Some Books: Ian Fleming’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
Back in the days when I had first been allowed to cross into the Adult Library, I read all the James Bond books, give or take the odd short story here or there. I don’t remember much about them now. I presume I enjoyed them, then, but more importantly, I read James Bond because he was one of the keys to adulthood, almost as much as smoking, and probably just as bad for your health.
I never touched the first of these: I had already learned to dislike the atmosphere in a household in which both parents smoked but more importantly a father dying of cancer when I was in my early teens was an impenetrable barrier to starting that.
Down the years, the James Bond book that I remembered most was the odd-one-out, the penultimate novel, the experiment that nobody liked and that Fleming came to hate, demanding it neither be reprinted nor appear in paperback in his lifetime. This was The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve just re-read it, curious to see what I think of it a lifetime later.
I didn’t remember all that much about it from long ago, but I did remember enjoying the book, and being intrigued by it as an experiment. The Spy Who Loved Me is about, and is ‘written’ by Vivienne Michel, a French-Canadian woman in her mid-twenties, escaping from a couple of failed love affairs in London, to which she was sent to Finishing School. Vivienne winds up looking after the Dreamy Pines Motel in the Adirondacks which is closing down, but it’s a scam in which she is to be killed as cover for an insurance claim, but not before she’s treated sadistically by the two hired thugs.
Fortunately for Vivienne, a stranger stops at the Motel, refusing to accept that it is closed. This is Bond, travelling between missions. He recognises the situation, intervenes to rescue Vivienne and dispose of the thugs, fucks her to a peak of ecstacy and goes on his way, leaving her behind.
That’s the story. It’s not necessarily much of a story, but I enjoyed the unusual angle of it. I thought it daring to write a series book in which the main character is a minor figure, passing through, seen from a purely external viewpoint by an unconnected stranger. Off the top of my head, the only other book I can think of which uses a similar technique is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday, in which the newly-introduced Callums show us the Walkers and the Blacketts from outside, not necessarily to their credit.
Does the book hold up in any way? It is broken into three unequal sections, Me, Them and Him. The first section sets up Vivienne’s situation, left alone at the Motel with a storm raging, before back-tracking over her life’s history in London. This is Fleming writing as Vivienne and it doesn’t quite work.
The autobiography is, in thriller terms, complete filler. It occupies roughly half the book and the amount of action in it is minimal. There’s an opening chapter to set-up the situation and implant the notion that something fishy is going on, followed by chapters of Viv’s life-story, with the emphasis first upon her being out-of-step because she’s French-Canadian at an English Finishing School, and secondly upon her sex-life.
This comes in two phases. The first is Derek, a public school boy in a summer between finishing school and going up to Oxford. He and Viv meet at a party, they wind up snogging (or might it have still been spooning back then?), with Viv allowing him to put his hand on her breast because every time she moves it away, he puts it back, so clearly she’s in the wrong.
This leads to an end of summer cinema visit where he persuades her to let him fuck her in a private cinema box, only for them to be interrupted by the manager with a torch whilst Viv is on her back with his skirt round her waist, showing her pussy (hey, it’s Fleming who’s insisting on these details, not me), and they’re thrown out in no uncertain and public terms, but it’s alright because they nip down to a nearby riverbank where everyone does it, Derek sticks it in, Viv’s no longer a virgin, and he promptly disappears into the sunset, never to be seen again, as if we hadn’t all but Viv seen that coming from Quebec.
Two years later, working a job at which she is very competent and is earning good money, Viv ends up counselling her boss, the German Klaus about his plans for marriage and a happy sexual life, only to wind up his mistress when his fiancee marries someone else. This time it’s good, satisfying sex with Teutonic efficiency, but no love, until Viv makes the mistake of getting pregnant.
For this, she gets two things from Klaus: a Swiss abortion, and a month’s wages in lieu of notice. So Viv buys a scooter, returns to Canada and sets off on a pre-Easy Rider tour, until she winds up at the Dreamy Pines, just as someone’s knocking at the door.
There is a point to setting out these brief details of Viv’s life, and I’ll return to it.
The second phase, just three chapters, is the two new arrivals, Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz and ‘Sluggsy’ Moran. They’re supposed to be insurance adjustors for the owner, before the Motel closes down tomorrow, except it’s going to close down in a fire caused by the hopeless receptionist. After, that is, she has been thoroughly beaten, and comprehensively raped by Sluggsy.
The beating she gets from Horror: vicious, professional, brutal, expert enough not to leave a mark, especially after Viv has caused problems, first by resisting then trying to escape. She winds up stripped naked in the shower, preserving that essential association between sadism and sex that is the mark of a James Bond novel, but as yet unraped. But not for long.
Ah, I just mentioned James Bond, and this is a James Bond book, is it not? Phase two ends with the front door buzzer going, and guess who it is? Viv signals him to come in, desperate for help and unaware she couldn’t have done better. She alerts him to what’s going on far too easily for complete plausibility, Fleming relying on Horror and Sluggsy’s ultimate confidence that they have guns and know better how to use them.
In turn, Bond briefly explains why he’s here: he’s been out west preventing a Russian defector from being killed but failing to capture SPECTRE’s chief assassin alive for questioning, so he’s taking a few days breather driving east to his debrief. He’s here because his car has blown a tyre.
There’s no reason to be more than perfunctory about the action from here. Fleming spins it out by having Bond make mistake after mistake but in the end the expected occurs. Horror and Sluggsy are shot and killed, Bond fucks Vivianne roughly half the night and is gone in the morning, sending the authorities to clean up, look after Viv and, in the case of Police Captain Stonor, an unofficial piece of very good advice, father-daughter style, not to fall in love with someone like Bond.
Of course that’s wasted breath. Viv already has, even as she knows he doesn’t, won’t and can’t love her back, that she’s already accepted she will never see him again, but she’s going to wilfully reject the idea of someone else telling her to do that, because Bond is so magnetic a man that’s she’s never going to forget, and will always love The Spy Who Loved Her.
As I’ve already said, The Spy Who Loved Me is a very thin book as far as a thriller is concerned, and it’s subject, the saving of one woman’s life is a very low-key matter for Bond. I’ve read it in a 1967 paperback, full of newspaper blurbs that praise the book, and the character of Vivienne, in extravagant terms. Yet Fleming issued instructions to supress the book during his lifetime.
Overall, The Spy Who Loved Me reminds me very much of the late Dennis Wheatley novel, The Strange Story of Linda Lee. That too is a first person novel, purporting to be in the voice of a woman considerably younger than an author who is arrogantly Conservative, writing someone of an age that they were completely out of touch with.
The idea that Fleming can successfully represent the thoughts and opinions of a twenty-five year old woman is implausible, and I put the significance of her being French-Canadian, with no national characteristics of either blood, to be an attempt to account for any incapacity to make her realistic.
The sex side is ludicrous, but not more so than when Viv gets to drop them for James. Of course he gives her her first orgasm – you don’t think a bloody Jerry is going to be allowed to do that? And given that Fleming is evidently hot for sadism, we should try to avoid being shocked when Viv proclaims that “All women love semi-rape” (at least he put the ‘semi’ in there). He takes her brutally, what is it, five hours maximum after she’s been worked over by Horror. That’s bullshit, and should be called out as such.
But the thing about this book, and what’s the real reason Fleming wanted it suppressed, is that it’s too transparent. Fleming isn’t putting on the voice of Vivienne Michel, he is playing at being her because he wants the experience of being fucked by James Bond. That’s who the spy is supposed to love, not some unworthy tart.
Though it’s not part of the brief for this series, I’m in the unique position of having another version of this novel to compare. This is the Jim Lawrence/Yaroslav ‘Larry’ Horak adaptation serialised in the Daily Express between December 1967 and October 1968.
The strip version removes the experimentalism of the novel, making Bond himself the focus of the story throughout. Vivienne’s viewpoint disappears and she doesn’t even enter the story until midway through.
Lawrence constructs a new sequence for the first half of the story. It’s essentially the brief account Bond gives Vivienne in the book to explain, adapted to a story of SPECTRE blackmailing a pilot into giving details of a new radar-invisible jetplane (a ‘stealth-bomber’ two decades early), instead of merely protecting a defector. The action part of this account is followed very faithfully in the new context.
Bond then sets off cross-country in his car and the story switches to Vivienne at the Dreamy Pines motel. From hereon, Lawrence follows the novel very faithfully, whilst eliminating Vivienne’s internal monologue.
Of course there are changes. Horror’s sadistic beating of Vivienne takes place between two strips and when she’s dumped in the shower to be revived, the thugs observe the moralities by leaving her her (completely intact) frilly bra and knickers instead of stripping her naked. After they’re both killed, the sex with Bond is implied rather than depicted (and the words ‘semi-rape’ appear nowhere in the strip).
Lastly, Lawrence cuts the coda commendably short, removing Vivienne’s emotional turmoil and intercutting Bond for one last frame, as the two drive in opposite directions.
It’s a very skilful adaptation, and a much more commercial approach than Fleming himself took. It uses a surprisingly large amount of the book, and by focussing on that, it turns it into a conventional James Bond adventure. I think I prefer that.
Fleming’s idea for The Spy who Loved Me is an interesting experiment, and I’d enjoy seeing other authors tackle it in their series, but ultimately his failings as a writer and a man make it a noble, but a failed experiment. I shalln’t retain his version of the story.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s House’


A note of apology: this review was written and should have been posted in January 2019 but I completely overlooked it, going straight from An Evil Guest to Home Fires. Thanks to Nigel Price for pointing out this slip.

