Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Spy’ Category

#15 Moonraker

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 07/04/2017 at 12:00 pm

#15 MoonrakerThe third James Bond novel pits Bond against evil industrialist Sir Hugo Drax. It differs from previous Bond novels because it is set in England and deals with the Cold War threat of nuclear war. The parts when Bond is sorting through paperwork are closer to the realism found in John le Carr, as is the fictional portrayal of a contemporary political issue. Furthermore, whereas Le Chiffre and Mr. Big are caricature villains, Drax is given a believable backstory which involves a traumatic war experience. The opening of the novel, where Bond and Drax duel over the card game bridge, in an prestigious and exclusive casino called Blades, is classic Bond. As argued in Susan Hill’s introduction, Ian Fleming uses beautifully descriptive language to create a perfect sense of opulence. For critics who wish to find evidence of Fleming’s substantial abilities as a writer, these sorts of passages provide ample ammunition.

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50: Spook Country by William Gibson

In Books, Fiction, Science Fiction, Spy on 09/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

spook-country-by-william-gibsonThree inter-connected stories weave into one, in this fast-paced and prescient novel set in 2006. Hollis is hired to write a 7,000 word piece about locative art, a new form of art involving a virtual reality helmet, allowing the user to view images overlying real rooms — pictures of death scenes, places of cultural interest. Tito runs precarious and covert errands for his Cuban family, dropping off iPods to a mysterious old man without knowing anything about what is stored on them — it is probably not a hard rock playlist. Milgrim is being held under threat by a scary ex-military type, who feeds his drug addiction to Rize and gets him to translate messages coded in a language called Volpek. All three characters are unknowingly entangled in a web of complexity, playing their roles as stooges in game of life and death.

As soon as you begin a William Gibson novel, you are thrown into the world in which the characters live and breve. There is no time to gather your thoughts, the pages turn and you do your best to puzzle out what the hell might be going on. This requires concentration, which is rewarded when the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Gibson, famed in history for coining the term cyberspace, is able to depict our advanced technological age with great skill and a predicative sense of future. His characters move through the urban and cyber jungle as outsiders, wired up to a global system of communications and international flights. The post-millennial world is shown as the huge, looming and uncontrollable beast that it arguably is. A vast series of nodes whose points are too vast to number yet somehow describable, like a blanket of stars in a clear sky. Creatives are always in danger of being sucked in, chewed up and spat out; as the black leather gloves of shady organizations reach out to insinuate control over our lives. As a reader, it is your job to enjoy the ride and unveil the links between the nodes, which gravitate towards the massive and more powerful.

Highly recommended fun.

27: Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 01/07/2016 at 12:00 pm

Under Western Eyes by Joseph ConradThe setting is tsarist Russia on the cusp of revolution. A bomb is successfully hurled at a fanatical Minister of State. The assassin bursts into the apartment of a fellow student. What follows is an enthralling tale involving Russian emigrates and a government spy.

Conrad chooses an English narrator for his study of cynicism under autocratic leadership. The narrator is teaching English in Geneva when he gets tangled up in the case. Conrad’s choice of narrator gives the narrative its emotionally detached character, which we do not always see in Conrad’s major novels. As a result, readers are ask to observe the characters’ complex moral dilemmas from a Western perspective.

In an author’s note, written some years after publication (Under Western Eyes was published 1911), Conrad admits that the novel was not well received in England at first. It did however do rather better in Russia where the novel is still admired. I would personally recommend it to any friend interested in English Literature and would place it historically as an excellent example of early Modernism. But there is also much here for the general reader to enjoy in terms of character and plot.

Masterfully worked.

10: Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Spy on 04/03/2016 at 12:00 pm

Live and Let Die by Ian FlemingJames Bond is arguably the greatest spy hero in fiction. He is highly intelligent, incredibly charming, unafraid to die, and invulnerable to pain. When faced with an elaborately conceived death trap, he resourcefully escapes to enact revenge upon the baddies. Surrounded by cigarette smoke, name-checked booze, beautiful woman, expensive hotels — and even more expensive cars — 007 always saves the day.

