THE WRONG SIDE OF THE SKY by Gavin Lyall
After reading a century of books last year, it's taken me a while to get into the groove again.
I just finished Gavin Lyall's The Wrong Side of the Sky, the author's debut novel from 1961. Lyall was very popular in the sixties and seventies despite not being the most prolific of writers.
This tale takes place in Athens, Saxos and Libya and concerns an airline pilot chasing a stolen hoard of jewels. Its fast, humourless and easily digested. Exactly what I'd expect from a Pan Books potboiler.
Very, very good for that kind of thing.
Still reading Gavin Lyall
MIDNIGHT PLUS ONE
Lewis Cane is an ex-OSE agent doing casual work in France for dodgy businessmen. By chance he meets an old resistance colleague Henri Merlin, now a lawyer to dodgy businessmen, who has a well-paid one-off job offer: to drive wanted dodgy businessman M. Manganhard to Liechtenstein for a vital dodgy business meeting. Cane takes the job and enters into forty-eight hours of trouble.
Lyall forsakes airplanes for cars in this one. Cane takes his charge and his youthful secretary through northern France accompanied by Harvey Lovell, an ex-CIA agent employed as a gun-for-hire. He needs him because the route is peppered with danger and intrigue and hoodlums galore.
Midnight Plus One is a strong thriller, with all the basic requirements fulfilled. I enjoyed it. Lyall lacks the golden descriptive touch of some writers. His location descriptions are uniformly ordinary, but he’s good with personalities. The dialogue is crisp and the action swift. The stand out sequences are a roadside car-jacking, a confrontation with a wizened old general with a hidden agenda and a host of hidden accomplices and gunfight along the trenches of a Swiss frontier fortress. The novel lacks humour. It has an old-fashioned attitude towards rape. It has a very poor appreciation of addiction (Lovell is an alcoholic). This maybe because the novel is over fifty years old or it maybe because Lyall isn’t very knowledgeable about sex and drink. His characters are not overly sensual, even the women, who tend to be admirable objects with little character.
The novel does have drive and energy. The scenario is fine. I enjoyed it.
Keith Carr is an ex-Royal Air Force pilot slumming it around the sunny climes of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the fictitious Republica Libra. He takes a Hollywood film crew on a private jaunt to Santo Bartolomeo, the Republic’s capital, and so embarks on a hair-raising escapade involving gorgeous women, murder, revolution and a dawn bombing raid on an island airport.
Gavin Lyall was well into his stride by the time he published his fourth novel, but despite the preordained tricks of his trade – the women who plays hard to get, the ex-military pilot, the shady past of all the protagonists, the constant hard drinking, the fist fights – something is missing from this adventure.
The locations are fine and Lyall gives a nice exotic spin on areas of the Caribbean which were still inaccessible to the majority of his readers. He spends a couple of pages describing the writers’ haunts along Ocho Rios and Oracabessa, where Noel Coward and our old friend Ian Fleming had their houses. He even mentions Golden Eye by name, which is rather cute. Lyall’s spin doesn’t have affection for these places; he treats them with a cynical wonder, a travelogue of names and places and incidents. There’s little love for the sweaty bars, film sets and private airfields his hero vacations in. Even less for the imagined dictate of Republica Libra where the current incumbent General Castillo is under threat from his vice-president, General Bosca, as well as the deposed autocrat General Jimenez.
Generally [get it?] Carr saunters around with much swagger and takes delight in rubbing all up the wrong way. He has a habit of smoking an unlit pipe which I found both odd and distracting. There is a long cast of characters, some of whom are interesting. J.B., the female solicitor to the stars, and Luiz Monterrey, a character actor with a hidden past, are probably the most interesting. The most ridiculous is Walt Whitmore, macho western star who wants to get involved in a real live revolt. There’s a sudden burst of sexual tension when Juanita Jimenez arrives, but it’s the only burst of tension in a tepid plot which resolves itself carelessly and long-windedly.
Flying sequences aside – there’s a spectacular dogfight with a MIG jet plane and the bombing raid holds the attention – the story felt a bit flat, as if Lyall was treading water. The characters don’t grab and the incidents are slow to build. I particularly disliked a loaded-dice life-or-death gamble which lacked all suspense as the reader already knows the outcome and is even worse for being such a stupid game for Ned Rafter, one of several nominal villains, to allow himself to become involved with. Here, I feel Lyall’s people should be more verbally persuasive. They do fine earlier on, coaxing each other to assist in Jimenez’s counter-revolution, so why not now?
