I’ve always been fascinated by writers who have attempted to define or codify the ‘rules’ of crime and detective fiction. Having previously examined Elmore Leonard’s ‘Avoid Prologues’ rule, I decided to take a look at a much older rule of the genre and to see how well it had held up over time. Rule number eight of S.S. Van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules of Detective Fiction’ states:
The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
My first reaction on rereading Van Dine’s rules was that rule number eight had long outlived its usefulness. Van Dine was writing in the Golden Age of locked room mysteries and fair play, whereas we now live in an age of genre hybrids when writers are expected to break the rules in what is, after all, the most subversive of genres. However, it’s worth contemplating just how the rule has been broken and to what extent it still applies. One work which I feel is a important challenge to rule number eight is James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993). The sixth novel in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead is a gripping novel in which Burke expertly weaves several plot strands encompassing both past and present together – the brutal murder of a prostitute, the shooting of a black convict which Robicheaux witnessed as a teen in 1957, and the criminal activities of mobster Julie ‘Baby Feet’ Balboni who is co-producing a Civil War film in the town of New Iberia where the main action of the novel takes place. The first person narration of Detective Robicheaux guides the reader through this murky tale with his inimitable mix of weary cynicism and southern charm. One night, after his drink is spiked with LSD, Robicheaux has the first of an intermittent series of dreamlike encounters with General John Bell Hood and a rabble of Confederate soldiers under his command. Loyal, gallant and tacitly aware that he has chosen the wrong side, General Hood has all the qualities one expects of the old South. Robicheaux is faced with a series of dilemmas as to whether he should break the law in his investigation as it is the only means to survive and achieve justice working in the corrupt bureaucracies of the New South. Hood gives Robicheaux allusive advice about the investigation, always cloaked in the subject of maintaining his honour:
‘It’s us against them, my friend,’ he said. ‘There’s insidious men abroad in the land.’ He swept his crutch at the marsh. ‘My God, man, use your eyes.’
‘Are your eyes and ears stopped with dirt?’
‘I think this conversation is not real. I think all of this will be gone with daylight.’
‘You’re not a fool, Mr Robicheaux. Don’t pretend to be one.’
‘I’ve seen your grave in New Orleans. No, it’s in Metaire. You died of the yellowjack.’
‘That’s not correct. I died when they struck the colors, suh.’ He lifted his crutch and pointed it at me as he would a weapon. The firelight shone on his yellow teeth. ‘They’ll try your soul, son. But don’t give up your cause. Occupy the high ground and make them take it foot by bloody foot.’
‘I don’t know what we’re talking about.’
‘For God’s sakes, what’s wrong with you? Venal and evil men are destroying the world you were born in. Can’t you understand that?’
The ghostly visitations feel so real in the novel as Burke effortlessly evokes the southern atmosphere of both these men’s times, which make the exchanges between the general and the detective captivating to read. As Kevin Burton Smith says of Burke’s writing in the Thrilling Detective, ‘his depictions of the the back roads and bayous of rural Loiusiana verge on poetry. You can smell the bayous, taste the spices of the food, hear the wind whistle through the trees and the canebreaks.’ This novel was the start of Burke’s interest in ghosts and the supernatural, which amusingly lead Burton Smith to grumble, ‘one might quibble that there have been a few too many dead people popping up in the books to offer him [Robicheaux] help on his cases.’ Although Robicheaux’s meetings with Hood appear to be dreamlike encounters, and therefore not an infringement on Van Dine’s rules, Hood not only lectures Robicheaux on his conscience but awakens parts of his subconscious. There is a final twist in the tale, which I won’t give away here, casting doubt on whether the encounters were merely dreams all along. Perhaps then, by the denouement, things are not ‘solved by strictly naturalistic means.’ Genre hybrids may be common now, and many writers have taken a scalpel to Van Dine’s aversion to ‘slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing’, but few have done it with as much charm and credibility as James Lee Burke.
