Tag Archives: London

The IPCRESS File – Film review

One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).The Ipcress File [DVD]

Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.

Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.

Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.

Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.

The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.

The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.

The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.

Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.

Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.

Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.

Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.

The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.

One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.

Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.

Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.

Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.

What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.

The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.

I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.

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Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers

What are Magsmen, Gonophs, Macers, Shofulmen and Screevers?

In my blog on Kellow Chesney’s book The Victorian Underworld I mentioned a few of the underworld’s “technical terms”. Kellow Chesney gives a very comprehensive list at the back of his book, but I think it’s only fair to give an explanation of the ones I mentioned.

They would have been very familiar terms to the characters in our books, and – certainly as far as William Quest goes – many of the characters in that series of books qualify to be included under one or more of these terms.

So here goes:

Magsmen – well basically a cheat or a sharper of the lowest kind – the sort who’d probably try and cheat you in a pub or out on the street. They’re still around so watch out!

Macers – Macers play the same sort of game as magsmen but at a slightly higher level. Think con-artist in modern terms and you’re more or less there.

Gonophs – gonophs are minor thieves and often the less skilled sort of pickpockets. Poverty drove many Victorians to crime in this way. My character William Quest starts his life on the streets as a gonoph, but becomes more skilled as time goes by.

Shofulmen – These individuals were purveyors of bad money. Not uncommon in the earlier decades of the century.

Screevers – Although it became an occasional name for pavement artists, the original screevers were writers of fake testimonials – quite a handy vocation in Victorian times when you might need a phony reference, especially if you’d been dismissed by your employer without a character. My character Jasper Feedle partakes in screeving amongst his other many talents.

If you want to enter the dangerous Victorian Underworld do seek out Kellow Chesney’s book – or if you want to walk the dangerous alleys of Victorian London do try my William Quest novels…

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The Victorian Underworld by Kellow Chesney

If any one book inspired me to write my William Quest Victorian thrillers it’s this one, Kellow Chesney’s very readable and scholarly book on the Victorian underworld. It was first published in 1970 and – for me – is the standard work on this fascinating subject.Victorian Underworld: Chesney, Kellow

I first encountered it when I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Although I majored in literature, I did a minor in nineteenth-century social history. The underworld was only a small part of my studies, but discovering Kellow Chesney’s book sent me of on a wider reading programme, both in secondary reading and the primary sources.

When I’m asked to recommend a book on the Victorian underworld this is the one I suggest as a first read. There are several other titles I like – and I hope to give these a mention on the blog in the coming months – but Kellow Chesney’s book is the most comprehensive and the best introduction.

It’s all here, starting with a walk through the mid-century streets of London – and how vividly the author portrays the place. This is no dull work of scholarship, it’s a page-turner as exciting as all the best mystery thrillers.

Then from the main streets frequented by the richest members of society, Kellow Chesney takes the reader to the borders of the underworld, the places where the dispossessed and those forced into crime to survive are obliged to lurk – and the boundaries between the rookeries and the smart streets of society are often back to back.

We are then taken on a journey into the rookeries themselves. Kellow Chesney conjures them up in all their awfulness. It is impossible to understand the Victorian criminal underworld unless you can understand the causes of crime.

Here are the beggars, the pick-pockets, the footpads and the swell mob. The skilled cracksmen who break the safes and steal the jewellery of the richest members of society. Here are the magsmen, gonophs, macers and shofulmen. The screevers and the Newgate mob. (I’ll talk more about these in a blog early next week.)

There were perhaps 80000 prostitutes in Victorian London alone. Kellow Chesney deals sympathetically with their plight, whether they were working the poorest streets in the East End for pennies or selling themselves for much more in the night houses in the West End.

The book is wonderfully illustrated, mostly with the sketches of the great Gustave Dore, adding to the feeling of being there so brilliantly evoked in Mr Chesney’s words. If you can, seek out one of the original hardback editions – the pictures are not so well reproduced in the paperback editions.

When I came to write William Quest, Kellow Chesney’s book was the first I re-read. If you want a good understanding of the Victorian underworld, I commend it to you.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip

Spoiler alert: We usually try not to give away the plots of the stories we look at, but it’s next to impossible not to with Sherlock Holmes’ short stories. I suspect most of you will have read the story. 