A good read, but not as sparkling as Lyall’s first efforts.
@Barbel Hey there! Well, I finally did it...I got some Alistair MacLean novels and I'm working my way through them now. I'm about 2/3 of the way through WHERE EAGLES DARE and enjoying it immensely, although I think the screenplay of the film is actually much better and more concise. Good stuff, though. I think MacLean has rather a tin ear for dialog in the book but he really knows how to set up a situation and describe the action with finesse.
Great! Thought you would enjoy the books.
Yes, the film tightens up the plot somewhat but they're pretty close. It's a good story either way.
Which other Maclean novels did you get, Gymkata?
Offhand, I think I grabbed THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE, FEAR IS THE KEY, HMS ULYSSES, and ICE STATION ZEBRA. I figure that's a good enough start.
Great start! Those are five of the very best. 🍸
We should start an Alistair MacLean appreciation thread.
My favourite is Caravan to Vaccares. Night Without End is exceptionally fine.
"The Kingdom" by Jo Nesbø
This isn't a Harry Hole novel. Instead the story is essentially a story about two brothers who grew up on a mountain farm in southern Norway. The older brother stayed and runs the local petrol station. The other brother returns from studying business in Canada with an exotic girlfriend and a plan to build a hotel that could save the declining community. Unlike the Harry Hole novels this is absolutely not an urban story. Neither is it a detective story. It's more a drama involving crime told from the view point of the older brother. The Kingdom has the great plotting and sharply drawn characters Nesbø is known for. Worth reading if you're a Nesbø fanand would like to see him do something a little bit different.
Lies by T.M. Logan.
When a teacher sees his wife arguing with the husband of her friend, he then confronts him in a car park and events take place that leaves him questioning if his past life has all been based on lies.
This is a pretty decent thriller with a twist ending. The sense of paranoia is nicely handled.
I was sufficiently impressed by it to pick up another of Logan’s books, The Catch, which I’m reading now, which is written in a similar vein, concerning a father who does not trust his all too perfect son-in-law.
THRILLING CITIES 1 and THRILLING CITIES 2 by Ian Fleming
The first part is more of a travelogue than the second, which tends to be extended essays on Fleming's opinions about sex, gangsters, gambling and banking.
The stuff in the Far East offers an insight into how the author utilised his experiences for the pages of YOLT. The characters of Tanaka and Henderson are based on Tiger Saito and Dick Hughes and the early sections of the novel, where Bond tries to acclimatise and assimilate himself with Japanese civil conventions, are based on Fleming's own time spent with these two in Tokyo.
A fun read. Half-way informative. The 'Incidental Intelligence' sections read as if Fleming copied them from a brochure.
His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes
A. Conan Doyle, 1917 (though most of the contents were originally published much earlier)
The fourth collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, mostly compiled from stories published in the Strand between 1908-1913 , with one as early as 1892. Previous novel The Valley of Fear (1915) had been published since all but one of these stories first appeared. Only the preface and the title story were new at the time of publication.
The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge (1908) tells of the story of an english gentleman who makes friends with a Spanish emigrant surprisingly fast, only to learn his new friend has been murdered the night after being invited to visit his home. The two part structure is like a miniature version of the Study in Scarlet and Valley of Fear novels.
The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, (the one left over from 1892), in which a middle aged woman receives two severed ears in the mail, detached from two different heads.
The Adventure of the Red Circle (1911) , a landlady is suspicious of her lodger, who has not left his room since moving in.
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1908) Mycroft Holmes reappears in a spy story, involving missing submarine plans and the London tube.
The Adventure of the Dying Detective (1913) Sherlock Holmes fakes the symptoms of imminent death in order to trap his suspect, but does not tell Watson because that would make for a duller story.
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1911) Holmes entrusts Watson to solve a missing person case for him, only to turn up in disguise and tell him he's bungled it once again.
The Adventure of the Devil's Foot (1910) two family members drop dead and two go insane out on the moors of Cornwall. Doyle is so good with this Gothic imagery.
and the main event
His Last Bow (1917)
In the preface, Watson has already told us Holmes has long retired, and relocated to the South Downs where he now studies beehives with all the attention he once gave to criminals. the preface actually sets up this final story.
