Friday 29 July 2011

A Very Special Announcement Regarding Spy Novelist Anthony Price, and a Review of October Men (Gollancz, 1973/1992)

Following on from Wednesday's post on forgotten espionage author Thomas Cauldron, let's stay with the spy fiction for the moment and return to Anthony Price's splendid series of novels featuring the operatives of the Ministry of Defence's Research and Development Section, with another book review and a very special announcement about Mr. Price. I'll unveil that announcement in a short while, but first, let's take a look at this:

October Men is the fourth book in Price's series, and was first published in the UK by Gollancz in 1973, although the edition you can see above is a later Gollancz printing, from 1992; of all of Price's novels, this one has proved the hardest to track down in first (which isn't to say I won't keep trying). The novel follows in the footsteps of The Labyrinth Makers (1970), The Alamut Ambush (1971) and Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972) – all three of which I reviewed last month – in that, although written in the third person, once again the tale is told from the perspective of a different protagonist – or rather, in this instance, from that of two protagonists. As with the previous novels, Price's lynchpin, the clever, iconoclastic Middle East expert Dr. David Audley, does feature – indeed is central to the plot – but by and large events are related from the viewpoints of two other men, one of whom has appeared before in the series, the other of whom has not.

On the Research and Development Section side of the ledger, we have Captain Peter Richardson, last seen assisting Butler with his spot of student bother in Colonel Butler's Wolf. Recalled from Northern Ireland by Brigadier Stocker – now given a military title having previously been identified only as the man from the Joint Intelligence Committee – Richardson finds himself at David Audley's house in the South Downs, where the husband of Audley's housekeeper, Mrs Clark, has shot and killed an armed intruder. Displaying his now-expected ruthlessness, Stocker presses Richardson, who's on friendly terms with Audley and Mrs Clark, to find out what happened, but more importantly, to try to determine where exactly Audley, Audley's wife, and their new baby are: it seems all three have absconded without notifying anyone where to, and the suspicion is that Audley might have been a double agent all this time, and defected.

On the other side of the ledger is Pietro Boselli, personal assistant to head of Italian security General Montouri in Rome. A confirmed desk man, Boselli is thrust to the front lines when, quite by chance, the General spots an old adversary at the airport – a wartime Italian Communist known as the Bastard. For reasons which are unclear, the Bastard was following Audley and his family, who had just arrived from the UK. And further muddying the waters, somewhere in the middle of all this is Eugenio Narva, an Italian oil man who apparently invested in North Sea oil exploration before it had even been established there were significant deposits off the coast of Britain – which begs the questions, who tipped him off, and how?

As ever with Price's novels, a tangled web of partial information, misinformation and hidden agendas serves to obfuscate the truth of the matter, which ultimately proves somewhat simpler than the various interweaving strands suggest. But it's the piecing together of the mystery that keeps one engrossed, and, each in their own ways, Richardson and Boselli are the perfect viewpoint characters for Price's purposes, in that they're both pretty much out of the loop – although as eventually becomes clear, so is almost everyone else, Audley included.

They're also both agreeable company. Boselli in particular makes for an unusual central character. He could uncharitably be described as something of a coward – he's forever fearful of sticking his neck above the parapet or in any way endangering his position – although Price is actually more sympathetic towards him than that would suggest. In the way in which Boselli is buffeted by events, frequently finding himself in situations over which he has no control and in which he has little to no experience, he's probably closer to how you or I might react in a similar position (as opposed to the clever-clogs Audley or the more militarily-inclined Butler). At one point he's accidentally credited with shooting an assailant during a firefight, and his panic at being found out is palpable. Although destined never to appear again in the series, in his fumbling, terrified, very real manner, Boselli offers further evidence of Price's deft, varied and increasingly confident characterization – all of which bodes well for subsequent books.
I hadn't planned on reading another Anthony Price novel so soon after the initial three – I do, after all, have a stack of books by other authors demanding my attention – but there was a particular reason I decided to re-immerse myself in Price's espionage universe – and that brings me to the announcement I mentioned. Because, in an exciting first for Existential Ennui – which prior to this point has consisted largely of book reviews and matters to do with book collecting – next week I'll be posting an exclusive interview with Mr. Price, conducted by yours truly, in person, just last month. I got to spend a good few hours in Price's company, and the results were both highly enlightening and highly entertaining. As far as I'm aware, this will be the first time an interview with Price has been available online, so fans of his work should find it fascinating reading.

The interview is fairly long, so I'm going to split it into two posts over the course of the week. So do, please, if you can, join me next week for an interview with Anthony Price. It'll surely be worth your while.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

The Thrilling Life and Mysterious Death of Spy Fiction Author Thomas Cauldron

As regular readers might have gathered, over the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in twentieth century spy fiction. I was reading spy novels before that, of course, notably those written by Ian Fleming and Gavin Lyall, but my consumption of espionage fiction has markedly increased in the last twelve months to encompass Graham Greene, John le Carré, Ross Thomas, Anthony Price, Adam Hall and Francis Clifford, with the likes of Joseph Hone, Sarah Gainham, Donald Hamilton and William Haggard waiting patiently in the wings. (Many of those names were brought to my attention by the ever-helpful commenters on Existential Ennui – you know who you are – to whom I can only express both my gratitude and my escalating alarm at the impact on my wallet their recommendations are having.)