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories. It has a very vivid London setting and lots of those elements that plunge you back into the Victorian world of Holmes and Watson – menacing alleys, disguises, the sinister banks of the River Thames, Opium Dens etc.Twis-05.jpg

Holmes and Watson are at their best too, though I always believe the great detective is having a bit of an off day in his field of expertise, given how long it takes him to work out the only obvious solution to the puzzle – that Neville St Clair is the beggar Hugh Boone.

Who cares? Just to plunge into the murky world of Victorian London in the company of Holmes and Watson is enough for me. There is the added bonus that you get a glimpse of Watson’s home life in the company of the first Mrs Watson, though – like everyone – I’m puzzled that she calls her husband James instead of John at one point. You might like to comment your thoughts on that – whole essays have been written on what most suspect is an authorial slip.

Doyle wrote these stories for the Strand at a fair speed and such slips are not uncommon when a deadline is looming.

There is a worse slip elsewhere in the story. When Holmes and Watson visit the Kent home of Mrs St Clair, she asks that the detective tells her the worst – “I am not hysterical or given to fainting”, she says. But earlier in the tale, she has told Holmes that she fainted on  seeing blood on the window of the opium den in Upper Swandam Lane.

The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of the earliest of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, first published in The Strand magazine in December 1891. It was Doyle’s sixteenth favourite of his personal top nineteen Holmes stories. Interesting too, that it doesn’t actually feature a crime, though I suspect in reality, Hugh Boone and his alias might have been prosecuted for wasting police time and probably for begging as well.

The opium den and Upper Swandam Lane are wonderfully drawn. I once spent a happy morning in London seeking the location from the geographical details given by Doyle. Of course there’s nothing resembling the place in existence now, though not far away is a set of steps set in Victorian or earlier London Brick leading down to the swirling waters of the Thames. On finding them, my imagination swirled as much as the river.

At some point, every Victorian crime novel series should feature an opium den, and Doyle’s is one of the best in literature, menacing but quite accurate. There are, going off at a tangent, a couple of other good ones in literature. Sax Rohmer gives us a glorious one in The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu, and Charles Dickens opens The Mystery of Edwin Drood in just such a place. Opium was legal at the time – in fact the British Empire and its entrepreneurs made a fortune and fought a couple of wars out of the trade. Opium dens, which were often a front for other crimes, were perfectly lawful as well.

I like Doyle’s description of Upper Swandam Lane as a ‘vile alley’: so much atmosphere in two words. I confess to borrowing them to describe an alley in my own recent Victorian crime novel Deadly Quest. I put in an opium den for good measure as well!

Neville St Clair as Hugh Boone is not the only disguised person in the story. Holmes makes his first appearance in the Bar of Gold opium den as an addict, though he swears to Watson that he didn’t actually participate – hard though surely not to inhale in such a place.

London itself becomes almost a character in the story, the streets and alleys around the north side of the Thames vividly drawn. All the more remarkable when you recall that Doyle was a relative newcomer to the city when he penned these early Sherlock Holmes stories.

There was a silent film version of The Man with the Twisted Lip as early as 1921. More recent television versions include the BBC Douglas Wilmer version of 1964 – I almost certainly saw that as a child, as I was a fan, but I remember nothing about it.

More recently there was a very good adaptation in the Granada Television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Clive Francis (best known as Francis Poldark in the first and superior version of Poldark) as Neville St Clair/Hugh Boone.

The latter is a superb version, even if Mrs Watson was written out of the programme concept. Upper Swandam Lane is vividly depicted, as is the Bar of Gold opium den. The casting of the small parts is very well done and Alan Plater’s script gets a real feeling for the original story.

Clive Francis makes a splendid Hugh Boone, throwing out his beggar’s repartee at the police and showing the charm that made him such a successful beggar. His quotations from Shakespeare and other poets seem so integral that I’d forgotten that they’re not actually part of Boone’s repertoire in the story. I believe the idea of having Boone acquainted with literature in this way was first trialled in the Douglas Wilmer version.

The transformation of Boone into St Clair is done to great effect. The urbane and civilised St Clair in the interview with Holmes and the Bow Street police which follows, demonstrates the considerable range of Clive Francis’ acting ability – a masterful performance.