After An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe, not for the first time, chose to write a book that is in many ways a complete opposite. Where the one was, in structure and tone, a hard-boiled crime drama shot through with fantastic SF elements, The Sorcerer’s House is an incredulous fantasy gateway story told in that most old-fashioned of forms, the epistolary novel. By which, for those who have never come across the term, I mean a novel written wholly in letters.
Wolfe has, of course, come very close to this form this century, with The Wizard Knight and Pirate Freedom both being told as supposedly a single long letter. But The Sorcerer’s House is a succession of letters, mainly by protagonist Baxter Dunn to his estranged twin brother George, but including letters by Dunn to other parties, and letters received in response to some of his missives.
Baxter, or Bax as he prefers to be called, is a scholar, holding two Ph.Ds and other distinction, but his story begins shortly after his release from prison, after serving a sentence for what we understand as fraud, perpetrated against several parties at or around his last academic institution, many if not all of them friends and associates of his brother George.
Later, we infer, from George’s accusations when he arrives in town, that Baxter has on at least one occasion posed as George. And he admits to having legally cheated George out of a substantial inheritance, left to the Baxter twins for educational purposes: Bax remained in continual education until the entire fund had been drained, paying his fees.
Until he appears, George will have nothing to do with Bax, which hardly seems surprising, but this state of affairs appears to have existed for some time before Bax’s transgressions.
In Bax’s first letter, he is writing from a hostel where he is staying. He has no money or assets, although he is awaiting an allowance cheque which comes at intervals (not until the book’s very end do we learn this to be an allowance made by the Dunns’ adoptive mother). He says he’s not writing to ask for a loan from George, but does frame it as an investment opportunity.
The letters are not dated, so the reader has to infer from internal evidence how long the gap is from one to the next, but by then Bax has moved into the titular house (Wolfe, as ‘compiler’, claims to have presented the letters in a logical order but not necessarily the correct one). It’s old, dilapidated and empty, and whilst the word isn’t used, he’s there as a squatter. He’s left the hostel after its manager tried to forge his allowance cheque, he’s taken the house, without power or water, for a roof over his head, and is planning to offer himself to its owner as a tenant who will carry out repairs and refurbishments (bought with the owner’s money) in return for rent-free occupation.
That’s the last point at which things appear to be normal. The book then starts to develop along parallel strands, the one directly fantastic, the other in the everyday world but with its own improbable mysteries.
Bax’s house, which we come to learn is known as the Black House, both for its forbidding and spooky reputation and because its last owner was a Mr Black, appears to be some form of crossing place between realities. Bax bumps into a strangely dressed teenage boy, who drops an unusual brass device with concentric wheels and a candle that is later described as a longlight and which appears to distribute some sort of magical force called numen.
The triannular is a wishing tool, and when used the longlight needs to be lit and stay lit until the wish, which comes in threes, has been achieved. This Bax learns from the boy, who first beats him, then is beaten by him, though apparently these are different twins: Emlyn, who is the innocent one and the victim, Ieuan, the evil one.
And Bax finds himself being adopted by Winkle, a kind of talking (albeit lisping) fox, who also turns into a small, nicely-curved Japanese girl who invades his bed (rather a mattress) at night and has sex with him.
Oh yes, the mattress is stuffed full of money, and there are mysterious and unrecognisable gold coins in an upstairs drawer.
But this is, as I’ve indicated, but part of the story. Bax finds a local, independent realtor, a Martha Murrey, and from her progresses to another realtor, an attractive widow named Doris Griffin, who has been looking for him. The Black House belongs to him, deeded to him years before, by Mr Black. Baxter has no recollection of ever having met Mr Black.
Doris is very enthusiastic about Baxter. Lots of the women in this book are. Doris presses him to wear the wedding ring formerly belonging to her late husband Ted. She takes him to bed, makes it plain she’d marry him. She even produces for him a piece of valuable riverfront land, the Skotos Strip, three miles of undeveloped land currently worth three million dollars, left to him by one Alexander Skotos, who died three years ago and, yes, Bax doesn’t remember him either.
But Bax and Doris’s romantic progression is interrupted by a series of murders in Medicine Bend, women accosted alone after dark on the street and literally dismembered. The predator(s) is/are a werewolf/werewolves. Bax and Doris are attacked by a pack of them, returning from a dinner date, and Bax kills one with a silver bullet (the man is prepared), although this is excluded from any of his letters, and comes in late on in a letter to him from his interested spectator, Millie, his sister-in-law.
Without going into further detail, this is a tale of strange goings-on, and of the fantastic spilling out into the otherwise mundane. The Black House is a gateway between Medicine Bend and faerie, and Mr Black is a sorceror, and father of twins, only not just of Emlyn and Ieuan. And what other pair of twins are there in this book?
One of this pair is also a sorceror, though he doesn’t know it, and another character in the book, who remains on the sidelines for most of the tale’s duration, is his birth mother.
I’m deliberately not going into detail on so many aspects of this story, because there are so many convolutions, and for reasons I will shortly come to. The ending of the book tries to account for all of these, or as many as we need, but does so at great haste and in little space, leaving the finale rushed and as telegraphed a twist as any in any Wolfe book. There is no need for careful and thoughtful reading and re-reading to determine this one, it shouts into your face with the subtlety of an “As you know…” exposition.
But I must go back and account for George Dunn’s role in this book. After several letters setting out fantastic and implausible events, whilst constantly alluding to how George hates Baxter and derides and condemns him, George turns up in a lawyer’s office, as mad as hell, full of accusations and unprovoked violence that gets him arrested for assaulting first a secretary, then a woman cop. And he’s claiming he’s the real George Dunn at a point where no-one, least of all Bax, is suggesting Bax is anyone other than Bax.
George acts like a madman from the start, a paranoid who may have good past cause for paranoia but who, in a story told by Baxter, has no grounds for his behaviour. Once he gets bailed out of jail, he turns up once more and promptly disappears inside the Black House, having interfered where he has no business to unleash a vampire, never to be seen again.
All that remains of him is a challenge to a duel with duelling pistols, survivor takes all, and a final letter from George to his wife Millie, telling her Bax has disappeared into faerie after reconciling with George, who has turned over a new leaf and will henceforth treat his once unloved and much put-upon wife with tenderness, care, respect and love, not to mention letters that sound like Baxter wrote them. It couldn’t be more blatant under a thirty foot neon sign.
Which is why I find it hard to go any deeper into the details of this story. Because all of this, all these goings on, are things for which we only have one witness, and that is Baxter Dunn. Brother George very clearly doesn’t believe a word of it, castigates him as a liar, and as mad, and certainly if this weren’t a Gene Wolfe novel, we might think exactly the same.
And how much of what Bax writes is actually ‘real’? We have nothing but Bax’s word that any of this has happened, and he’s a self-confessed fraudster. Given that these accounts of impossible goings on, which recall the mixture of mundane and fantastic words that underpinned Castleview, draw an infuriated George to town to ‘protect his interests’ (and indulge his fury at his twin brother), how much of it is a lure to give Bax the chance to trade his life as an ex-con with that of his brother, a long-standing successful businessman?
Indeed, is any of it real at all? I confess that I believe none of it, that it is all made up, and not in the sense that all fiction is ‘made up’. It’s an entertaining and easy enough read, but it lacks my conviction and there is a lot of critical opinion that finds it unsatisfactory as well. I wish it thought better of it.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 3 – Strangers at Snowfell


