Monday, January 16, 2017

Mickey Spillane’s Day of the Guns

Day of the Guns was the first of Mickey Spillane’s four Tiger Mann espionage thrillers written between 1964 and 1966.

Not surprisingly the formula is not all that different from Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. There’s plenty of sex and violence. Tiger Mann resembles Mike Hammer in that he gets personally involved in a case and the case quickly becomes a kind of one-man crusade.

Tiger Mann is a counter-espionage agent but he doesn’t exactly work for the US government. Although he does at times work in with official intelligence agencies his actual employer seems to be a wealthy individual named Martin Grady who runs a kind of private intelligence and espionage operation. Grady’s organisation runs operations that the official intelligence agencies are not prepared (or not permitted) to handle. Whether Grady’s outfit operates with the unofficial blessings of the government is not entirely clear. Grady clearly has powerful political connections and there are many important people who are happy to allow him to run his private spy operations but it’s also made obvious that there are other important people who would like Grady’s outfit shut down.

So Tiger Mann is an outsider of sorts, or rather he’s very much like Mike Hammer in being not quite an insider and not quite an outsider. Tiger does not worry overmuch about legal niceties. In fact he doesn’t worry about such things at all. He not only ignores the law when he finds it convenient to do so he also totally ignores matters like diplomatic immunity. Soviet spies operating under diplomatic cover generally don’t have much opportunity to claim diplomatic immunity when they encounter Tiger Mann - he usually just kills them and lets someone else worry about clearing up those kinds of irritating details.

Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a character who was inclined to take the law into his own hands, a habit which upset many of Spillane’s critics. Tiger Mann takes things much further than Hammer. To Tiger the threat of communist subversion is so great that it can only be countered by using methods that are just as ruthless and immoral as those of the communists themselves.  

In fact of course just about every fictional spy hero at some point finds himself doing things that are technically illegal and morally dubious.  Espionage is a dirty game. Tiger Mann is just more blatant about it than most. He doesn’t even pretend to play fair and he doesn’t make any attempt to disguise the elements of vigilante justice and personal vengeance in his motivations. Some readers might feel that Spillane pushes these things too far in this novel but really if you’re squeamish about such things you probably shouldn’t be reading Mickey Spillane at all.

Day of the Guns opens with Tiger Mann encountering a woman quite by chance. He hasn’t seen her for twenty years but he recognises her immediately. Rondine Lund had been a Nazi spy during World War 2 and a young American spy named Tiger Mann had fallen in love with her. Tiger paid a high price at the time for making such a foolish mistake. Rondine had also been responsible for the deaths of a number of American agents. Tiger has nursed his hatred of Rondine for two decades and now he knows she’s alive and in New York City and he intends to kill her. 

Rondine doesn’t look quite the same. She has had plastic surgery and she now claims to be Edith Caine, an English translator working at the UN. Tiger however has no doubt that Edith Caine is indeed Rondine Lund. He also has no doubt that she is up to her old games of espionage and he intends to find out exactly what nefarious conspiracies she is currently involved in. Once he finds that out he can kill her.

Of course it is immediately obvious that while Tiger hates Rondine he still loves her as well. Even Tiger is aware of this.

While the sexual tension between Tiger and Rondine is one of the engines driving the plot there’s no graphic sex and by later standards the sleaze is fairly muted. The violence on the other hand is quite graphic at times. 

Spillane had dealt peripherally with espionage themes in several of his Mike Hammer novels so it was an obvious move to start writing actual spy thrillers. Day of the Guns isn’t quite your usual spy thriller. It’s more of a crossover crime/espionage tale which has (like the Mike Hammer books) a mystery to be solved. Tiger Mann is very much like Mike Hammer, only more so. Since the plot involves the UN Spillane takes the opportunity to express his views on that subject - not surprisingly he is not a fan of that organisation.

If you’re not a fan of the Mike Hammer books then you’re not going to like this one. If you are a Hammer fan then you’ll find much to enjoy, with typical Spillane themes of love, friendship and betrayal and lots of action and violence. In fact Day of the Guns is pretty much non-stop action with just about everyone wanting to kill poor old Tiger. It’s good hard-boiled fun with a characteristic Spillane plot twist at the end. Recommended for Spillane fans.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery

The Chinese Orange Mystery appeared in 1934. It was the eighth of the Ellery Queen mysteries written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee (not counting the Drury Lane books published under the Barnaby Ross pseudonym). And it has a wonderful setup.