Doubtless there are still further names from the last century I've yet to discover – writers so obscure or overlooked that they've almost been written out of history. Like, for example, this British author:

Thomas Cauldron wrote literally countless espionage and crime thrillers over an indeterminate period from, I believe, the late 1920s to the early 1980s. Most were published straight to paperback, and few are remembered today, but spy-fic fans of a certain age and disposition might recall such pithy, punchy works as Dolls of Duplicity and Don't Lick Now. Cauldron was known for his over-the-top plots and the ingenious-bordering-on-insane methods by which characters in his stories were dispatched. Perhaps the most notorious example is Mulliver's death at the hands of a radicalised kindergarten class in The Potato Print Protocol, but special mention must also go to The Kitchen Sink for the way in which its assassin protagonist employs numerous murderous techniques all at the same time.

All of Cauldron's novels have slipped quietly out of print, perhaps a consequence of the manner in which he himself died. For, as detailed in journalist Christopher Notchman's recently-published biography of Cauldron, A Shot Rang Out, although the coroner's verdict on Cauldron's 1997 demise was "death by misadventure" – coincidentally also the title of three of Cauldron's novels, and the name of one of his cats – the truth was somewhat murkier. Cauldron actually met his end in Notchman's suburban home, having crashed through the conservatory roof, "destroyed my coffee table, bled on the carpet and died, clutching a book in which the big twist is that the double agent is a foetus." Suitably intrigued, and being a devotee of Cauldron's work, Notchman decided to investigate the writer's colourful life, in the process leaning that not only was Cauldron a prolific novelist and a pioneering wildlife broadcaster, but that he was also a double agent...

Notchman's biography – and indeed Cauldron – were brought to my attention by one of the authors of this website dedicated to Cauldron, which includes an excellent blog featuring some of the lurid covers to Cauldron's novels. A Shot Rang Out is available to buy from the website, and you can download an excerpt from the book as well. I for one will certainly be investigating Cauldron further.

And from a hyperbolic spy novelist to a rather more sophisticated one, as next I'll be returning to Anthony Price's David Audley espionage novels, with a review of the fourth book in the series (following 1972's Colonel Butler's Wolf), 1973's October Men... and I'll also have news of something rather special concerning Mr. Price...

Monday 25 July 2011

The Terminal Man by Michael Crichton: A Review of the British First Edition (Jonathan Cape, 1972)

Here's a book wot I bought during my recent – and yet feeling increasingly like it was bloody ages ago – week's sojourn to Devon:

This is the UK hardback first edition of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man, published by Jonathan Cape in 1972, with a dustjacket photo by David Davis. I saw this copy sitting outside a funny little secondhand bookshop – actually more of a house converted into a bookshop, really – called Book Relief, situated in the back streets of the coastal Devonshire village of Appledore:

I think I paid a quid for the book, which was a minor bargain, as UK first editions usually go for anything from £15–£80. The Terminal Man was Crichton's second novel under his own name, following 1969's The Andromeda Strain (Crichton had a number of other novels published from 1966–1972, mostly under the alias John Lange), and it originally appeared – in a truncated form – in Playboy magazine. I've seen umpteen movie adaptations of Crichton's work – the aforementioned The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, Jurassic Park, etc. – but this was my first exposure to his prose, and it was an enjoyable but mixed experience.

Certainly The Terminal Man is eminently readable – I tore through it in a couple of days during my holiday – but it's also curiously colourless. The central idea is compelling: Harold Benson, a computer engineer suffering from blackouts and concurrent violent episodes following an accident, elects to undergo experimental surgery to have an electronic mood stabilizer hooked up to his brain – a kind of pacemaker for the mind. When the computer the device is linked to senses the onset of an episode, electrodes implanted in his brain transmit small abortive shocks, thus stopping the seizures before they can begin. But as soon becomes clear, Benson suffers from more than mere blackouts: he's also delusional, with an irrational fear of – and bizarre philosophy about – machines. And once the procedure is complete, Benson begins to crave the electric shocks, and engineer the onset of seizures in order to receive them...

It's a fascinating notion, and evidently based in fact: there's a four-page bibliography at the back of the book, and mocked-up – but seemingly authentic – illustrations, photos and graphs on the endpapers and scattered throughout the pages. But although Crichton makes the technical jargon surprisingly gripping, and although his plotting is propulsive, the novel also feels rather shallow. I think the problem is the depth of the characterization – or rather, the lack thereof. Crichton doesn't seem terribly interested in his characters. Surgeons Morris and Ellis and psychiatrist Janet Ross are granted a few perfunctory background details and character ticks – an unsuccessful date, a bit of angry swearing –  but they never really come alive. Even Benson is largely defined by his machine psychosis and his seizures.

The Terminal Man isn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination. It's stuffed with ideas, and those ideas are wrapped up in a compelling narrative. For me, though, a little more insight into the characters wouldn't have gone amiss, and although I enjoyed the book, I wasn't particularly moved to go and seek out further Crichton novels.

Right then. Next up: a spy thriller author who I suspect most readers of Existential Ennui will never even have heard of...