Malcolm Saville set his 63 novels all over England and, in his later years, expanded his reach to cross the Channel to various European countries. In all that time, he set only one book in what we now know as Cumbria, home to the Lake District but, much to my disappointment, he never got as far as the Lakes nor even old Cumberland. His only visit to the North-West was the third Jillies novel, Strangers at Snowfell, and those parts of the tale that aren’t a direct follow-on from Two Fair Plaits take place entirely within the long-obliterated county of Westmorland.
It’s after Xmas in London. Guy and Mark Standing are still staying with the Jillies, Mandy, Prue, Tim and J.D., in their untidy Chelsea flat. They’re due to join their Aunt Katharine in Scotland to enjoy Hogmanay (though not under that name), but a telegram arrives asking them to come up a day early, and bring the Jillies with them, to the party.
So despite some automatic resistance from Mandy, who’s conquered before she gets a day out with Guy, just the two of them, the five children travel from Euston by train, for a long journey ending in a jolly good time. At least, that’s the plan.
Once again, Saville builds his story around twin tracks, the Jillies on the one hand and the ‘victim’ on the other. This time, it is not a vulnerable little girl but, in his own way, a vulnerable man in his fifties. Dr Charles Thornton (who is nevertheless referred to throughout as The Professor) is a scientist who, at the start of the book, takes rooms in Snowfell, a farmhouse near Shap, for peace and quiet whilst he completes his work on an undefined scientific breakthrough that will be of immense value to his country.
What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched by a spy for another country, anxious to discover the secret. The first inkling of this follows his completion of his work. Some instinct leads him to write to his son, Nicholas, in London, asking him to travel up and join him. But that night, someone breaks into his room, after poisoning the farmer’s sheepdog.
From here, the story bounces back and forth between Thornton and the travelling party, who want to claim a carriage for themselves but find themselves sharing with a mysterious young man who’s anxious to avoid being seen by a rather florid, camel-hair coated man who enlists the Standings to hunt out his ‘young friend’.
The young man, who is, of course, Nick Thornton, is not very good at concealing himself. He’s shaven off his moustache, swapped coats but he’s not changed his tie, which enables Mark to identify him from the bookstall at Euston, a detail that panics Nick into running.
This isn’t a winter for mild weather. The fog that gripped the nation in Two Fair Plaits has turned to a snowstorm that grips the nation in Strangers at Snowfell. The train gets slower and slower until at last it is stopped dead just short of Shap.
Things start to get serious. Thornton, in search of a working telephone, has been decoyed to a sinister, broken-down house, Callow, whose housekeeper, and guardian to a frightened and maltreated eleven-year old girl, Mary, that the Professor is determined to rescue, locks him in and assists in drugging him for his enemy, Major Calloway. If Thornton hadn’t been cautious enough to conceal the vital papers behind a loose stone in Mary’s secret place, under the bridge, the villains would have all they want.
The halt sets up the adventure. Nick leaves the train to make for Snowfell. Despite Guy’s reservations – he has the David Morton role, the sensible person who doesn’t immediately take anything on trust – the gang decide to shield him. The two elders, Mandy and Guy, set off through the snow in pursuit, carrying the wallet Nick has dropped, leaving the younger trio, Prue, Mark and Tim, to run interference with Camel Coat. Tim sets off exploring up the line and gets to the nearby signal box where he makes friends with the signalman in a way that the coated man doesn’t!
Guy and Mandy get all the way to Snowfell, where Nick, seeing them appear, comes out to meet them but falls trying to climb a wall, badly-spraining his ankle and rendering him hors de combat for the rest of the book. Guy and Mandy have to take his place, floundering in deep snow to find the Police.
Instead, they find Mary and, through her, the whereabouts of the drugged, imprisoned and searched, but still defiant Professor. Meanwhile, Mark, Prue and Tim have also left the train, there being no point in staying once Camel Coat has gone and even less point in missing out on the fun. They trail him into Shap, observe him going into Major Calloway’s cottage and, in a move that could have come out of the Morton Twins’ scrapbook, stow away in the back of the Major’s shooting-brake (an old-fashioned type of car, built along station-wagon lines, i.e., like an estate car), which gets them transported to Callow.
So everybody’s back together again. They can communicate with Dr Thornton, who obligingly writes a note for the Police. Forces must be split. Prue and Tim are about exhausted, and Guy asks Mandy to get them back to the train whilst he and Mark remain to keep watch on the Professor until aid arrives.
Thus far through the book, Mandy has been her usual, independent, combative self, asserting her equality with Guy, and responding to his attempts to assist through the deep snow and elsewhere by whistling ‘I can do anything better than you.’ But now, when things are serious, and even without his impressing upon her that she’s got to take care of her sister and brother, Mandy accepts this as her job. It’s a long struggle, and both Prue and Tim reach the end of their strength before they’re back at the rescue-snowplough, but despite being close to collapse, Mandy forces herself to the end, and has enough determination left to both get her siblings brought in and get the Train Inspector in to hear her – and believe – her story.
So everything is handed over to the Police to set everything straight, though the Standing boys still have a part to play, having arranged with little Mary to have an unlocked access to Callow that they can guide the Police in by. Dr Thornton’s rescued, his secret is safe, he’s reunited with his son, little Mary is rescued from her unpleasant Aunt, who the Professor is prepared to pursue into gaol if she’s actually harmed the little girl, and everyone has nice words to say for all the Jillies and the Standings.
In fact, all’s well that ends well, except for the no-longer snowbound train steaming away in the distance, with all the travellers’ luggage on it!
Still, the Police will telephone J.D. and Aunt Katherine, and the luggage will be held for them at Glasgow until they can catch up on the next train, and it won’t spoil the party because they’ll only be arriving the day Guy and Mark were originally invited for.
I enjoyed Strangers at Snowfell, the more so for the bantering relationship between Mandy and Guy. It’s as plain as anything that she fancies him like mad and he isn’t wholly unappreciative of her dark good looks. In that sense, they’re already way ahead of David and Peter. Yes, Mandy is very determined to prove herself equal to Guy, and after three years of being mother to her family as well as sister, that’s hardly surprising, but her cheekiness to him is easy to see as her method of flirting, even if Guy isn’t quite quick enough for flirtation as yet.
That said, there are a couple of areas in which Saville’s plot-contrivances are a little irksome. The adult in me is quick to notice that there is not the least indication of what Dr Thornton is working on, or how it will prove to be of benefit to his country first, then the world (as opposed to the presumably Communist country Calloway represents). I’m sure the kid I was didn’t care, but the completeness with which Saville makes the whole thing a mystery does undercut the story for me. In that respect, Saucers over the Moor is a better book than this.
There’s also that bit about Guy and Mark coming early by a day. That’s never explained, and when you realise that that extra twenty-four hours is the exact compass of the adventure, it starts to look like filler, neither adding to nor detracting from the story, except by its contrivance.
But the biggest bit of contrivance is highlighted by a rather shamefaced Saville himself in his foreword, pointing out that rather than Nick Thornton buying a ticket to Penrith – further on than Shap, where the train doesn’t officially stop – he would have bought one for Preston and changed there to a local, but he had to do the very thing he wouldn’t have done in order for the story to exist. That’s definitely something I wouldn’t have picked up on as a kid (not being a train nut like Mark and Tim), and I really dislike stories where characters do things they wouldn’t do in order to make the story happen. It’s poor writing, always has been, always will be.
And in those days, Saville really could do better.

