown, like most parts of the world, was hugely successful in Australia with his bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code. It topped the bestseller lists for months, dragging along with it Brown's previous novels; Angels and Demons, Digital Fortress, and Deception Point. In fact, when a pictorial version of The Da Vinci Code came out, Brown had a lock on five of the ten top selling books in the country, which is truly an amazing feat. After all that success, as an Australian, it is now my duty to adhere to the rules of the Tall Poppy Syndrome and cut Mr. Brown down to size. But first, as I am egocentric, let's talk about me for just a second.

Funnily enough, just prior to Christmas, I was rabbiting on to my wife about how I should write a spy novel (those who know me well, know I always rabbit on about writing a spy novel). Anyway the good lady wife decided to put me to the test and asked, 'What is your formula?'

Initially I was taken aback because I'd like to think that anything I'd write would be anything but formulaic. But she persisted, 'What would be the formula for the average spy story?' I quickly though about it, and my mind raced back to the countless spy stories that are racing around my head.

I responded, ' I guess the story would start with an old man who may or may not be a scientist- he may be a politician. But he has something the bad guys want. If he is a scientist, he may have invented a weapon, or if he's a politician he may have access to some information.

This old guy is either kidnapped or killed. This is where the secret agent comes in. He is assigned to investigate the killing or kidnapping.

Now every good story should have a romantic interest, so the old man has to have a beautiful daughter, sister or research assistant who assists the secret agent throughout the mission.'

I based my 'formula' on a few films I had watched recently; the Eurospy flicks Ypotron and From The Orient With Fury; the Man From UNCLE movie, The Karate Killers and even the start of For Your Eyes Only. Regular readers may even recognise that it is also the formula I adopted for my April Fool's Day prank, That Man Connery, last year.

After I had finished outlining my formula to my wife, I sat back and waiting for a response. She said, 'You know you have just outlined The Da Vinci Code?' And in all honesty, I hadn't.

The framework for The Da Vinci Code is the same as that of a myriad of cliched spy films. And maybe, therein lies the simplicity and the beauty of The Da Vinci Code. It a spy story, but without spies.

That brings us back to The Lost Symbol, and before I go any further, I wish to say that I refuse to participate in the Tally Poppy Syndrome. I am not going to slag off Dan Brown's latest book simply because his last book was so successful. I really enjoyed The Lost Symbol. Due to the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code, what many people have seemed to have forgotten that Brown is first and foremost a thriller writer - it's airport fiction - and he does it better than most. Is it believable? Maybe - maybe not. But the key question is 'did the book entertain you?' My response is yes - enormously. No more than a good Clive Cussler, Matthew Reilly or Bill Napier novel - but no less either. The Lost Symbol is a rattling good yarn - and further more, Brown sucked me into his story enough that I found myself 'Googling' some of the buildings, paintings and sculptures mentioned in the story.

The story starts with Harvard Professor and symbologist Robert Langdon receiving a request from an old friend and mentor, Peter Solomon. Solomon is one of the direction of the Smithsonian Institution, which each year hosts a private gala for its supporters and backers. The dinner is preceded by a keynote address and the person scheduled to make the address has fallen ill. Langdon is asked if he will kindly fill in for the evening.

Langdon agrees, and is quickly en route from his home in Boston to Washington D.C. - and to the Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building. This is just the beginning of rather rather long and frantuic evening for langdon as he gets dragged into the secret world of Freemasonry and hunted by the director of the CIA's Office of Security.

I am not going to waste too much time outlining the plot of The Lost Symbol, because one of the joys of reading a Dan Brown book is being lead through the various threads of plot convolution. And that's one thing this book has joyous amounts of - plot convolution!

There is some good story-telling in The Lost Symbol, especially early in the book where the story really rockets along. There is one passage in particular that had me shocked. I didn't see it coming at all - but Brown handles it well, and provides a perfectly acceptable resolution. Towards the end - essentially after the climax - the story does dawdle a little as it comes to a close, with over forty pages of tying up loose ends. Okay, those pages do contain the 'big reveal', but The Lost Symbol is one of those books where the treasure isn't really a treasure (you know what I mean), and as such there is no real positive, fist pumping, positive release for the reader. It's not a gib - but it isn't totally satisfying either.

