Sunday, February 07, 2016

Dan Hicks

I suppose it will have been in late 1971 or early 1972. I was meeting my girlfriend, but had stopped on the way to pick up my monthly copy of Zigzag, an odd, rather amateurishly produced alternative magazine that featured articles and interviews about mainly American rock music. It wasn't like Sounds or NME, which concentrated on the charts. The fact that it was named after a Capt. Beefheart song gives an indication of where it was coming from. It also had Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees, where the various incarnations of groups would be presented in diagram form - ideal material for me, who liked to know everything about the bands I favoured. Anyway, when I arrived at my girlfriend's house, I remember her saying "I see you've got your instructions, then," referring to the copy of Zigzag in my hand. I argued feebly that I could make my own mind up about what to like, but she was right. I tended to follow the advice I found there, as a way of broadening my collection of records by loon-panted denizens of Laurel Canyon. And sometimes, this led to my acquiring albums that really weren't worth persevering with, but I would try because Zigzag said they were good. Thus, I had a copy of Poco's A Good Feeling to Know, which was not a good album to buy, try as I might to like it. There were a few other duds of this proto-Eagles country-rock type. But Zigzag also alerted me to people I would never otherwise have come across, and whose music I have been listening to in the intervening forty-odd years.

One such is Dan Hicks, whose death was announced yesterday. I took a chance on his album Striking it Rich, bought from Rare Records in Manchester. Along with his backing group the Hot Licks, Dan went on a streak of brilliant records in the early seventies, but for me, that album, with its giant matchbox design, was the pinnacle of his achievement. The sound has elements of Django Reinhardt, and of western swing. The songs are often wryly observational, and frequently funny, delivered by Dan in a laconic, throwaway style, and supported by the Andrews sisters-style harmonies of the Lickettes. I played that album over and over again - to my soon-to-be-departed girlfriend's annoyance. I loved the interplay of the voices, the timbre of Sid Page's violin, and the timeless quality of the sound: this didn't seem to be music of the seventies, or any other decade. It still sounds, to me, brilliantly fresh now. Have a listen to "I Scare Myself" from Striking it Rich to see if you agree:

Friday, February 05, 2016

Eric Ambler: The Levanter

I read, as I suppose many of my generation did, Eric Ambler's  The Mask of Dimitrios and Epitaph for a Spy when I was a teenager. They were exciting tales of action in a Europe on the brink of war, with heroes not of the John Buchan mould (I'd read the Richard Hannay books of course) but ordinary men plunged against their will into extraordinary experiences. Journey into Fear, memorably filmed with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, is another prime example. Since my teens, though, I hadn't read an Ambler novel, but my revived interest in spy fiction, sparked by the huge enjoyment I derived from reading Jeremy Duns's  Paul Dark sequence, sent me back to Ambler.

The Levanter is late Ambler, first published in 1972. It is set a couple of years earlier, largely in Syria, and is concerned with the way in which one of those typical Ambler protagonists finds himself embroiled in a terrorist plot. Reading this novel in 2016 is instructive, if only to realise how depressingly little attitudes in the Middle East have changed in the intervening forty-odd years. The eponymous Levanter is Michael Howell, whose very British name conceals a more complex mixed Armenian, Cypriot and Lebanese heritage. He's the head of a family engineering company with a long history of business in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and is doing well in the difficult circumstances of the time, negotiating with the one-party Syrian regime with the help of his Italian secretary/lover. But, as is so often the case with Ambler, his relatively cosy world is about to be shattered by the intrusion of some brutal political realities. A terrorist group, the Palestinian Action Force (modelled on one of the many such groups that emerged after the Six-Day War of 1967) has infiltrated the company in order to manufacture bombs to use against Israel. Howell, for reasons carefully explained, cannot simply go to the authorities, and the scene is then set for a tense game of cat-and-mouse as Howell attempts to outwit the coldly sadistic leader of the terrorist cell, Salah Ghaled.

