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Sunday, 17 December 2017

Almost 200,000 page-views!

Today, there are just under 200 page-views left to attain a significant milestone - 200,000 page-views for the blog.

Many thanks to all who have viewed the various blogs and keep coming back.

I appreciate your comments, too!

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Book review - A Graveyard for Lunatics

Ray Bradbury’s 1990 crime novel A Graveyard for Lunatics is the second in a trilogy, preceded by Death is a Lonely Business and succeeded by Let’s All Kill Constance
The cover depicts a detail from Goya's The Madhouse at Saragossa, 1794.

It’s 1954 and the young narrator is a scriptwriter for Maximus Films, a character that echoes Bradbury’s own worship of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Adjacent to the vast film studio complex is Green Glades Cemetery.  Here, one rain-sodden night he witnesses a revelation.

‘I heard a ghost sigh somewhere, but it was only my own lungs pumping like a bellows, trying to light some sort of fire in my chest.’ (p9)

The revelation was a lifelike dummy of the dead studio head J.C. Arbuthnot, who died twenty years ago in a car crash. He enlists his best friend Roy Holdstrom (an inventor of science fiction sets, monsters and special effects) to solve the mystery. On the way he meets wildly eccentric characters, among them a drunken ham Shakespearean actor, J.C., who states, ‘I do not dare, sir. I am.’.

It’s clear that these books are Bradbury’s reminiscences of his time when a young teenager hovering around the periphery of the movies. His early influences were King Kong and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

‘It was like having an affair with Kong, who fell on me when I was thirteen. I had never escaped from beneath his heart-beating carcass.’ (p4)

Bradbury would spend many a day in front of the studio gates of Paramount and Columbia hoping for autographs. He’d watch film stars come and go at the Brown Derby restaurant – and all these places figure in this novel. One of the tragic characters, Clarence is clearly modelled on himself, though older.

‘Instantly my soul flashed out of my body and ran back. It was 1934 and I was mulched in among the ravening crowd, waving pads and pens… pursuing Marlene Dietrich into her hairdresser’s or running after Cary Grant Friday nights…’ (p15)

This book is dedicated to a few folk of his acquaintance, among them some deceased: Fritz Lang and James Hong Howe. And his friend Ray Harryhausen, who was alive when this was written. Roy Holdstrom is modelled on Harryhausen, and the character Fritz Wong is an amalgam of Lang and Howe. The narrator’s investigator pal Crumley is named after the crime writer James Crumley. Manny Leiber (who intended cutting Judas from a Biblical film because he didn’t want to make an anti-Semitic movie!) may well be named after fellow science fiction author Fritz Leiber. There may be other allusions I’ve missed.

The tale is typical Hollywood scandal and cover-up. Nothing new there, then. Fittingly, Crumley states, ‘Sometimes dead folks in graves have more power than live folks above…’ (p186)

The beginning contains some excellent imagery and writing. It starts with the narrator observing there were two cities within a city: ‘one moved restlessly all day while the other never stirred. One was warm and filled with ever-changing lights. One was cold and fixed in place by stones… Maximus Films, the living, and Green Glades Cemetery, the dead…’ (p3)

‘Ten thousand deaths had happened here, and when the deaths were done, the people got up, laughing, and strolled away. Whole tenement blocks were set afire and did not burn…’ (p3)

And: ‘From here Dracula wandered as flesh to return as dust. Here also were the Stations of the Cross and a trail of ever-replenished blood as screenwriters groaned by to Calvary carrying a backbreaking load of revisions, pursued by directors with scourges and film cutters with razor-sharp knives…’ (p4)

Besides transposed reminiscences and mystery, there’s humour: they were looking at a huge display of coffins. ‘How come so many?’ I asked.
‘To bury all the turkeys the studio will make between now and Thanksgiving.’ (p37)

And when turning up at the Brown Derby, the maitre d’ accosts them:  ‘“Of course, you have no reservations?” he observed languidly.
“About this place?” said Roy. “Plenty.”’ (p59)

