Monday, April 17, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“BREAKING RANKS – Three Interrupted Lives” by James McNeish (Harper-Collins, $NZ 35)

The late James McNeish (Sir James McNeish when he died at the age of 85 last November) was always a mythmaker – a writer drawn to larger-than-life characters and determined to make us see them in epic terms. Thus were his novels about James Mackenzie, New Zealand sheep-rustler and explorer, or Jack Lovelock, New Zealand Olympian. Thus were his non-fiction works about Danilo Dolci, the Sicilian anti-Mafia crusader, and Paddy Costello, whom (in his book The Sixth Man), he was rather over-eager to absolve of charges of spying. The myth-making faculty was, for my tastes, more palatable in McNeish’s fiction than in his non-fiction, into which he often had the bad habit of smuggling novelistic techniques such as imagined conversations and attempts (often not backed with evidence) to reconstruct his subjects’ states of mind. In what I regard as one of his worst books, Dance of the Peacocks, he presumed to depict a whole generation of New Zealand expatriate intellectuals, and in the process indulged in so many generalisations and simplifications that my patience snapped. On the other hand, and to be quite perverse, I still have a sneaking regard for his never-republished book The Mask of Sanity, though (if you don’t already know) you’ll have to use your own initiative to look up what it’s about, as it concerns a controversy into which I do not wish to delve here.

In fairness to McNeish, he did always write clear and readable prose; he always came across as an enthusiastic (and likeable) chap; and he was generous in the (larger-then-life) way he depicted friends and acquaintances. For evidence of this, look up on this blog the review of his partial autobiography Touchstones – A Memoir, a very enjoyable book which I tackled four years ago.

All of these things are relevant to McNeish’s last book Breaking Ranks, now being published posthumously. It is a collection of three “short lives” or, if you prefer, long essays, about three people associated with New Zealand, and it again shows McNeish in ripe mythicizer mode.

In his brief introduction, McNeish is at pains to tell us that these are three separate lives and that he is not going to force them to adhere to a pattern the way a novelist might…. but almost at once he then tells us that all three represent a streak of “anarchy” in the New Zealand character. “All three men defy convention in a way that goes beyond mere dissent. A streak of subversion lingers.” (p.2) So he is forcing them into a pattern of interpretation after all, and surely the very title Breaking Ranks also tells us this. [I guess, too, that the title has a literal referent – all three men had experience of wartime military service.]

McNeish’s subjects are Dr John Saxby, an English psychotherapist who settled in New Zealand; Brigadier Reginald Miles, a New Zealand soldier (artillery officer); and Judge Peter Mahon, convenor and presider of the Erebus enquiry. Two of these men committed suicide, which adds piquancy to their stories. The death of the third, McNeish implies, was hastened by stress placed on him by the legal and political Establishment. A brief epilogue by McNeish’s legal pal Bernard Brown endorses McNeish’s judgments.

McNeish awards each “life” about eighty pages.

Let’s look at them in turn.

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Dr John Saxby was a personal friend of James McNeish and his wife Helen, and therefore the New Zealand part of his life is presented in more intimate personal detail than are the other two “lives” in this book. Much that McNeish learns or knows about Saxby’s earlier life comes from chats he had, in London pubs and after Saxby’s death, with guys who had known the young Saxby. Oxford-educated, John Saxby had military experience as a parachutist. Then he turned to psychotherapy and in this capacity he arrived in New Zealand in the 1960s. He found work at the Tokanui psychiatric facility, which McNeish describes thus:

The hospital was home to almost a thousand souls, from the feeble-minded to the acutely demented, some referred on from a reformatory prison – Wikeria – which was just up the road. There was still physical restraint; electro-convulsive shock treatment was still used; inquisitive news reporters had no trouble in finding patients they described as ‘bewildered and frightened’. That was one reality. Another was of a self-contained village with its own bakery and laundry, which had been providing jobs for entire families for generations. Another was that 60 per cent of the patient population was voluntary. Still another was the absence of qualified psychiatrists, a reflection of the fact that very few clinical psychiatrists existed in the country at all.” [p.28]

McNeish presents Saxby as a man who worked as much by intuition as by medical science, who really tried to get to know his mentally-afflicted charges well and who was averse to medication and the use of drugs as anything other than a desperate last resort. Saxby’s hippie-ish home and domestic arrangements are described and there is a long anecdote about Saxby rescuing, and redirecting the life of, a suicidal student who later flourished.

At the same time, McNeish presents Saxby as a man who was always tempting fate, as if he were somehow testing himself or gambling with death, thus:

John had a wild side. On a bush or mountain walk where the ways diverged, he would choose not merely the ‘road not taken’ in the Robert Frost sense, but the most difficult path he could find. He liked to shave the odds. When he was building his house, he insisted on digging the septic tank himself, although he had a bad back and could afford to hire a labourer. His back went into spasm and he got stuck in the hole. He had to be winched out.”  (pp. 42-43)

Saxby and his wife were ardent opponents of the Springbok Tour of 1981, and were among those who risked violence by invading the playing field at Hamilton before a test match. For this, they received much hate mail and some threats from rugby enthusiasts, and there was a time when their home was protected from attack by gang-members who camped out in their chicken coop. These circumstances give McNeish the opportunity to once again sound his theme about New Zealand “anarchy” and non-conformity:

New Zealand is a country that has grave doubts about where it belongs in the world; consequently it has difficulty in defining its national character or pyche. One of the elements that helps define us, I believe, is a hidden outlaw that leads us on occasion to question authority and poke our head above the parapet. Call it dissent, subversion. Or anarchy.” (pp.53-54)

But over much of Saxby’s life there hangs the shadow of the noose:

John spoke of his intention to commit suicide not just to close friends and colleagues. He spoke of the genetics of depression and its application to completed suicides; he foretold the method which in his case might be best. ‘Yes,’ he said matter-of-factly to a staff nurse… when called to a hanging, ‘that’s the way I’d like to go.’ ” (p.76)

For McNeish, Saxby was an innovative man who brightened up psychiatric practice in New Zealand with his use psychodrama, open group discussions and a generally more humane approach to patients. McNeish also credits him with discovering (partly through the influence of his Maori colleague and sometime boss Henry Bennett) Maori social approaches to human wholeness. We are therefore invited to admire Saxby as a rebel against New Zealand conventions. An “anarchist”. But despite McNeish’s enthusiastic account, there peeps through all this a dreadful hollowness to the man, as if he were not sure of the ground he stood on; not grounded in a reliable reality. The man who dabbles in this and that – as, by McNeish’s own account, Saxby did – knows not where he stands.

At this point, I am sorely (and arrogantly) tempted to make generalisations about the number of people working in psychiatric health who lose their own bearings. But this would not allow me to pinpoint a “cause” of Saxby’s suicide. I do wonder about the effect of battlefield trauma on Saxby-the-parachutist (he took part in Britain’s ridiculous Suez campaign in 1956). McNeish speaks of Saxby being worn out by the struggle to maintain humane approaches to psychiatric care in an age of economic “rationalisation”, when funding was diminishing, staff was being cut and facilities like Tokanui were under threat. A martyr to neo-liberalism, in other words.

Be this as it may, we seem to be dealing with a man who already had a strong death wish, and whose immediate circumstances at the time of his suicide were a rationale rather than a reason.

I am less inclined to see John Saxby in heroic “rebel” mode than James McNeish is.

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The second patient on McNeish’s psychoanalytic couch, Brigadier Reginald Miles, is rather harder for him to capture on the wing because he is an historical figure whom McNeish never met or knew. Like John Mulgan, Reg Miles was an educated soldier who committed suicide in the later stages of the Second World War.

Playing up his “rebel” theme, McNeish sets up his story by beginning with an argument that Reginald Miles apparently had in North Africa with his superior officer Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg and others regarded the artillery officer as a possible successor to his command, but Miles disobeyed orders when his artillery positions were about to be overrun by the Afrika Korps. He picked up a rifle and joined the rankers in shooting at the approaching Germans. He was taken prisoner, escaped from a fortified Italian POW camp into neutral Switzerland, made it across occupied France into neutral Spain and seemed on the road to rejoining Allied forces, but then mysteriously committed suicide.

Having filled us in on this, McNeish then doubles back and proceeds to give us Miles’ life history.

As a very young man, the New Zealander Miles was one of the very first graduates of Duntroon military college in Australia. In the First World War, he served as a gunner at Gallipoli and was invalided out with wounds. He was decorated. He served at the last battles at Ypres (Passchendaele). Again he was decorated, but this time after having disobeyed orders and joining infantrymen in repelling German infantry so that he could prevent the capture of his battery – the same sort of bolshie disobedience he displayed in the later war.

Between the wars, when in a peacetime army, Miles was regarded as erratic in some of his behaviour, especially when on training courses in England:

 “In England he sounds a bit wild. ‘What is to be done with Miles?’ reads one report. ‘Is he to be sent back to his own country?’ The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. He seems to have shone in everything but ‘tact’. Sensitive to slights, he doesn’t take kindly to being put upon. In other ways, like logistics, he is obviously something of a wizard, and back in New Zealand on the eve of the Second World War, he is far and away the best artillery man for the top job.” (pp.147-148)

McNeish’s principal depiction of Miles is as the smiling, genial “happy warrior”, who was never so at home as when facing the challenges of battle. He seems to have been a solicitous husband and attractive to women. His first wife died of TB in 1938, and a few years later he re-married, this time to a woman considerably younger than himself.

But again McNeish suggests there was an element of death wish under Miles’ cheerful bravado – Thanatos trumping Eros. He was reckless and looking for a friendly bullet. McNeish describes Miles at the battle of Belhamed (near Tobruk) thus:

At Belhamed, Reg Miles courts death in a similar manner. He is quivering with fury at Freyberg and the British for forcing him to sacrifice his beloved guns and gunners. Yet he has no choice. And so: ‘Bugger you. I’m going to be with them at the end.’ This…may be partly self-dramatisation. But underneath, as with [Siegfried] Sassoon [and other First World War figures whom McNeish has just been discussing] Miles had, I believe, a genuine wish for death.” (p.168)

When he was a POW in Italy, Brigadier Miles appeared to other inmates (such as James Hargest, who also escaped) to be very depressed about something he had done in battle, but McNeish is never quite able to identify what it was. Then comes the suicide. Miles seems very happy when he escapes across France with the help of the French Resistance, and walks into northern Spain, where he is interned and interrogated at Figueras. But he hangs himself in his hotel room. MacNeish says that in a final letter Miles wrote to his young wife “there is the clear implication that Miles, under interrogation, thought he had betrayed his friends and compromised the underground escape network; that he had done wrong and that he later blamed himself.” (p.198) Yet, if Miles really did imply this, then he was wrong, as the resistance network that facilitated his escape continued to operate successfully until the war was over.