Told uniquely in the third person, this is a spy story. A German spy with a vault full of stolen secrets is packing up his files planning a return to Germany on the eve of the declaration of war. He is waiting for one final file, from a man named Altamont. Upon arrival Altamont cloroforms the spy, and... (you can guess this but might as well use the Spoiler tag)
...removes his disguise to reveal he is a slightly older Sherlock Holmes, and his driver turns out to be Watson. The two are working together for the first time since Holmes' retirement, and they reminisce. Holmes has devoted two years of his life to working undercover in Chicago, establishing his identity leading up to this espionage coupe, and Watson has reenlisted.
This story demands some notes relating to both the Rathbone/Bruce films and the internal chronology of Doyle's canon:
Holmes gives a speech in the end which is quoted near verbatim in the Rathbone/Bruce film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), the first of three Universal made films in which Holmes works on spy cases rather than murder mysteries and which all have a WWII propaganda tone.
I gather the final book of short stories, published 1927, is all retroactive period pieces, so this is chronologically Holmes' final adventure, at least within Doyle's canon. I had elsewhere said it might not have been so strange in 1942 to see Holmes in the modern day, since Doyle was publishing Holmes adventures as recent as 1927. Now I realise those later Doyle stories themselves were period pieces, and other than this one story Holmes' last adventure would have been 1913, I am not so certain.
Holmes and Watson arrive in a motorcar, supposedly the only such instance in the Doyle canon. This conspicuous bit of then cutting edge technology itself sets this one story uniquely apart from the classic adventures, as if Doyle was deliberately declaring his creation to be of the Victorian era and this one story an up-to-date coda to the canon, acting as war propaganda just as the Universal films would do 25 years later.
THRILLING CITIES 1 and THRILLING CITIES 2 by Ian Fleming
hey Chris how'd you slip a Fleming review past us with noone commenting? wudda we getting paid for nobody wants to talk Fleming with you?
if you read Thrilling Cities in two volumes, you must have the more stylish PAN version, The cover says "lavishly illustrated", does it contain photos? I have the Signet edition which has a more drab cover and no photos (and tiny print). but it does have 007 in New York. Is that included in the PAN?
My impression from the book was that Fleming had a taste for the sordid and the criminal. His actual travel tips may be 60 years out of date, but he paints an evocative picture of all the places he visits. One highlight I remember is the interview with Lucky Luciano when travelling through Napoli ! Cant believe a retired mafia chief would agree to an interview, but maybe he valued the publicity?
I wonder if EON used these pieces as inspiration for any of their location work? Hong Kong and Macau were certainly used in one film, and I think even when they were first planning to adapt ...Golden Gun in the mid60s they were intending to transpose its location from Jamaica to Hong Kong.
I also get the idea that Fleming had such a good job at his paper, he could write about anything that amused him. Our pal @Revelator has compiled some of Flemings other journalism from the 50s, and a lot of it was Fleming getting paid to scuba dive and hunt for treasure, very little of it seems to be objective reporting of boring old current events.
Yes, Pan versions, from 1964 (part one) and 1965 (part two) published in hardback in 1963 as one volume. No 007 in New York. I understood this was in the US paperback copies only. I have photos in both books.
Cost me £17.80 for the pair.
ah, I see they are "strikingly" illustrated, not "lavishly"
this Collecting Fleming site argues the two covers got reversed. They should fit together to form one big image. Looks sort of like an airline logo. But theres text specific to the contents of each book that wouldnt work if reversed, and it looks like the inset photos themselves are also volume specific (e.g. "fleshpots of Asia"), so I think we're just meant to line them up with Part 2 on the left.
I'd gladly upgrade except I'd still need the Signet for 007 in New York. Last summer I bought a Pan painted cover of the Diamond Smugglers, that was another one where I'd had the drab American cover as a placeholder all these years.
Didn't Anthony Horowitz crib large bits of copy (with Fleming Foundation approval) of the Monte Carlo chapter for use in his Bond novel prequel? I recall the chapter on Geneva because it - and this isn't a 'thrilling' aspect - dealt with abortion with was legal there, unusual for a European country I believe then. Fleming details how they nonetheless build a chain of command so that should questions be raised nobody is ever really to blame, because the accountability is shared or watered down. It's similar to the point Fleming made in the chapter introducing Spectre in Paris in Thunderball - the German wanting not so much to know (acc to Fleming, he didn't like Germans much) whether the action was ethical but rather the correct chain of command.