Lastly: The actor J.C. asks, ‘Was Christ manic-depressive? Like me?’
‘No,’ I said lamely, ‘not nuts. But you’re in the bowl with the almonds and the cashews…’ (p183)

When they confront ‘the Beast’, the lengthy description is poignant. ‘… a face in which two terribly liquid eyes drowned, swimming in delirium, could find no shore, no respite, no rescue… So the eyes floated, anchored in a red-hot lava of destroyed flesh, in a meltdown of genetics from which no soul, however brave, might survive. While all the while, the nostrils inhaled themselves and the wound of mouth cried Havoc, silently, and exhaled.’ (p63)

While Bradbury didn’t shy away from acknowledging the grim underbelly of the world in this book and others, yet he preserved an incorrigible innocence too, encapsulated by Constance, a faded movie star, telling him: ‘How lucky to be inside your skin, so goddamned naïve. Don’t ever change.’ (p131)  She also makes the observation, ‘That’s no hospital. It’s where great elephant ideas go to die. A graveyard for lunatics.’ (p140); hence the book’s title.

Whimsical and sometimes silly, with a plot that barely hangs together for all those depicted years, it’s still a worthy addition to the Bradbury collection, and as hinted at above there’s much to admire. However, if you’ve never read any Ray Bradbury, this is not the best place to start.

Ray Bradbury died 2012, aged 91.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Lucky with Cars

Our local TV magazine TV Choice has this week published my humorous crime short story 'Lucky with Cars'. Here it is. [I'm not a fan of their habit of eschewing paragraph indents; I suppose it saves space.] Click on it and you can read it...

This story is featured in my paperback and e-book I Celebrate Myself (Collected stories volume 4) which contains 24 previously published tales. 

Available from Amazon here

Thursday, 7 December 2017

A great new action heroine to be watched

A new 5-star review for the first documented  mission of Tana Standish, psychic spy. 

"Tana Standish, now 38, was an orphan Jewish girl trying to escape Warsaw by sneaking on a ship with her brother. Her brother is killed trying to find food on the ship. She was also caught later but before she is killed a British submarine torpedoes the ship. The survivors included the young girl. MI6 learns that she has psychic abilities, and when she grows up they train her as an espionage agent. She doesn’t really read minds, but receives impressions, and can detect danger, hostile and friendly elements, as well as pick up hidden names. She is also studying remote viewing in connection to her abilities.

"Mission Prague is not her first assignment, but it is the first published tale about this psychic spy...

"This is a brand new British espionage thriller set in the Cold War, and Tana Standish is a great new action heroine to be watched. 

"The novel is topnotch, though the author goes off on tangents a bit too much in order to tie the story and real people into real events. Still, if you are looking for a great new series, try this author out. 

"You’ll like Tana Standish, the psychic spy. Highly recommended."

Thank you, Virginia E. Johnson! 

Mission: Prague
Available from Amazon as a paperback and e-book here


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Book review - Waiting for Sunrise

William Boyd’s 2012 novel Waiting for Sunrise was published a year before his James Bond outing, Solo. Both involve spies – as did Restless (2006); having said that, this is not a spy novel nor is it a thriller.

The book begins and ends with second person narrative, a literary device, as if the reader is personally viewing the scene through the director’s eyes. The bulk of the novel is third person point of view. However, there are also sections in the first person, ‘Autobiographical Investigations’ by the main protagonist.

Lysander Rief, an actor son of a deceased famous thespian, is undergoing therapy in Vienna in 1913; part of the treatment is for Rief to write down in a journal his ‘autobiographical investigations’. His problem is of the psychosexual kind. He meets the intriguing and beautiful Hettie Bull who miraculously solves his problem and then involves him in a scandal. He escapes the opprobrium with the aid of a couple of Foreign Office types – who then later call on him to return the favour. We’re halfway through the book before Rief is recruited as a spy. The method of his infiltration is contrived, to say the least, yet it does give us a powerful insight into aspects of trench warfare.: ‘star shells and distant artillery, the throat-clearing expectoration of machine-gun fire…’ (p227)

Later, when Rief returns to London, he is in the midst of a bombing raid by zeppelins, and these scenes are intense and dramatic. His time in London is devoted to rooting out a suspected mole. Again, the ending was contrived and a bit of a damp squib, which is a pity, because the writing and observational detail persisted in creating the impulse to keep turning the pages.