For the British reading public of 1954, Ian Fleming offered an alternative to post-war rationing and the unpopular Churchill government. His work was the early rock n’ roll of English literature, strutting its stuff on the page with controversial flair. Bond was the adolescent fantasy of an upper class former navel intelligence officer; the popular creation of a well-travelled journalist with his finger on the pulse of the British public. Riffing on 1950s anxieties surrounding sex, race and Russia, Fleming managed to perfectly thrill the imagination of his readers.

And it is the 1950s way in which these anxieties — sex, race and Russia — are presented that rightly appears so dated now. Although there is still inequality between the sexes, feminism has entered the mainstream, with page three of The Sun no longer including a photograph of a topless female model. Despite their being a lack of black nominees at The Oscars, America now has its first non-white president. And although Russia continues to act in a provocative way towards the west, the threat of nuclear war is less prescient.

It has been over fifty years since Ian Fleming died, and the cinema version of the franchise continues to enjoy popular success. These days, M can be played by a woman and Moneypenny is no longer the butt of Roger Moore’s sexist jokes. Today, novelists writing in the style of Ian Fleming are less likely to refer to gangsters in racially discriminant terms. The baddies continue to crave world domination, but the criminal masterminds have mostly severed their ties with the Russian government.

The public gets what the public wants.

43: If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Romance, Spy on 23/10/2015 at 12:00 pm

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo CalvinoThis brilliant novel is about you. It involves your search for a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino (1923-1985). Frustratingly, your quest for the book keeps on leading to other books; and these new books keep on ending, just as you’re getting attached to them. And so, you embark on your own adventure. Along the way, you’ll find romance and meet a spy. All within the sinews of your imagination.

If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979) was first published in Italian and translated to English in 1981. During the sixties and seventies, literary theorists such as Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Julia Kristeva (1941-) were busy inventing clever ways of talking about novels. As an approximation, 39% of what Roland and Julia wrote was nonsense. However, a lot of it was really cool inter-textual stuff that got writers joining dots indiscriminately. Story tellers could start weaving their threads in new post-modern ways, as Italo Calvino did in this remarkable novel.

Now for some twenty-first century linkage: if you like David Mitchell (1969-), you’ll like Italo Calvino. That’s because both writers are crafty, shifting from story to story. The clever word for this is post-modern, but you don’t need to know any clever words to enjoy Calvino. All you need to do is let your imagination run wild, and go with the proverbial. If you don’t like books, then you won’t like this book. If you do like books, you’ll enjoy at least 41% of this novel. I probably enjoyed about 78%-81% of it, but don’t always believe what you read on the internet. I suggest you start / finish the book yourself.

You’ll find it’s easier in a library.

19: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

In Books, Comedy, Fiction, Spy on 08/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

The Man Who Was ThursdayI came across this by chance in a charity shop in Belsize Park, near where I live in London. The first page was enticing, so I finished a chapter on the walk home. And I must say, that reading whilst you’re walking really is an incredible pastime – at least when the weather is nice. But I digress, back to the serious literary review.

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is somewhat of a mix, partly being a novel about spies and partly being a novel about anarchists. One thing however remains consistent, it is brilliantly written and makes fun out of some pretty serious topics. You see, as Joseph Conrad made clear in his spy / anarchist novel The Secret Agent (1907), anarchistic dynamiters were a serious threat to stability just before the First World War. Knowing this puts a brave satiric slant on the work, a bit like writers who take the piss out of Islamic terrorism in today’s terms, sometimes at their peril. Even without the relevant historic context, the book is still an hilarious fantasy constructed by a magical storyteller.

And the style is accessible in a way that contemporary novelists never quite seem to master, perhaps barring the excellent Alexander McCall Smith. It seems that, in the days before television, writers could actually grab your imagination and bring it closer to their own way of seeing things. I guess Conrad in a way, was the one who broke that mould and successfully got inside our heads, which led to less accessible literature for English academics to dissect. This book would have been exciting in its day for the way it uses the precision of an H. G. Welles to tell a fantastic story; today it is refreshing because it feels completely original and can be easily read several times.

Read this book.

09: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 28/02/2014 at 12:00 pm

Casino Royale by Ian FlemingLike the overwhelming majority of people in the UK, I do not own a gun or have a licence to kill. Neither do I gamble millions of government money inside swish casinos, or drive fast cars in pursuit of evil enemy agents, nor do I make love to beautiful woman for queen and for country. Basically – I’m not James Bond. Am I?