A great Sherlock Holmes story – one I never tire of reading. A masterpiece of short story writing.

 

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Leslie Charteris and the Saint

Over the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading some of the earliest of Leslie Charteris’s stories of Simon Templar – The Saint. Some of the longer novels, such as The Saint Closes the Case (The Last Hero), and the novellas – Charteris preferred the word novelette – as in Enter the Saint, Alias the Saint, The Saint v. Scotland Yard, The Ace of Knaves and The Happy Highwayman.Enter the Saint by [Charteris, Leslie]

Now it should be noted that these early Saint stories had many manifestations. Simon Templar appears in novels, novelettes and short stories, and even a comic strip. Many were printed in magazines as long stories before they appeared in print. Some were slightly altered and updated over time, and published Saint books were wont to change their titles.

The Saint made his first appearance in a novel called Meet the Tiger, though Charteris had experimented with other heroes in a few novels before that. Charteris was unhappy with this first appearance and apparently considered Enter the Saint, as the real debut of the character he wrote about from 1928 to the 1980s; though it’s worth noting that many of the books published after 1963 were ghost-written by other authors, under Charteris’s “editorial control”.

Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907, and died in Windsor, Berkshire in 1993. He was half Chinese and half English. He spent most of his life in Britain and America, doing a variety of interesting jobs while he struggled to make it as a writer. He’d done about a year at King’s College, Cambridge, before dropping out on the acceptance of his novel. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Leslie Charteris. Legend says that it was in admiration of Colonel Francis Charteris of the Hellfire Club. More prosaically, his daughter Patricia says he found the Charteris in the phone book.

Many people are familiar with the Saint from the television series starring, respectively, Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. And great fun though these are, the Saint is a rather different character in the early novels. On film the character has been played by George Sanders, Louis Hayward – in my opinion the nearest portrayal to the book character, though Charteris disagreed – and Hugh Sinclair. Vincent Price and Tom Conway played Templar on the radio.

I always think it would be great if the early Saint novels could be filmed in period, in the early 1930s. Personally, I think the earlier Saint books are the best. In later volumes, Templar takes on super-villains, even the Nazis, but in the first books he’s dealing with the underworld of the time – corrupt politicians, warmongers, blackmailers and other assorted nasty crooks.

And there are a whole team of Saint supporters: gentlemen adventurers who work for Templar on an ad hoc basis. He also has a rather dim American gangster assistant, Hoppy Uniatz, a “man” called Orace, and Patricia Holm, his utterly delightful girlfriend, who isn’t afraid to participate in some of his adventures. Sadly, for Patricia Holm fans like me, Charteris dropped her from the series in about 1948. Pity!

This early Saint might be the wisecracking gentleman familiar to TV and film fans, but there is a darker side too. Unlike these popular representations, in the books the Saint doesn’t hesitate to use violence where necessary, he blackmails villains and occasionally murders the wrongdoers he is dealing with. It would be grand to see a Saint played in such a way on the screen.

What is quite stunning about these early Saint stories in the sheer quality of the writing, particularly given that Charteris was only about eighteen when he started to pen them and only in his early twenties when the best stories were written. At times, Charteris can be positively post-modern with his wisecracking hero. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror) Templar remarks to the villain in the first of the three stories that, captured though he is, he positively can’t be killed off at that point as there are still two stories left in the volume! You have to be a very confident young author to get away with that.

These first Saint stories are wonderful escapism, but there is a message there too. The Saint is there to even up the odds, protect the vulnerable, help the poor – most of his ill-gotten gains are given to charity. It’s no wonder critics dubbed Templar “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime”.

If you only know the Saint from the films or TV do seek out the books, especially the early volumes. Entering the thrilling and occasionally dark world of the Saint is vastly entertaining.

 

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Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont

This book is a superb account of those who wander by night, mostly in London, though occasionally further afield. The sub-title “A Nocturnal History of London” gives an idea of the general theme.

Beaumont is one of the better of the UK’s modern literary critics, with a fine knowledge of history and literature. His book examines night-life and those who find themselves out in the dark from the Middle Ages up to that inveterate nocturnal roamer Charles Dickens.