On the whole, Boyd is very good at description, painting a scene, and his character studies create realistic players. He is a pleasure to read. Rief's ex-girlfriend is appearing in a play, The Reluctant Hero. Now employed as a spy, he ‘felt envious, experiencing a sudden urge to rejoin my old life, to be back on stage, acting, pretending. Then it struck me that this was precisely what I was about to do. Even the title of her play was suddenly apt. It rather sobered me.’ (p214)

Good writers utilise the skills of their main characters; Rief’s acting isn’t simply a career label to stick onto him. ‘He was feeling surprisingly tense but was acting very calm, and he thanked his profession once again for the trained ability to feign this sort of ease and confidence even when he was suffering from its opposite.’ (p348) Excellent stuff.

Possibly the first appearance of the book title in the text is when Rief is stuck in no man’s land: 
‘… the best course of action was to stay put and wait until sunrise. Then he might know what to do next.’ (p231)  Followed by: ‘… he tossed and fidgeted, punched and turned his pillows, opened and closed the windows of his room, waiting for sunrise.’ (p322)  And, the penultimate: ‘… he smoked a cigarette, waiting for sunrise. Sunrise and clarity, he thought – at last, at last.’ (p407) Finally, to hammer it home, ‘… and I hoped that sunrise that day would bring understanding and clarity with it – or at least clearer vision. And I thought I had it…’ (p419)

But of course we know that some sunrises occur in fog and then there’s no defined clarity; particularly where spies and double-agents are concerned…

A gripping, atmospheric novel, though flawed.

Editorial comment

A very minor quibble. Rief’s ‘autobiographical investigations’ relate some conversations in this manner:
ME: I still have the ring…
BLANCHE: What are you trying to say…?
And yet another shows:
MUNRO: Not clever enough…
LYSANDER: I admit…
Here, it should have been consistent with other examples, and show ME not LYSANDER.

My review of Restless can be found here and of Solo here

My comments on point of view can be found in Write a Western in 30Days (pp56-67), such as: ‘Second person narrative has its advocates, but it generally smacks of a literary device and doesn’t make easy reading, particularly when at novel length or in genre fiction. Here, the writer is speaking directly to the reader, even addressing him as “you”, as if he existed in the narrator’s world.’ (p58)

Friday, 1 December 2017

'... felt I'd actually been there.'

Amazon 5-star review for Mission: Khyber
'First, the detailed descriptions of Afghanistan; I felt as if I’d actually been there. Also, the fascinating history of the area I found illuminating. I liked the way the author further developed his character, psychic spy Tana Standish. In the first two novels she seemed almost invincible. Here, she is more vulnerable, and therefore more rounded. The one negative aspect for me was that I found the descriptions of the weaponry a bit challenging to follow, having never picked up a gun in my life, and some of the military manoeuvres left me a bit bewildered. But that was part of the book’s authenticity: the attention to precision was admirable, and the general atmosphere reminded me of John le Carré’s work. I highly recommend it: clearly the work of an experienced writer.'

Thank you, Maureen Elizabeth Moss 

Available from Amazon as a paperback or e-book here

Monday, 27 November 2017

Head of British Secret Intelligence Service

Recently, there has been some controversy regarding a suggestion for a blue plaque for Admiral Sir Hugh Francis Paget Sinclair (1873-1939). However, English Heritage apparently ruled that he was not ‘historically significant’ enough to be recognised with a blue plaque at his official London residence in Queen Anne’s Gate, which was linked by a secret tunnel to MI6 HQ.  If you’ve been reading the news over the last few months, you’ll be aware that certain individuals in English Heritage have lost the plot, and this could be construed as another example of their arrant political correctness.