Beyond the Lone Pine: The Jillies 2 – Two Fair Plaits


It’s more than six months since Girls Gone By Publications re-issued Malcolm Saville’s first Jillies book, Redshank’s Warning, and as expected there are no signs of a follow-up yet. It’s hardly surprising, given the time it takes to re-prepare a book, accumulate its editorial material and send it to print in numbers sufficient to satisfy customers’ demands without tying up precious capital in overstocking, not to mention the sheer number of writers for whom GGB are doing this.
So, especially in the light of the current coronavirus isolation, I decided to pursue the remainder of the series in second-hand originals, hardback publications from Lutterworth Press, with their illustrations, so long as I don’t have to break the bank.
This allows me to now read and review the second book in the series, Two Fair Plaits.
Like the Buckinghams series, each of the Jillies’ stories takes place in a different part of the country. Two Fair Plaits starts in Birmingham, with an eleven year old girl, Belinda Ferguson, being put on a train to London to spend Xmas with her elderly grandmother. Belinda’s mother, Grandma’s daughter, has died three years earlier, and Mrs Hawkins has quarrelled with her son-in-law, hence she is travelling alone, her hair worn in two long, blonde plaits, and her head covered with a ‘Sights of London’ scarf that will play a significant part in the plot.
Belinda doesn’t arrive at Euston. She is taken from the train, which is heavily delayed by a country-wide fog, at Watford by a woman claiming to have been sent by her grandmother to bring her by car to avoid all this delay. As you might guess, Belinda has been kidnapped.
Enter the Jillies, at Euston Station, waiting patiently for the same Birmingham train. Eight months have passed since the Norfolk holiday and their meeting with the Standing brothers, enough time for Mandy to have turned sixteen whilst her sister and brother have stayed 13 and 11 respectively. They are waiting for Guy and Mark, who have been invited to share Xmas at the Jillies’ chaotic Chelsea flat. Their absence from the family bosom seems to be more acceptable to their cheerful and surprisingly wise father, who’s happy to encourage any chance of his elder son spending time with the attractive Mandy, whilst their rather more clinging and slightly uptight mother is bought off by the thought of spending Xmas in a hotel.
Mandy identifies the elderly and superior Mrs Hawkins, and her ever-present, solemn butler, the lugubrious William, on the platform and tries to greet her in a friendly manner. Mrs Hawkins has moved into a nearby house and holds herself aloof from her neighbours, but Mandy is determined to try to get a neighbourly word out of her. She fails again, but this unimportant encounter is the key to the whole story.
The Standings are greeted, the familiarity of Norfolk is instantly re-established (Guy and Mark have been worried whether it would happen a second time but the thought has never even entered any of the Jillies’ heads and their whole-hearted welcome drives out any notion of that: I said we like the Jillies for themselves, and we like reading about them).
But the evening celebration is interrupted when William the Butler calls to ask if Miss Amanda would be so kind as to come to Mrs Hawkins’ house about an urgent matter. Her granddaughter has not arrived and, behind that stiff-necked face, and behind her Victorian reluctance to display emotion, she is frantic for the girl’s safety: might Amanda or any of her family have seen her at Euston?
No, they haven’t, but the quickly-sympathetic Amanda promises to ask their guests, who travelled on the same train. How might they recognise Belinda? By the plaits and/or the scarf.
It’s not till the next morning that Mark recalls seeing a girl in that kind of scarf being led away from the train at Watford, though no-one, especially Guy but even Mandy, takes him seriously. Until, that is, venturing out into the only slowly-thinning fog, the children are witness to a car knocking down a young boy who has been paid ten shillings to deliver a letter to Mrs Hawkins.
After setting him straight and binding up his twisted ankle, Mandy takes Sandy (real name George, a true East-Ender from Wapping and Dockland) to Mrs Hawkins, having to practically force their way in past her stiff-necked Solicitor nephew Mr Trevor. The letter is a ransom demand. Mr Trevor gets all supercilious ignoring Mandy’s advice on how best to handle Sandy, who runs off.
Infuriated by his attitude, Mandy commits her family and her friends to finding Belinda, and finding her before the Police. That, not entirely convincingly, gets us over the hurdle of what has it to do with the Jillies and the Standings? The child audience would jump at it and, emotionally, it’s a solid motive, however implausible it is that a gang of children should be trying to challenge the Police’s efforts. That Mandy is suspicious of the cold-fish Mr Trevor adds an extra layer to things: he’s an obvious choice for diabolical mastermind, though it’s noticeable that Saville doesn’t insert anything to make Mandy’s suspicions concrete.
By now, it must be evident that Two Fair Plaits is a much more complex story than its predecessor. Saville adopts a twin-track structure that was unusual for him to that point in that we see as much of Belinda as we do Mandy and Co. We follow her experiences step by step, from the kidnap to the barge ride that takes her into Dockland, the cutting off of her plaits to disguise her as a boiler-suited boy, her enterprising signalling to a boy and girl that we, not she, recognise as Tim and Prue, and her attempts to escape.
And her beloved scarf, her father’s gift, is quickly stolen from her by Joyce, the daughter of her bargee captors, a cold, cruel, scornful girl, the woman who, lazily, gave George ‘Sandy’ Barton ten bob to deliver a letter, a decision that proves to be the fatal mistake.
The Jillies escort Sandy back to his home and meet his parents, working class to their roots, of the decent ‘know-my-place’ working class skewered so effectively by the two Ronnies and John Cleese in the classic Frost Report sketch. But Mandy, Guy and Co are so far out of place they couldn’t begin to function without young George. This part of the book is very difficult in 2020. Saville is wholly respectful of the Barton family and their world, but the whole thing is shot through with an unexpressed but obvious approval of the social stratification depicted. All the working class are cliches, not individuals, and the sense that these two worlds are touching but can never truly mingle, like oil and water, is overwhelming. Mrs Standing would be horrified. JD, the eccentric, is his welcoming self, but after this book is over, there will be no further visits to the exotic world of Wapping or further east.
Thanks to Belinda enterprisingly using her severed plaits as paperchase clues, Mandy and Co trace her whereabouts. Unfortunately so does Joyce, who chases her into and up to the top floor of an abandoned warehouse, where her hastily cast aside cigarette sets the place on fire. Both are trapped and, what’s worse, Joyce has broken her ankle and becomes overcome by the smoke.
Saville was prone to use water as a source of disaster and possible death in the Lone Pine series, but his handling of the fire, and the quixotic determination of JD, entering the burning building rapidly followed by Guy and Mark, is, I think, the best handled in all his books that I have read. It’s coloured by Belinda’s compassionate and heartfelt insistence on not abandoning Joyce, despite her hatred for her, an outcome solidly in Saville’s Christianity. On top of her freedom, and her reuniting with both Grandmother and Father (who takes on board all the responsibility for the quarrel, unexpectedly and not wholly convincingly), little Miss Ferguson gets her scarf back, not to mention a new hairstyle for Xmas.
And if Mr Trevor didn’t do it, why, who did? It was the butler what do-ed it, the placid William, nicknamed by Mandy as the Bishop and far from episcopal.
So, all’s well that ends well, on Xmas Day. Unfortunately, apart from a wicked mention early on by Prue, there may be mistletoe but Saville isn’t going to tell us if Mandy and Guy should happen to arrive under it at the same time…
David and Peter, Tom and Jenny, Jon and Penny. Juliet Buckingham and Charles Renislau. A hint of ‘love interest’ in the final Nettleford book, though who is involved I have no idea. Mandy Jillions and Guy Standing were set up to be another pairing, boy and girl in their mid-teens, enjoying a ‘special’ friendship that contained elements of a nascent romance that they were not quite ready to explore. By Two Fair Plaits it was clear that Guy and Mandy fancied each other like mad, and were only too happy to go off on their own, but it was equally obvious that Mandy wasn’t about to settle for being a girlfriend, expected to trail along in the wake of her boyfriend, but was determined to be seen and appreciated for her own abilities. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but I’m already regretting that Saville didn’t think to bring Mandy, Prue and Tim, Guy and Mark back for just one more adventure in the Seventies. They go together so well.