This assessment of the nocturnal is roughly divided into two camps; the noctambulant, who seek the darkness for pleasure or intellectual stimulation, and the noctivigant, those who have no choice but to be out in the darker hours, the rogues and vagabonds and, more importantly, the poor and the exploited.

Beaumont presents a curious class system here of nightwalkers; the wealthy and the intellectual unbothered by authority in their night ramblings; the poor exploited and persecuted, instantly suspect if they are found abroad after curfew. Along the way we are given excellent accounts of the existence of the medieval curfew, the rise of the streetlight, legislation governing vagabonds, and how the laws of the land in England were – and still are – weighted against the poor.

A great many literary figures who favoured exploring in the dark are featured, from Shakespeare to Dr Johnson, De Quincey to John Clare, William Blake to Wordsworth and Coleridge. And then, like a nocturnal colossus in literature, comes Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest chronicler of Nightwalking, who defines the art of the noctambulant and re-presents it so often in some of our greatest literature.

It’s a challenging read and a very well-worthwhile one for anyone who wants to really understand the world of Nightwalking or who seeks a better understanding of the social growth of London. If you want to better acquaint yourself with the background to so much of our literature and history, then this is the book for you.

Nightwalking is history and literary writing at its very best. Beaumont provides a vivid picture of the great divisions of English society, his judgements sound, and reminds the reader that some of the great problems with England never change.

Hopefully, Matthew Beaumont will one day write a similar account of the more recent nightwalkers who still wander the streets of London and elsewhere.

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Seven Days To Noon

“Seven Days to Noon” is a tense thriller produced and directed by the Boulting Brothers in 1950, which won an Academy Award for best story at the Oscars.

It remains one of the best films made about London in the post-war years – before the developers got a chance to ruin the place with skyscrapers and inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Just watching this film to see how London used to be is a treat.

But back to the plot.

Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) is a nuclear scientist working at a research centre – somewhere like Aldermaston, though called Wallingford in the film – on developing atomic bombs. The destructive power of weapons he’s worked on has been playing on his mind for a while. He cracks when a nuclear bomb that’s portable is produced.

Deciding that the world needs a sharp lesson, he steals one of the devices and sends a note to the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam – clearly suggested by Clement Attlee) stating that unless the British government publicly abandons its stockpiling of nuclear weapons, he will detonate the stolen weapon and destroy the centre of London in seven days’ time.

It soon becomes apparent that Willingdon has the weapon and Detective Superintendent Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch is tasked with capturing the errant scientist and recovering the device before the rapidly approaching deadline.

The film tells the story of the chase from both points of view. We see Folland aided by Willingdon’s deputy Steve Lane (Hugh Cross) and the scientist’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) in pursuit.

But more tellingly we see the story from the point of view of Willingdon himself as he disappears into the mass of people who live in London, blending in with the crowds, seeking accommodation in still gaslit boarding houses. The accuracy of the portrayal of working people is superbly done.

Here we see not the patronising caricatures of working folk as portrayed by some film-makers of the period, but real folk, terrifically acted by the players concerned, who seem to have come in from the streets of a very real London – then as now going through a sustained period of austerity.

One of the many joys of the piece is a faded music-hall star Goldie Phillips (played beautifully by Olive Sloane, an actress fascinating in herself – she’d played small parts in films from the silent days of the 1920s. This was her one big lead and she is terrific!)

Goldie takes in Professor Willingdon, unaware until too late of who he is. As London is evacuated he decides to hide out in her bedsit until the fateful Noon comes nearer.

As he hides out, London is evacuated. There are near documentary scenes of thousands of people being loaded on to trains, lorries and buses. Traffic jams block the roads as cars flee the capital. Then the silent streets of an empty London.

The viewer can only admire the skill of the director and producers in making a film on the real streets of London that portray so dramatically such matters. I doubt you could stop the traffic long enough to do it today. The People of London get a credit as the titles roll for their part in making the film.

Gradually the dragnet closes in on Willingdon as soldiers and the police search the streets from the suburbs to the heart of the city. And…

But I’ll stop there, for this is a film that you’ll certainly enjoy watching all the way through. Gripping stuff!

Few films of the 1950s capture the atmosphere of post-war London quite so well. Made at a time when many producers were looking backwards in time with war stories and even further back, “Seven Days to Noon” captures aspects of British society too often overlooked.