A fat little man is murdered on the twenty-second floor of the Hotel Chancellor in New York. Everything about the murder is backwards. The victim’s clothes are on back-to-front. Every item in the room has been turned back-to-front as well. As the case progresses more backwards items emerge. Even Ellery Queen has to confess to being puzzled.

The twenty-second floor is occupied by the wealthy Kirk family - the elderly curmudgeonly scholar Dr Kirk, his son Donald and daughter Marcella. The body was found in Donald Kirk’s office. In partnership with the rather snobbish Felix Berne Donald runs an up-market arty publishing business known as the Mandarin Press (one of the many links to China in this story).

Also present at the time of the murder were Donald’s friend Glenn MacGowan (engaged to Marcella), a young would-be writer named Jo Temple who was brought up in China, the glamorous and slightly mysterious beauty Irene Llewes, Dr Kirk’s nurse Miss Diversey and Donald Kirk’s private secretary Jimmy Osborne.

As well as everything about the murder being backwards there are also various connections to both China and stamp collecting. One particular stamp plays a vital role in the story and that stamp happens to be a great rarity - because it was printed backwards!

There’s another puzzle that has to be unravelled - the identity of the murder victim.

The setup is so clever and the idea of the backwards crime is so original that you can’t help worrying that the solution, when it’s finally revealed, will be a letdown. Fortunately though it doesn’t disappoint. It’s far-fetched certainly but it’s conceived with such skill that we have to admit that it really is plausible. The motive and identity aspects are also tied in with the murder method in an intricate and entirely satisfying way. There’s also some fine misdirection. I have to confess that I didn’t have the remotest idea of the identity of the murderer until Ellery revealed it. As a pure puzzle plot this is one of the very best of the Queens.

There’s also some fun stuff about stamp collecting, such as the fact that some collectors specialise entirely in “locals” - semi-official stamps issued before proper government-controlled postal systems were established. The rather curious obsession that stamp collectors have for flawed or misprinted stamps adds an amusing touch and becomes a plot point as well.

This is also very much a New York novel. By the mid-30s Dannay and Lee were starting to send Ellery off into the countryside but personally I think he’s most at home in New York.

The S.S. Van Dine influence is still evident in this tale and Ellery has his Philo Vance-ish moments. Personally that doesn’t bother me. I like Philo Vance, and I like the early incarnation of Ellery Queen. The affectionate antagonism between Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, adds more fun.

The Chinese Orange Mystery is for my money one of the most completely successful of the early Ellery Queen mysteries. Very highly recommended.

The book was filmed in 1936 as The Mandarin Mystery.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

G.K. Chesterton’s The Incredulity of Father Brown

The Incredulity of Father Brown was the third of G.K. Chesterton’s collections of Father Brown detective stories, appearing in 1926. Like most short story collections it’s a mixed bag but the good stories are very good indeed.

The Curse of the Golden Cross involves an American professor named Smaill, on his way to Surrey in England to investigate a rumour than an unusual Byzantine gold cross has been unearthed. The only other cross of similar type was discovered a few years earlier by Professor Smaill himself. At the time of his original discovery, as he later explains to Father Brown, he was threatened with death. He did not see the person who made the threat.

The newly discovered cross was found by an English country clergyman who is a little concerned because the cross apparently comes with no less than three curses. Professor Smaill is also increasingly worried. In fact tragedy strikes not once but twice. 

The solution, delightfully, hinges on a proper understanding of mediaeval civilisation.

In The Resurrection of Father Brown Chesterton loses interest in detection altogether. It’s a story about faith and miracles and politics and the abuse of miracles. Father Brown is running a mission station in South America and gets caught up in a political dispute. It might be good Catholic apologetics but as a detective story it is very poor indeed. 

The Miracle of Moon Crescent is a rather fine locked-room mystery about the extremely puzzling death of an American philanthropist. The solution is plausible and it’s also (by the standards of locked-room puzzles) elegant and simple. One thing that I have noticed in this collection compared to the earlier Father Brown collections is that Chesterton seems more inclined to succumb to the temptation of halting the action so that Father Brown can deliver little lectures on questions like faith and miracles and materialism. Chesterton always had this inclination but it does seem to be given freer rein here. Luckily in this story it’s not entirely out of place. After all it is a story of an impossible crime so the question of credulity is quite relevant. And it is a good impossible crime tale.

