Friday, April 10, 2015

Passage of Arms to The Light of Day: Two by Eric Ambler






Though this page slumbered for a year or so while I worked on my upcoming novel, Butchertown, other habits continued.

My annual reading of Eric Ambler, pioneer of the modern thriller, continued with Passage of Arms (1960), one of his most complex and convoluted books from his post-WWII period, a more fruitful time than his reputation suggests.

Passage of Arms is the second of Ambler’s novels set in Southeast Asia (after The Nightcomers, aka State of Siege). It weaves together four plotlines: a naïve American businessmen (and his wife) who, out of impulsive juvenile enthusiasm, involves himself in money laundering for gun smugglers; the smugglers themselves and the guerilla groups they supply; the military and intelligence officials, both British and Asian, pursuing the guerillas.

Finally, and most pleasingly, there is Girija, a young Bengali who, unaware of his supporting role in the treacherous drama unfolding around him, dreams only of running his own bus company.

Passage of Arms ticks pleasurably and cleverly away and is more action-packed than other Ambler novels. It’s strewn with his trademark observations about politics in the modern world, ideas that still apply. Along with it is Ambler’s genial sympathy for the innocents caught in the nefarious schemes of the powerful, the criminal, and the desperate. Though things turn out reasonably well–and only reasonably--anxiety and unease remain with us always.

Passage of Arms may best represent the polar opposite of Ambler’s beginnings as a fire-breathing, idealistic young Socialist in the 1930s. Happy to say though, once the face of Communism and Stalin were revealed he resisted racing off to the extreme right,  become one of those apostates, a convert to yet another crude, tyrannical idiot-ology in a bloody quest for perfection.

Rather, Ambler seems to have become a sensible bloke with his decency remaining intact. In these later novels, all ideology is suspect. To paraphrase one critic, Ambler acts as a guide through our fearful, uncertain era. These novels are tales of human blundering and irresponsibility. stories of people as they are, immutably strange, both their motives and the consequences of their twisting schemes beyond perfect understanding.


It’s said that a good book is one that can be read twice. And so it happened I recently reread Ambler’s next novel, his Edgar-award winning The Light of Day (1962), which I first read several years ago, shortly after seeing its celebrated—and mostly faithful--adaptation, the 1964 heist film Topkapi, directed by Jules Dassin. The film is a rare example of an adaptation that remains true to the spirit of its source while standing well on its own.

The Light of Day was definitely worth a second read. It’s a rare and welcome foray into the comic novel. Here, Ambler turns away from the Innocent at Large to tell the story of one Arthur Abdel Simpson. Arthur Simpson is a perfect louse: a misanthropic scam artist, thief, pornographer, and cunning weasely coward: half Egyptian, half-British, adding up to little. With his invalid passport, he’s a nowhere man, even among the efficient, hard-nosed den of thieves who blackmail him into joining a heist.

Simpson is a “rogue hero”, a shabby half-cousin to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and Richard Stark’s Parker—half-cousin because he’s nowhere near as sharp or ruthless as they are. (He’s more like a brother to Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman from the Breaking Bad universe.) His sins drape over his rounded shoulders like a damp woolen blanket.

Actor Peter Ustinov played Simpson perfectly in his Oscar-winning performance in Topkapi and maybe has the best take on him:   

“The character is so absurd. I love the idea of a man who aims low and misses. Simpson is the kind of man who wears blazers a little too consistently, the kind with military presumptions, who has to belong to a cricket club. He's a man who hovers between the more reprehensible columns of The News of the World and oblivion."

Simpson is the lowlife friend your mother hated, the hero every writer’s group in the world demands you cut from your novel (or else rewrite as a puppy-snuggling vegan Progressive). He’s “unsympathetic”; an affront to the delicate sensibilities of conservatives and liberals alike.

And I, of course, absolutely loved him.

The Light of Day is one of Ambler’s best from his later years. It’s edgier and darker than the brightly colored film, but genuinely witty and suspenseful as it twists, turns and reverses course through the twisting alleys of mid-twentieth century Istanbul, which comes vividly alive. It handles some of the plot aspects better than the film, while the film portrays the central heist to ingenious and dazzling effect. See the film, read the book or go the other way, you won’t go wrong.

Photo by author

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads, wagers at Golden Gate Fields, and drinks at a couple bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wake That Dog: Thoughts on "The Whites" by Richard Price





Billy Graves is a middle-aged New York police detective heading the NYPD Night Watch at Manhattan’s 15th Precinct. One early post-St. Patrick’s Day morning, while mopping up the ruins of revelry, he and his crew are called to the scene of a murder in Penn Station. The victim is a lowlife named Jeffrey Bannion.

Bannion: Familiar name. Bannion is what is known among Billy’s old squad of fellow detectives—now mostly retired—as a “White”: a murderer who walked free from his crime and forever escaped justice. Right, kind of like Melville’s White Whale, each one an obsession that gnaws at a good cop’s soul.

Billy greets Bannion’s death as cheery news, at first. But then another of these Whites in another murder investigated by another of Billy’s former partners turns up dead. Billy starts detecting a pattern.

To further deepen Billy’s unease, a monster hovers out of sight, tipping over the table of his home life with a chain of mysterious threats and acts of vandalism, particularly impacting his adored wife, Carmen, and his aging father.

Billy Graves is a compulsive investigator and descendant of such stalwarts as Maigret, Colombo, and Smiley. But while he seeks justice, his closest, oldest pals see him as a snoop and busybody as he turns over rock after rock, pokes his nose into the corner of all their lives, including his, past and present. The costs of truth-seeking run high. The detective’s eternal quest for truth tears his own world apart. This good, but rather infuriating, soul can’t stop asking question; can’t let the dogs sleep.