Some Books: Dixon Scott’s ‘A Fresh Wind in the Willows’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually but not always from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The copyright law in the UK and across most of the world is that copyright in a work endures for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years, after which it, its contents and characters go into the Public Domain.
This wasn’t always so: until 1985, the rule was life plus fifty years. And the law was changed for the benefit of Great Ormond Street Children’s Author. The playwright and author James Barrie had willed to Great Ormond Street the royalties on his massively popular work, Peter Pan, amounting to a vast income down the years.
But Peter Pan was shortly to come out of copyright and, so as to preserve that income for a foreseeable period, Parliament enacted the change. It was for a good cause and I’m not about to debate the wisdom of the step.
Peter Pan wasn’t the only popular Victorian book whose copyright was on the point of expiring. In fact, The Wind in the Willows, that wonderful children’s book written by Kenneth Grahame, my childhood copy of which, a gift from my parents, I still have, dropped out of copyright in 1983.
And to greet that moment of release was A Fresh Wind in the Willows, written by one Dixon Scott. Intrigued, and less concerned in my twenties with Literary Necrophilia, I bought it. Now I’ve bought it again, out of curiosity.
According to the author’s blurb, Scott was an already published author whose first novel (left unnamed, but it’s called Jolly Jack Tart), published in 1974, was about his wartime experiences in the Navy. He’s also described as a Wind in the Willows lover who himself lives by a river. This is all we know about Scott: everything else must be gleaned from the book itself.
The copy I’ve acquired is the paperback version published by Armada. It’s a slim book, 128 pages, illustrated by Jonathon Coudrille in a charmingly Edwardian style, consisting of six unnumbered chapters.
Unlike the later, official sequels, four of then, produced by William Horwood, Scott’s book is simple, straightforward and surprisingly effective in giving us just a few more adventures of Mr Toad, the Water Rat, the Mole, the Badger and the Otter. Scott is indeed a lover of the original book, and this shows in every line. He does everything he can to create and maintain a light, consistent atmosphere, showing these familiar characters in the same light as Kenneth Grahame, and at no point did I feel anything approximating to a wrong note (whereas with Horwood’s first attempt, The Willows in Winter, I thought the first chapter got things so badly wrong that I refused to read any more of the book or any of its sequels).
A Fresh Wind positions itself over the summer following the original book. The six chapters are themselves discreet, but the middle four are linked by the common theme of Toad’s newest obsession. Not his only obsession: Scott begins with Toad taking up cricket, an idea that could have been tailor-made for me and which still feels like a complete natural for the ever-eager Mr Toad, but then he goes on to show Toad enthusiastically taking up the ambition of flight: first by covering himself with chicken feathers, then ballooning – which also captures Moley’s fancy – then stealing an actual aeroplane and, quite possibly, flying the channel.
All of this takes place across one of those glorious Edwardian summers of legend, days of warmth and dryness, of sun and the river and the daily indulgence of these insouciant creatures, broken only by one dramatically conceived storm. This is Scott’s set-up for a very different closing chapter, in which Ratty senses a great rain coming in December, not merely rain but flood, life-threatening flood and, with the aid of Badger and the Wild Wood denizens, builds an ark to save life and limb, if not homes and furniture.
Touchingly, if momentarily, it also gives Toad a chance to shine, to for once rise above his self-centredness and put himself unhesitatingly at the succour of not just his friends but those stoats and weasels and ferrets that, in the first chapter, he has so deeply offended by calling them oiks. It’s a warming development, that brings all the animals of the Riverbank and the Wild Wood together: not for long, we suspect, for Toad is still gloriously Toad and this is merely a Crisis and his selfless response little more than a cliché, the one about hidden depths being brought forth in adversity, but it’s a nice cliché and, in this simple sequel, one that this reader at least is happy to welcome.
A Fresh Wind in the Willows is no more than a minor work, lost and forgotten. The extending of the copyright law killed it, and only those of us who were there at the time remember it. It is a much shallower book, a playtime story by a fan content to immerse himself for a time in the world Kenneth Grahame created, and spend that time padding on the surface without troubling the depths that Grahame so lovingly explored. There is no fear, no danger, no excessive emotion here. Mole alone in the Wild Wood, Toad in prison, Mole’s need for his old home, Rat’s compulsion towards the sea and certainly nothing at all to match ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’. It’s a children’s book, and very little more.
You could call the book unambitious, but in the end it satisfies its author’s intentions, to enter Kenneth Grahame’s playground and spend an Edwardian afternoon there, under the sun of a world that doesn’t exist any more. And I am happy to visit that playground once in a while. I shalln’t divest myself of this book a second time.

Under a Different Tree entirely: Sam Young’s ‘Little Light’


A few years ago, a chance word posted on a private social forum re-awoke my love for Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Club series of my childhood in East and South Manchester, and restored an enthusiasm that has seen me re-purchase the entire series (including the only one I never read before), as well as other of Saville’s books.
At the outset, I kick-started my memory by researching the Internet, though there was less information about the things I wanted to know than I expected would be available.
I was also surprised to discover that a ‘new’ Lone Pine novel, or rather a ‘Lone Pine Club’ book for adults, had been published in 2006, a book titled Little Light, written by Sam Young. Very little information was available for it, but it was self-evidently unauthorised, and I got the impression that it was very much frowned-up on, though I can’t find any such reference on-line now.
What little that seemed to be available about it was that it began with the arrival in Rye for the first time of newly-weds Jonathan and Penelope Warrender…
Whether it was good, bad or indifferent, it piqued my curiosity. However, it also appeared to be rare and fetching something like £40 a copy, and whilst I’m better able to afford items like that now, it would have to be a very important book to make me pay a sum like that.
On the other hand, an immaculate condition copy reduced to £8.75 on eBay, was practically irresistible. So what merits does a piece of ‘fan-fiction’ about a Lone Pine Club’s worth of adults have to an ardent fan of the originals?
For a relatively slim book, of just over 200 compact pages, there’s a lot to be said. Young’s stated intention was to write a Lone Pine adventure concerning adult versions of our friends in a world where they have never met before but form instant and lasting friendships as they deal with a criminal plot of more adult scope and consequences. Things are not quite that simple, however. Jon and Penny, David and Peter, Tom and Jenny: these are our cast. There is no place for the Morton Twins, nor for Harriet Sparrow, not even by way of passing reference. Indeed, there is no suggestion that the David Morton of this book has any siblings.
The villains are the ones you might expect: Les and Valerie Dale, formerly husband and wife, and Val’s (real) aunt, Emma Ballinger, and there are substantial roles for a James Wilson who is involved with the press, a Fred Vasson who is near enough the same person in a different role and an unexpected Ned Stacey. And there are minor cameos from Albert Sparrow, Henry Carter and Arlette Duchelle.
But there is no Gay Dolphin Hotel, no Seven Gates Farm or Barton Beach and whilst Ingles’ Farm is where it ought to be, the nearby Mortons live at Briarsholt, which is Witchend in all but name, and I wonder why Young didn’t or couldn’t use that name when the casting of Jon, Penny, David, Peter, Tom and Jenny collectively would be more than enough for any successful copyright suit by Malcolm Saville’s literary heir, it being another 32 years before the Lone Piners pass into the Public Domain.
As for the plot, it traverses familiar Saville ground. The object of the hunt, the ‘Little Light’, is a diamond stolen in the late Nineteenth Century, the story being turned up by the loathsome Les Dale, who enlists his shortly-to-be ex-wife Valerie in turning up a clue to its possible whereabouts at Powlden House in Rye, the first home for that newly-wed late-twenties couple, Jonathan and Penelope Warrender, who become neighbours of the avuncular Mr Vasson.