The Doom of the Darnaways is one of the best stories in this collection. The grand but decaying house half sunk in the sea, inhabited by an equally grand but decaying family, provides a superb background. It’s a story that is reminiscent in some ways of much of the gothic fiction of the late 18th century, leading the reader to believe that the solution has to be at least partially supernatural but Father Brown is sceptical of such supernatural explanations.

The Arrow of Heaven concerns the murder of an American millionaire. Father Brown is in the United States and is called in to investigate threats against the millionaire’s life by the mysterious Daniel Doom. The little cleric is alas too late to save the millionaire. An arrow is an unusual murder weapon for the modern United States - in fact the elaborate security precautions taken to protect the victim’s life were based on the assumption that the would-be assassin would employ something sensible, like a revolver.  Father Brown solves the case and finds time to deliver a little lecture on the subject of private vengeance.

The highlight of this story is the millionaire’s home - a stark steel tower with only a single window on the top level, with access only by a single elevator, and surrounded by an electrified wall. The story is another impossible crime story with an incredibly simple yet elegant solution.

The Dagger with Wings is I think one of the best of all the Father Brown stories. A wealthy old man had three sons, plus an adopted son. The adopted son dabbled in the occult and had a general evil reputation which resulted in his being written out of the old man’s will. A series of accidents has led to suspicions of foul play and now only one brother has left and he hopes that Father Brown can protect him from the wrath of his adopted brother.

This is yet another impossible crime story. If the solution to The Arrow of Heaven was a miracle of simplicity and elegance then the solution to this one is a triumph of ingenuity and complexity but the results are even more satisfying.

The Oracle of the Dog is one of the most famous of the Father Brown stories. And yes, you guessed it, it’s an impossible crime story. 

At no time does Father Brown go within a hundred miles of the scene of the crime. A young man named Fiennes tells Father Brown about a recent sensational impossible crime. Colonel Druce was found, stabbed to death, in his summer-house. There is only one entrance to the summer-house and it can only be approached by a single path and both entrance and path were under observation by three independent witnesses at the time of the murder. The colonel was alone in the summer-house. It is quite impossible that he could have been murdered, but there is no question that he was murdered. Fiennes is convinced that the odd behaviour of the dog Nox holds the key to the mystery. He is correct, but he fails to understand the meaning of the dog’s behaviour.

Father Brown has some ideas about this murder. A few days later Fiennes returns and Father Brown tells him how the crime was committed.

Chesterton was addicted to impossible crime stories but he preferred fairly straightforward solutions. He generally avoided secret passageways, trap-doors, infernal machines and gadgets. The Oracle of the Dog is a fine example of the Chesterton method. Father Brown solves the puzzle because he understands that dogs do things for dog-like reasons rather than human-like reasons. Chesterton also loved stories with a moral. This one however is more concerned with psychology - both human and canine. It’s a story that really does live up to its very high reputation.

The Ghost of Gideon Wise is an exasperating story. Much of it consists of Chesterton dilating upon such diverse subjects as penitence, conversion, the evils of bolshevism and the evils of capitalism. All very irritating to the reader (unless you happen to be intensely interested in those subjects), but hidden away amongst all this is a clever impossible crime story with a nice little unbreakable alibi twist.

This is the sort of thing you just have to accept about Chesterton. The Father Brown stories are detective stories and they’re also religious tales and moral speculations and political diatribes. In this collection these tendencies are even more pronounced than in the earlier collections. Chesterton believed he could combine all these elements successfully. Whether he did succeed is a matter for the individual reader to decide. It is worth reiterating though that they really are  detective stories and often very fine examples of the breed. Chesterton’s love for the detective story was quite genuine and quite ardent.

Of the eight stories in this collection one, The Resurrection of Father Brown, is a complete dud. One, The Ghost of Gideon Wise, is heavy going but the solution makes it just about worth the effort of reading. The Doom of the Darnaways is slightly disappointing as a detective story but the superb atmosphere offers more than ample compensation. The Curse of the Golden Cross, The Arrow of Heaven, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, The Dagger with Wings and The Oracle of the Dog are all top-notch stories. 

The Incredulity of Father Brown is a more than worthwhile collection. Despite a couple of misfires it can be highly recommended.

Four of the best stories here (The Curse of the Golden Cross, The Arrow of Heaven, The Dagger with Wings and The Oracle of the Dog) were adapted for the excellent 1974 Father Brown TV series which I reviewed here.

Monday, January 2, 2017

my favourite reads in 2016

These were the vintage pop fiction novels that most impressed me in the past year, with links to my reviews.