Craig McDonald has written a piece ‘In Praise of James Ellroy’ for Crimespree to celebrate the great man’s sixty-seventh birthday today and the news that he will be made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America this year. Happy birthday James Ellroy.
‘Don’t nod out, Hesh. You don’t get a show like this every day.’ American Tabloid
I’m excited to announce that ‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ will take at the University of Liverpool, 1-3 July 2015. The call for papers, including details of how to submit a proposal is below:
‘James Ellroy: Visions of Noir’ 2 July 2015, will be held at the University of Liverpool and sponsored by the School of English. This conference will examine Ellroy’s influence on the genre, his inspirations as a writer and his achievements in forging an idiosyncratic and unique style. We seek to foster an interdisciplinary approach in order to explore subjects such as Ellroy’s reinterpretation of the history of Los Angeles and the United States, as well as the connections between genre fiction and cinema through film noir. Our keynote speaker is journalist and critic Woody Haut, who has written on how Ellroy’s work has led to a reassessment of crime fiction as ‘at its most subversive not when it retreats into the confines of the genre, but when it stretches its narrative boundaries and rules regarding subject, style and plot.’ His works include Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999) and Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (2014), and his keynote address is titled ‘From Paranoia to the Contrary: Exploring the Noir World of James Ellroy’.
Panels at the conference may include, but are not restricted to:
- Historical Crime Fiction: Ellroy’s manipulation of history, comparisons to other authors such as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal
- True Crime: the writer’s place in solving crimes; Ellroy’s relationship with police and true crime writers
- Mapping Los Angeles: The history and geography of Ellroy’s LA
- Pulp and Porn: The voyeurism of tabloids and film in Ellroy’s work
- Film Noir: Ellroy’s adaptation of film and film’s adaptation of Ellroy
- Femme fatales: Exploring the genre’s gender lines
- Ellroy and after: Ellroy’s influence on a younger generation of crime writers
Please send proposals of 400 words to Dr Steven Powell (email@example.com) and Dr Diana Powell (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 30 April 2015. The abstract should include a title, name and affiliation of the speaker, and a contact email address. Postgraduate students and independent scholars are welcome. Papers will be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Proposals for suggested panels are also welcome. We plan to publish a selection of papers after the conference.
Conference Webpage: https://www.liv.ac.uk/english/our-events/ellroy/
Woody Haut is an acknowledged master of American noir. He’s the author of three non-fiction classics- Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War, Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, and Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood– as well as one novel, the recently published Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.
Well this comes as a very pleasant surprise. The Guardian is reporting that readers can expect the return of Lisbeth Salander in a fourth book of the Millennium series:
A sequel to late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium crime trilogy will go on sale in at least 35 countries from August, the book’s publishers said on Tuesday.
That Which Does Not Kill was completed in November by David Lagercrantz, known for co-authoring Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography. He stands in for Larsson, who died of a heart attack in 2004 aged 50.
The book will continue the story of the troubled but resourceful heroine Lisbeth Salander first made famous in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
But the author remained tight-lipped about the meaning of the title or what direction the action-packed political thriller – 500 pages long in Swedish – will take.
“Lisbeth Salander’s not just any superhero. She’s not only great because of her talents but also because of her context and background.”
At the time of his death Stieg Larsson reportedly had plans to write at least another seven novels.
I’d heard the rumours of a fourth manuscript, but I had no idea how close it was to publication. I’m looking forward to this one immensely. It raises a lot of questions. Will it revive the Swedish and American film franchises I wonder? Will Larsson’s former partner Eva Gabrielson receive a fair share of the royalties?
