Archive for John Buchan


Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2023 by dcairns

I got hooked on Margery Allingham’s Campion books last year. I think she rates a couple of posts at least.

Allingham created her fictional detective Albert Campion in her second published novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929), and kept writing about him the rest of her life, with a little time off for side-projects. On the face of it, Campion is a somewhat derivative character — he has a lot in common with Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and a little in common with Raffles, Boston Blackie, the Lone Wolf and the Falcon. He’s a very posh gent who hides behind a veneer of Bertie Woosterish silly-ass buffoonery and large horn-rimmed spectacles. But he’s also acquired the agility of a cat-burglar, the ability to pick locks, and the friendship and occasional assistance of many in the criminal underworld. He has an ex-con, Lugg, as manservant: a large, lugubrious man, he serves the same role as Blackie’s “the Runt,” while being his physical opposite.

The familiarity of these tropes adds to the books’ golden-age aura of cosiness, but in fact they’re quite unconventional as well. Allingham could write tight, fair-play mysteries when she chose to, but wasn’t satisfied limiting herself to that form. The Crime at Black Dudley plays like DIE HARD in a country house, with an unexplained murder happening during a hostage crisis. Campion himself is a supporting character and something of a deux ex machina. The only weakness is that the solution to the mystery depends entirely on information learned in the last chapter. I think if Allingham had constructed a real whodunnit and staged it against the backdrop of a group jeopardy thriller, she’d have had a really nice twist on the format. This would still be a good idea if somebody did it.

There was a TV show… I may have to check it out.

A couple of subsequent novels (Black Dudley and Mystery Mile) pit Campion against a Mabusean criminal outfit, “the Simister Gang” (Allingham’s character names tend towards the Dickensian). Police at the Funeral employs a really great twist, on a par with Christie’s genre-bending “the detective did it” and “the narrator did it” and “everybody did it” revelations. But by the time of Death of a Ghost in 1934, she’s experimenting with the structure: the killer is known halfway through the book, and the tension comes from the question of “How can we get any evidence to convict?” This kind of radical non-whodunnit approach recurs semi-regularly in MA’s books.

There’s also a bold streak of John Buchanesque adventuring, with international intrigues (Sweet Danger) and large-scale domestic espionage (Traitor’s Purse). The last-named is one of two wartime novels that hint that Campion has joined British Intelligence – these books also show the influence of American pulp fiction and noir. TP combines its wartime forgery plot (the Germans, it turned out later, really DID plot to destabilise the UK economy with forged banknotes) with a homegrown fascist villain suggestive of Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife *and* an amnesia ploy suggestive of… well, everything. SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT and TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE and SPELLBOUND hadn’t been made yet, though, so it may well be a literary influence rather than a movie one. What were the hot amnesia stories in 1942? The second wartime book, Coroner’s Pidgin, uses the gimmick of the hero always being frustrated in his desire to sleep, eat or drink, and adds to this his desire to get away to his country retreat, for reasons not revealed until the rather moving final chapter.

Oh yes, Campion gets romantic interest, unlike a lot of his fellow sleuths (Agatha Christie turned down a lucrative MGM deal because they wouldn’t guarantee Poirot’s celibacy). Allingham works her way up to this gently, and it’s part of the gradual evolution that sees her hero becoming less eccentric and caricatured, and more real.

The best-known of the books is Tiger in the Smoke, which sidelines Campion so much that the film version was able to leave him out entirely. I’ve written about the movie before but want to revisit it. Seeing it in the light of the book makes its weaknesses more obvious but it’s still an interesting thing, with its own mystery about it. Again, a comparison with Nicholas Blake’s work is possible: when Claude Chabrol adapted Blake’s The Beast Must Die, he also found it convenient to delete the sleuth, Nigel Strangeways (originally inspired by the personality of W.H. Auden). The recent Ridley Scott-produced TV version reinstated Strangeways and made everything worse.

Several fans remark on Allingham’s work lacking the snobbery and racism of other golden age writers, but this is not entirely correct. There’s some throwaway antisemitism and hackneyed post-WWI evil Huns in the early books, the working-class characters tend very much to the caricatured (though Lugg is lovable), and Campion himself is discernibly High Tory, like his creator. But it’s true that the moments of discomfort are rare enough that the books are still very enjoyable, and Allingham writes a hell of a lot better than Sax Rohmer:

The fog had crept into the taxi where it crouched panting in a traffic jam. It oozed in ungenially, to smear sooty fingers over the two elegant young people who sat inside. They were keeping apart self-consciously, each stealing occasional glances in the same kind of fear at their clasped hands resting between them on the shabby leather seat.