It is also similar to the way adult social care works in this country today - there are so many 'agencies' such as the Care Quality Commission, the Nurse & Midwifery Council, the local authority Safeguarding teams, the hospital safeguarding teams - that ultimately nobody is responsible and it does appear based on my experience that 'they' can kill of your elderly parent by placing them on secret end of life care without the family's knowledge - it's carried out via dehydration, it seems, certainly in Surrey - but be damned if anyone ever gets held responsible. I suppose that's 'end of life' at the other end of the spectre, I mean spectrum.
Anyway, now I'll do a review on a lighter subject: also a continuation novel of sorts: Jeeves and the King of Clubs by Ben Schott. I thoroughly recommend this book, it's hilarious and quite brilliant.
It's rare for me to read prose that has me in stitches of laughter - it's as if that isn't the brief these days. Schott does a great job of mimicking PG Wodehouse's one liners, such as 'She had a laugh like the cavalry crossing a tin bridge', that sort of thing. Here Schott writes 'When it comes to romance, as I can attest, their modus operandi is: 'Find a feller you really like, and change him'. And of a barman: 'He began to clean the glasses with the menace of an Australian spin bowler'. Or something like that, I can't quite locate the exact quote.
The nearest writing you get to that is in the political sketches in the Times.
It takes in all manner of adventures - Bertie Wooster's rivalry with the British fascist Spode, mainly, but deftly keeps them in play. I felt quite jealous that nothing so good had been done as a James Bond novel but to be fair, the choice is harder. Wooster seems set forever in the 1930s and is largely unchanged whereas Bond? An author has to decide whether he is to be Fleming's Bond or the cinematic Bond. If the former, which character - the brute of the early novels or the more convivial chap later on? Should it be set after The Man With The Golden Gun (like Devil May Care, I think, and Colonel Sun), during the tenure (Trigger Mortis) or a prequel (Forever and a Day, I think it was called). Should it be set in the past at all, or in the present day like the Jeffery Deaver one? If it leans towards the films, should the Bond be Connery, Craig? Moore, Dalton? Should it feature the likes of Q and Moneypenny, rarely in the Fleming novels?
Should the author write as Fleming or use his own voice?
Schott seems to write as Wodehouse. It's more a novel than a selection of short stories loosely linked, so Jeeves doesn't pop up quite so often to 'save the day' as he does in each chapter. This helps make Wooster seem less of a man child than before, perhaps a wise decision. In fact, there's no getting away from it, reading the original books, Wooster does actually come across as backward and in fact is referenced as such, by Jeeves. There is also something homoerotic about the relationship that in this context seems sinister, rather like the film The Servant. Schott helps to avoid this, but there is no getting away from the fact that - as Wodehouse purists vouchsafe - this Bertie is just too intelligent and not an idiot at all really. He might be played by a pre-Bond Roger Moore, perhaps like Lord Sinclair in The Persuaders, getting into scrapes and chasing the girls. He might even be a Tony Blair or Boris Johnson type - not really fools by any reckoning. Of course, Wodehouse's Wooster didn't seem so thick because he seemed to come up with these wonderful bon mots and also had some chums who were even dimmer than him. All the same, this upgraded Bertie does make a fair few observations that would have been beyond Wodehouse's version. It also allows him to take a more active role in a clandestine plot regarding British security, in which Jeeves plays a key role.
The description of a taxi chase across central London, with the fat Spode in angry pursuit of Wooster, is one of the funniest things I've read. This is a book that also teems with insider knowledge, good taste and all manner of riches.
Interestingly, it touches on some kind of secret organisation where manservants and valets spy on their masters and pass information back to the State authorities. Rarely when reading it to you think of the Freemasons which is some achievement. It describes how state agents engage in 'inconspicuous vexation' against anyone they deem annoying. This does seem to happen with local Councils, the difference is that here the victim deserves it whereas local authorities often just go after anyone who is a whistleblower or troublemaker - see the Post Office's treatment of the Postmataer Generals, revealed of late.
Jeeves also has a good spiel on the different kid of valets a gent may need - thinker, drinker, stinker and so on - that made me think of Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, an ex-drinker. Johnson didn't seem to have anyone other than Dominic Cummings - something of a stinker. He doesn't seem to have anyone now, but of course his enteral fiancé Carrie is straight out of PG Wodehouse. I think Alan Duncan, in his recent memoirs, came to resent occupying the Jeeves role, forever having to clear up after his master.
