Archive for Len Deighton

Extract from novel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2020 by dcairns

I won’t do this too often, I promise. Mostly I’ll just sneak in quiet plugs here and there. But this is a full-on extract from my novel, We Used Dark Forces, which is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US and from all the other Amazons.

Anne Billson, critic and novelist (Suckers, The Half Man, Cats on Film) said “Like the bastard offspring of Agatha Christie and HP Lovecraft squished through an Ealing comedy mangler and running amok in a Scottish castle at the height of the Blitz. Slapstick surrealism at its most compelling and hilarious. Whitsuntide is an anti-hero for the ages.”

David Quantick, screenwriter (The Thick of It, Veep, TV Burp) said: “We Used Dark Forces is a twisted mixture of dark wit, wry horror and splendidly-applied imagination.”

Wry horror is going to be my speciality, I think. Now for the extract. I think I was inspired here, if I may use that word, by seeing a TV doc years ago about Len Deighton’s nameless spy (later to become Harry Palmer, the blandest name they could think of), where one of the talking heads on offer exaggerated the facelessness of the character somewhat. A seed was planted, and I began to consider blandness as a superpower.

Inspector Graham There has been summoned to Scotland Yard Underground to receive a strange commission from Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram. Now read on…

It’s hard to describe Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram, let alone sum him up. He’d occupied a senior position at Scotland Yard for some fifty years, yet still had the vigour of a man ten years younger: perhaps ninety or so. He eyed me with, well, an eye, an eye which had seen things I’d never dreamed of, and probably vice versa. You hear of people having a faraway look. Sir Sheckley had the opposite of that. In his presence, I had never felt more in someone’s presence. But the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“Then?” he asked. This rather threw me. Then I surmised it was, perhaps, a stab at my name.

“There, sir,” I corrected him, as respectfully as possible.

“Here?” he asked, which didn’t seem to get us much further.

“Here to see you,” I agreed, then added, a bit uncertainly, “There.”

“Sit down there,” he ordered, or it might have been “Sit down, There.” He nodded at a spot on the rug, but I chose to interpret his nod loosely, and opted for the nearest chair.

“I have a case that’s perfect for you,” he said, flipping open a folder. Then he seemed to forget I was present. Which I’m used to.

“Very gratifying, sir,” I said, hoping to bring things into focus again.

“You needn’t feel flattered,” he snapped. “It isn’t any particular great quality that suits you to this job. Rather, it’s your singular lack of qualities.”

“Sir?”

“Your superiors tell me you’re apt, those of them that remember you exist. Good. I need an apt man who makes as little impression as possible, and you seem to satisfy the latter requirement to a staggering degree. You have no distinguishing traits. No personality. People not only forget you after they meet you, they seem to forget you while they’re meeting you. I’m looking right at you and I can barely see you.”

“Sir?”

“You have a rare talent, Where, you’re a human chameleon. A man of a thousand faces, all of them identical. You’ve heard the expression ‘The best place to hide a leaf is in a forest’? You, sir, are our forest.”

“Sir?”

“We’ve had our eye on you for some time, or at least I think we have. Not my eye, of course, my eye was taken out by a Mahdi spear in ’85. This one’s onyx. No, I mean the great, all-seeing eye of the Yard, which does all our head-hunting. And not like the head-hunters who got mine and shrunk it in ’92, I mean in a benign, caring way. This one’s brass, mostly. Works like a charm. Amazing what the boffins can do nowadays.”

“Sir?” – there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, you know, and this repeated monosyllable did seem to have the effect of spurring him on. All I could hope for at this stage was to keep the conversation in some kind of motion, in the vague expectation of ending up somewhere comprehensible again.

“My point is that you, sir, are a find. A miracle, a prodigy, no, better than that, a freak of nature. A vacuum in human form, without a shred of charisma or charm or even basic human dignity. When you walk into a room it’s like somebody left. As you approach, you seem to get further away. The more I look at your blank, lifeless features, the more fascinated I become by my blotter.”

“Sir…” I tried to repurpose my word as a sort of remonstrance.