I still have a ton of these to read. Maybe we’ll eventually get THREE blog posts out of them?

Nobody’s Not Perfect

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2022 by dcairns

I was reading this interesting thread on Twitter about how Matthew Vaughan’s film of THE KING’S MAN plays like a film adaptation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There’s a fun podcast link at the end too, but for the record, John Buchan’s name is pronounced BUCK-ann, and I think the Catholicism and Scottishness of Mark Millar, the original author of the Kingsman comics, are relevant too. It all struck a chord because in a moment of weakness I had run THE GENTLEMEN, directed by Vaughan’s old mate Guy Ritchie, which seemed to relish the opportunity to drop in as many racial slurs as possible. And then we added to the general toxicity by watching NOBODY.

The Vaughan film sets about creating a fantastical alternative history in which Lenin and Hitler can be co-conspirators. I think you can play about with that stuff just for fun, but the kind of fun you have will always betray an ideology. Millar is both Catholic (conservative) and a Labour supporter (left), but Vaughan is a hardcore Tory boy who once wrote an article linking, in terms of “optimism”, Thatcherism and STAR WARS. It was pointed out that the first Lucas film actually came out when Labour were in power, but I doubt that changed any of his views. He surely knows that, for Lucas, the Empire represented American and the Rebel Alliance the “Viet Cong.”

THE GENTLEMEN is slickly assembled and has a very amusing performance by Hugh Grant, which allows him to get a but more revenge against the gutter press by playing a sleazy, blackmailing newspaperman. The narrative follows the familiar Ritchie pattern by allowing plotlines to proliferate dizzily, no matter if all the plates are kept spinning — I counted several narrative threads that seemed to wind away to nothing. Ritchie has never been strong on endings, perhaps because his films aren’t fundamentally about anything, so how can they reach conclusions? Or, rather, they disavow what they’re about, which is thuggery and crime. Since Ritchie isn’t really sincere in his admiration for murderers (only somewhat), he has to dance backwards away from any commitment. Here, he swipes the ending of THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY *twice*, but can’t quite bring himself to even attempt Bob Hoskins’ famous long-held reaction shot, since (a) it would be a grotesquely obvious swipe and (b) he doesn’t have Hoskins to pull it off.

(Director John MacKenzie asked Hoskins to replay the entire film in his head, reflecting on how his character got to this exact point, and the actor does it beautifully. It’s a variation on his celebrated turn for the Ken Campbell Roadshow as a man with an earwig burrowing through his brain. “You could tell exactly where in his brain the earwig was,” enthused Campbell, “just by the acting”.)

THE GENTLEMEN has Chinese bad guys (Malaysian actor Henry Golding deserves to be a big star) so that the other characters can talk about “Chinamen.” And it has a gay Jewish bad guy (Jeremy Strong), and while homophobic slurs are resisted, his homosexuality is part of his villainy, and the movie gets away with calling him “the Jew” because in one case it’s Hugh Grant’s sleazeball talking and in another it’s Michelle Dockery, whose character is also Jewish. But she’s Jewish just so she can say that line, her race or religion are otherwise irrelevant.

Enough. THE GENTLEMEN is slickly made but and the performances (Charlie Hunnam especially) are often amusing, but it is of interest, I think, mainly for its mainstreaming of racism, which makes it the cinematic answer to Trump and Boris Johnson.

(SPOILER: at the climax, we’re apparently meant to enjoy Matthew McConaughey demanding a pound of flesh from Strong’s evil Jew.)

NOBODY isn’t as vile as that, but it again has the problem of not being sincere about what it’s about. Bob Odenkirk is a regular Joe who’s pushed into extremes (but not really) by criminals, and becomes a bad-ass, except (plot twist) it turns out he was never ordinary, he was a special ops guy playing the part of an ordinary guy. Unleashing his insanely violent alter ego turns out to be an entirely good thing: lots of Russian mafia guys get killed, but no nice people are seriously harmed. The fights are very well-staged except when they try to convince us that the hero’s aged dad (Christopher Lloyd) is also an action hero. Our man discovers that his newly-released machismo adds spice to his marriage. The message is, if possible, worse than that of DEATH WISH, though more cloaked in fantasy. “We don’t really mean it!” the filmmakers are saying. “We don’t mean ANYTHING!”

Odenkirk turning out to have always been a ice killer effectively removes the tension created by his being a normal dude, and we then have a superhero movie, with even more carnage and even less jeopardy or sense of reality than usual.

(The film is stylishly directed by Ilya Naishmuller. JOHN WICK screenwriter Derek Kolstad wrote it, and this time, instead of a dog, it’s the hero’s daughter’s stolen kitty-kat bracelet that motivates the carnage.)