So what drove Miles to the rope?

McNeish flounders about a bit, speculating – inconclusively – that Miles might have been tortured or drugged by unsympathetic interrogators before he killed himself. (This was the guess of Miles’ young widow.) It is of course odd that a man should commit suicide when he is on the point of regaining freedom and rejoining his command. Nevertheless, even after reading McNeish’s account, I think there might be a simpler answer – sheer fatigue and weariness with the whole process of war. Miles’ only son (he also had three daughters) had already been killed in the war. Miles himself had been wounded a number of times and was not in the best of health. His experience of escape had taken it all out of him, and he was often depressed about either real or imagined shortcomings in his own military behaviour. So he ended his life.

Once again, I am not entirely convinced that this man was a “rebel” or an exemplar of New Zealand “anarchy”. He was a New Zealand soldier who sometimes showed the mild insubordination towards superiors for which New Zealand soldiers were well known. He twice disobeyed commands, but in ways that enhanced rather than diminished his reputation.  He does not fit McNeish’s overarching myth.

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Of the three “lives” in this book, the third is the most straightforward, and requires the least explanation from me. That is because the main story of Peter Mahon is so well known to most adult New Zealanders. As in the case of Reginald Miles, James McNeish never met Peter Mahon, and the sources of his account are mainly books and reports which are already part of the public record.

Peter Mahon was appointed to oversee the commission of enquiry into the November 1979 crash into Mt Erebus, with the loss of 257 lives, of the Air New Zealand plane which took sightseeing passengers over the Antarctic. The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, Ron Chippendale of the Ministry of Civil Aviation, produced a hasty report which blamed the disaster solely on pilot error. There were public mutterings about the superficiality of Chippendale’s report and the way it rather too neatly absolved Air New Zealand and its executives of any blame. Under Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, a commission of enquiry was set up.

Muldoon, as Minister of Finance, represented the government as a major shareholder in Air New Zealand and wanted the commission’s report to endorse the finding of pilot error. In McNeish’s word (p.224) Muldoon made a “mistake” in appointing Mahon to head the commission. On the advice of senior legal friends and drinking buddies, Muldoon believed that Judge Peter Mahon would safely toe the line, save the reputation of Air New Zealand, and conclude as the Chippendale Report had.

Instead, after months of hearings from many witnesses, Mahon concluded that the disaster was the fault of poor Air New Zealand management. Faulty coordinates, fed into Air New Zealand computers before the flight took off, allowed the two pilots to believe that their aircraft was 27 miles away from where it actually was. They were flying into a mountain  - in “white out” conditions - when coordinates told them they were flying across the flat surface of McMurdo Sound. This was not pilot error. It was systemic management error. Worse, in the course of his hearings, Mahon had good reason to believe that Air New Zealand had deliberately destroyed much incriminating evidence of their negligence, and that Air New Zealand spokespeople had been briefed to give false evidence. Hence Mahon’s concluding words about “an orchestrated litany of lies”, a phrase still readily remembered by most New Zealanders.

Air New Zealand counterattacked, once Mahon’s report was made public, by claiming that an investigating commissioner had no legal right to attribute blame like this. On that basis, they took the matter to the Court of Appeal where the judge Owen Woodhouse endorsed their complaint – thus creating the false impression that Air New Zealand had been vindicated. Muldoon chose not to table Mahon’s report in parliament. The matter went to the Privy Council in London, but that august body, with many weasel words, chose to rebuke Mahon’s report as overstepping its brief, while never exactly showing that Mahon had been wrong in his conclusions.

Mahon resigned from the bench and – in McNeish’s account – was now shunned by his senior legal colleagues who thought he had let the side down by not supporting the political and legal Establishment. In his retirement, Mahon wrote a book giving his own view of the whole controversy, Verdict on Erebus, which now seems the most balanced account but which violated the legal convention that judges and commissioners should not continue litigating in print once a case has been judged.

Mahon died at the age of 62. He did have heart problems, but McNeish implies that the stress of being ostracised by the Establishment hastened his death. He concludes:

In his stand for truth and justice against the craven reactionaries of the Establishment, [Mahon] may have set a marker leaving New Zealand a more grown-up place where dissent was recognised and, for the first time, becoming cherished.” (p.279)

This may possibly be so, although each age finds its own way to quash real dissent and my own view is that New Zealand now has a new, but equally rigid, set of shibboleths. Further, I believe that throughout this book, McNeish commits the same mistake as Bill Pearson did all those years ago in his overrated essay Fretful Sleepers. He exaggerates the repressive nature of New Zealand society (“Compared with which country?” I always want to ask), and is therefore able to present mildly offbeat people as “rebels” or “anarchists”.