The narrative is split between three first person narrators: Lewis Prescott, an American journalist, who provides the background detail through his account of an interview with Ghaled; Teresa Malandra, the secretary, who offers a wry perspective on her boss; and Howell himself, who carries the bulk of the narrative, mostly attempting to justify his actions since he has been, we glean, vilified by both sides after the events have concluded. Howell is always at pains to show how his actions stem from the best of motives, and his self-deprecating stance helps the reader to identify with him as he becomes increasingly entwined in the terrorist plot. Ambler stresses his ordinariness - he is a successful and enterprising businessman, yes, but as Howell ruefully points out, "when the commodity is violence and the man you are dealing with is an animal" his business skills are of little use. Howell's narrative is careful and detailed - that attention to detail is one of his character traits, but also leads to the only parts of the story which drag a little. I'm not sure the reader needs to know quite as much about the construction of dry cell batteries as we are given here. That said, the second part of the novel, which concerns the attempted raid by the terrorist group, moves at a fair pace, and the scenes on board Howell's ship the Amalia as the climax approaches are gripping.

Ambler maintains his usual high standard in this tale, where every character is flawed and no-one completely blameless. In a world stripped of moral certainties, Howell represents a kind of grubby virtue.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Entartete Musik

To the Manchester Jewish Museum, on Holocaust Memorial Day, for a concert of music condemned and banned by the Nazis as "degenerate." This was a bold move by the museum, which has decided to host more events to gain attention ahead of a big rebuilding programme.

After a glass of (kosher, of course) wine, we were invited in, to find the inner space dominated by the famous poster which was used as part of the Nazi campaign against music of any kind which did not suit the Nazi philosophy. The campaign, during which concerts were held in which the music was vilified, ran parallel to the "Entartete Kunst" exhibition, which condemned virtually all experimental art, particularly that produced by Jews.

The programme featured songs by Weill and Brecht, Krenek, Holländer and some atonal Schönberg. The show was devised, presented and sung by Peter Brathwaite, who gives a full account of the artistic process in this article. We were delighted both by Brathwaite's strong voice, and the engagingly innovative style of presentation. A series of evocative photographs accompanied each song, animated through some computer trickery, with a translation of the lyrics alongside. It gave each song an added dimension, and really enhanced the show. You can get some idea from these stills on the @MusicDegenerate Twitter feed:

Brathwaite, of whom I predict great things, is an assured and accomplished performer. His German pronunciation is excellent, and he attacked each song with relish, really bringing out the savagery of the satire, and the black humour too. It was great to hear the Brecht / Eisler "Solidarität" from the wonderful film Kuhle Wampe as a song in its own right.  And, inevitably, we finished with Brecht and Weill's  "Mackie Messer", a song whose bizarre transition into a standard easy-listening tune about mass murder deserves a post of its own.

Peter Brathwaite, on this showing, is a star in the making. I would love to have a recording of his versions of these songs, and surely that will come. In the meantime, he tells me, we will be able to see some footage filmed on the night. I look forward to that immensely.

Big in Japan 3

Onto the Philosopher's Walk in Kyoto. Note the position of the apostrophe: we are talking about one philosopher here, Nishida Kitaro, a professor at the university, who walked here daily in the nineteen twenties, and whose work, rather pleasingly, is described as "path-breaking." Nishida's best-known philosophical concept is "Absolute Nothingness" but it's difficult to imagine he came up with that idea on his daily constitutional, since the walk is full of life and interest.

The paved pathway runs either side of a small canal on the western side of the city at the base of the Higashiyama mountains. We approached along suburban streets that reminded me of the posher suburbs of Berlin or Hamburg. The walk is not a taxing one, and there is no particular advantage in starting at any one place, so we just joined it at the nearest convenient entrance and walked north.

At every turn on this walk, the visitor encounters something of beauty, whether it's the autumnal colours which were so vivid when we were there, or the serenity of the shrines that line the pathway. One stop was at the Eikan-do temple, which has a pagoda whence panoramic views of Kyoto can be had.

We strolled further, past several smaller shrines, to the Honen-in temple of the Jodo sect, which is very rustic in appearance, with a thatched roof, and some fine examples of the raked-sand Zen gardens that we encountered many times on our trip.

We walked further, encountering quite a few well-fed and happy-looking cats, who seem to be part of the Philosopher's Walk experience. They certainly must be among Japan's most photographed cats: everyone stopped for a quick snap.

The main attraction on the walk is the fifteenth-century Ginkagu-ji, or the Silver Pavilion. Not that it's silver - that was the original plan, apparently, but the shogun Yoshimasa, who wanted a silver version of the Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion in Kyoto city, was frustrated by the intervening war, and the plan was never executed. This is the most popular spot on the walk, and we saw tour groups there, whose whole experience of the walk was a bus to the entrance of the pavilion, a quick look round, and then back on the bus. They missed a lot. It has beautiful gardens, including a massive raked sand area. We loved the colours.