Sinclair certainly achieved a lot. He joined the Royal Navy aged 13 and entered the Naval Intelligence Division at the outset of the First World War. By 1919 he had become the Director of Naval Intelligence. In 1923, he took over from Sir Mansfield Cumming as the director of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6).

As early as 1919 he was concerned about the influence of Bolshevism, but in the main his concerns were ignored. By 1936 he discovered that the Gestapo had infiltrated several SIS stations; at about this time Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Edward Marjoribanks Dansey set up Z Organisation, intent on working independently from the compromised SIS.

Sinclair was asked in December 1938 to prepare a dossier on Adolf Hitler, for the attention of the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. The dossier received short shrift as it was believed that it did not gel with Britain's policy of appeasement. Sinclair had described Hitler as possessing the characteristics of ‘fanaticism, mysticism, ruthlessness, cunning, vanity, moods of exaltation and depression, fits of bitter and self-righteous resentment; and what can only be termed a streak of madness; but with it all there is a great tenacity of purpose, which has often been combined with extraordinary clarity of vision’ (Foreign Office files)

In 1938, with war looming, Sinclair set up Section D, dedicated to sabotage and in the spring of 1938, using £6,000 of his own money, he bought Bletchley Park to be a wartime intelligence station. He died of cancer in 1939 so did not see the fruits of the code-breaking group at Bletchley that shortened the war.

When writing my first Tana Standish novel, Mission: Prague, one of my characters, the head of International Enterprises (‘Interprises’), an adjunct of SIS, was loosely based on both Sinclair and Dansey: Sir Gerald Hazzard, born 1909. His entry in Who’s who reads: Winchester and Magdalen College, Oxford; Recreations, yacht-racing, crosswords and chess; ‘attached to Foreign Office, 1939-present’ which is polite British jargon for working in the SIS [the ‘present’ was 1975-1978]. However, his physical stature was based on my first civilian boss after leaving school…

Hazzard’s recruitment of psychic Tana Standish is related in Mission: Prague:

England, 1965
Tread carefully,was Sir Geralds high-pitched warning to her as she boarded the train at Waterloo ten years ago, destined for the Fort, one of MI6s training establishments, an old Napoleonic stone-walled edifice on the Gosport peninsula on the south coast of Hampshire.
Standing beside the middle-aged yet cadaverous man had been her grey-haired mother, bravely trying to fight back tears.
Mum, Im a big girl now, you know?Tana said.
Twenty-eight last May, dear, I know.Her mother smiled back. But Im worried about what Geralds letting you get into. Its dangerous.
Shell be all right, Vera, my dear,Sir Gerald piped. In fact, I actually pity the instructors!
The totally inappropriate falsetto voice of Sir Gerald had taken some getting used to, as had his emaciated appearance. There seemed to be little flesh on his face. Tana had seen survivors from the concentration camps and the facial features of the majority had been drawn, almost corpse-like, the skulls bone structure clearly visible. She knew for a fact that Sir Gerald dined well and often, yet his head and, judging by how his clothes hung on his gaunt frame, his body too closely resembled some unfortunate who had endured a Nazi death-camp.
Sir Gerald had been like an uncle to her since Hugh Standish died in her childhood yet, officially, he only came into her life when she was twenty-eight, ostensibly to recruit her into his fledgling organisation, Interprises.
Ten years ago. When shed qualified for the Intelligence OfficersNew Entry Course.
The day had been bleak and wind-swept as she hurried from the draughty Portsmouth Harbour railway station to the pontoon where she caught the little steam craft Ferry Prince, which seemed to be overloaded with commuters, among them Royal Navy sailors in square rig hanging onto their white hats. Halfway across the harbour, she saw one sailor lose his hat overboard and the young man swore, no doubt fearing that hed be on a charge when he turned up at his submarine base, HMS Dolphin. Away on their left, she noticed the distinctive ten-storey tall tower, rumoured to have been built by German prisoners-of-war. Below it were the motley brick buildings of Fort Blockhouse, the submarine base, with two menacing black boats moored alongside.
On the Gosport side shed been met by a Ministry of Defence driver in dark serge who had commented disparagingly on the weather then bundled her suitcase into the back of the highly-polished Rover.
The journey seemed circuitous the driver explained that there was a crossing called Pneumonia Bridge over the creek but it was only capable of taking pedestrians and cyclists, not cars. One day they might get round to building a proper road, I suppose,he moaned, but itll be after Im drawing my pension, I shouldnt wonder!
Eventually, they turned onto Anglesey Road, part of the district of Alverstoke where many retired admirals were supposed to live, and this led down to the coast road and Stokes Bay, which offered a sweeping panoramic view of the Solent and the Isle of Wight.
Turning left, they passed several fenced-off military establishments.
Further along still, beyond the narrow hedge-bordered coast road, she knew, were the high brick walls of the submarine base and the Royal Navys Hospital Haslar. However, after a short drive they turned off to the right onto what appeared to be an unadopted road with a sign on their left indicating,