“Have much trouble getting served in bars?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“No. Just you.”

I must admit, he was starting to get on my nerves, partly because there was a nagging ring of truth to his words, as if he were writing my spiritual biography, summing up the way I’d seemed to spend my thirty-two years passing through the world without leaving a ripple.

“You exemplify all the negative qualities, Then,” he was saying. “You name it, you haven’t got it.”

“There,” I corrected. “There!”

“No need to console me, you’re the one with the terrible problem.”

“But there must be millions like me.”

“Yes,” he said, pounding the desk with his hook, “But not exactly like you. Whereas you are exactly like you, to a quite startling degree. You’re like an empty suit of clothes walking around, talking, eating watercress sandwiches — though obviously not as interesting as that would be. But this gives you an advantage over the common man, or should I say, the slightly less common man. You can vanish into a crowd because you are the crowd. Everyone assumes they already know you because you’re like everybody else, more like them than they are. A resemblance without an original. An exact lookalike of nobody special. Where other people have presence, you have absence. If you stood in front of another man, I’d still be able to see him better than you. You’re not a person, you’re not even an outline. You’re the echo of an unspoken thought. The sound of one hand failing to clap.”

Pg. 17, #14

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2020 by dcairns

Cruising on Commonwealth Avenue, Special Officer James Mellon and Sergeant John Driscoll of Homicide heard the dispatcher’s message over their radio. Mellon swung the car round. ‘They’ll want us over there anyway, may as well go now.’ A moment later the order came sending them to 77 Gainsborough Street, too. A few minutes after eight o’clock Officer Mellon walked into Apartment 3F. As he came through the door he found himself in a tiny foyer; directly before him the living-room desk with a lamp, a telephone and the tiny Latvian flag. Mellon’s first impression was of neatness. The very floor gleamed. A policeman was seated near the desk making out his report. Mellon glanced automatically to the left, towards the rear, bedroom section of the apartment. ‘Where’s the body?’ he asked.

*

He was so small that they towered over him and as they crossed the second threshold and came into his home it was they, the two senior policemen, who caught the full impact of that first unforgettable scene.

*

Once partly used as a showroom for new Chrysler cars, the lobby underwent a comprehensive restoration in the late 1970s. the work brought many features back to their original glory, notably the red-veined African marble walls and the elevators’ plush laminated wood interiors. Although an observation level once existed at the base of the spire, there are now no public areas on the upper floors, and visitors must content themselves with admiring Edward Trumbel’s lobby mural depicting diverse images on themes of transportation.

*

An officer searches an abandoned building for clues: in a stairwell he finds the skeleton of a forty-year-old man. A tracking dog returns to its master — with the skull of an adult female in its jaws. The weekly citizen area-sweeps routinely turn up caches of guns and stolen goods. Peaceable burglars panic at road-blocks.

*

Remembering the girl he fell asleep, and when he woke up he went to the telephone, without thinking, and asked the hotel operator to get him Corbett at Ryan’s Gymnasium, and call him back. A moment later the telephone rang. He answered it, and Corbett said, “Hello, is that you, Joe?”

*

Joe chirped. I read Jean’s card. ‘”Jean-Paul Pascal, artist painter”. And good friend to princes,’ I said. Joe nodded.

*

‘But what is the black spot, captain?’ I asked.

*

You know the drill… seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books. Splitscreen image from THE BOSTON STRANGLER.

The Boston Strangler, by Gerald Frank; The China Governess, by Margery Allingham; The AA Essential Guide to New York; by Mick Sinclair; The Killings in Atlanta, by Martin Amis, from the collection The Moronic Inferno; Dear Baby, by William Saroyan; An Expensive Place to Die, by Len Deighton; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson;

The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2020 by dcairns

I’m finally reading The Disenchanted, the 1950 novel by Budd Schulberg, a Penguin paperback I inherited from my old friend Lawrie Knight years ago. It’s falling to bits as I read it, adding a certain pathos to the already sad story.