We walked down to the southern tip of the walk, where the large Nanzen-ji temple complex awaited us. This is a series of buildings, dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with much open space around it. We wandered around, enjoying the peace and the massive presence of history:

One curious feature of the area is the presence of a very western-looking aqueduct, built in the late nineteenth century to carry water via the canal to Kyoto. It seems incongruous amid all the formal temple architecture.

Our final stop on this walk was the lovely Tenjuan temple, a kind of haven dedicated to the Zen master who served Emperor Kameyama in his religious studies, and most notable now for its gardens. After a long day's stroll, we really enjoyed sitting in the garden, particularly around the lake, where the carp are quite demanding:

This was a perfect day. The walk was full of historical interest, and had plenty of places to find refreshment and unusual crafts, of a definitely superior kind - no tourist tat here.

We had another day in Kyoto, which will be covered in the next instalment. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Shiny New Books

Shiny New Books 8 is now out. As usual, it features an eclectic range of book reviews both fiction and non-fiction, including my take on the fourth Paul Dark espionage novel. There's also my guide to the fiction of Manchester. But don't let that put you off - there's lots of stuff here to whet the appetite of the most jaded reader. I was intrigued by Eleanor Franzen's review of Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time, the first in a series in which contemporary novelists present their versions of Shakespeare plays. I look forward to Howard Jacobson's Merchant of Venice. In Bitter Chill looks like the start of a promising crime fiction career, and a new novel by Umberto Eco is always an event.

In non-fiction, Neurotribes, about Autism, seems to be a compelling read, and Barbara Howard makes a good case for yet another biography of Charlotte Brontë. In the reprints section, interesting to see that the small independent press Daunt has reissued John Collier's quirky 1930 novel His Monkey Wife.
So, lots to read and enjoy at SNB. Have a browse!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Jeremy Duns: The Moscow Option

The third volume in Jeremy Duns's terrific Paul Dark series takes our troubled agent back to the beginning of his career, to meet his nemesis in a scenario where the world is in danger from a possible nuclear war.

I would strongly urge you to read the first two volumes if you haven't done already - see my review of Free Agent and Song of Treason. The stories stand alone well enough, but are so interlinked that it would be a pity to miss how Duns weaves the various complex strands together over the three volumes. And of course, you get three times the pleasure from discovering how Dark ends up with Sarah Severn in the hands of the Soviets in October1969.

After the Vatican rooftop climax of the previous volume, Dark is now imprisoned in Moscow, but begins to realise, after an encounter with Brezhnev, that a failed operation in which he was involved at the end of the war as a tyro British agent holds the key to the situation which is even now unravelling into a potential nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA.

As ever, the odds are stacked against him. He is locked up in Moscow, the prisoner of a repressive regime, and his unlikely story is not going to be believed by his captors. The situation calls for urgent action, and, as is customary in this series, we get it.

Having effected his escape - Duns provides a useful primer on the "Duck and Dive" method of exiting a moving vehicle - the scene is set for a chase across Russia to the Finnish island where Dark had undertaken a perilous mission in the final days of the war.

The narrative moves at breakneck pace, and whilst the reader sometimes has to suspend disbelief - would it have been that easy to track down Donald Maclean, and get him to help? - the plot's many twists and turns carry you forward to the inevitable showdown.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the Dark series is the way in which the agent's whole career over twenty-five years hinges on a single decision made at the end of the war. That decision governs everything that happens to him later: its presence is almost Hardy-esque in its ubiquity. And Duns, having carefully planted the relevant clues in the previous volumes, brings the consequences of his action home in a climax that telescopes the cold war into one brutal confrontation on remote Finnish ice.

The story has its roots, as always with Duns, in the documented history of the cold war years, so while the adventures of Paul Dark are (we hope) fiction, the backdrop against which they are played is fact, however incredible it might seem. Duns manages to handle a large cast of real (Brezhnev, Andropov, Maclean)  and fictional characters very adroitly to present an exciting and wholly engaging tale. The background notes he provides are reassuring, especially when some of the detail seems wildly implausible - would you have thought that the allies formed a "committee on dumping" at the end of the war, and disposed of 296,000 tons of captured German chemical weapons, much of it in the Baltic Sea? Me neither, but it's true.

