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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins, leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming

Vintage, 2012, 358 p plus i p Author’s Note and vii p introduction by Tom Rob Smith. First published 1957.

I did not have great hopes for this. If it hadn’t been on the list of the 100 best Scottish Books I would never have picked it up, still less paid for it. It was, however, available from a local Library – these need as much patronage as they can get – I therefore borrowed it. Even so my expectations were not met. The novel is written in journalese, the prose fails to rise even to the utilitarian, the characters are barely one-dimensional, never mind rounded. And info-dumping is rife.

Then there is the implicit racism. “It was a strong Western handful of operative fingers – not the banana skin handshake of the East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails.” The casual misogyny of the time, too, is shown by the sentences, “All women want to be swept off their feet. In their dreams they long to be slung over a man’s shoulder and taken into a cave and raped,” and, “I got her to my place and took away her clothes and kept her chained naked under the table.” True, Fleming puts these into the mouth of a Turk but it’s still misogyny. Unexamined misogyny, to which Bond does not demur. An organised fight between two gipsy girls over a man (which reads as merely an excuse to describe their clothes sequentially coming off) is misogynystic and racist both. Bond’s right wing attitude – so by extension Fleming’s? There is nothing in the text that would contradict this – is exemplified by him saying, “As for England, the trouble today is that carrots are all the fashion.” That is, as opposed to sticks.

Moreover the structure is a bit odd. Bond isn’t mentioned till page 61 and does not appear himself till page 151. Tom Rob Smith’s Introduction regards this as a strength but the focus of Part One, Donovan Grant, a half-German, half-Irish psychopathic hitman employed by Smersh through expediency rather than approval of any sort, does not reappear till the climax (and then instead of just killing Bond this supposed total psychopath Grant explains to him the nature of the plot against him thus giving Bond some time to formulate a way out.)

That plot concerns the supposed falling in love with Bond via his photograph of Tatiana Romanova, in order to entice him into a trap – the additional bait being her bringing to Bond a Spektor cryptographic machine – whereby he will be disgraced. The egotist Bond cannot quite work out why this is a red flag. Cue, though, many goings-on in Istanbul and a trip back west on the Orient Express; a singularly unlikely escape route.

I suspect these things work much better on a film screen than on a page. Whatever, this book certainly is not worthy of a place on any list of 100 best Scottish books.

Pedant’s corner:- a masseuse is described as having tufts of fair hair in her armpits but has short coarse black hair (genetics doesn’t work like that and there was no mention of dyeing,) “one of the men-servants” (the word is manservant, the plural is surely manservants,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, long-chassied (the word is chassis, so long-chassised,) “there was a diminishing crescendo” (crescendos rise to a climax, they do not descend. A descent is a diminuendo.)

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

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