So does The Lost Symbol fit my spy formula? Yes it does. The old man with the knowledge is Peter Solomon and he is kidnapped prior to the start of the story - the kidnapping is recounted in flashback. Robert langdon is the 'spy' called to solve the mystery, although in this instance it is the kidnapper who presses Langdon into service rather than a government agency (Although be assured the CIA is riding along with Langdon).

And does Peter Solomon have a beautiful daughter, sister or research assistant to assist Langdon in his quest for answers? Yes he does. He has a sister named Katherine, who not only aids Langdom throughout the story, but is a scientist in her own rite, and her research adds an extra dimension to the story as it plays out.

So the 'Spy Formula' is all there, and as I mentioned earlier, The Lost Symbol is very enjoyable. It is a pity really because, now when I finally do get around to writing my great spy novel I am going to have to find a new formula. Dan Brown has used mine, and used it well.

From the blurb:
What was lost will be found...

Washington DC: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned at the last minute to deliver an evening lecture in the Capitol Building. Within moments of his arrival, however, a disturbing object - gruesomely encoded with five symbols - is discovered at the epicentre of the rotunda. It is, he recognises, an ancient invitation, meant to beckon its recipient towards a long-lost world of hidden esoteric wisdom.

When Langdon's revered mentor, Peter Solomon - philanthropist and prominent Mason - is brutally kidnapped, Langdon realises that his only hope of saving his friends life is to accept this mysterious summons and follow wherever it leads him.

Langdon finds himself quickly swept behind the facade of America's most powerful city into the unseen chambers, temples and tunnels which exist there. All that was familiar is transformed into a shadowy clandestine world of an artfully concealed past in which Masonic secrets and never-before-seen revelations seem to be leading him to a single impossible and inconceivable truth.

A brilliantly composed tapestry of veiled histories, arcane icons and enigmatic codes, The Lost Symbol is an intelligent, lightning-paced thriller that offers surprises at every turn. For, as Robert Langdon will discover, there is nothing more extraordinary or shocking than a secret which hides in plain sight...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Devil May Care

By Sebastian Faulks
Penguin Books 2008

Cleaning out the closet. This is the first of my cleaning out the closet reviews. When you visit PTK, you don't see the bare bones underneath. You don't see all the half written posts, sitting as drafts waiting for me to finish. I counted them today, and I have fifty-eight reviews lying in pieces across the site. It's time to clean up a little. This review for Devil May Care was started in June last year, and has been waiting for me to finish it off ever since. Some of my comments are a little dated now as the book has almost been out for eighteen months, but still I thought it was still worth sharing.

Sebastian Faulks Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care was always going to be scrutinised quite thoroughly, especially as it was released with 'Writing As Ian Fleming' written on the cover. This met with quite a mixed reaction. Some believed it was a marketing tool to indicate that this story starts where Fleming left off in the sixties – which it does - ignoring all previous continuation authors. Others believed that to suggest the book was written as Fleming was the height of arrogance. And some said that it was purely a technical exercise for Faulks – attempting to write in Fleming's style; in fact making the novel a pastiche of sorts.

I wasn't sure if Devil May Care was going to get released down under. Many books get skipped over down here, and if they do get released in can be many months after the UK and US release dates. In fact though, it was released here in a large paperback version about a week after the rest of the world, but I wasn't to know that, and so I ordered a copy from the UK.

For some reason my copy was held up and I didn't receive it till a couple of weeks later (while waiting became very temped to double up and buy the Australian version, but common sense prevailed - unusual for me, I know!) But during that interim, a friend of mine had received both the novel and the unabridged audio book read by actor Jeremy Northam. While my friend was reading the book, he kindly lent me the audio book until my copy of the novel arrived.

Over the next few days we conversed about our respective progress through the book. His comments amounted to that Faulks was writing a pastiche. Now I didn't get it. What did he mean? Were we reading/listening to the same story? From Jeremy Northam's telling, I didn't feel like the story was a pastiche at all. I though it was a solid, well written Bond story (with a few clumsy 'sixties' references - but I guess you've got to sell time and place).