Having said this, I also find Breaking Ranks an enjoyable and easy read presided over by a master myth-maker.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“AUTHOR, AUTHOR” by David Lodge (first published in 2004); “CORA CRANE” by Paul Ferris (first published in 2004)

Recently (issue of 1 April 2017 to be precise), I wrote for the New Zealand Listener a review of a rather sentimental novel by Polly Clark called Larchfield, which introduces the young W. H. Auden as a main character. I said in my review that I always feel a little queasy when canonical authors are introduced into fiction this way. In most cases, novelists who do this seem to be reaching for easy and ready-made cultural respectability. But, I have to add at once, there have been novels about real novelists and other writers that have worked reasonably well. About 13 years ago, I found myself, as a newspaper book-reviewer, being deluged with novels about real authors. Here are the reviews I wrote of two of them in the year 2004-2005.

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First, and certainly the better, David Lodge’s novel about HenryJames, Author, Author. By coincidence, Lodge, well known as both a literary critic and a novelist, wrote his novel in the same year that Colm Toibin, the gay Irish novelist, was also writing a very different novel about Henry James called The Master. Reviewers had great fun comparing Toibin’s (more solemn) novel with Lodge’s (more genial) one.
Anyway, unaltered from its appearance in the old Dominion-Post (17 October 2004), Here is my review of David Lodge’s Author, Author.

In Author, Author, David Lodge presents a proposition about sex that is so shocking, daring and contrary to current received morality that it is likely to outrage quite a few readers. Lodge suggests (and I did warn you this was pretty shocking) that some people can live productive, significant and worthwhile lives without engaging in sexual activity at all. Astounding as it may seem in this day and age, he implies that there may be something to be said for celibacy.
Author, Author is Lodge’s novel about Henry James. Thanks in large part to his authoritative biographer Leon Edel, James is now seen by many as the paradigm of repressed homosexuality. Clearly James lived and died a virgin, but that hasn’t stopped Queer Theorists from combing through his convoluted prose for signs of covert sexual activity. Lodge’s James is a different creature. The James of this novel does indeed admit to himself that he is probably a “Uranist” by inclination (the term “homosexual” was only just beginning to be used in his day). But the thought of actual sexual contact with anyone horrifies him. On the one occasion a man propositions him, he flees in terror. His one meeting with Oscar Wilde convinces him that Wilde is a flashy cad and bounder. In fact, Uranist or not, says this novel, James’ most significant emotional relationship was probably with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have committed suicide because James did not reciprocate her passion for him. Only later, implies Lodge, did James come to realise how much she meant to him, thus inspiring him to write his sad short story The Beast in the Jungle.
Actually James’ sexuality is not centre-stage for most of this novel, even if it is likely to cause much comment…. More central for Lodge is the tale of how James, the literary perfectionist and high-brow, tried and failed to turn himself into a bestseller. Framed by scenes at James’ deathbed in 1916, the novel focuses on James’ friendship with the vulgarian bestselling George Du Maurier (author of Trilby) and James’ disastrous attempts to write a popular West End play. The failure of his Guy Domville – which also features in Toibin’s The Master – was a great humiliation.
Though thoroughly enjoying every page of Author, Author, I did find myself asking anxiously whether it is really a novel, or simply dramatized literary biography. In extensive author’s notes at the beginning and end of its leisurely 400 pages, Lodge assures us that all major characters are real, as are all quotations from letters, plays and so forth. Characters’ thoughts and much dialogue, however, are inevitably Lodge’s invention.
I approve of his admiring, affectionate portrait of the novelist plugging away despite adversity and depression. I enjoyed playing the game of recognising which of James’ novels and stories are being referred to, in embryonic form, in those scenes where James gets sudden inspiration.  But in some sense the game is up about six pages from the end when Lodge tells us, in his own voice, exactly what he thinks of James and his achievement.
I’m sure James would have loved the affirmation Author, Author gives him. But his fastidious soul might have been outraged by the literary form.

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Now for a novel which is sort of about the novelist, journalist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, although he is not the main character. Once again, the man who wrote the novel, Paul Ferris, is novelist and literary critic and biographer, just as David Lodge his. Ferris’s biography of his fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas sits on my shelf next to other attempts to biographise the drunken bard and his wife. Again unaltered from its newspaper appearance (Sunday Star-Times, 10 October 2004), here is my review of Paul Ferris’s Cora Crane:

It seems to be part of the postmodern condition that novelists write novels about other novelists. The world is now awash with works of fiction about Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway and so forth.
In Cora Crane, Paul Ferris, a novelist and seasoned literary biographer, tries something a little different. This isn’t a novel about a novelist, but a novel about a novelist’s spouse.
Cora Stewart was the common law wife of the young American Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage.
They couldn’t marry because her husband, raffish twit of an English army officer, refused to give her a divorce even though he had deserted her.
Cora and Stephen met in the American brothel of which she was the madam and he a bashful customer.
This was the 1890s so, when they settled in England to start a new life together, they pretended to be respectably married.
But Stephen was as much in love with being a war correspondent as he was in love with Cora. He left her stranded and without an income, while he set off to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba.
Ferris’ novel concerns Cora’s time alone in London, waiting for Stephen to come back while fearing that he never will, and trying to scrape together a living among the literary set. Some authors are kind to her, especially the discerning Polish genius Joseph Conrad who respects Stephen as a rising talent. But high society and the law are suspicious of Cora’s background and her former profession. Much of the novel concerns detective inspector Fred Hooper, more than a little of a P. C. Plod, who sniffs around after Cora imagining that she is trying to set up a white slavery ring.
It is hard to know how much of this story is true. Unlike, for example, David Lodge in his recent novel about Henry James, Paul Ferris gives us no detailed author’s notes. There is only the one-sentence statement “Some of this story is true.”
Perhaps the literal truth doesn’t matter. More important is the clash between Cora and late-Victorian social rules. Ferris scores well in the untidy atmosphere of unhygienic old London, with its conmen, child-traders, odd religious sects and incongruous tea parties.
Less successful is the depiction of the luckless Hooper. The vigorous suppressor of vice, who proves to be neurotic and sexually repressed, is a teensy bit of a cliché.
The novel’s biggest asset is its convincing portrait of the female protagonist’s mind and preoccupations.
It still worries me that I don’t know how much is fiction, though.

FOOTNOTE: It turns out that I was right to worry in the above review about the historical veracity of Cora Crane. Subsequent research tells me that the character of detective Hooper is pure fiction and some reviewers, more au fait with the Cranes than I am, pounced on the novel’s fabrications.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.   



Let me tell you what I regard as a really satisfying detective story.

Sherlock Holmes receives a visitor who has a problem. Simply by interviewing the visitor, Sherlock Holmes adduces much of what the problem really is. Accompanied by the redoubtable (and not stupid) Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes visits the scene of the crime and investigates. He may face some opposition and some dangers along the way. If this is one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels (as opposed to the dozens of short stories), then there might be quite a few dangers along the way, but they will all prove to be connected with the perpetrator of the crime. In the end, Sherlock Holmes resolves all mystery and the criminal is brought to justice, perhaps to the embarrassment of Inspector Lestrade, who thought he could solve the crime by more orthodox techniques.

You see the pattern here, don’t you? Mystery. Investigation. Resolution. A perfectly satisfying detective story.

And here is another paradigm of the perfectly satisfying detective story.

The Surete bring to the notice of Inspector Jules Maigret a string of crimes that are happening in Paris (well…usually; because there are some Maigret stories set elsewhere.) Following a few leads, Maigret heads for an apartment block where the victims of the crime live. Of course he begins by interrogating the concierge. Then he interrogates at great length everybody in the household where the crime occurred. It is his subordinates (Janvier, Lucas and others) who do much of the legwork, checking out alibis, giving chase to suspects and so forth. Maigret’s main method is the long, intense and penetrating interview, which gradually wears suspects down and winkles out motives and kinks in people. It is by these means that he unmasks the criminal. Usually the crime is motivated by some sad family dysfunction.

Again, a perfectly satisfying detective story. Problem. Investigation. Solution.

I could refer to other tales in which this paradigm holds good. Father Brown detecting by intuition and recognition of suspects’ obsessions. Nero Wolfe sitting in his chair at home and thinking hard while his pal Archie Goodwin does the legwork. And so on and so on.

Believe me, in bringing all this to your attention. I am not denying the real attractions of the related – but separate – genre of the “thriller”, where there may be some detection, but the main impulse is to keep the action rolling (from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the present). Nor am I attempting to promote a retro view of detective stories, where one admires only what the TV profession in Britain unflatteringly call the “cosies” – the comfy detective stories, usually set in rural setting, featuring Hetty Winthrop or derived from Agatha Christie.

What I am preaching against, however, is the current tendency in detective stories to turn away from the reliable pattern of “crime-detection-solution” by overloading the tale with side issues involving the psychological or family problems of the detective him- or her-self. We are now, I believe, seeing too many detective shows, which are psychodramas rather than true detection. In the process, their stories are frequently padded out with incredible improbabilities, and the essential detection is lost.

In this case for the prosecution, I bring to your attention four shows concerning detection, all of which we have watched in their entirety on Netflix.

I list them here from best to worst.

 First there is the quite likeable series Shetland, set on the Shetland Islands of Scotland (though publicity tells me it is mainly filmed on the mainland of Scotland), based on novels by Anne Cleeves and starring Douglas Henshall as police detective Jimmy Perez. Three series were aired in Britain between 2013 and 2016 and a new series is in the making. The mysteries set up in Shetland are good ones, and the solutions are usually logical, so I am in no way decrying the series. But it does have some of the obligatory angst which “serious” detective shows now seem to require. Jimmy Perez is a widower who has sad conversations with his adult daughter and obviously misses satisfying female company. This fact does not hold up the detection process too much, thank goodness, but it does mean that every so often there is a sequence in which Jimmy Perez does little but sit in his room feeling sorry for himself. Still, the psychodrama tendency is generally kept in check in Shetland.