Jon and Penny are clearly Young’s favourites, dominating the first third of the book, But at a party hosted by Henry Carter to celebrate his engagement to Arlette Duchelle, Penny makes instant friends with a tall, simple, beautiful out-of-place feeling blonde with the unlikely name of Peter, and she and John invite Peter and her husband David to sleep at their home overnight. David and Peter live at Briarsholt in Shropshire, but are house-sitting David’s parents in London.
Penny is led into a trap set in London by Dale, who wants the clue to the whereabouts of the ‘Little Light’. Having taken Peter for company, the Dales capture both women and show that they’re prepared to be violent, as in actual physical violence. Penny creates a distraction that enables Peter to run, though she suffers a serious beating from Les in consequence. Peter is at risk of assault and rape by two football hooligans until they’re beaten up by an even bigger football hooligan – he’s from the East End, see – who’s also a tabloid journalist. This is James Wilson, and he helps find Penny.
Penny recovers physically from the beating but has her spirit crushed. In order to help her recuperate, the Mortons invite the Warrenders to stay at Briarsholt and meet their friends and neighbours, Tom Ingles and Jenny Harman. Technically, this pair are still engaged, they just never got round to marrying after Jenny got pregnant with their five year old daughter Daisy. Tom and Jenny live with Ned Stacey in what we are meant to infer is a menage a trois.
Meanwhile, the search for the ‘Little Light’ has also moved to Shropshire as identified by Ballinger and it turns out that the stolen diamond was buried in the roots of a pine tree above Briarsholt: yes, that one. Les’s start at digging it out is interrupted by Daisy’s arrival in her secret place where she takes it away.
As a result, Daisy is kidnapped to be exchanged for the diamond, to be brought by Penny alone. Once he’s got the diamond, the vicious Les intends to beat Penny even more severely again, this time including rape, just cos he hates her guts, except that Wilson saves her, administers a kicking and supplies the twist in the tale, before disappearing into the night because he’s fallen in (genuine) love with Mrs Warrender but she loves Jon…
So: characters, and plot. But is it any good?
Well, the synopsis, out of which I’ve left a number of details clearly dear to Young’s heart, is sufficiently Saville-esque so far as the adventure is concerned, and it does combine the two stock plots: searching for a hidden treasure and foiling a criminal gang. And we’ve already seen that this time the violence goes beyond a clumsy fist-fight. Penny is badly beaten by Dale, and half-stripped at the same time, and though she quickly dispels Jon’s fears of sexual assault, she goes through a period of post-assault trauma that relates to sexual expression (out of which she is snapped, with implausible rapidity and unconvincing completeness by Daisy singing their (and Young’s) favourite song).
And when she is threatened with worse, with the attack already started, James Wilson smashes Dale’s head in with a rock, near killing him.
But an adult story consists not merely of violence but sex. Do the Lone Piners have sex? Oh, you betcha. Young can’t resist bringing it up. Penny’s carnal enthusiasm for Jon. Peter’s prim and restrained exterior that doesn’t conceal a willingness to experiment (David has to replace a broken antique footstool, fnar, fnar). And aside from the Ingles-Harman-Stacey household set-up, it’s pretty much implied that Jenny isn’t averse to experimentation and has her eyes on David for the future (that’s if she hasn’t already), whilst Mr Morton is clearly enthused by the sight of Penny, despite the vast difference in bust-line – Penny does make it plain that she doesn’t bother with bras because she’s got nothing to go into them… Yes, Lone Piners have sex, but it’s isn’t quite the kind happy, able couples in their late twenties enjoy as of nature but something to be shoved under our noses a bit, look, see.
They also smoke, or at least Penny does from time to time, and Young can’t resist slipping in a reference at Henry’s party to suggest it isn’t only good, wholesome nicotine, as we get to hear the tail-end of Penny demonstrating to two sixteen year olds how to build a spliff.
Regular readers of this blog will be expecting me to insert a reference to Earth-2 at some point, but I think a more apposite comparison is with Christopher Priest’s The Separation, in which parallel realities cross and merge with one another.
This is because Young isn’t merely content to write a Lone Pine story featuring the elder members as adults meeting for the first time, but he cannot help salting his adventure with gestures to the original books. There are three points in Little Light where he plays with metafiction and I think that’s definitely two too many.
The first two of these – one early and clumsy, the other a decidedly unwise insertion into the climactic chapter – are of the same order. Running late for their appointment with Fred Vasson over Powlden House, Penny spots the cover of a children’s book being removed from the window of Albert Sparrow’s bookshop. Two of the characters look identical to her and Jon, as well they should be since this is The Gay Dolphin Adventure (Armada version). After some unamusing guff about her misreading the title as ‘The Gay Golfing Adventure’ (oh, hilarity!), she drags Jon off without waiting for Sparrow to confirm that they do indeed look like the characters on the cover, and they have the identical names…
Once might be a manageable in-joke though it’s a contrived one, Saville’s book having no actual bearing on the plot except a garbled comment about the author having had some correspondence with a Charles Flowerdew, but Young compounds this badly. Penny has to go alone with the ‘Little Light’ from the Devil’s Chair on the Stiperstones to what’s clearly intended to be Greystone Cottage. She’s never been there before but isn’t she lucky? There’s a group of Lone Pine fans out on the mountain, one of whom (a real-life person) recognises her, can’t believe she’s called Penny Warrender and sends her in the right direction, but not before pinning a Lone Pine badge on her…
Oh cringe, cringe, cringe. If I knew more Latin, I could play on the classic concept of deus ex machina, for this is certainly no god in this machine. This seriously tempts fate over the reality of Young’s book but any residual credibility it leaves is destroyed at the end.
Daisy’s secret place has been recognised by us all as HQ1, the Lone Pine itself. The ‘Little Light’ has been buried all this time in the tree’s roots. But as a sumptuous feast breaks up, with Ned having taken Daisy home to bed leaving only six once upon a time Lone Piners, Jenny finds something else buried in the little hole. It’s an old sardine tin, setting out the rules of the Lone Pine Club and signed in 1945 in blood by six people who have never met until this year…
Here is where the book delves most deeply into Christopher Priest territory, but not only does it fail in its own right, because the ‘real’ piece of paper would not have had the names of Jenny, Jon and Penny, and would have had Richard and Mary Morton, but by being an in-joke of this size, it overbalances the whole of Little Light, reducing it to what it is, a pale echo of Malcolm Saville’s work, a book he would not and could not have written, a book that is in the end pastiche: not real, never possibly real in the way that the original series is and will always remain.
Before leaving this book behind, I do want to mention that the ‘Little Light’ of the title derives from Daisy Harman’s favourite song, which, from the number of times its lyrics are referenced in passing before we even get to Shropshire, is ‘Summer Breeze’, and patently the Seals & Croft original. It’s a welcome choice, though I go for the 1976 cover by The Isley Brothers which was my favourite record of the year and far ahead of the original.
And whilst ultimately I come down against this book, for all the reasons I’ve given, Sam Young has still done something I couldn’t have done (albeit wouldn’t have tried) and that is to have written a Lone Pine book. If we exclude consideration of whether he should have even tried, he’s still done more than the rest of us put together (though if anyone is now about to draw my attention to a stash of Internet Lone Pine fan fiction, I’d rather you didn’t: the hint that Miss Ballinger may have had sex with Fred Vasson in this is too much for my stomach to cope with…)

Some Books: William Rushton’s ‘W.G. Grace’s Last Case’


This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The books in this feature usually come from the Library, but this is only the second that I actually bought with my own money. Of all places, I brought it home from Headingley, Yorkshire CC’s ground, the club shop, where I saw it one lunch interval in an Eighties Roses Match.
William Rushton, better known as Willie, was from the great satire boom of the early Sixties, and the early Private Eye, of which he was a co-founder. He was a great, jovial, bearded figure with a very posh accent and a gleeful, mocking sense of humour, which made him very popular as both a writer and a performer. W.G.Grace’s Last Case was one of two books by him that I owned, the other (Superpig) being a humourous look at how to live a bachelor life that I actually found to contain much practical advice in amongst the witty remarks, which made it very useful when I finally found myself looking after myself.
I always thought this was Rushton’s only novel but Wikipedia corrects me by confirming there were two others, the last being a spoof of the infamous Spycatcher. It’s a cross between W.G. Grace, the great Victorian cricketer, and a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, and the premise, plus a read of the first page in the shop, was enough to persuade me to buy it.
Just as with Paperback Writer, I found the book incredibly funny at first, but on subsequent re-readings, diminishing returns set in until I let it go, or at least so I thought. Having had the book recalled to mind, a cheap Amazon copy was easy to procure, and I started again. Not long after, a bout of re-organisation brought about the discovery that I still had my original copy from all those years ago.
Exactly as the first time, I found the book instantly funny. I’d forgotten however just how dense it was with jokes, and with literary references that were out of copyright. To give you a quick example, the book opens at Lords with Grace just putting up a half century and plotting to delay his hundred until there’s a decent crowd and a decent collection. His batting partner is A.J. Raffles.
The bowling, by Castor Vilebastard (pronounced Vilibart but not by Grace), is interrupted by an Apache arrow between the shoulder blades. The first Medical Doctor on the scene to pronounce a pretty obvious death is Dr John Watson, currently on the look-out for a new stream of articles for The Strand magazine, his usual leader having gone over the Reichenbach Falls.
In short, everything is being set up for a madcap meeting of characters from all over the place, all mingled into some amazing and confusing piece of mischief which just happens to be taking place in the year of an invasion by tripod like creatures from another planet… Stir frequently and watch the pot bubble.
And the book is dense to the point of head-whirling with its references and jokes, line after line knowing and silly and hilarious. A decent familiarity, of not an expert eye for Victorian fiction, and sometimes not fiction, such as Oscar Wilde and Toulouse Letrec, is needed to keep up.
Unfortunately, Rushton almost immediately bogs the book down with a long, no, interminable flashback, narrated in persona propre by the Doctor himself, of an MCC Cricket tour of America and the Wild West, organised by the Vilebastard Brothers, who are twins. This goes on for nearly half the book, addressed by Grace to Watson and Lestrade, and it kills the story especially due to how Rushton has framed it. An unbroken narration would have let the flashback stand on its own terms and had the advantage of some brevity, though to be frank it’s too long-winded as it is and far from funny. Filtering it out piecemeal, with continual ‘editorial’ comment from Watson’s thought processes, and Lestrade’s rising eagerness to go off and arrest someone, only drags it out and, worst of all, echoes the reader’s growing indifference to this elephantine explanation. Watson and Lestrade want Grace to get to the point in the same way the reader wants Rushton to get there: it’s like a feedback loop.
By the time we catch up to the present day and can return to the point of the story, i.e., to cram in as much and many of the period’s figures, all trace of momentum is lost and whilst Rushton regains a lot of ground, he can’t recover that freewheeling rush of hilarity with which the book opens.
Nevertheless, the plot rumbles forward, taking our intrepid heroes to Paris to meet the Impressionists, to experience the Folies Bergere (there’s a rather out-of-place sequence where Dr Grace experiences the rather wider-ranging possibilities of intercourse with La Goulue, a famed Can-Can dancer, whilst Dr Watson has to make do with getting off with Queen Victoria…) but the steam is leaking out by now and the story is starting to merge into War of the Worlds, with the Eifell Tower as a rocket ship…
The ending is weak, as if Rushton ultimately didn’t know where to stop. Grace, Raffles, Watson, Lestrade and everyone else involved in defeating the Martians wind up on the moon, eighty years before Armstrong and Aldrin. The invasion has been thwarted and the only ones who might expose the story are stranded without a return ticket. Or are they?
It’s an equivocal ending, and far from the kind of organic conclusion that a well-considered story demands, but maybe I’m being too demanding, expecting high standards of plotting to accompany the intended silliness. But it is a disappointment.
Overall, it’s the plotting that let’s the book down. A firmer, more carefully constructed story would have allowed Rushton full rein with the gags. It’s like the early Goon Shows. Spike Milligan’s writing was hilarious and anarchic but unfocussed and sloppy. Pairing him with Eric Sykes as a writer was an act of genius on the part of the Producer who first conceived it: Sykes imposed a structure that anchored Milligan’s flights of lunacy to a storyline that, instead of restricting him, disciplined him to a more effective, and funnier way of writing. Rushton lacks a Sykes and the book ultimately fails because of it.
Though whilst it fails it’s still very funny. Just not as funny as it could so easily have been. Still, having kept it for so many years, I’ll keep it still.