By chapter four, I received my copy of the book and abandoned the slower audio book for the real thing. On the written page the story changed. No longer did I have Northam's accents and theatrics to drag me into the story and along with the characters. I had to use my own 'theatre of the mind', and the situations within the novel began to revert to more familiar Bondian clichés. Don't get me wrong here – I love the Bond formula, and am most forgiving of it flaws. But as I continued to read I felt that Faulks was simply ticking the boxes as he went along. I was beginning to see more of a pastiche than a forceful thriller.

Anyway, here's a very brief overview of the plot. I will keep spoilers to a minimum so as not to ruin the enjoyment of this novel for those who are still to read it. The novel starts in Paris, and a French/Albanian drug trafficer is killer in a brutal fashion. Bond's old friend René Mathis of the Deuxieme Bureau is assigned the case. Meanwhile a burnt out James Bond is on leave after the events in The Man With The Golden Gun. His break starts in Jamaica where he gets the tennis bug. During his rest period he plays quite a bit of tennis with a Jamaican named Wayland. Bond's current flirtation with tennis is picked up later on in the book, where Bond plays a game with the villain of the piece.

After Jamaica, Bond heads to France and finally to Rome. Here he meets bored, affluent housewife Larissa Rossi. Bond is infatuated with the woman, but in an uncharacteristic mood he chooses not to bed her.

The next morning Bond receives a summons from M and returns to London (This is the old M - Sir Miles Merservy). Bond's mission is to investigate Dr. Julius Gorner who is a pharmaceutical manufacturer. M believes his interest in pharmaceuticals extends far beyond headache tablets and may be one of the worlds largest heroin manufacturers and distributors. Bond is to attempt to get close and find out as much as possible.

Bond heads to Paris and checks into his hotel room. Much to his surprise waiting in his hotel room is Larissa Rossi - or rather Scarlett Papava – that's her real name. It appears that when she was in Rome she was sizing him up for a job on the recommendation of Bond old pal, and ex-CIA operative Felix Leiter.

Scarlett's sister, Poppy, is being held by Gorner and she wants Bond to free her. How's that for a nice co-incidence! She wants Bond to investigate Gorner too, but she initiated contact with Bond before he had been assigned the mission.

But Scarlett proves useful and arranges for Bond to meet Gorner, socially of course, at a tennis club, where they play a not so friendly match. You see, Gorner doesn't like to lose. So much so that he cheats by having the height of the centre court net raised and lowered slightly, depending on who is serving. Despite Gorner's dishonorable tactics, Bond still manages to win the match, much to the Gorner's chagrin. 'Chagrin' also happens to be Gorner's oriental manservant – the man who secretly raised and lowered the net during the match.

After France, Bond traces Gorner's activities to Tehran, and here he meets MI6's 'Man in Persia', Darius Alizadeh. Now I may be wrong here, but it would appear that Mr. Faulks is a fan of Nick Cave, or at least the song The Wild Rose (which Cave sung with Kylie Minongue). In the song a girl named Eliza Day, is known as The Wild Rose. The flower motif is used extensively throughout the story. Gorner even explains to Bond, that the poppy's correct name is Papaver sominferum. It's only a small step from Pava to Papaver -- therefore in the story we have female character called Scarlett Papava (= Scarlet Poppy) and Poppy Papava (= Poppy Poppy).

I must admit, I enjoyed the second half of story quite a bit, and in the end I would say that this is a passable effort. As mentioned above, I enjoy Northam's telling of the story more than reading the book. Northam acts as a buffer between me and the written word, taking the emphasis off the clichéd passages. What I mean here is the 'Bondian' clichés rather than lazy, unoriginal writing type of clichés. For example, if you were to ask me to write a Bond style parody, I would include the 'sea island cotton shirts', 'comma of dark hair' and possibly 'a thin cruel mouth'. And while I appreciate that these are elements that Fleming used in describing Bond at some point in his novels, they have now been milked so mercilessly by every Bond parody, that including them in a Bond novel -- even an official one -- is courting danger. It unconsciously turns the book into parody. But I must say in all fairness to Faulks, he tried not to walk into those traps.