First off the best detective novels I read in 2016:

Freeman Wills Crofts, Mystery in the Channel (1931)

J.J. Connington, The Boat-House Riddle (1931)

John Rhode, Dead Men at the Folly (1932)

Christopher Bush, The Body in the Bonfire (1936)

Carter Dickson, The Judas Window (1938)

Miles Burton, Death at Low Tide (1938)

Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar (1939)

Clayton Rawson, The Headless Lady (1940)

Erle Stanley Gardner, The Case of the Baited Hook (1940)

Hake Talbot, Rim of the Pit (1944)

And then my favourite non-crime reads of the year:

F. Van Wyck Mason, The Branded Spy Murders (1932)

Hammond Innes, The Blue Ice (1948)

Donald Hamilton, The Removers (1961)

Alistair MacLean, Ice Station Zebra (1963)

John le Carré, The Looking Glass War (1965)

Gavin Lyall, Shooting Script (1966)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy, which appeared in 1977, was the second installment of John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, recounting the epic struggle between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet counterpart Karla. 

The Circus (as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service or MI6 is known in le Carré’s books) is in turmoil. In fact turmoil doesn’t even begin to describe the situation. The activities (as described in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) of the highly placed mole run by Karla have completely gutted the service. Their networks have all been blown. Even their legals (agents operating with the protection of diplomatic cover) have been hopelessly compromised. They have had to shut down most of their foreign residencies. Their credibility with the British government is in tatters. Even worse, the CIA (on whom they depend to a humiliating degree) no longer trusts them. George Smiley, who had been brought out of retirement to track down the mole (which he did successfully) is now in charge of the Circus but it’s not a job anyone would envy. 

Smiley is an old hand and he’s not dismayed. He knows that what the Circus needs to do is to pull off a spectacular coup and that’s what he intends to bring about. How to do this with a handful of field agents and no resources? Smiley is not dismayed by this either. What the Circus will do is to comb through their archives, looking for patterns. What Smiley hopes to find is a record of any apparently promising investigation that was inexplicably stifled by London Station. After all if someone like Karla had a very highly placed mole in the Circus it stands to reason that one of the mole’s jobs would have been to block investigations that Karla particularly wanted to have blocked. If Smiley can find such a record then he will have found a weakness - something that Karla cannot afford to have the Circus suddenly taking an interest in. 

And Smiley finds just such a case. It involves some very curious banking transactions in Laos. From there the trail seems to lead to Hong Kong. It looks very promising. Now Smiley’s real problems begin. Karla is a formidable adversary but at least one knows where one stands with an openly declared enemy. It’s the undeclared enemies within one’s own side that cause the trouble. For starters there’s MI5, with whom relations are always at daggers drawn. There’s the Foreign Office. There’s the British Treasury. There are Smiley’s political masters. And then there’s the CIA (known not so affectionately as the Cousins).

Smiley will have to make use of one of his Occasionals (or part time agents). Jerry Westerby may or may not be the son of a lord and may or may not be entitled to be addressed as the Honourable Gerald Westerby. To his neighbours in Tuscany he is known as the Schoolboy. Hence the Honourable Schoolboy of the title. Westerby picks up the trail  and it leads to something bigger than even Smiley could have hoped for. It will take Westerby to Hong Kong, to Laos, to Cambodia, to Saigon and to Thailand and it will cost a number of lives, some innocent and some not-so-innocent.

The first part of the novel is the strongest since it plays very much to le Carré’s strengths - his extraordinary ability to make the minutiae of routine methodical intelligence work fascinating. This is the kind of thing George Smiley loves, it’s the kind of thing le Carré loves and it’s spellbinding. The latter part of the novel involves rather more action than one usually expects from this author and there’s a lengthy interlude as Westerby get himself caught up in the middle of a very hot war indeed. 

There are three themes that run through le Carré’s spy fiction. The first is the usual spy fiction theme, that of deception and betrayal, but made more personal by the fact that le Carré himself during his career as a real-life spy encountered betrayal first-hand in the person of the notorious MI6 traitor Harold ‘Kim’ Philby. The second is the theme of Britain’s disastrous postwar decline into a second-rate power and the third is the related theme of the Special Relationship between the British intelligence services and the CIA, a humiliatingly unequal relationship. It’s obvious that le Carré feels these things personally. The events of the book coincide with the fall of Saigon and le Carré clearly gets a certain amount of pleasure from the humiliation of the US. I wouldn’t say this was an anti-American book as such but le Carré’s dislike of the US government and of the CIA is palpable.