And it has at its heart the question of the morality of producing weapons of mass destruction. Is Willingdon actually mad, or is he sane and ahead of his time? The authorities who are trying to thwart his plans seem to hold the moral high ground, but do they?

“Seven Days to Noon” is a neglected masterpiece of film-making, with good strong characterisation and tense and vivid direction.

It deserves to be better known.

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John Buchan’s “The Three Hostages”

In previous blogs I’ve looked at two earlier Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan. But “The Three Hostages” is very different from “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and “Mr Standfast”. It is more contained than the Hannay spy novels set during the Great War. Here the conspiracy is a criminal plot. And there is one prime villain, a member of the British Establishment. A gentleman about town, a member of Parliament, no less, a popular character on the London scene.

Today we tend to view politicians with considerable suspicion, supposing, fairly or unfairly, that most of them are lining their own pockets at our expense. Only in it for what they can get. Reading “The Three Hostages” you have to remember that Buchan lived and wrote during a more reverential age, when politicians were viewed as genuine public servants – there, even if you disagreed with their political stance, to contribute to what was perceived as the greater good. The idea of making such a man a sinister villain might have been a tad more shocking for the readers of 1924 than it is now.

This is very much a novel about the breakdown of society and order after the chaos of a world war. Quite topical when you think of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler in the reality of the 1920s.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying right here and now that the villain of the piece is one Dominick Medina. Buchan makes this obvious from almost the start of the novel.

The basic premise is simple. In order to safeguard his criminal conspiracy, Medina has kidnapped three hostages with Establishment connections. Before Scotland Yard can close the net on the criminals Richard Hannay has to find and rescue them all.

As with all good thrillers, there is a tight deadline and Hannay only has a piece of doggerel verse to work from as a clue.

Hannay, snatched from the peace and quiet of life as a country gentleman, is also put at a considerable disadvantage by falling victim to the sinister hypnotic powers of Medina himself. The scenes where Hannay becomes – or so Medina believes – his stooge are some of the most powerful that Buchan ever wrote. Buchan himself once expressed the great fear of what it must be like to find your mind being taken over, the horror of losing self-control. It might all sound far-fetched, but remember how characters like Hitler manipulated an entire nation, in a similar bout of near mass-hypnosis.

Unlike the earlier novels, “The Three Hostages” is rooted very firmly in London, though there are episodes in the Cotswolds, Norway and Scotland. In an early Buchan novel “The Power House”, which is rather unfairly neglected these days, we saw how cleverly Buchan portrayed the dangers of London, the sinister quarters of the city which lurk just below respectability.

Here we have a similar portrayal of menace. Buchan is as good at evoking shadier areas of Fitzrovia and Gospel Oak as he is the wild landscapes of the Highlands. There is a sense of claustrophobia in this novel – a feeling that the outdoorsman Hannay is also having to fight his surroundings as much as the chief villain.

Buchan also poses an interesting dramatic situation for his hero. How can Hannay have the freedom to search for the hostages and investigate Medina when he is at the beck and call of Medina for most of the time.

The author uses other familiar characters from the earlier novels to give Hannay moral and practical support. We have here the hero of “Greenmantle” Sandy Arbuthnot (now Lord Clanroyden), Hannay’s wife Mary, the airman Archie Roylance. Buchan reprieves the character of the German Herr Gaudian, from “Greenmantle”, an ally now in Hannay’s quest, rather than an enemy. A sympathetic German in English fiction in 1924 shows Buchan’s horror at what had just happened in the trenches. It was not a very fashionable viewpoint in a Europe where vengeance was the greater motivation.

As matters are revealed there is a dramatic conclusion in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps the finest duel in thrillerdom. A chase and gunfight on a bleak mountainside.

Now as it happens I’ve just written a similar battle myself, where two men fight it out in the Scottish mountains, in my own thriller “Balmoral Kill”.

And I found it incredibly hard to do. I stand in awe of John Buchan who raised the bar so high that any attempt to do anything similar is daunting to say the least.

The only other writer I know who comes anywhere close is Geoffrey Household in his thriller “The Watcher in the Shadows” (see blogs passim), though his location is a meadow in the Cotswolds.