As a comparison it is interesting to note that Faulks doesn't really attempt to describe Bond until page 144 (in the Penguin UK Harcover).
"Bond checked himself in the bathroom mirror. The comma of black hair, dampened by the shower, hung over his forehead. The scar on his cheek was less distinct than usual, thanks to the tanning effect of the Persian sun. His eyes were bloodshot from the salt water but retained, despite the spidery red traces, their cold, slightly cruel sense of purpose."
Whereas, John Gardner in License Renewed, released in 1981, described Bond's appearance on page 21 -- note here, that Bond didn't appear in the first chapter. From the Jonathan Cape UK Hardcover:
"She stared in space for a moment, her head filled with the after-image of the man who had just entered M's inner sanctum: the bronzed good-looking face, with rather dark eyebrows above the wide, level blue eyes; the three-inch scar which just showed down his right cheek; the long, very straight nose, and the fine, though cruel mouth. Minute flecks of grey had just started to show in the dark hair, which still retained its boyish black comma above the right eye."
And when Raymond Benson took over writing duties, in his first novel Zero Minus Ten, released in 1997, he chose to get the description out of the way as soon as possible, appearing on page 4 of teh Coronet UK paperback:
"His short black hair had just a hint of grey at the temples, was parted on the left, and carelessly brushed so that a thick comma fell down over his right eyebrow. There was a faint three-inch scar on his right cheek. The longish straight nose ran down to a short upper lip, below which was a wide and finely drawn but cruel mouth."
I guess it is hard work being a Bond novelist. And with each passing year it gets harder. Fans like myself can slowly pull apart every word they write and compare it to the master -- which is not really fair. The final washup is this. It's great to have Bond back in a literary form, and although the book isn't as good as I may have wished for, it certainly is entertaining. Sebastian Faulks was always walking a very thin tightrope. We Bond fans (like any pop-culture property with a huge fan base) are a tough audience to play to. We know the best. We know the worst. And we expect any person taking on the mantle to know it as well. At times, I wasn't sure if Faulks did. For example, even the villain's name 'Dr. Julius Gorner' - did Faulks realise that a previous Bond villain was Dr. Julius No. I am sure he had heard of Dr. No, but was he aware of the character's christian name? If so, it seems a bit contrived to have two Dr. Julius villains. Small quibbles, I know! But these little nagging things coloured by perception when reading.

But isn't great just to be able to hold a new Bond book?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Man From UNCLE: Bookcovers

Here are some bookcover scans from the Man From UNCLE series. These may be of interest to American readers as they differ from the ACE Books versions.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Black Butterfly

Author: Mark Gatiss
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Year: 2009

On a couple of occasions I have said it is far easier to write reviews of bad films, books or CDs, than it is to write about good works. But that doesn’t mean I want to write negative and mean-spirited reviews. I want to love every spy story that comes my way, and even if a project doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights that the creators intended, I’m always willing to meet it half way. As far as I am concerned, just give it your best shot – regardless of budget, time and talent. But sometimes I have to be negative. And my reasoning for this is when I feel that the creator’s hearts are not in the project. Unfortunately Black Butterfly seems to fall in that category. But before I go any further, because I haven’t written up reviews for The Vesuvius Club or The Devil in Amber, it is probably best that I say a few quick words about the two previous Lucifer Box stories.

Firstly, The Vesuvius Club (2004). I thought it was fantastic. It was a much-needed breath of fresh air in a genre that was getting a bit tired and over-run with techno-babble. Gatiss returned us to the days when spy stories were grand entertainment, and the adventures of the hero were all a bit of a lark. Sure, Gatiss caught me off guard with the bi-sexuality of the character Lucifer Box, and if you’ll pardon my French, the ‘…so I fucked him’ passage had me reeling like I had been punched in the face by a heavyweight boxer -- but at the same time, well why not? Like I said the book stirred up the stale old spy story, and for that I was extremely grateful.

Next came The Devil in Amber (2006). Now, I guess any shock value that Box could provide had now dissipated, and as such I didn’t think Amber was quite up to its predecessor’s standard, but still I found it a very enjoyable adventure. For those who are not familiar with the Box novels, let me explain that The Vesuvius Club was set in the late 1800s and Box was an Edwardian, rake about town, kind of spy. Amber moves the character along a bit and is set during the 1920s or 30s and appears to be modeled on a Dennis Wheatley novel.