I have been enthralled by this series, and am now thoroughly enjoying Dun's latest, of which more soon. Duns has produced a great addition to the espionage genre, informed by a deep knowledge of the cold war years, but which never loses sight of the need to keep those pages turning. Highly recommended.

Big in Japan 2

We took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto from Tokyo. These trains are an absolute delight: spacious, smooth, quiet, incredibly fast, and punctual to the second. Mobile phones are banned completely, except in the space between carriages, and even then, you are expected to keep it quiet. The result is a carefree and relaxing journey, everything a typical outing on an English inter-city train is not. And when I say speedy, I mean quick. Our train covered the 318 miles in 140 minutes. We loved the guard, who bowed and greeted the carriage before inspecting tickets. And of course, we had our planned view of Mount Fuji as we sped through the countryside.

Our lodging in Kyoto was a small apartment in a modern block just outside the centre. We took a (surprisingly cheap) taxi to the quiet street on which it was situated, collected the key, and phoned our contact (on the mobile provided) as arranged. She arrived quickly, and was very helpful, showing us how everything worked, and giving us some useful tips about the city. If you want an apartment in Kyoto, you couldn't do better. Details are here.

We liked the decor - these guys stood guard over us:

Kyoto is steeped in history, and unlike many Japanese cities, did  not suffer significant damage in the war, apparently at the behest of Roosevelt's Secretary of State for War, Henry Stimson. We walked out on the first evening to see the Pontocho area, a maze of little alleys packed with bars and restaurants. As dark descended, these places opened for the passing trade, and we enjoyed a stroll along the bustling streets, which are no more than passageways, really.

Earlier that evening, we had gone into central Kyoto to eat. One of our concerns before travelling had been about food - we thought Japan was not going to be very veggie-friendly. We were wrong. Whilst most restaurants are heavy on fish and meat, there is plenty for the vegetarian, partly as a result of Japan's apparent love affair with Italian food. As we had in Tokyo, we found an Italian restaurant, and had an excellent meal with some decent wine. We were also entertained by the waitresses. At this place, they announced, in Japanese, the meal they were serving as they approached, and then placed the dish on the table with a resounding "Buon Appetito!"

We were well placed for a stroll along the Philosopher's way, which could easily be reached on foot from our digs. On our way, we passed the Okazaki Shinto Shrine, where the presiding spirit animal is the rabbit. There were a lot of rabbits.
The daily encounter with shrines and temples (shrine: Shinto; temple: Buddhist) was to be a feature of this trip. They are everywhere. But as Prof. Macfarlane tells us, this does not necessarily indicate a devout population. Indeed, as he points out, religious belief is largely a modern phenomenon in Japan, brought about as a reaction to the growth of Western powers. In a fascinating section of his book, he discusses the origins of the renewal of Shintoism:
He goes on to point out that the chosen system was given strong support in schools and quickly became part of the cult of Emperor worship that the Japanese had chosen as a kind of counterpart to Christianity. He says:
So, whilst there was an ancient tradition which believed in guardian spirits in nature, its modern revival seems to be simply a case of expedience. And now it seems the Japanese use it in the same way some people use superstitious rituals. So if your daughter is taking an exam, you might visit the shrine, and enjoin the spirits to guide her. In a similar fashion, many houses are guarded by this guy:

He's a Tanuki, and you can find more than you really need to know about him here.

Anyway, the temples and shrines are beautiful, and they are there in abundance on the Philosopher's path, which we travelled along in bright sunshine on a beautiful day. We spent most of the day there, and saw all the major monuments. We also enjoyed browsing around the many handicraft shops that line the paths. Enough for now. More on the Philosopher's Way in the next Japan post.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jeremy Duns: Song of Treason

Not that long into this second instalment of the Paul Dark saga, I found myself reading an obscure article from the online archive of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet.  I had been moved to check something in Duns's text, because it sounded rather unlikely. Had there really been a small explosion in St Peter's, Rome in July 1962?  I clearly should have known better, having read the first novel in the series, and noted the meticulous way in which Duns contextualized his hero's adventures through  authentic historical detail, the sources for which are detailed in the extensive notes at the end of the book. The explosion, along with a mass of other real-life events, is listed in that appendix.