If you’re currently enjoying the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I have two recommendations which should be essential for anyone interested in the Tudor age. One is a TV drama, The Shadow of the Tower, and the other is a historical biography, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (2011) by Thomas Penn. Both deal with the founder of the Tudor Dynasty, Henry VII. The Shadow of the Tower was the final series in the BBC’s acclaimed Tudor trilogy produced in the 1970s. It followed the The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) and Elizabeth R (1971), both of which have come to be regarded as the best historical dramas of their kind, and came at the start of what would be a Golden Age of British television drama. The Shadow of the Tower is the prequel to these two dramas, beginning on the day of The Battle of Bosworth Field when Henry Tudor seized the crown from Richard III.
James Maxwell is superb in the leading role, and his performance as Henry is strong enough to recommend the series alone. An American-born actor, who achieved some of his greatest successes at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Maxwell perfectly captures the cunning, manipulative, and quietly authoritative nature of Henry in every word and mannerism. Characteristics of the monarch Penn describes as:
A sallow young man, with dark hair curled in the shoulder length fashion of the time and a penchant for expensively dyed black clothes, whose steady gaze was made more disconcerting by a cast in his left eye – such that while one eye looked at you, the other searched for you. […] The soft politesse concealed a sharp observer, a gleaner of information, cool under pressure and used to having to think several steps ahead: a leader.
As soon as you think you understand Henry, Maxwell seems to effortlessly change in character and motivation. His purely political marriage to Elizabeth of York (played by Norma West), uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster in the new House of Tudor, becomes one of genuine love and affection. History still provides the basis for the best thrillers, and the threats posed by Yorkist pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, the latter claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the princes Richard III imprisoned in the Tower, provide the overarching narrative of the series. Even if you’re knowledgeable about this era of history, you’re still likely to find it suspenseful as the Lambert Simnel rebellion marches south to meet Henry’s forces at the Battle of Stoke Field. It is also quite funny, as the teenage Simnel, who is little more than a pawn of the Yorkists in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, slowly starts to drive his own commanders crazy with his stroppy behaviour. Everyone knows he is a fraud and does not possess a drop of royal blood, but they are forced to pretend he is their king while support seeps away and certain death awaits them. Other episodes are pretty much standalone dramas. There is an episode which deals with John Cabot’s efforts to secure a commission for his expedition to North America (Henry barely appears in this one).
One of the best episodes is titled ‘The Serpent and the Comforter’. In it, Peter Jeffrey plays a preacher who has been imprisoned in the tower, tortured and sentenced to death for heresy; having used scripture to challenge the authority of the Church. Word reaches Henry about the prisoner and, intrigued, Henry summons him. The two men debate the meaning of the Bible and the role of the Church. Henry, for all his malevolence, is sincere in his faith and concerned for the soul of the prisoner, even going so far as praying for him. He wants the preacher to recant before his execution so that, in Henry’s view, his soul will not burn in hell for eternity. However, he is also psychologically cruel, using sophistry to best the preacher and make him doubt his faith. You’ll be left in no doubt that these opposing facets of Henry’s personality can coexist.The performances of Jeffrey and Maxwell as prisoner and king, each determined to convince the other of the rightness of their faith, are outstanding. The episode is very theatrical and, intriguingly, none of the characters are named. Instead they are credited as ‘the prisoner’, ‘the king’, ‘the guard’ etc. We see in the prisoner’s struggle with his conscience a microcosm of an impending conflict that will reverberate through British history for centuries with Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and even events that have happened in my lifetime, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Alas, The Shadow of the Tower did not achieve the same level of success as the two Tudor dramas that preceded it. This is partly due to the fact that Henry VII has never had the same grip on the public’s imagination as other monarchs. Penn wrote ‘the most telling verdict of all is that Shakespeare, who omits Henry VII altogether from his sequence of history plays – and not for want of material but, one suspects, because the reign was too uncomfortable to deal with.’ In his review of Winter King, Toby Clements wrote that ‘Henry VII’s reign comes as a pivot on which the story turns – from the medieval to the modern, the dark to the light, the Plantagenets to the Tudors’, and even the Horrible Histories song about Henry jokes about his relative anonymity compared to other historical figures.