A bit worse is the English-language re-make of the original Swedish-language series Wallander. The remake, now concluded, originally aired on British TV between 2008 and 2015. Kenneth Branagh is the grumpy, unshaven and often drunk Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. Like Shetland, the series often has country settings, though of course in this case in the Swedish countryside. But depressive Kurt Wallander is separated from his wife, with a slightly alienated daughter and with an Alzheimic father played by David Warner. Cue, alas, far too many shots of Kenneth Branagh staring into the middle distance to express angst or alienation or depression or whatever your bag is. Too often, these side issues overwhelm the mystery and its resolution, which should be at the heart of the story. They are – let’s be frank about this – padding.

I’ve already dealt on this blog with a much worse piece of psychobabble padding in a detective show, the Belfast-set detective series The Fall (see my post WhichIs the Psychopath?).  This draggy, over-stretched series had Gillian Anderson as an English detective on the trail of a serial murderer with weird sexual tastes. The cop herself is addicted to sex and sees it as her privilege to bed young police constables who are her subordinates. The series is filled with long, loving shots of murdered women; and with unconvincing dialogue in which the detective asserts her right as a free woman to indulge any sexual pleasures she pleases. I had the Schadenfreude of noting that the series gradually lost its audience when it was first broadcast in Britain and was the subject of a scathing review in the Guardian. More to the point, I noted that the sex stuff was really padding which stretched out what should have been a three- or four-episode story to eleven wearisome, slow-moving episodes.

I thought The Fall was the pits for this sort of thing. Then I saw the even worse Marcella (broadcast in Britain in 2016). Created by the Swede who created the much superior series The Bridge, Marcella has police detective Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) tracking a serial killer (or serial killers) who is (are) somehow associated with evil hard-faced bitch Sinead Cusack’s London property development company. The twist is that Marcella Backland’s estranged husband (black actor Nicholas Pinnock) is an employee of the said company, although he himself is not a suspect. There are so many improbabilities in this series that it is laughable. Something traumatic has happened to detective Marcella Backland in the past, and she every so often has blackouts from which she recovers, not remembering what she has just done. She often tussles with her estranged husband over access to their children. There is another woman now in her estranged husband’s wife, but that doesn’t prevent a scene in which he comes back to her and bonks her out of sympathy for her angst. One might begin by questioning why the police would allow somebody with ties to the suspect company and its suspect employees to be part of this investigation in the first place. Even more serious, one might ask how likely it is that such an overtly unbalanced, mentally-ill, amnesiac person would be practising as a detective anyway. Ah yes, but then it all allows for all the psycho-drama angst of Marcella suffering her condition, which neatly pads out a simple mystery and might allow some viewers to believe they have been watching an adult drama.

I’m aware that wearisomely-long detective stories are no new thing (doubtless you are aware of the long Victorian detection novels of Wilkie Collins). But the padding-out of detective stories in their TV incarnations has now become a positive plague. And it is especially noisome in that they so often produce the impression that a detective is not complete without being neurotic, depressive, mentally unbalanced, profoundly unhappy or obsessed with sex.

I’m amazed that most of them can do any detecting at all.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Something New

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“WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures 1935-1961” by Nicholas Reynolds (Harper-Collins, $NZ 36:99)

            There is now quite an extensive literature on moderate and non-communist left-wingers in the 1930s who were persuaded that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the best hope for the world if the alternative was fascism. Although there were available – even in the 1930s – numerous accurate exposes to clarify what life in Stalin’s state was really like, the fellow travellers at least had the excuse that Hitler seemed the more immediate danger. Besides, news sources in the 1930s were not the 24-hour news services that we now take for granted, and it was easier for Soviet propaganda to sell a rosy view of the USSR.

            Many fellow travellers saw the light in later years and turned against “the god that failed”. Others, however, were too stubborn to give up on their youthful dreams, even if those dreams were no longer tenable. According to Nicholas Reynolds, one such was Ernest Hemingway.

            Nicholas Reynolds (PhD. in history from Oxford and former CIA operative) has one key piece of new information about Hemingway in his book Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy. With a formidable bibliography to back him, and with declassified CIA, FBI and Soviet KGB files to quote from, he shows that in 1941, Hemingway was approached by Jacob Golos of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB), and asked if he would be willing to spy for the Soviet Union. Hemingway said he would, and he continued to have NKVD connections for a number of years.

How did this happen?

As Reynolds tells it, Hemingway was essentially an apolitical man and was certainly no communist. In the 1920s, his reputation was made with two post-First World War novels that appealed to the “lost generation”, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. But by the mid-thirties he was thrashing around trying to find a subject, and the only novel he was able to produce was To Have and Have Not, which even he knew was not his best work. Then, in 1935, along came a dreadful hurricane, which swept the Florida Keys where Hemingway hung out to indulge in deep sea fishing. Scanning the coast after the great storm, Hemingway was appalled to find the floating corpses of veterans who had been settled in shanties in one of the make-work programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal. He wrote an angry article denouncing Roosevelt for putting veterans in such danger. The article was picked up and given prominence by the left-wing (in fact communist-controlled) publication New Masses. For the first time, this brought Hemingway to the attention of the NKVD, who thought Hemingway might be an asset in propaganda work. Says Reynolds:

Their [the NKVD’s] attitude was not unlike that of New Masses: whether or not they were under Soviet control, public figures like Hemingway were worth courting. They had many potentially useful contacts, and they themselves might one day become conduits for the Soviet point of view.” (p.14)