But who is James Bond and what can the books tell us that the films can’t?

The real James Bond starts out Ian Fleming’s spy stories as a fallible human being. Chosen for the prestigious 007 position because he has dutifully killed two men in previous missions. Bond confides his doubts about killing to his colleague Mathis: –

“History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Bond is given the Casino Royale job because he is an excellent gambler and because he is accustomed to the life of luxury. But his susceptibility to champagne and lobster, as well as his penchant for beautiful woman, can sometimes lead our hero to loose focus with devastating consequences. Essentially, the first 007 adventure is about how Bond’s character changes, from dutiful agent to vengeful killer, becoming a member of her majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS / MI6) with a personal vendetta against SMERSH. In addition, the experience he has with his female co-worker Vesper will arguably cement his already misogynistic attitude towards woman.

“And then there was this pest of a girl. He sighed. Woman were for recreation.”

This is an example of clear writing that gives readers insight into James Bond’s thoughts. These kind of reflections are more present in the book, whereas in the film Bond’s reasoning is merely implied by the actor. Another rationale for reading the book being preferable to watching the film is that Fleming is a master of detail and suspense. Using an uncluttered prose that is both precise and punchy, this thrilling book brilliantly describes the glitz and glamour of the casino. For example, the rules of baccarat – a card game where the goal is to score a 9 – are given to help the reader understand the plot and to increase tension during the game. Every cigarette, alcoholic drink, car and gun make, piece of clothing, and muscle reaction is deemed important. Fleming’s attention to detail helps create Bond’s world, a fiction based on reality and yet far more exciting.

I think the enormous success of the Bond franchise is partly due to its strengths as an escapist story. Slightly two dimensional heroic characters like James Bond do not really exist, neither do equally transparent evil figures such as Le Chiffre. In fact, the doubts that Bond confides to Mathis, that nothing is black and white, are like the doubts that we as readers may have in regards to the unrealistic parts of the story. To enjoy this book we must be willing to suspend disbelief and simply enjoy a fast ride in a vintage Bentley.

Mine’s a Vesper cocktail – don’t fancy a vodka Martini, shaken not stirred, tonight.

51: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 20/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto EcoHistory is a story, based around grand events, focusing on great men. The History of The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire is a narrative, Julius Caesar is a character in a play, William Shakespeare is a myth. Everything that has ever been written, put into a book and sold was not written in isolation. Texts intermingle with texts, offering glimpses into things that have happened, are happening, and may happen. The thoughts of intellectuals mingle together in a melting pot of ideas: a cauldron full of every kind of writing – historic, journalistic, novel – that has been recorded, published or posted on the internet. This process of mixing together texts to form something new has been referred to as intertextuality.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco is a novel about textual relationships. Eco uses his expert knowledge of history, literature and semiotics (the study of how we communicate using signs, such as language or clothing) to create an inspired work of profound originality. The Italian writer craftily and skillfully transforms historic fact into fiction. In a way that is both thrilling and humorous, a cynical light is cast upon some of the nineteenth century’s most shady corners. And in their shadowy darkness, lies the shady protagonist Simone Simonini, brilliantly evil, and – it must be added – strangely appealing.

Wherever there is trouble, there is Simonini: Orchestrating anti-Semitic propaganda leading to the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion; rallying bomb experts for blowing up ships whilst working for the Carbonari (the Italian secret society, whose influence paved the way to unification in 1861); forging the notorious documents connected with the Dreyfus Affair – the dastardly and cunning Simonini is always there, lurking in the shadows. He is xenophobic, schizophrenic, Machiavellian, and representative of a distilled and strong evil. It would be appropriate to compare him to another villain, Shakespeare’s Iago, whose malevolent presence still continues to capture audiences on stage. Like Iago, Simonini is great fun to follow and can be enjoyed best when taken with a pinch of salt. This disturbed fictional character is, in addition, a great device for creating a few conspiracy theories along the way.