I strongly recommend this procedural thriller by the writer formerly known as Richard Price (a writer for The Wire, whose other distinguished work, such as Clockers, I’ve not read.) While it’s rather obvious in its allusions (especially to Moby Dick) and its plot isn’t especially clever, Brandt has a clear noirish eye for the insular world of New York cops and the neighborhoods they work.

Like good reporting, the writing is never overly ornamental. Even better, Brandt’s perfect pitch ear for dialogue easily swept away my schematic objections. The novel is mostly a series of sharp, dramatic interrogations, a series of punch and jabs that hint at and sometimes reveal the lights and darks of the characters souls. Open it up and enter.

One final word though about famous writers using pseudonyms right alongside their real names (which I’ve joked about in the past). It’s become commonplace, but once upon a long time ago, pseudonymous writers (like Richard Bachman) would keep their real names (Stephen King) a SSSHHHH! BIG BIG SECRET for as long as possible, for a variety of reasons. They wanted to tackle other styles and subjects and so not confuse their readers or keep the Pulitzer Committee from sniffing out the hardcore porn they wrote to pay the butcher and thereby rescinding that award they’d otherwise earned. (Yes, it’s a gosh darn good thing I left Hot Pants Librarian in the drawer where it belonged.)

Well, them days are over. Thanks to the damned Internet, secrets—even righteous ones—are impossible to keep nowadays. Transparency is all, as J.K. Rowling found out to her sorrow when she attempted a sex change with her Robert Galbraith novels. No matter how hard she tries, her name will always obscure the pseudonym. The “Richard Price Writing as Harry Brandt” seems a dry crumbling fig leaf, so why bother? I get the impression of nervous marketers projecting their own confusion on an already overwhelmed reading public. Let Richard Price be Richard Price. The rest of us can sort it out.










Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

WOLF AT SEA AND WITHIN: JACK LONDON’S THE SEA WOLF





No doubt about it, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (my Journey to the Classics for 2015) starts with a bang. Or a call it a sudden sinking.

One very foggy day, Humphrey van Weyden, a pale, soft, middle-age book-critic (no one I would know), is ferrying across San Francisco Bay when his conveyance crashes into another vessel and sinks, dumping van Weyden into the cold, briny waters of the bay where, snared by the famous current, he’s swept out to the perilous sea.

Then, seconds before he drowns, he’s rescued by another ship. His troubles have only begun: The ship in question is The Ghost, a seal-hunting vessel bound for the South Pacific, its captain one of literature’s most ruthless, dangerous characters, Wolf Larsen.

From here on, there’s muscular adventure aplenty from one of California’s (and America’s) most celebrated authors as Humphrey, who’s known hardly a day of hardship, finds his life in constant peril from dangers natural and human, and by them is transformed.

Some readers may face different challenges. All good books are about more than one thing. In addition to its adventure, The Sea Wolf is also a didactic novel. Ideas—and ideals--collide in the Hegelian sense: A synthesis (civilized van Weyden) crashes into an antithesis (the Nietzschean Larsen) to eventually form a synthesis (which you can determine for yourself). From here most of the drama springs, creating a seagoing debating society, all issues laid out like the seal carcasses they hunt. At times the two men start becoming the author’s mouthpieces and start to flatten into table-pounding, finger-shaking stick people.

Larsen, the proto-fascist, runs his ship like a tin-tub dictator, much crueler than even Melville’s Captain Ahab, who I think, better knew how to manipulate and cajole his men, even gaining their admiration and sympathy during The Pequod’s doomed voyage.

Larsen hasn’t a mote of compassion and wants none. He is all Will to Power. His contempt for his entire crew is total, implacable, seething. He revels in the mutual hatred, singling individual members out for torture, seeking to reduce and degrade every man among them, descending to cunning murder. The only human interest he shows is for his castaway, Von Weyden, to whom he reveals his high-browed literary interests in those long, often interesting, sometimes tedious platonic dialogues.

Van Weyden is seduced by Larsen, just as readers have been seduced by Dracula over the years—all that grand, confident, compelling power, that terrible focus. The trembling narrator describes this brutish opponent with quivering terms: “. . . the eyes . . . while strong in themselves, unusually strong, seemed to speak an immense vigour or virility of spirit that lay behind and beyond and out of sight.”

There’s a lot of that and it gets pretty purple.

The narrative turns even more breathy once the love interest gets pulled aboard in the person of Maud, who, it so happens, Humphrey knows as a kindred poet. The novel turns quite mushy from then on, showing its age like an old soggy sponge as the two birds gaze breathlessly into each other’s eyes and Humphrey’s ripe verbiage balloons further into an overripe rose:

“’Hush!” she said, and laid her fingers lightly on my lips. I could have kissed them, had I dared, even then, in my rage, the touch of them was so sweet, so very sweet.”

Even after they escape The Ghost and become shipwrecked together on a cold desert island, the characters maintain an absurdly dainty Victorian chastity (remarkable considering they’re both Bohemians; unremarkable considering that London was aiming for a broader, more middle-class feminine readership.) The novel huffs and heaves with rosy risible melodrama in these sections. It might surprise those more acquainted with London’s roustabout image.

Even so, a hundred-plus years on from The Sea Wolf’s 1904 debut, there’s still plenty of vigor and vinegar in its storm-tossed pages, even with its dated style. Its air of muscular adventure and vividly detailed action remain exciting. London portrays life on board one of the last wooden ships with salty exuberance and pinpoint exactitude, often conjuring throat-grabbing suspense. A chapter concerning van Weyden’s first encounter with a violent storm at sea makes for a ripping thrill. The deck tilts under the feet. Reason enough to sign on.



Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.