Came the Spanish Civil War. Together with the (then) left-wing writer John Dos Passos who (as Reynolds correctly notes) was then better known, Hemingway agreed to go to Spain and make a propaganda film on behalf of the embattled Spanish Republic. The film was to be scripted by Dos Passos and Hemingway, and was to be directed by the Dutch communist Joris Ivens. As Reynolds notes:

Stalin decided to side with the Republic in order to improve his standing with the European left and divert attention from the murderous purges that he had ordered at home.” (p.17)

In Spain, Dos Passos was appalled to discover how much the communists were weakening the republic (and – in the end – helping Franco’s victory) by waging the notorious “civil war within the civil war”, accusing all their supposed allies (socialists, anarchists, independent Marxists like the POUM) of really being fascist spies and running a secret police to have such enemies shot. Dos Passos was particularly concerned about his friend, the socialist Jose Robles, who had disappeared and presumably been shot by the NKVD. In Reynolds account, Dos Passos asked Hemingway:

 “What was the point of fighting a war for civil liberties if you destroyed such rights along the way? Hemingway retorted: ‘Civil liberties, shit. Are you with us or are you against us?’ Dos Passos shrugged like a professor making a point in class: he would write what he had to write. Lifting a clenched fist to Dos Passos’s face, Hemingway said, ‘You do that and you will be finished, destroyed. The reviewers in New York will absolutely crucify you.’ ” (p.29)

This encounter was, of course, the end of Hemingway’s friendship with Dos Passos, whose name was taken off the propaganda film, Spanish Earth, when it was released.

Hemingway’s tough-guy line – one very common among those who do not themselves face any danger – was that hard communist discipline was necessary to defeat fascism, and if some innocent people got killed in the process, so be it. It fuelled his foolish agitprop play The Fifth Column, which was essentially a justification of the communist terror in what remained of the Spanish Republic.

Hemingway went back to Spain later in the civil war, and the NKVD agents allowed him to witness the (communist) guerrilla raid – blowing up railway lines behind Franco’s lines – that he later fictionalised in his novel about the war For Whom the Bell Tolls. Written after the civil war was over, Hemingway’s novel gave a view of the war that was in part aligned to the communist view and that justified such actions as the murder of the POUM head Andres Nin. In fairness it must be noted, however, that the novel included some things that annoyed the Left, such as the description of an atrocity carried out by the Left, and an awareness that some of the communist commanders of the International Brigades were incompetent. Says Reynolds:

“[Hemingway] was not like the ‘true believers’ in communism. He did not believe in Marxism or Leninism; he was ‘just’ joining the antifascist team that got results. Or at least that is the way he thought of the NKVD. He knew how it had trained guerrillas, destroyed railways behind fascist lines, and tried to bring discipline to the Spanish Republic.” (p.87)

Then, in 1939, Stalin and Hitler made their notorious “non-aggression pact” (i.e. alliance). Some communists, such as the German Gustav Reigler who had buddied with Hemingway in Spain, now left the Party, and it was harder for the NKVD to recruit “useful idiots”. Communism lost some of its éclat among members of the Western intelligentsia. But Hemingway, having never been a party man, continued to defend the USSR to anyone who would listen because he was still besotted with the view of communists as the backbone of resistance to Franco in Spain. In was in these circumstances that the NKVD man Jacob Golos approached Hemingway and made the offer that Hemingway accepted.

Hemingway was always cagey on the matter of his relationship with Soviet Russians. Says Reynolds:

Ten years later in letters to his best friend he would write that he had done ‘odd jobs’ for the Soviets in Spain and, after the Civil War, stayed in touch with ‘Russkis’ who had shared secrets with him – though he would not elaborate. Otherwise there is no evidence that he ever spoke to a third party about Golos and the NKVD, not even to [his third wife Martha] Gellhorn, who shared many of his political views… His relationship with the Soviet spy service was a serious undertaking, not something to discuss with friends over drinks or to write about, as he had done during the Spanish Civil War and would do again after some of his other, less secret World War II adventures. He understood the need for secrecy, one of the foundations of good spycraft. Hemingway thought that spying was one of his many life skills, and he was not wrong.” (p.86)

If you have read this notice so far, you are by this stage itching to know what dastardly deeds of spying Hemingway undertook on behalf of Stalin.

The answer is – none.

The fact is that, once Hemingway expressed his willingness to help the NKVD, he did nothing more than put a pro-Soviet spin on a few articles. And of course many did this after June 1941 when the USSR was at last forced into war with Hitler and became the West’s ally. Having built up Hemingway’s questionable deal, Reynolds goes on simply to show how Hemingway overestimated his own influence on events and deluded himself that he was a key fighter against fascism. What Reynolds could have added (but doesn’t) is that Hemingway, being by now such a well-known public figure, would have been perfectly useless as a real spy anyway. How could you go about your secret spying business if everybody knew your face from the magazines?

But (to summarise briefly) the story that follows is biographically interesting. Here is Hemingway visiting China with Martha Gellhorn, despising Chiang Kai-Shek but deciding that the communist Chou En-Lai whom he interviewed (probably with the Communist Party setting up the interview) was the bee’s knees and writing about him thus.