Now comes the last in the series, Black Butterfly. It is set in the mid 1950s and it is the Bond book, if that makes sense. That is, Gatiss is parodying and placing Box in a Bond style universe. This, with my proclivity for all things Bond, this is the book I was really looking forward to. Now here’s the bit I didn’t want to have to say -- this book is a real disappointment. At first glance, the book looks great with it faux Richard Chopping inspired cover (for the hardback) or the playing card as the old - one of the many - Casino Royale cover (for the paperback edition). My first thoughts however were, gee the book is thin. And the words are big inside. This will barely take me a night to read (please note that I am a very slow reader – because I sit in front of a computer all day, my eyes are usually pretty shot when I get home).

But then I though, well Fleming’s novels were not great heavy slabs. They were fast paced and short – just grabbing the first Bond paperback within reach off the shelf next to me as I write - it’s an American Signet paperback of Moonraker (23rd Printing) – and it comes in at 175 pages (though the type is much smaller). So I thought Gatiss’ intention was to write a fast paced thriller in a short book format. Next, I read the first chapter, and to be perfectly honest it is a ball-tearer. It is written in third person, like the Bond stories and has a woman in peril and piranha fish. Great. At this stage I was pretty excited about the book I was holding in my hands. But then the story pulls back and we find out it was all a dream. I don’t know about you, but when I was in Year 7 at school, my English teacher warned the whole class, that if he came across a piece of writing that ended with ‘…and then I woke up’, he would fail the student immediately.

After the dream, the story starts proper in first person (like the previous books). Lucifer Box is old and about to retire, but first he has one last chore – and that is to investigate the strange death of his friend Christopher Miracle. The rest of the book seems rushed and sloppy. There are good passages, but I felt like I was reading an un-corrected proof. There was a paragraph doubled up and typos galore (although I realise that it is somewhat hypocritical of me to condemn a piece of work due to typos – but then again, I do not have an editor, or send out proofs of my work for correction before posting – I simply type in whatever frazzled verbiage pops into my head and hope my fingers can keep up). But Black Butterfly shows all the hallmarks of a piece of work that was rushed to meet a deadline, and I am afraid that isn’t good enough. I know publishing is an industry and publication and promotion take a lot of organization, and a deadline is a deadline – but where are the wiser heads, who sit down a read the manuscript / typescript and say yay or nay? Who is the person that says ‘sorry, this is not up to scratch, let’s delay the release’?

At the end of the day, putting out an incomplete or rushed book only hurts the author’s reputation. At one stage there was talk about further books in the Lucifer Box series, but now, I for one would be very wary of them. I would certainly read a few reviews before I laid my money down.

Look, don’t let my negative comments put you off reading the first two books in the series, but Box and Bond fans should be wary of Black Butterfly.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Roger Moore & the Crimefighters

Roger Moore and the Crimefighters was a six book children's series. But despite the prominence of Roger Moore on the cover, and in the title he isn't really a part of the stories until the end - where he plays himself (the actor).

The Crimefighters are a trio of kids (much like the Famous Five or the Secret Seven etc.) and they er, fight crime. At the end of each adventure they would visit Roger Moore and tell him the story of their adventure.

The books were published by Everest Books in the UK in 1977.

The six books are:
THE SIEGE by Malcolm Hulke
1001 SHOPLIFTERS by Robin Smyth
CROOK AHOY! by Fielden Hughes
DEATH IN DENIMS by Dulcie Gray
THE ANCHOR TRICK by Anthony Wall

I have been told that the last five are quite easy to come by, but THE SIEGE is quite difficult to track down. As you can see, I don't have a copy of it.

Roger Moore's royalties from the series were donated to the Stars Organisation for Spastics and to the Police Widows and Orphans Fund.

At the back of each book was a coupon that children could send off to become a 'crimefighter'. This got them a free membership card, a free newspaper, and a chance to meet Roger Moore.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Mondo Sadisto

Written by Clyde Allison
Real name: William Henley Knowles
Published: 1966 Leisure Books
Cover illustration by Robert Bonfils

WARNING: This review contains sexual and adult themes.