They passed this and the 15 mph sign and headed towards an unprepossessing collection of brick buildings partially concealed by an overgrowth of brambles and weeds, all behind barbed wire.
Their car crossed over a drawbridge and it seemed they were expected as Fort Moncktons ponderous studded steel doors swung wide on well-oiled rails and hinges.
I lived in Alverstoke for many years and often passed the secret Fort Monckton...

Then, in the sequel, Mission: Tehran, we learn more about Hazzard’s acquisition of the British SIS psychic HQ, Fenner House, motivated in part by the logic of Dansey:

The Georgian mansion was built in 1810 and had a chequered existence before being bought by Sir Gerald Hazzard in 1958 to establish the Psychic Institute. As a top intelligence officer in the MI6 hierarchy, he was following in the footsteps of two chiefs of the secret service – Mansfield Cumming, who often supplemented the fledgling secret service from his own pocket, and Admiral Sinclair, who bought Bletchley Park himself because he couldn’t get any funding.
Unofficially Sir Gerald had been interested in psychic research since encountering Tana as a child. However, abiding by Vera Standish’s wishes, he didn’t officially announce his friendship and interest until 1965.
Two years earlier ‘C’ had been Dick White and with his connivance, Sir Gerald had created his own particular offshoot of MI6, International Enterprises, in February, shortly after Philby flew out of Beirut for exile in Moscow. In July 1963 Sir Gerald actually set Fenner House aside for the sole use of Interprises, retaining the Psychic Institute as a convenient cover. His brief was to recruit agents who didn’t belong to any ‘old school’ – and he scoured the armed forces to that end. Inevitably, there were exceptions and he head-hunted Tana in 1965.
Changes to the interior structure of Fenner House were kept secret: the large bedroom at the west rear end was converted into a conference room and encased in a Faraday cage to prevent electronic eavesdropping. The upstairs closets and changing rooms on the north side had been converted into two separate rooms – the psychic training laboratory and the Communications Centre and a door from the latter opened into Sir Gerald’s bed-sitting room at the northeast corner which he occupied whenever he was visiting.
The servants’ quarters on the ground floor at the north side were knocked into two rooms – becoming the Gym – with its first-aid annex – and the Armoury.
Sitting cross-legged in the centre of the Gymnasium’s dojo, Tana maintained the yogic Sukhasana position, her arms limp and the backs of her hands resting on her bare feet. She wore a black leotard and her hair swept back in a tight bun.
This easy pose for meditation was suitable for her purposes. (Mission: Tehran, pp 178-179)
Mission: Prague
Available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book here

Mission: Tehran
Available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book here

Mission: Khyber
Available on Amazon as a paperback and e-book here