There are also some structural problems with the series. The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R had both followed a six, ninety-minute episode format. The Shadow of the Tower unfolds over thirteen episodes, and even though each episode comes in at a pacy fifty minutes it still feels rather drawn out at times. For instance, there is one completely superfluous episode which deals with Warbeck, after his final defeat and capture, having a series of fantasies/delusions about reigning as King of England. After Warbeck’s execution the series moves at breakneck pace climaxing with the sudden deaths of Prince Arthur and Queen Elizabeth. Rather than ending with the death of Henry, it shows an aging monarch whose meticulous plans for the succession lie in ruins. Henry has lost none of his intelligence, but his passion for life has died with the passing of his first-born son and wife. As a consequence, a tyranny is about to be unleashed, and where the series ends, purely by coincidence, Penn’s narrative in Winter King begins, and this is why the book is such a joy to read after watching The Shadow of the Tower. Penn deals with almost all of the events that feature in The Shadow of the Tower within the first chapter of Winter King. Bosworth Field receives only a few pages of text: the Battle of Stoke Field is afforded even less space. Penn is much more interested in Henry’s plans for the succession of Prince Arthur, and his regime’s descent into rapacious pilfering. There are a number of events of Henry’s later reign that Penn focuses on that I would have loved to have seen dramatized in The Shadow of the Tower. Henry’s longstanding duel with Yorkist heir Edmund de la Pole, and the downfall of two of Henry’s most cruel and unpopular advisers, Empson and Dudley, both of whom were executed when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne, giving the new king a massive popularity boost and propaganda coup. The athletic and dashing Henry VIII was a very different character from his calculating and paranoid father, and Penn argues convincingly that his reign would have seemed like a new golden age for England after the excesses of Henry VII’s last years: ‘This [Henry VIII] was a monarch for whom gold and jewels were nothing compared with virtue and eternal renown.’ Eventually, it became just a different form of tyranny.
Neither The Shadow of the Tower as a drama nor The Winter King as history can fully answer the question as to whether Henry was a good king. It entirely depends on how you define the term and office, and it is akin to asking whether Napoleon Bonaparte was a good dictator. Henry was a deeply complicated man living in turbulent times, and it’s this that makes him a compelling figure for narrative. If we take the contrived Whig approach and judge Henry by the moral standards of later generations then he comes across badly. This was the age of the Star Chamber and crippling taxation. In his defence he did unite the kingdom after years of civil war, created a stable dynasty and avoided expensive foreign wars. Truly, he is one of the most fascinating and neglected figures of British history.
Postscript: I was delighted to spot James Laurenson playing the Earl of Shrewsbury in the first episode of Wolf Hall. I have somewhat encyclopaedic fascination with character actors, and I was sure Laurenson had appeared in the BBC’s original Tudor trilogy. I went straight on imdb.com to see if my memory was correct, and sure enough, Laurenson played Simier in Elizabeth R and the Earl of Lincoln in The Shadow of the Tower. Are there any other direct connections between Wolf Hall and the seventies productions I wonder?
In Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder (2006) Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss created a highly impressive chart they titled ‘Los Angeles 1935-1950: A Web of Connections’ which ‘situates Black Dahlia murder suspect George Hodel within the culturally elite circles of Los Angeles at the time of the murder and illustrates the close geographical proximity of the central characters in our book.’