Once Upon a Time in Amber: Seven Stories


In response to Kevin Cheek on The Guns of Avalon, I said I didn’t think I’d read any of Zelazny’s novels after the second Amber cycle was completed, but on checking his bibliography I’m about seventy percent certain I read A Night in the Lonesome October (and thought it weak and dull).
Likewise, I’d have sworn I never got to read any of the handful of short stories written to bridge the gap between the second and the never-written Third Chronicles, but on coming to these at last, in the recently published Seven Stories in Amber slim volume, I do recall reading ‘Blue Horse, Dancing Mountains’. At least, I remember the ending, though I had no idea of its context. At least I know where it takes place now.
The volume begins with the original Prologue to  Trumps of Doom, which appeared only in the US Hardback. It’s the only story written in the third person, a very short affair, less than three pages long. No-one is named, no context is given and before any of the Merlin Chronicles begin, it’s completely obscure and indecipherable. In fact, it’s Merlin’s passage through the Logrus, a very much more physical process than that of the Pattern.
Next up is an odd fragment that’s an ad hoc, long-term, directionless collaboration between Zelazny and Ed Greenwood, written on bookmarks at various conventions etc. It’s a mystery with no solution because it was being made up on the spur of the moment and Zelazny died in 1995. It involves Corwin and a mysterious attack by a mysterious person when Corwin seems to be guarding a mysterious something: you get the point. It’s an in-joke, a private indulgence between Greenwood and his hero, whose only genuine significance is in Greenwood being the only person to write Amber fiction with Zelazny’s approval
The other five stories form the meat of the matter. They’re simultaneously fascinating and frustrating: frustrating on two levels in fact.
All five pieces are first person, related respectively by Luke, Corwin, Merlin, Frakir and Corwin again. All follow on from the Second Chronicles. All, in varying degrees of directness and indirectness, are devoted to filling in plot-holes and omissions from the Merlin cycle. That accounts for the fascination, on a sort of, “Ah-hah, that’s what happened” basis and the primary level of frustration in that it just increases your annoyance at Zelazny leaving so many sloppy holes in the first place.
In rough order: the real Luke picks up from where he was abandoned at the Primal Pattern, goes on the run through Shadow, trumps to Amber for Vialle’s further protection, contacts the distant Delwin but fails to convince him to talk about spikards, and is asked to wait for Corwin’s return and team up with him.
Corwin’s riding home from Chaos when he observes a bizarre chess game between Dworkin and Suhuy and overhears discussion of a shortly forthcoming combat between ancient powers that pre-date Amber and Chaos, prompting him to hellride.
Merlin shags the vampire Rhanda but is attacked by an ancient monster called a guisel, out of a mirror.
Frakir unties herself from the bedpost and transfers herself to Flora, who is assailed by an unknown peeping tom magician who travels through mirrors, requiring Luke’s assistance with Brand’s blade, Werewindle. Frakir winds up with him.
And Corwin returns to Amber, wanders in without anyone recognising him, meets Luke (but none of his other relatives), the two take a walk down the Hall of Mirrors, encountering several relatives with cryptic comments, and find themselves forced into a duel to the death by hooded figures who turn out to be Fiona and Mandor: they escape by allowing themselves to strike each other and find themselves back in Amber, undergoing medical treatment from Flora, who theorises that, along with the two Patterns and the Logrus, Castle Amber seems to be starting to take a hand…
You see what I mean about how, across this quintet, Zelazny addresses the principal points I picked out about the Merlin Cycle where things just get forgotten and left as dangling threads he either couldn’t resolve or didn’t care about. As such, they’re satisfying and frustrating both. It’s nice to have answers but that doesn’t absolve Zelazny from leaving the holes in the first place. And given that these five stories were written between three and five years after Prince of Chaos, I take them to be afterthoughts.
Yes, they’re good afterthoughts, though to be honest I find it hard to distinguish between the various first person voices, with Luke winning out by a head in individuality (and he my least favourite of all the major characters in the Merlin Cycle). But what is most frustrating about them as a whole is that Zelazny uses them to build a superstructure for what would have been the inevitable Third Chronicles.
There is an increased emphasis on the spikards as powers developed before Amber or Chaos existed, that they were used heavily in shaping Amber and the shadows, that there were eleven of them, of which at least two have mutated into other forms – those of Luke’s Werewindle and Corwin’s Greyswandir – and that the seemingly inutile Delwin, introduced and self-exiled at once, is a master of spikards and, it is implied, in some way their guardian.
From this we take the spikards to be the ancient powers referred to in Dworkin and Suhuy’s conversation, which is so oddly revelatory that it seems probable it was for the benefit of the eavesdropping Corwin.
We’re also clued in variously that Dara and Mandor aren’t taking their failure to control Merlin lying down, that Jurt hasn’t given up his desire for the throne of Chaos, that Julia hasn’t really forgiven and forgotten with Merlin, that there’s a sorceror who lives in mirrors and who fancies Flora and that Mandor and Fiona are working together and probably not for anyone’s good but theirs (pity, I’d rather gotten to like Fiona, despite her name, and I’ve always been a sucker for redheads).
And we’re given pretty heavy indications that something big is building up, something with the potential to completely undo the Amber/Shadow/Chaos Universe we know.
It all makes for a Third Cycle with epic scope and the probability of being far far better than the Second Cycle. And Roger Zelazny died of cancer in 1995 so the only place we can read that Third Cycle is either on Earth-2, or in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, neither of which are accessible at this time.
The question of whether Zelazny could have made a good job of it must also, however reluctantly, be addressed. We saw the disintegration of his writing during the Merlin Cycle and, from the start of that Cycle in 1986, he wrote only two other solo novels, one during, one after. In contrast, during that same period he wrote seven collaborations with four different writers, discounting the posthumously published Alfred Bester Psychoshop and two incomplete books finished off by Jane Lindskold. The evidence is not convincing.
Obviously, Amber would be and is what Roger Zelazny is remembered for. It’s the most ambitious and wide-ranging of all its works but, from another perspective, it broke his career. The First Chronicles were excellent fantasy of its time but the field has moved on since then and Amber hasn’t. The Second Chronicles were sloppy and meandering, easy work of guaranteed popularity that required relatively little effort. The Third, full of potential to rectify the situation, were never written, and can only be regarded as a potential great shame.
It’s been an interesting experiment to re-read the series, but not, I think, one I’ll repeat and I doubt I shall retain the books. Nor do I think, after Wolfe, Lafferty and this, that I want to review another series too soon. I have some individual reviews awaiting posting.