‘Once again, Hollywood, that Glamour Capital of the Free World, had come up with a smashing idea – A Secret Agent Semi-Documentary! And when they chose SADISTO as the subject for their MONDO-type flick, they were confident that they wouldn’t have to worry about any intense erotic atmosphere. From the little they could learn about SADISTO’s ultrasecret activities, they concluded that they organization merely killed, maimed, tortured and, whenever possible massacred the sinister enemies of the Free World.

Little did the California Dreamers realize what they were in for! How could they have known that the dread triple-zero agents were trained not only to kill, but to love – whenever possible!’

Mondo Sadisto twelfth title in Clyde Allison’s series of soft-core spy novels featuring Trevor Anderson, agent 0008 for a secret organisation called SADISTO. The name of the company alone should tell you about how they work – they use brutal and garish methods to liquidate the enemies of the Free World. It should also tell you that these novels are very black comedies. The series, because of its sexual content is often looked upon as porn, and there’s no denying that sexual themes are prevalent throughout the book. But by today’s standards it is all very tame. There are no swear words and the passages devoted to sex could more accurately be described as ‘smut’ rather than ‘erotica’.

‘She’s a big girl, with jutting, high, proud, ripely rounded breasts – twin cupolas of carnal temptation, paired peaks of passionate pleasure flesh…’ or ‘Her proud, pert young breast jutted upward and outward in quivering conical / spherical perfection – dual globes of glossy glee flesh.’

As I said, it is smut, but placed in the context of the wild spyjinx presented, it’s obvious that none of this is meant to be taken seriously.

In this 0008 adventure our hero, Trevor Anderson is to be the star in a Mondo-style documentary movie. It appears that SADISTO is cash strapped, and for ‘two million on the barrel-head plus twenty percent of the gross take’ they are prepared to allow an insider witness the ultra-secret world of SADISTO. The producer / director / cinematographer of this film is Cinamatia (Cin) Scopes, and she is to accompany 0008 on his next mission filming every second.

What is his mission? Glad you asked. Ultra evil organisation KRUNCH are holding the 'Free World' to ransom once again. This time they are threatening to destroy the waterways of North America. The mission briefing goes like this - page 73:

"What," the General had asked dramatically (during our initial briefing), "is the most dreaded thing of the water - fresh water, that is?"

I considered this. "A voluptuous teen-age thrill-seeking girl at the wheel of a high-powered outboard?" I suggested, remembering numerous occasions when such joyous jills had almost cut me in two with their propellers.

"You're right," the General had conceded. "Well, what's the second most dreaded thing in fresh water?"

"Why, the Piranha!" gasped Cin and I in unison.

"Keep out of this," I snarled. "This is my briefing."

"Sorry. I spoke up without thinking," apologized Cin.

"Silence!" thundered the General. "As I was saying and you were agreeing, the South American fresh-water fish - loosely named the Piranha - is a fish to be dreaded."

And later from page 76 and 77:

"It's more serious, I take it," I rasped.

"Exactly. With Piranhas as with any fish, it's only a question of acclimation. Piranhas flourish only in very warm fresh waters. But..."

"But?" I interjected.

"But fish can adjust. Automatically or after careful selective breeding. Take the common guppy for an example. A fresh-water fish. But how many guppy fanciers know that if they should toss their guppies into an aquarium full of salt water - the guppies would continue to flourish and multiply."

"I take it," I frowned, "that not all fish are as adaptable as guppies?"

"You take it correctly," said the General. "However, before this, nobody has made any attempt to acclimate Piranhas to cooler water. By slowly lowering the water temperature, selecting the fish that withstood the change best, cross-breeding them, repeating the process for generations - it might be done. And shudder, the indications are - it has been done! Yes, a cool, even cold-water Piranha is now a biological reality. You can imagine what this could mean."

So KRUNCH's evil plan is to release their cold water acclimated Piranhas into North American waterways during 'Safe Swimming Week'. Diabolical. The woman behind this horrible scene is Serra S. Brandt, and 0008, with a little help from Cin Scopes has to track her down and eliminate her - which is not going to be an easy task.