To conclude, Umberto Eco’s latest novel plays with language in an ambitious way, which highlights the intertextual nature of stories, and stresses the fallibility of grand historical narratives. It gives to the world a marvelously murderous protagonist whose sinister exploits are a joy to peruse. This book will stimulate the mind, exercise the imagination, lead to enlightenment, and give approximately twelve hours of pleasure.

In other words, it’s a very good book.

26: The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 28/06/2013 at 12:00 pm

Inspired by an anarchist bomb attack of 1894, The Secret Agent explores the dark nooks and crannies of late nineteenth Century London: shifty characters slinking by the Thames; revolutionary groups plotting in the backs of dodgy shops; upper class embassy gentlemen manipulating their subordinates – a brilliant and thrilling fiction based on a real-life story. The infamous Greenwich bomb of 1894 had its origins in Europe where anarchists had been carrying out bomb attacks since the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander in 1881. After the explosion, near the Greenwich observatory, a man was found with his left hand entirely blown off and a gaping hole in his stomach. Following the man’s death, police identified him as Frenchman Martial Bourdin whose brother-in-law was believed to be a police informer.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), a Polish born writer writing in English, who is often spoken of as the founder of modernist literature, embarked upon his story twelve years later in 1906. Conrad states, in his Author’s Note (1920), that the idea for the story was given to him by a friend. The trusted friend had mentioned to Conrad that he’d heard some interesting revelations about the Greenwich bomb. These revelations were to inspire the writer to create a fiction, based around the incident, but with imaginary characters.

Today, Conrad’s use of faulty science to explain his character’s inert criminality feels sightly antiquated. However, the writer’s choice to focus deep attention on physiology, morality and psychology was unquestionably innovative during the time of writing. Tragic characters, such as the unquestioning Mrs Verloc and the ‘poor boy’ Stevie, are treated with great sympathy. The reader is given time, through the writer’s intensely engaging prose, to explore the inner workings of characters whose life is balanced precociously on the precipice of death. As a result, the story both thrills the reader’s senses and explores the reader’s own morality.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

I found this Penguin English Library edition of the classic book in Daunt Books. These editions are smaller than their counterparts and come in a series. Before I decided to buy it, I deliberately studied the sides of every single book categorised as fiction. From A to Z, I found myself in awe of books; their inviting spines creating a true sense of wonder within my soul. I’m not sure how long I stood there, engrossed in thoughts about books, but it was long enough for several customers to have come and gone. In the end, when I got home, I was instantly gripped by the brilliant storytelling of a remarkable writer.

Very highly recommended.

18: Spies by Michael Frayn

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 03/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I live in a wealthy, very nice, part of North London called Primrose Hill with my mother and father. We’ve never been rich, our house is in a row of isolated council housing, but we live in a posh area. Near my parent’s house, on a road called Regents Park Road near the railway bridge – where, if you peer over, you can see the railway line to London Euston – there sits an upmarket charity shop called Mary’s Living and Giving Shop. It’s well stocked with second-hand books and that’s were I found Spies by Michael Frayn.

Spies by Michael Frayn

Born in 1933, Michael Frayn writes critically acclaimed and commercially successful plays and novels. He started writing published work, as a newspaper journalist, at about the age of thirty and went on to release his début novel The Tin Men in 1965. His second most recent book Spies, written in 2003, was my first encounter with Frayn’s work. It’s currently being studied by A-Level English students in the UK.

Spies is a nostalgic book, set in wartime Britain, about childhood. The book explores the power and fragility of remembered experience; it uses memory as a looking glass to peer into a man’s childhood; it creates a multi-layered narrative experienced through the eyes of nostalgia. As the novel progresses, the reader begins to see the world from a child’s perspective as well as – or rather – from the perspective of an adult looking back on childhood. In this book, place is important because place can evoke memory and help to solve the unsolved mysteries of the past. By skilfully showing sensitivity towards memory, Frayn encourages the reader to play the detective attempting to solve what might have happened in the protagonist’s past.

I’d highly recommend this book to friends who like books and I’d highly recommend visiting charity shops in posh areas where wealthy people are busily giving away nice things like books. My top suggestions in London are Oxfam Books on Marylebone High Street, the British Heart Foundation in Hampstead, and my local Mary’s Living and Giving Shop on Regents Park Road. For me, charity-shop-book-hunting is fun, rewarding and often leads to an exciting discovery.