The other bum note is struck by the extra features on the secondhand DVD I acquired: all the stuntmen, fight arrangers and trainers sing Oedenkirk’s praises, celebrating how hard he pushed himself so he could do his own stunts. All recorded prior to Oedenkirk’s near-fatal heart attack.

“Was that film worth his nearly dying?” asked Fiona. Now, it would be impossible to prove that the exertions of NOBODY caused the ticker trouble, but it does seem plausible that Bob overdid it. And we don’t want to lose Bob. So no sequels, please?

Page Seventeen II: Attack of the Clones

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 6, 2021 by dcairns

Leaving the Church changed Luis’s intellectual habits as well. Until then, he had coasted along on the usual teenage reading: Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter, with the occasional Spanish feuilleton. Afterwards, Darwin, Nietzsche, Kropotkin and novelists of the Spanish realist tradition replaced them. Luis never went back to reading for recreation. In his seventies, the books on his shelves were histories of the Church, some surrealist poetry, and Heni Fabre’s pioneering texts on insects. If one wanted sex, action and travel to exotic lands, they were more easily found in the real world.

“I’ve had time to think it through,” Boyd said. “I’ve come to terms with it. I can accept the fact, but not too well, only barely. Luis, do you have some explanation? How come you are so different from the rest of us?”

He did not believe, and yet he admitted the supernatural. Right here on earth how could any of us deny that we are hemmed in by mystery, in our homes, in the street, – everywhere when we come to think of it. It was really the part of shallowness to ignore these extrahuman relations and account for the unforeseen by attributing to fate the more than inexplicable. Did not a chance encounter often decide the entire life of a man? What was love, what the other inescapable shaping influences? And, knottiest enigma of all, what was money?

The 12th came, and he shot wretchedly, for his nerve had gone to pieces. He stood exhaustion badly, and became a dweller about the doors. But with this bodily inertness came an extraordinary intellectual revival. He read widely in a blundering way, and he speculated unceasingly. It was a characteristic of the man that as soon as he left the paths of the prosaic he should seek the supernatural in a very concrete form. He assumed that he was haunted by the devil – the visible personal devil in whom our fathers believed. He waited hourly for the shape at his side to speak, but no words came. The Accuser of the Brethren in all but tangible form was his ever present companion. He felt, he declared, the spirit of old evil entering subtly into his blood. He sold his soul many times over, indeed there was no possibility of resistance. It was a Visitation more undeserved than Job’s, and a thousandfold more awful.

Before he quitted it, he held up the dim light, and looked around him with a mixture of terror and curiosity. There was a great deal of decayed and useless lumber, such as might be supposed to be heaped up to rot in a miser’s closet; but John’s eyes were in a moment, and as if by magic, rivetted on a portrait that hung on one wall, and appeared, even to his untaught eye, far superior to the tribe of family pictures that are left to moulder on the walls of a family mansion. It represented a man of middle age. There was nothing remarkable in the costume, or in the countenance, but the eyes, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen, and feels they can never forget. Had he been acquainted with the poetry of Southey, he might have exclaimed in his after-life, ‘Only the eyes had life, They gleamed with demon light.’ – Thalaba.

‘Excuse me,’ said the impenetrable Scotchman. ‘I beg to suggest that you are losing the thread of the narrative.’

‘Anyway,’ Mavis was anxious to reassure him that she had not lost track of the original topic, ‘it’s the same with Swiss Cheese Plants. They’re strong. Any conditions will suit them and they’ll strangle anything that gets in their way. They use–they used to use them, I should say–the big ones to fell other trees in Paraguay. I think it’s Paraguay. But when it comes to getting the leaves to separate, well, all you can say is that they’re bastards to train. Like strong men, I guess. In the end you have to take ’em or leave ’em as they come.’

Seven extracts from seven pages seventeens selected willy-nilly from my charity shop hauls and library visits. Wilkie Collins’ Armadale is my current reading matter, and very thrilling it is too, with shipwrecks, murder, dream detection and sinister schemes. It actually has a chapter entitled “The Plot Thickens” and may even mark the origin of that expression. Highly recommended if you want something fat and gripping, and you have no Laird Cregar in your life.

Thanks to Jeff Gee for the Simak.

Bunuel by John Baxter; Grotto of the Dancing Deer by Clifford D. Simak, from The Best Science Fiction of the Year 10 edited by Terry Carr; La-Bas by J.K. Huysmans; The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan, from Scottish Ghost Stories, selected by Rosemary Gray; Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin; Armadale by Wilkie Collins; The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming by Michael Moorcock.