I thoroughly recommend this book and have already purchased the follow-up.
Napoleon Plural said:
I recall the chapter on Geneva because it - and this isn't a 'thrilling' aspect - dealt with abortion with was legal there, unusual for a European country I believe then. Fleming details how they nonetheless build a chain of command so that should questions be raised nobody is ever really to blame, because the accountability is shared or watered down.
The section on abortion might have been more Thrilling in 1960 (when the articles were first published in the The Sunday Times) especially to an audience of uptight Brits in the years before the Sexual Revolution.
In The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel travels to Geneva for an abortion after her boss gets her pregnant (he pays for the abortion, ends the relationship and fires her). Fleming wrote The Spy Who Loved Me in 1961, so this would have been shortly after writing the Sunday Times articles later compiled as Thrilling Cities, including that Geneva chapter. So there's at least one bit of Thrilling Cities that fed back into the James Bond novels!
I read a good article in the Artistic Licence Renewed site called The Man with the Golden Pill by Frieda Toth, arguing Fleming was a feminist because of his sympathetic description of a woman's experience getting an abortion at this time.
After taking a break in rereading my 10 favourite books I’m back on course and have just finished the fifth which is Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
Published in 1933 it relates the story of a group of travellers who crash land in Tibet and are taken to Shangri-La, a utopian paradise where people live to be hundreds of years old but age very slowly in terms of looks.
I love this novel, it is beautifully written and inspires the inner peace, love and purpose that we all seek.
I am still meaning to read Lost Horizon. The opening sentence is brilliant.
I bought the DVD starring Robert Colman a while back. It was the 'restored' version - plenty of footage from the original was lost, but perhaps they were too zealous - in a couple of scenes they only had the audio and relied on stills to tell the story.
It broke the suspension of disbelief, plus other footage was rougher than the rest. It was a bit like watching the restored Wicker Man - you're meant to think it's better but it won't be necessarily.
It's a classic movie nonetheless and the opening was appropriated for the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That said, the restored footage meant it really did drag, obviously there won't be any editing if they've found all this footage, it's all going to be in there.
The film is up there with the 1930s version of She in that it is simply never shown on telly any more.
Napoleon, you can't do this, man. It's decades since I read Lost Horizon. What is the opening sentence ????
Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think.
As I said, the book is beautifully written.
Ah, thank you, CHB.
You know, I remember it now! So it must have had impact. Overall I wasn't impressed with the novel, but I was only 20 or so. Perhaps I ought to revisit; age tends to recalibrate the mind.
VENUS WITH PISTOL
Venus with Pistol isn’t as imaginative as Lyall’s other novels. This time the author’s hero is an antique gunsmith who is known to have a nice little smuggling line on the side. He likes to be called Bert, which dates the piece tremendously. Given his full name is Gilbert Kemp, I rather fancy Gil would have had a more exotic ring to it. Methinks Lyall was trying to class-down his character. It doesn’t really work. Even though he has underworld connections, a criminal record and isn’t averse to hitting or shooting people, cheery, well-spoken Bert is of the upper classes for sure. He doesn’t like cheap hotels for starters.
Bert’s offered a three week jaunt to the continent to help smuggle a series of art works across Europe and out to Nicaragua via a Zurich bank. This covers much the same territory as Midnight Plus One and the novel is one long game of cat-and-mouse between Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Zurich and Venice. There are a bunch of shady characters and a prim art expert Liz Whitley. There’s some nice intrigue surrounding the titular painting, which doesn’t exist in reality but has striking similarities to Giorgione’s actual Sleeping Venus. The neat touches are as overdone as a forger’s signature and I’d lost interest by the time this revelation appeared. The climax is dull.
Lyall has obviously done his research. If you’re interested in fake art, this is the thriller for you. Beyond that, I can’t find a lot to recommend this one. Very talky. I would have liked fewer locations and more [any?] action. Monumental alcohol consumption from the hero once more. Is this a ‘thing’ with sixties thrillers – does everyone have to grab for the bottle at every opportunity? Bert recognises this himself at one point and queries why he’s drinking at eleven in the morning. I was almost reaching for a glass myself.
Disappointing. A good title does not always a great thriller make.