After completing my second reading of James Ellroy’s Perfidia, I’m beginning to see more clearly how Ellroy has devised his own web of connections within his body of work as a crime novelist. Nelson and Bayliss explored the potential connections of figures such as Man Ray and John Huston to the Black Dahlia case, building upon the work of former LAPD detective Steve Hodel. With Perfidia, Ellroy has embarked upon a second LA Quartet, preceding the first Quartet chronologically, which, in its myriad plotting, forges fictional links between Bette Davis and the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short. Many of Ellroy’s old and new characters will be linked in the new Quartet which will spur readers and critics to reexamine Ellroy’s previous work in light of these narrative developments. Here are some of the specific connections:
Ellroy’s decision to make Elizabeth Short the illegitimate daughter of Dudley Smith was for me one of the biggest surprises of the novel. In Clandestine (1982), Ellroy’s second novel, Dudley Smith describes how while investigating the Black Dahlia murder he arranged for a cadaver of a young woman to be presented before a group of known lunatics and violent criminals. He dyes the corpse’s hair black to make her look more like Miss Short in the hope of provoking a reaction from one of the men, who would then inadvertently reveal himself to be the murderer ‘I was looking for a reaction so vile, so unspeakable, that I would know that this was the scum that killed Beth Short’. In The Black Dahlia the same scene appears but without Dudley Smith. Smith is not a character in The Black Dahlia because Ellroy feared Smith’s outwardly Irish persona would draw parallels with John Gregory Dunne’s Dahlia novel True Confessions (1977), which is in part an examination of Irish-American culture. But this leaves Ellroy in a tricky situation for the upcoming Quartet novels if he wants to be consistent with the fictional universe of The Black Dahlia. How can a character as demonic, relentless and compelling as Dudley Smith not be involved in the investigation of the murder of his illegitimate daughter?
Perfidia links to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy through such characters as J. Edgar Hoover, Ward Littell and Scotty Bennett. There is also the wider issue of Ellroy’s fascination with archives. Hoover’s death in 1972 and the fate of his archive of files is the climax of Blood’s a Rover (2009). Kay Lake’s first diary entry in Perfidia is preceded with the line ‘COMPILED AND CHRONOLOGICALLY INSERTED BY THE LOS ANGELES POLICE MUSEUM‘. If this is the beginning of a link to Hoover’s archive of files we can see Ellroy’s intention for the two Quartet series and the Underworld USA trilogy to be read as one long, continuous secret history. Essentially, a fictional archive of sources.
Ellroy originally planned for Dudley Smith to fall in love with Ellroy’s mother Geneva Hilliker. That would have linked the Quartet to Ellroy the author, outside of his fiction, and potentially, if he wanted the plotline to question Ellroy’s parentage, triggered a rereading of his memoirs My Dark Places (1996) and The Hilliker Curse (2010). Ellroy revised his plans. However, in this interview with Chris Wallace, Ellroy claims that he originally planned for William H. Parker to have an affair with his Geneva Hilliker in the novel:
My original plan was to base Joan Conville, the navy nurse in Perfidia, on my mother, Jean Hilliker—righteous Jean Hilliker. And she and Parker [Los Angeles chief of police from 1950 to 1966, William H. Parker, a central character in Perfidia] have an affair the next book. But, do you really want to have Whiskey Bill Parker fucking your mother? Haven’t we had enough of this woman?
Conville is an enigmatic, haunting character, a ‘ghostly redhead’ as Ellroy calls her, who is referenced by Parker throughout the novel but never seen. The name Conville struck a distant chord and I reached for my dogeared copy of The Black Dahlia. The resolution to the mystery in the novel lies in the skewered bloodlines of the grotesque Sprague family. There is the patriarch Emmett Sprague who has two daughters, Madeleine and Martha. Madeleine is actually the illegitimate daughter of Emmett’s wife Ramona Cathcart Sprague and Georgie Tilden (Emmett’s former business associate). Martha is Emmett’s natural daughter, and her full name is Martha McConville Sprague.
Martha McConville/Joan Conville. It could be overreading or coincidence but I wonder if there is a connection between the characters which will be developed in later novels. According to this surname database Conville has quite an interesting genesis, ‘this unusual surname is of Irish origin, and is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic “MacConmhaoil”, the prefix “mac” denoting son of, plus the personal name “Conmhaoil”, composed of the elements “cu” meaning hound.’