An intriguing aspect of the 0008 novels is the violence. There is a fair amount of gratuitous cartoon violence, and as stated, because these books are black comedies, this violence is ‘sadistic’ and gory. After all 0008 works for SADISTO – of course he’s ‘sadistic’. But Allison seems to take delight in whipping his reading audience into a lather about the more extreme elements of his stories. As this note explains (from 0008’s point of view):

‘As most of my millions of readers know, SADISTO agents keep in fighting trim, maintain their professional skills and relax themselves by shooting at live human targets – usually captured enemy agents, condemned voluptuous teen-age girl criminals we ‘borrow’ from death-row on the pretense of studying their psychological reactions, and other alleged enemies of the Free World.

But although the advantages as well as the fun of this system should be obvious, some readers don’t seem to approve of it. Many send me angry letters about it, in fact (as if I were to blame! I’m only a cog in the system – albeit a pretty important cog) – letters frequently accompanied by time bombs, rattlesnakes and deadly cave scorpions. Gifts I always rewrap and mark Return to Sender.

To stop this irksome flow of missives and missiles, let me restate my oft stated position: What’s wrong with using live human beings as targets?’

Having said all that, Allison does have a tendency to have an each way bet. One of the recurring plot devices is to have 0008 kill an enemy in a particularly nasty and bloody fashion, only to later have it revealed that the target wasn’t actually killed. So you get the nasty ‘sadistic’ prose, and then at the end, he takes it all away. No one was really hurt after all.

As the 0008 adventures are plainly parodies of sixties spymania, the stories are littered with Bond, Flint and UNCLE references. Even KAOS from Get Smart is given a name check. In this book one of the highlights is when 0008 explains his choice to drive a fire-engine red Mercedes rather than an Aston Martin.

"I thought all secret agents drove Aston Martins,” Cin had objected when we’d started our trip.

“Most do,” I agreed. “The Aston Martin people have a special group rate for intelligence organizations. The car has certain drawbacks, however. Like so many secret agents, enemy, friendly and the neutral drive them. You see an Aston Martin on the road, you know right off the driver is most likely a secret agent.”

“I see,” said Cin.

“So for this particular case,” I concluded, “I’m not taking my Aston Martin. Also it needs a valve job. Better we travel inconspicuously.” “You call a fire-engine red Mercedes 540-K inconspicuous?” increduled Cin.

And Derek Flint cops a serve - from page 53:

"Are you going to your quarters to do yoga exercises to prepare yourself for your coming hazardous duties?" she asked as she trotted behind me.

"Bah!" I said. "Perhaps esthetes like Flint engage in such questionably masculine pre-caper activities, but we triple-zero SADISTO agents are made of lustier stuff."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Most readers would be familiar with the famous Page 69 Test. The theory is that page 69 should be a good reflection on the contents of the book. Well, with a piece of Clyde Allison erotica, I guess the 69 Test takes on a new meaning. But with a fair amount of trepidation submit Mondo Sadisto to the test to see how it stacks up.

Sweat poured from my brow as I writhed and twisted beneath the diabolical provocation of her lips, and tongue, and breasts, and straying fingers.

It was wild.
It was wanton.
It was wonderful.
It was too much.
She stopped.
"Don't stop" I implored.

I guess, due to the novels erotic nature their are going to be pages with a measure of carnality. Page 69, to put it simply, is a page filled with foreplay -- and by page 70, well it's right into the action -- you get the idea. This passage doesn't really sum up the parody inherent in the novel, but the book is what it is -- a piece of erotica -- and I guess Page 69 reflects that.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mondo Sadisto, like a few of the other Clyde Allison novels I have now sampled, is a little uneven, but there are passages which are brilliant parodies of a Bondian universe. I had a brief email conversation with Tanner from the Double-O Section, and he made a very astute observation that the stories are in many ways similar to Mark Gatiss' Lucifer Box trilogy. And he's right. Obviously Allison's stories are primarily soft core smut with passages of outrageous spy-type action and adventure, whereas Gatiss' stories are outrageous spy-type action and adventure with passages of smut. But they are similar.

Thanks to Flapjack 111, I am happy to present Mondo Sadisto. As the Clyde Allison 0008 Sadisto novels are out of print, rare, and extremely expensive, we thought it only right that we should share the adventures of one of the more perverse Bondian imitators.

To download Mondo Sadisto in JPG format,
click here.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009