This instalment in Dark's history is set immediately after the end of the previous novel, in May 1969, and like its predecessor, begins with a tremendous and unexpected shock, which propels Dark into a perilous mission to Italy during which he will be once again caught between the competing demands of his cold war masters. Duns skilfully organises the narrative, using Dark's first-person account to lend immediacy to the action-packed plot. Dark, the servant of two masters, has to play one side off against another in an increasingly desperate race against time to prevent an assassination attempt. In the murky world of cold war espionage, no-one is to be trusted, and every action Dark takes is a risky one. In the end, he is forced to risk everything to stop a conspiracy that has its roots in the realignment of European power after the Second World war. As in the first volume, the narrative links together threads from Dark's past - here, his experience in Istanbul in the early fifties, as well as the crucial period in the last days of the war - to produce a complex and believable backdrop to the action.

And the action is relentless. Duns habitually uses precise dates as chapter headings - Thursday 1 May, 1969 - so the reader is aware that the plot is unfolding swiftly, and the main events of the 1969 narrative take place over just three days. The story moves at a blistering pace, hinging on Dark's increasingly frantic attempts to understand the situation he is in, and to save his skin - and that of Sarah Severn, the diplomat's wife who has become caught up in the crossfire of double-dealing and treachery that constitutes normality in Dark's world.

I enjoyed this tremendously. It is a worthy successor to Free Agent, and whets the appetite for the third story, a taster for which is added in the paperback edition. Duns has created a character who can stand alongside Smiley and Harry Palmer in the annals of cold war fiction.

Big in Japan 1

In October and November last year, 'er indoors and I travelled to Japan. We stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, and travelled to Hiroshima too. It was an absolutely fascinating trip, during which most of my preconceptions about the country were challenged, and I felt that I learned a lot, but also that there was so much more to learn. So, partly in order to debrief myself and try to make sense of what we experienced, I thought I would start a series of posts focusing on the country and our encounter with it.

Part of the preparation we did was to read a fascinating book by a Cambridge academic, Alan Macfarlane, which disarmingly starts with a confession that he feels he can never completely understand Japan, and that the "Alice in Wonderland" connotations of his title are intentional: "Japan is a one-way mirror out of which the Japanese can look, but which outsiders cannot look into. It also seems to be a world that even those inside the mirror find difficult to understand."

That was quite encouraging in a way - if a distinguished anthropologist, who had visited Japan on numerous occasions over a twenty-year period felt like this, then the pressure was off: we just needed to enjoy the experience. And we did.

Our first stop was the Japan Rail office at Narita airport, where we were to pick up our rail passes. This was a valuable lesson in Japanese mores. First, we had ordered and paid for the two-week pass online. A courier had delivered two rather flimsy chitties, which we were to present at the office. We turned up, and were met by a charming woman, who asked us to fill in a form, in which we had to give all the information we had already given online. There seemed to be no point to this: our details were surely in the system, but here, as elsewhere, we found that Japan creates jobs for its people, and this woman's job was to meet and greet, and sort out forms for tourists like us. This was our first taste of the Japanese fondness for bureaucracy and paperwork. Next, at the desk, another lovely young woman made, very deftly, the passes - stout card, with our details in ink - and then arranged, with astonishing speed and efficiency, a series of reservations for the Shinkansen bullet trains we were going to use to travel around, even making sure we had seats on the correct side to view Mount Fuji. More on the trains in a later post.

We travelled to our hotel in the business district of Tokyo, Shinjuku, and marvelled at the size of the station, and the huge numbers of people it contained - but also at the sense of calm that prevailed. In big stations in the UK, there's always that sense of chaos just beneath the surface. Here, all was serene. At the hotel, another example of job creation: instead of just going to the desk, three or four people were employed to filter you to the next available desk clerk. Again, everything was done with a smile and with great efficiency. Our room was one with everything the modern traveller might need, but, because it was a 'traditional' room, with tatami matting, it felt as if we were staying in some old Samurai dwelling, rather than on the top floor of a chic hotel.

On the street outside the hotel, some work was being done on the road, so a section was coned off - except cones weren't used. Instead, this:
Yes, the all-purpose Hello Kitty road traffic control device.