In short, Son of the Hound, or perhaps Demon Dog?
Octopussy is chiefly remembered as the film that went head to head with Never Say Never Again in the summer of 1983 as part of the famous ‘Battle of the Bonds’. It considerably outperformed Never Say Never Again at the box office, and the reviews broadly agreed that Octopussy held together better than Sean Connery’s ill-judged return as Bond. However, thirty years after their original release, neither film is well regarded critically.
After watching Octopussy again recently, I felt it a very strong addition to the Bond film series, helped in no small part by the screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser. I’m a huge fan of the Flashman novels and have read most of Fraser’s other books. In his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost (2002), Fraser devotes a chapter to the making of Octopussy. It’s a fascinating insight into how the author who gave the world the greatest literary coward ended up writing the screenplay for the cinema’s greatest hero.
Octopussy begins with a dying British secret agent arriving at the British embassy in East Berlin clutching a fake Fabergé egg. Bond is sent to investigate, and at an auction in Sotheby’s, he observes the exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) buy the real egg, or so Khan thinks, for an astronomical price. Tracking Khan to his palace in India, Bond discovers Khan has connections with the belligerent Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), and the beautiful, enigmatic Octopussy (Maud Adams). Octopussy is running a jewellery smuggling operation which, unbeknownst to her, is a front for Orlov’s plans to smuggle a nuclear bomb into a US air force base in Berlin. That’s about all I’ll say here about the plot. As you can probably tell from that summation, Octopussy has a convoluted narrative, but the plot threads come together nicely, and its makes a plausible and welcome break from earlier fantastical Bond films such as Moonraker.
Aside from the storyline, what I really admire about Octopussy is its exotic setting, lush photography and seductive evocation of India at its most magical. One critic derided the film as anachronistic. That really seems to be missing the point as the film is deliberately imbued with a sense of Kiplingesque adventure. George MacDonald Fraser’s love of India, his defence of the British Empire and his detailed knowledge of Victorian and Edwardian Britain made him, in many respects, a latter day Rudyard Kipling. In Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990), Fraser alludes to Kipling with his choice of subjects: the novel features the American adventurer Josiah Harlan, whom it has been said was the real inspiration for Daniel Dravot in Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’. Fraser’s Octupussy script presents Bond as a sort of aristocratic adventurer, which is well-suited to Roger Moore’s portrayal of the character. Moore, incidentally, is also something of a Kipling expert, at one point he was lined up to star in an adaptation of Soldiers Three with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. That production never happened sadly, but Moore did perform in a one-man play of Kipling’s poetry readings on the London stage. Here’s a snippet he gave on the The Paul O’Grady Show.
Fraser’s Romantic and unique vision for Octopussy was not greeted with unequivocal enthusiasm by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. Although he admired the legendary Bond producer describing him as ‘plump and cuddly and gentle; he was also generous and considerate’, he still got the impression that Cubby Broccoli distrusted him. Fraser wrote the original screenplay and then Bond regulars Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum revised it. Exactly who wrote what we’ll never know, but we do know from Fraser’s memoir that he made several choices and won a few arguments that had a profound effect on the film. For instance, at one of their first meetings he asked Broccoli to name all the locations that Bond had already visited in the films. After learning that Bond had never been to India it was decided that India should be the main setting. It proved to be an auspicious choice as Octopussy was released at a time of renewed interest in India in British cinema and television; films such as Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1982), A Passage to India (1984) as well as television dramas such as The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and The Far Pavilions (1984) all dealt with the history of India and the Raj. Fraser wrote some scenes that had Broccoli in uproar, specifically where Bond is dressed first in a gorilla suit and then later a clown outfit. However, the scenes stayed in the finished film. He was overruled on some of his other ideas. Fraser wanted the pre-credits sequence, usually a mini-movie in itself in the Bond films, to be a motorbike chase set at the Isle of Mann TT (Tourist Trophy). Fraser was a resident on the Isle of Mann, as he cheerfully admitted for tax purposes, and described the TT as ‘the nearest thing to the Roman circus since the hermit Telemachus got the shutters put up at the Colosseum.’ Fraser thought it would be the perfect setting for ‘a duel-to-the-death sidecar race between Bond and a heavy.’ Alas, it never made it into the movie, but the eventual pre-credits sequence which pits Bond in a BD-5J aircraft against a small South-American army is a strong, thrilling sequence.