Buchan was so good at these sort of scenes because of his vast experience of mountain climbing in the Highlands, the long days out in all weathers. Buchan may not have had to fight personal tournaments in such places, but he knew the locations backwards. And it shows. I climb mountains myself and I’ve undertaken long walks in Scotland and elsewhere. I can vouch for Buchan’s veracity. No writer of Scottish fiction gets the spirit of place quite so right as John Buchan.

And it’s interesting that, despite Hannay being in this wider landscape rather than the disturbing back-rooms of Medina’s London, the sense of menace – of danger creeping ever near – never goes away. Buchan makes a mountain range seem almost as ominously claustrophobic as the shadowed streets of inner London.

And as Hannay is attacked mentally as well as physically we find ourselves previewing many of the thriller plots that came along later in the twentieth-century. Where the mind and spirit are subdued every bit as much as the body. Where the survival of the individual’s moral conscience is often very much in doubt.

“The Three Hostages” is probably the best constructed of all the Hannay novels – and I don’t mean that disparagingly, for the Hannay novels in total are a hallmark of excellence in the world of thriller writing.

But here Buchan had obviously considered the plot and the issues within for a long time before he took up his pen. He produced, in my view, not only a classic thriller but one of the finest novels of the 1920s. A state of the nation piece, which makes Buchan’s homeland, coming as it was away from the traumas of the Great War, a very uncomfortable place indeed.

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Night and the City by Gerald Kersh

Until recently, Night and the City was only known to me as a classic film noir set in London and starring Richard Widmark – one of the very best of that genre. I’ll return to the film version in a future blog. There is a later film version starring Robert De Niro, where the story is relocated to New York. I haven’t seen it so can’t comment, though I know a lot of people feel it to be inferior to the Widmark version.

I had never read the novel by Gerald Kersh, though it’s well known that the screenwriter of the Widmark film abandoned most of the plot, lots of the characters, and that the film company more or less paid Kersh for the evocative title.

There is a splendid edition of the book now published by London Books with an excellent, atmospheric and very informative introduction by John King. I really recommend that this is the edition that you seek out – not least because it is beautifully produced.

It is one of the finest novels about London, and in particularly the Soho district in the 1930s I have ever read. It is not a crime novel per se, though many of the characters operate on the fringes of the underworld. It is a lowlife novel, with characters whose lives are hopeless and tragic. The anti-hero Harry Fabian is one of life’s losers. A cockney who wants to get on, who pretends very often to be an American, with a bad imitation of the accent, on the grounds that it might impress others. Harry is a ponce (a pimp in modern parlance), a blackmailer, an entrepreneur of the crooked Soho world, who simply cannot compete with real existence in that great depression of the 1930s – the book is set in the period immediately before the coronation of King George VI.

Harry tries to get on, but every enterprise seems doomed to failure. He takes up one thing after another, but fails because he gets bored too easily and can’t persist with anything. He seems destined for a tragic end and, in a way, gets one. But not the end you might expect.
Every aspect of lowlife Soho is covered. Characters run dubious night-clubs, women are lured into working as hostesses and worse just in order to survive. There is a wonderful demonstration of the growth of fixed all-in wrestling matches at the time, and one of the best fight scenes in literature.

But this is almost, as we would say today, a docudrama. Kersh is clearly writing from his own great personal knowledge of this world, with the same vividness for social observation that you get in the writings of George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton.

Night and the City is not an easy read. It shows aspects of London life that we all know are there, but try not to think about, with an array of characters that make Kersh a kind of twentieth-century Dickens – Nosseros, the night-club owner, Helen the hostess, Zoe and Vi, working girls with a doubtful future, Bert the Costermonger, who is an object lesson on how to survive on the right side of the law, the Black Strangler, a wrestler with an uncertain temper.

If you ever want to know what lowlife London was really like in the 1930s then Night and the City is the book to read. I know Soho quite well. There are aspects of Kersh’s depiction that are still valid today.

I hadn’t discovered Gerald Kersh until I read Night and the City. Now I shall seek out more of his work. His own life was fascinating, as you’ll see if you look him up online. The characters and settings of this novel could never have been “mugged up” – only someone with first-hand knowledge could have produced a literary work of such distinction.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, with an introduction by John King. Published by London Books.

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