Lulu.com: A Warning


For those who, like me, rely on Lulu.com to publish the books we write, this is a warning: don’t. In fact, fuck Lulu.

The site recently updated/upgraded itself. As a result, you can no longer create a book that you can see through their website. You can either create one for yourself only, or you have to go the whole hog and purchase ISBN codes, which are bloody expensive.

Nor can you upload to convert a Word File, you have to create a PDF and upload that.

If there are other changes discriminating against the kind of writer I am, who isn’t trying to make any money out of his writing because, to be honest, I know my appeal is too limited, I don’t know because at that point I closed it down, and I won’t go anywhere near the site again.

Does anyone know any other decent online publishing site that still caters for the limited talents among us?

Once Upon a Time in Amber: The Merlin Cycle considered


Don’t Smoke

When the Second Chronicles of Amber were announced, I had ambivalent reactions. On the one hand, the First Chronicles were still among my favourite books, and I was up for more about Amber and its denizens. On the other, I had been growing steadily more disappointed with the quality of Roger Zelazny’s post-Amber novels, for their increasing laziness and sloppiness. Eye of Cat had been a welcome return to his earlier, tougher form, but for it to be immediately followed by another Amber series was a seriously retrograde step.
I had fears, and they were realised.
There are two major differences between the Chronicles, both of which I’ve referred to in re-reading the individual books. One is in the very different characters and situations of their two narrators, Corwin and Merlin. The other is in the very different approaches Zelazny takes in initiating their respective stories.
I’ve already described Corwin as an active character. By that I mean that at almost every point in his Cycle, he has a goal in sight and is actively set on reaching it. What that is may change, but until he has done everything in his power to save Amber, he does not stop in his course. Merlin, in contrast, is purely reactive: at the start of his Cycle his only aim in sight is to goof off. The business with ‘S’ is a temporary distraction but it leads him into a non-stop cascade of things that happen to him, one after another, with only partial rationales, that have him following like an obedient doggy.
Even his outcome is somebody else’s plan for him: he ends up King of Chaos after specifically rejecting the Throne and his only triumph over his adversity is to rule without someone else pulling his strings. They still got him where they wanted him, though.
Then there’s how each story is told. Corwin’s story is a first person narration, being told to an unknown person who, despite very obviously not starting out that way, turns out to be Merlin, the son he’s only just learned exists. Zelazny makes Corwin an amnesiac at the beginning, enabling him to dole out exposition in carefully regulated manner. The audience – both Corwin’s listener and the reader – learns as they go along and the slow accumulation of detail fits the telling to a son almost wholly ignorant about his father.
Merlin’s Cycle is also a first person narration, though as soon as we learn that Corwin has been missing since practically the end of The Courts of Chaos, we understand that there will be the inevitable symmetry of Merlin relating his tale to his father. But the aptness ends there. Corwin may well be aware that Merlin is of both Chaos and Amber, and be in primary need of learning about him as Merle Corey, but the essential elements of Merle’s unusual background then get withheld from the readers who doesn’t already know the Corwin Cycle. This is a set of books for the existing fan and the new reader is left to flounder.
What’s more, there are multiple references to Corwin in the course of this Cycle, his Patternghost keeps appearing and disappearing and the real Corwin comes back in the final third of the final book yet Zelazny doggedly persists in referring to him as a third person, and not the person hearing this story. It’s weak story-telling, a too-lazy pursuit of equivalents in a setting where total equivalency is not possible.
What of the story overall of the Merlin Cycle? Each of the five books differ in detail and in what characters they introduce but essentially they are identical: they consist of things happening to Merlin without ever being fully explained. Whereas Corwin had a goal in mind, conquest followed by defence, Merlin’s only aim is to find out what the hell is going on and why is everybody trying to fuck around with him. Let’s list them, off the top of my head: S, Victor Melman, Jasra, Luke, Mask, Jurt, the ty’iga in its multiple guises, Dalt, Sharu Garrul, Mandor, Dara, the Pattern, the Logrus, Nayda, Coral, even his Aunt Fiona, Pattern/Logrus-ghosts of all descriptions. And let’s not forget Frakir, Ghostwheel and the blasted spikard.
And every time we turn round there are new relatives coming out of the woodwork. Merlin and Random’s son Martin (a waste of space herein) are Third Generation Amberites, to whom we add Rinaldo/Luke, but we also get four more Second Generation children of Oberon in Dalt, Coral and the secret pair of Delwin and Sand, who Corwin forgot to mention, whose introduction is almost entirely pointless.
Even over five books you cannot jam so many characters into a bubbling pot, coming at Merlin one after another without explanation or realistic introduction, some disposed off but most just retiring into the background to either be forgotten or else brought back when Zelazny is stuck for what to do next.
Not without considerably more authorial control and discipline than is displayed at any time in this series.
Stylistically, the most overt influence on Zelazny’s writing from the beginning has always to me been Raymond Chandler: sentence structure, use of similes, the combination of cynicism and dedication. In the Merlin Cycle, Zelazny seems to have borrowed, in fantasy form, another of Chandler’s significant tropes: whenever he thought the story was sagging or he didn’t know what to do next he would have a man barge through the door, holding a gun. The entire Cycle is nothing but men entering carrying guns.
I was critical in Corwin’s Cycle of the constant undermining, the mundaning of the fantasy with Earth references. There is nothing in Merlin’s Cycle so egregiously awful as ‘Does Macy’s tell Gimbel’s?’ but the Earth references reach saturation point. Every bloody Amberite seems to spend half their life there, to the point where practically the whole of Shadow is following them to see what’s so wonderful about the place.
Zelazny underpins this slant with the introduction of Ghostwheel, bringing computing and computers into Amber and Shadow so as to make the whole process more mechanical. He sets up Merlin as a sorceror, as a further contrast to Corwin, emphasises how carefully and selectively magic must be prepared, then gets fed up of that and drops a magical tool into Merlin’s lap so he can produce instant miracles and overwhelm superior opponents without breaking a sweat.
But in the end it’s the sloppiness of the overall writing, the constant chasing from here to there, the explanations that only follow a dozen crises later that makes the Merlin Cycle a flop. And Zelazny loses people and things constantly. In Blood of Amber, he brings Mandor and Fiona together, practically paints the walls with the instant attraction the pair have for each other and sends them off together to ‘investigate’. We then get one brief Trump contact with the pair side-by-side and then that’s it; no follow-up, Fiona practically forgotten, except for a brief mention that Mandor quasi-worships her when we’re rushing to get the end in.
Or Mandor making up to Jasra as if he’s never met her before when we’re later told she started off as Dara’s handmaiden.
Or Frakir, so essential to Merlin for nearly four books then abandoned just like that, with only one vague recollection.
Or Delwin and Sand – what are they about at all? Delwin does come back in a dream that, if you’re being generous, might have been a set-up for a Third Chronicles we never got.
But most of all, what about Coral? She comes in spectacularly midway through, a genuinely attractive character with a reciprocated interest in Merlin (not to mention she’s his Aunt) but the moment she walks the Pattern she’s kicked out of the plot and only allowed back in as a kidnap victim – first the Pattern, then the Logrus – until she’s completely peripheral to what’s left of the story, a mere cypher destined to become Queen of Chaos without even Merlin asking her.
One final point about the two Cycles. I remembered the Corwin Cycle even before I re-read it. I could have named all the characters, summarised the story with a high degree of accuracy for something I hadn’t read in, what, nearly thirty years? I barely remembered what was happening in Merlin’s Cycle immediately after I read it again. I had to synopsise half the series with the book in one hand.
In the aftermath of this Cycle, Zelazny wrote a short series of short stories, palate-cleansers, building up a background to what would have been a Third Chronicles, one in which I would have hoped to see Merlin and Corwin team up to enter a universe created by the Second Pattern. I’d have read it, avidly. Instead, Roger Zelazny died in 1995, of cancer brought on by the tobacco he and all his characters so determinedly smoked. You know how I feel about cancer.
For the last in this series, I’ll be reading those short stories for the first time and passing a few words in conclusion.