The Circus has so few resources that they cannot undertake even routine surveillance operations without CIA help. The Circus does all the important work in uncovering Karla’s grand plan but the CIA has no intention of allowing the British to get the credit or any of the  benefits. George Smiley is a wily old bird but he is clever enough to keep control of the operation?

In fact the operation threatens to get out of hand entirely and the problem is not caused by the CIA or the KGB. 

The Honourable Schoolboy is a classic Cold War spy thriller but with a difference since the Cold War gets tangled up with several hot wars. Smiley is accustomed to dealing with the espionage side of the Cold War in Europe where he knows all the rules but the chaos of South-East Asia in the mid-70s introduces some disturbing imponderables. The book is also a slight change of pace for le Carré with the horrors of actual war at times taking centre stage. It’s a reminder that espionage isn’t just a gentlemanly game. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

R.A.J. Walling’s The Corpse with the Dirty Face

The Corpse with the Dirty Face was the eighth of Englishman R.A.J. Walling’s Philip Tolefree mysteries. This 1936 novel was also published under the title The Crime in Cumberland Court.

I’ve become quite a fan of the Philip Tolefree detective tales. I wouldn’t claim that Walling belongs in the front rank of golden age writers but he was a solid and generally entertaining second-tier practitioner of the art of detective fiction and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Walling’s books also benefit from the author’s deep love of the West Country where he spent his entire life.

Private detective Philip Tolefree is employed to investigate the disappearance of merchant banker Benjamin Broadall. It transpires that this is not just a missing persons case but murder, and a rather ghastly murder at that. Tolefree’s old friend Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard is in charge of the official investigation but Tolefree’s involvement is far from over.

There is nothing impossible about the crime itself. It’s the motive that is impossible. Plenty of people could have killed Broadall, but why would anyone want to do so? Several people have motives but these motives are, in Tolefree’s view, quite unconvincing. Obviously someone did have a sufficient motive and it’s equally obvious that there is something very important that has not been revealed to either Tolefree or the police. There is a secret behind this murder. It’s also clear that no-one is telling the whole truth. Broadall’s daughter Mary, his nephew Dick Silverbridge, his devoted secretary Pollerby, the seedy doorman Wiverton, the lovely widow Mrs Landrake and the two suitors for Mary’s hand, the bluff young son of the local squire Jack Budshead and Broadall’s musical young friend Lionel Causeland - every one of these people had an opportunity to commit the murder and every one of them is hiding something.

The convoluted and ingenious plot provides the basis for a classic fair play mystery. In my view a successful fair play mystery requires more than just a plot that holds together satisfactorily. The solution should also be psychologically plausible. The murderer should be someone capable of committing the deed and the motive, when revealed, must be believable. The Corpse with the Dirty Face satisfies all of these requirements.

This is not one of those books in which the official police are portrayed as well-meaning but bumbling buffoons. Inspector Pierce is an intelligent policeman with a subtle but very effective approach to his job. Tolefree and Pierce co-operate amicably and efficiently. In some of Walling’s books Tolefree does conceal important evidence from the police but in this tale he is scrupulously fair in his dealings with Inspector Pierce. Tolefree’s biggest problem in fact lies in persuading the various witnesses to tell the truth to the police, something they are extremely reluctant to do.

Walling took to writing detective fiction quite late in life after a long and successful career as a newspaperman (working as a reporter, an editor and a publisher). His style is rather breezy with a nice leavening of sly wit.

Walling was a pretty consistent writer. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas, The Five Suspects, The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers, The Corpse in the Coppice and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are all highly entertaining and I’d find it difficult to pick a favourite.

The Corpse with the Dirty Face is a thoroughly enjoyable example of the English golden age detective story. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only was Ian Fleming’s first volume of James Bond short stories. This 1959 collection includes five stories.

The first story is From a View to a Kill. It’s not a bad idea. British motorcycle despatch riders carrying top-secret documents are being killed. There seems to be no explanation - no trace of the killers or their crimes. The secret to how these slayings are carried out is clever enough. The main problem is that there’s no memorable villain.

I have to say that after reading this first story I was not convinced that the short story format really suited Fleming. One of the strengths of the novels is the subtle and patient battle of wills (and wits) between Bond Bond the villain and this takes time to develop. The relationships between Bond and the various women who figure so largely in the novels also need to be woven together gradually. 