We spent just one day in Tokyo before visiting friends in Fussa, a small town to the west of the centre of the sprawling conurbation. But we returned at the end of the holiday, so more on Tokyo later. That weekend we travelled with our friends to see Mount Fuji. On a brilliant sunny day, we enjoyed some fantastic views, and also had our first temple experience. According to, "clouds and poor visibility often block the view of Mount Fuji, and you have to consider yourself lucky if you get a clear view of the mountain." So we can count ourselves lucky to have seen it like this, from Lake Kawaguchiko:

At the foot of the climbing trails up the mountain stand a series of shrines. We visited the Kitaguchihongu shrine where we saw our first glimpse of traditional dress:

Very quickly, the ultra-modern world of Tokyo seemed to fade away, to be replaced by something much more rooted in the past. Though that, as we shall see, was something of an illusion as well.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Free Agent

Spy novels have a long pedigree in English. Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) can probably be counted the first in the genre. Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands, published four years earlier, is really a thriller, establishing the John Buchan style: plucky Brit gentleman adventurer foils dastardly plot by fiendish foreigners, a template taken up enthusiastically by everyone from Agatha Christie in her first Tommy and Tuppence adventure The Secret Adversary (1922) to the Bulldog Drummond series by Sapper (1920-1937). The spy novel proper comes of age with Eric Ambler's atmospheric The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), made into a memorable film in 1944. In this novel and others, such as Journey into Fear (1940)  and The Light of Day (1962), Ambler perfected a grittily realistic style, in which the hero is often amateurishly  inadequate, but manages to achieve some sort of victory at the end. The moral universe of these novels is far removed from the complacent certainties of Buchan and Christie: here, the characters' motivations are ambivalent, and their loyalties never certain. Peter Lewis, Ambler's biographer, wrote that "Ambler raised the thriller from the subliterary depths, showing that the genre and good prose were not incompatible, and redeeming its conventions for more serious purposes than the display of macho derring-do. Virtually single-handedly, he redefined the thriller so as to make possible the achievement of such postwar realists as John le Carré and Len Deighton." That comparison is significant, showing how Ambler paved the way for the establishment of the classic cold-war spy fiction of the sixties and seventies. Ambler was admired by Graham Greene, who said he was ''the greatest living writer of the novel of suspense'' - not a bad item for the CV.

Jeremy Duns, I know, is a great fan of Ambler, and has clearly read his Le Carré and Deighton too. His series of novels featuring the spy Paul Dark is set in the late sixties, when the Cold War was at its height, and the British secret service was still recovering from the antics of Kim Philby and his colleagues. So Free Agent is clearly indebted in some ways to its sixties predecessors, but in my view Duns has hit upon an original and winning formula. Dark's surname is a clue to his hidden depths, and he can certainly surprise the reader. The novel is written, unusually for this genre, in the first person, so we experience everything through his eyes. After an intriguing opening chapter which might at first appear to be quite derivative - rogue spy is summoned to see the chief - we are hit by an enormous shock which propels the narrative forward, and the novel gathers pace from there, involving a series of twists which all ultimately derive from the young Dark's adventures in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, aspects of which we see in flashback. The tension is maintained throughout, as we accompany Dark on an improbable, but just-about-possible adventure involving devious and grubby diplomacy in Nigeria, during its civil war. Duns is very adept at using historical detail, so we encounter some real-life figures as well as his creations. I was interested to see several pages of notes at the end of the book, detailing the sources used by the author, and explaining some of his decisions. That insistence on locating the narrative in a well-documented historical context lends credibility to a story that might otherwise be fanciful. It never strays into James Bond territory, but there are a few passages which might raise an eyebrow. It's the attention to detail that keeps it grounded - for instance, Duns notes that Lagos is normally one hour ahead of London, but he has it at the same time, because Britain experimented with British Standard Time (GMT +1) during the relevant period. Would any reader have noticed this? I doubt it, but it shows how keen Duns is to get his period detail correct.

It's difficult to say more about the plot without revealing too much, so you will just have to take my word that this is a terrific, action-packed read, that manages also to present agonising moral dilemmas alongside the mayhem. Dark is a damaged figure, like the protagonists of Ambler and le Carré, and this is crucial in lifting the novel out of the "rattling good yarn" category into something more thought-provoking and complex. He is an intriguing and fully-realised character.  I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, which are set in the months after the conclusion of this one, and then will be on the lookout for the fourth book, set some years later, due out in the new year. Highly recommended, even if you are not a fan of spy fiction. This is intelligent, literate story-telling, featuring a truly gripping narrative that never fails to surprise.