Here is Hemingway getting permission from US intelligence to use his fishing launch Pilar to hunt for Nazi U-boats in the Caribbean. This “Operation Friendless” achieved nothing, Hemingway was soon bored with it, and other people made scathing judgments on it:

Martha Gellhorn had mixed feelings about Operation Friendless. At one point she praised Hemingway for his discipline and patience, for doing his duty in his ‘floating sardine box’. But at other times she said that the operation was just a way for Pilar’s skipper to get scarce wartime fuel for his boat so that he could fish and drink with his friends. More than once he gave that impression – for example, when he brought his underage sons along on a ‘war’ cruise…” (p.143)

Here is Hemingway, now relocated from Florida to Cuba, presiding over “the Crook Factory”, a group of locals designed as a counter-espionage group to weed out Nazi or fascist sympathisers in Havana. Again, it achieved nothing and merely pissed off the FBI who considered (correctly) that they were better at doing that sort of thing.

Here is Hemingway (and you have to give him points for this one) actually showing much physical courage in France in 1944 when he hooked up with a bunch of franc-tireurs (the largely communist part of the French Resistance) and helped them find the best route – undefended by German forces – for the US Army to get to Paris.

I would never suggest that Hemingway was a coward. There were many occasions in which he showed great physical courage (even in wars in which he was not officially a combatant). But his big ego did mean that he often exaggerated his role in events, boasted (especially when tanked up), and claimed even greater victories than he had really won. Much of this braggadocio was what drove Martha Gellhorn away, but by the time of the Normandy campaign Hemingway already had as a mistress another woman, Mary Welsh, who was to become his fourth, and last, wife. Like Gellhorn she was a journalist and war correspondent.

Hemingway’s big ego meant that he also exaggerated his role as a subversive in the United States. In Reynold’s account, when the Cold War came along, when US intelligence and the HUAC uncovered big Soviet spy rings in Canada and the USA (yes, they really did exist, even if Joe McCarthy made wild accusations about some people), then Hemingway began to fear that his secret deal with the NKVD might be the ruin of him. In short, he became paranoid. According to Reynolds:

The [FBI] never particularly liked or trusted Hemingway, but he was simply wrong when he claimed, as early as 1942, that the U.S. government was keeping an eye on him because it had questions about his trustworthiness. Like everyone else, his mail and calls were subject to wartime censorship, but no one had singled him out for special attention, and no one was following him around New York or Havana to see what he was up to.” (p.220)

Reynolds notes that in the 1950s, Hemingway’s writing became much more apolitical than it had been before. In that decade, the only novels he produced were Across the River and Into the Trees, widely regarded as his very worst book, and the non-political novella The Old Man and the Sea. The latter won him the Pulitzer Prize, which he had long coveted, and was specifically cited when he won the Nobel Prize, which he has also long coveted. He was now very respectable. But – now as a Cuban resident – he did also hail Fidel Castro’s revolution, seeing in it the same sort of guerrilla idealism that he believed he had seen in Spain. Despite this, he was not a special subject for US surveillance. Reynolds notes:

Hemingway said the government was watching him because it viewed him as untrustworthy because he had been a ‘premature anti-fascist’. He never mentioned the best reason that government might have to watch him: this premature antifascist had signed up with the NKVD. That he had never actually spied for the Soviets was immaterial; good people were hauled up in front of committees for far less during the McCarthy years. It was far from unreasonable for him to worry that his secret could derail his career.” (p.265)

In Reynolds’ view, Hemingway’s depression over these matters was one of the many causes of his eventual suicide in 1961. As well as his persistent health and psychological problems ( he had actually undergone electro-convulsive therapy), Hemingway had the nagging sense that he would one day be found out and shamed.

Reynolds writes his ultimate judgment on the man in the last words of the book:

The ultimate professional when it came to writing, in politics and intrigue he was a gifted but overconfident amateur. Until it was too late, he did not pause to consider the costs he would one day have to pay for his secret adventures.” (p.267)

I admit that my view of Hemingway as man and writer is not as respectful as Reynolds’ view. You might have seen on this blog my take on Hemingway’s vindictive and often dishonest memoir A Moveable Feast. I also believe there is a far more persuasive – and damning – book about Hemingway’s break with Dos Passos in Spain, and his endorsement of Red Terror, in Stephen Koch’s The Breaking Point, which is well worth reading. You may have seen on this blog my review of Stephen Koch’s excellent Double Lives, which reviews the whole attraction of the liberal left to communism in the 1930s. But having said this, I salute Reynolds for writing a very interesting biography which illuminates one area of Hemingway’s life that has scarcely been examined before.

Two snarky footnotes

* On p.64, Reynolds attributes the phrase “for whom the bell tolls”, which Hemingway used as a title for his novel, to a “poem” by John Donne. Wrong. It comes from a sermon by John Donne.

* The author notes briefly (pp.244-245) that Hemingway celebrated his 60th birthday in Spain. Hmmm, I thought, imagine if somebody who had criticised Stalin travelled to Stalin’s Russia to celebrate his birthday. Would he survive? The Spain in which Hemingway celebrated his birthday was still Franco’s Spain, and neither he nor any of his pals were in any way molested. It probably means Franco and his government didn’t give a damn what Hemingway thought of them.