For Your Eyes Only opens in Jamaica. With Castro poised to take power rich Cubans are trying to get their money out of Cuba and are buying up properties in Jamaica. One of these rich Cubans wants a property belonging to a Colonel Havelock and the Colonel is made an offer that he literally cannot refuse. A month later a slightly embarrassed and  hesitant M asks Bond to take on a case that is a purely personal matter of no official interest to the Secret Service. This is more than unusual, it is unprecedented. 

One thing that has always struck me about Bond is that he’s a man out of sync with his age. He really doesn’t approve of the modern world at all. This aspect of his character (which might surprise those who are more familiar with the Bond movies than the books) comes through quite strongly in this story. Bond is irritated by the sound of lawn mowers because they’re motor mowers - he doesn’t approve of such horrors. He has to fly to Canada by jet and he dislikes it because it’s too fast - he liked flying the Atlantic in the old piston-engined aircraft because the journey was leisurely and civilised. 

It’s not just modern technology that bothers Bond. He is uncomfortable with the changes in British society since the war. He is in some surprising ways a very old-fashioned man. He likes craftsmanship. He likes good manners. He admires stability and he believes in hierachies. He even, oddly enough, believes in marriage (in theory at least). He is a traditionalist and the Britain that he loved, the Britain in which he grew up, is passing away. His tragedy is that he knows he does not fit in in the modern world. This old-fashioned outlook is implicit in the novels but, unusually, in this short story it is made quite explicit. 

For Your Eyes Only works rather well. It has an effective build-up and an excellent action climax. It also has (within the limitations of the short story format) a reasonably sinister villain and an interesting heroine. 

Risico is a nicely plotted tale. M, much against his wishes, has been forced to send Bond on an operation targeting a drug smuggling operation in Italy. M strongly disapproves of having the Service used for straightforward criminal investigations. This mission turns out to be not quite so straightforward after all. There’s a good little plot twist and another well executed action climax. And there’s a hint of piracy!

The Hildebrand Rarity is something of an odd man out here, not really a typical James Bond story. Bond, having completed a very routine case in the Seychelles, is invited to spend several days on the luxury yacht of American tycoon Milton Krest. The yacht ostensibly belongs to the Krest Foundation, to be used for scientific purposes. In this case the scientific purpose is to find a specimen of a very rare fish, known as the Hildebrand Rarity. Milton Krest turns out to be a decidedly unpleasant individual and his beautiful young English wife has discovered that marrying a man for his money is not always such a great idea. Of course the last thing Bond needs is to get mixed up in someone else’s marital dramas but it seems increasingly likely that this is just what is going to happen.

So where does the action adventure part of the story come in? Where indeed? An odd little story that may have been intended as something of an experiment. It has the typical Fleming atmosphere and the typical Fleming touches of sadism and cruelty but this time mixed with perhaps just a dash of black comedy. Milton Krest is certainly going to get his rare fish but he may get more than he intended. It’s a throwaway story that gives the impression of having been included in the collection as a filler.

Quantum of Solace is even more unusual. In 1928 W. Somerset Maugham had broken new ground with his classic spy thriller Ashenden, or the British Agent. Based on Maugham’s own experiences as a British spy in the First World War this was the world of espionage without the glamour, and with a certain ruthlessness and cynicism and a degree of blundering. Fleming’s approach to spy thrillers may seem to have been the polar opposite of Maugham’s but no-one of Fleming’s age setting out to write spy fiction could have avoided being influenced to some extent by Ashenden. Quantum of Solace has been described as Fleming doing an homage to Maugham.

It certainly has a very Somerset Maugham flavour although it’s the flavour of Maugham’s short stories rather than his spy fiction. Maugham was a master of melodrama in the tropics. Not just melodrama, but a very superior variety of literary melodrama. And tropical melodrama is exactly what Quantum of Solace is. While Bond makes an appearance the story is not about Bond at all, and it’s not a spy story. It’s a tale of domestic unhappiness set against the background of the diplomatic service. Maugham was so good at what he did that trying to equal him at his own game was a risky undertaking but Fleming carries it off pretty well. Perhaps Fleming was trying to prove that his literary range was greater than  critics supposed or perhaps he just thought it would be amusing to try something different. I liked Quantum of Solace but as I said, it’s not a spy story.

This is overall a slightly curious collection. Of the five stories only three are true spy stories and two of them (For Your Eyes Only and Risico) are extremely good. The two non-spy stories are Fleming experimenting a little and they’re certainly interesting. While it’s not as good as the novels For Your Eyes Only is still worth a look.