Octopussy may not be in the running as the best James Bond film, but its still a very strong one with a great deal of charm and a compelling storyline, qualities which have proved rare in later additions to the series. George MacDonald Fraser’s contribution as screenwriter should not be overlooked. The rich evocation of India is entirely his style as a writer and the film abounds with strong eccentric characters. Maud Adams is beautiful and memorable as the conflicted Octopussy, giving a touch of gravitas to a Bond girl whereas previous actresses had little to do but look pretty and swoon. Louis Jourdan is both diabolical and suave as Kamal Khan. It was a typical Fraser touch to make the villain an Afghan prince, Flashman is taken hostage by Akbar Khan during the Anglo-Afghan War in the very first book of the series. Also, the presence of a Soviet General in India harks back to the ‘Great Game’, the rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia that was memorable portrayed in Kipling’s Kim (1901) and is also the subject of the fifth Flashman novel.
If you want a taste of George MacDonald Fraser’s writing on India, then a good starting point would be his wartime memoir Quartered Safe Out Here (1992). The title is taken from Kipling’s poem ‘Gunga Din’, and reading Fraser’s description of Calcutta makes me think he really was the heir to Kipling:
Calcutta is still my favourite city, probably because I haven’t been there since 1945 and remember it as it looked to me then, which was something like a paradise market. Nowadays the name conjures up images of poverty, starvation, disease, and squalor, of Mother Teresa and that fine old retired British officer who runs his own field kitchen in the slums. It wasn’t much better, I dare say, when I saw it in the twilight of the Raj, but I was there on seven days’ leave, and as every holiday-maker knows, even in this enlightened age, you don’t spend an eagerly-awaited vacation seeking out the plague-spots which exist within a mile of your hotel.
Not that you had to look far for them in “Cal”: the beggars displayed their sores and hideous deformities on the main streets, you could find corpses on the station platforms, and a tram-ride to Howrah would take you through slums and hovels populated by uncountable filthy multitudes who didn’t so much live as swarm. One look would have convinced the most zealous reformer of the sheer impossibility of doing anything with that vast, proliferating Augean stable, and if you had been any time in India you were hardened to it. There was something else, too, which if it did not transform the second city of Empire, lifted it at least a little from the depths. Everybody smiled.
That may be at the root of Britain’s three-century love affair with India. Nowadays it is taught (usually by people who never saw the Raj) that our passion for the sub-continent was mere pride of possession, arrogant satisfaction of conquest, and lust of exploitation, leavened only by a missionary zeal to improve. No doubt those feelings existed, among some, but they don’t account for the undying affection that so many of the island race felt for that wonderful country and its people. Nor do all its great marvels: the beauty of the land and its buildings, the endless variety of its customs and cultures, the wonder of its art and philosophy and ancient civilisation, the glory of its matchless regiments. That may inspire awe, even reverence, but they don’t quite explain why thousands of soldiers and merchants and administrators and traders left their hearts there, to say nothing of their mortal remains. One can babble about the magic of India, and convey nothing: I can only say that when I look back at it my lasting memory is of smiling faces, laughter in the bazaar, tiny naked children grinning as they clamoured for buckshee – and it wasn’t an act, for they still laughed and joked and play-acted if they didn’t get it. There was a life, a spirit about India that was irrepressible, and it outweighed all the faults and miseries and cruelties and corruptions. That, I think, is why the British loved it, and some of us will never get it out of our systems.