The book has multiple cinematic-literary connections, both as a text and a crumbling physical object. Schulberg, the son of Paramount boss B.P. Schulberg, was a 25-year-old screenwriter working for Walter Wanger when he was assigned Scott Fitzgerald as writing partner. Their extremely unsuccessful attempts to collaborate form the subject of this book, which is stuffed with walk-ons by film biz personalities.

It also has a front cover illo by Len Deighton.

I’m enjoying it — though some have doubts, which I share, about whether Schulberg is entirely honest about the events he covers. Of course, he fictionalizes like crazy, as is his right: names are changed; Schulberg’s fictive avatar is described as “handsome,” which is hilarious when you see the author photo on the back where he looks like a bump on a tree; his mogul dad is eliminated to erase any hint of nepotism and make “Shep” seem like an independent success.

The more serious bit is about Budd/Shep’s failure to stop Fitzgerald/Halliday from drinking. Shep has apparently read everything by Halliday but doesn’t know he’s a struggling alcoholic — in this fictional reality there’s conveniently no equivalent of The Crack-Up.  The real Schulberg said he had no idea about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and nobody warned him he was partly being paid to keep it under control. So practically the first thing he does is urge the author to have a drink. And he keeps doing so, all through the book. Schulberg has Halliday tell him this is necessary, now that he’s started back on the booze he can’t afford to dry out until the job is done. Retelling the story, as he did often, Schulberg would omit this vital exchange, so did it happen? Did he ply his hero with drink to get stories out of him? Because that’s the glowing subtext.

Schulberg seems like a bad choice for the role of nurse: he was a bit of a boozer himself, and he makes Shep one. Shep finds a drink useful to prepare him for all sorts of activities, like meeting his boss. Like a lot of mid-twentieth-century literature, it really gives you a sense of how socially omnipresent drink was.

Fitzgerald’s partner, Sheilah Graham, never forgave him for this book — and who can blame her? — but it’s actually very sympathetic — maybe it’s the real-life events she should have held the grudge over.

Anyway, here’s an extract — Halliday is a man who remains insightful and eloquent even when so sloshed he can barely speak coherently, and his thoughts on Chaplin, which I’d like to believe are really Fitzgerald’s, are wonderfully sharp.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream. Girl he falls in love with, ‘thereal, too beautiful, way little boys fall in love with grown-up women from a distance. Dances with ’em, makes love to ’em, gives ’em won’erful presents, all in a dream. ‘member City Lights. And that face on Charlie. From ridic’lous to sublime no cliché for Charlie. Real art, real tragedy, only tragedy I ever saw in movies. That face on Charlie. The pain. I c’n seen it right now. All his pictures, same idea, the dream’s a beautiful balloon, a kid’s balloon, and reality’s a sharp point on a fence. The balloon drifts over the forbidden garden, hits the point ‘n bursts — way all of us wake up right back where we were. Chaplin’s the only one saw the movie as the bes’ medium in the worl’ for dreams, the child being the father, the tramp being the millionaire, the homely little bum being the elegant Don Juan. […]

“‘member one picture little one-reeler, can’t even ‘member the name of it. Charlie’s a drink being dragged along, grabs a bush as he struggles, finds a daisy in his hand. Daisy changes mood entirely. Becomes a poet, a dreamer, an aesthete. So convincing it looks like impro – improvisation an’ when you think of Charlie as a child not even unrealistic, you know the way a little boy sees a toy boat an’ becomes a boat captain, picks up a gun an’ goes right into character as a soldier. See what I mean? Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Like The Gold Rush. […] If movies didn’t die so fast it’d be considered a permanent classic like Hamlet or Cyrano. Funny as hell on the surface and full of inner meanings an’ the idea, the Gold Rush, just when the whole country was rushing for gold. Money crazy. […]

“I’m no analyst, but I could analyse Chaplin from his comedies — that’s how true they are. […] Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out. Conflict with the father, whether Charlie sees it or not. All Charlie’s pictures full of it. Psychiatrist c’d do a helluva book on Charlie’s movies. […] What’m I talking about?”

“The Chaplin movies.”

“…don’t switch from comedy to tragedy. No phony, mechanical change o’ pace. The funniest parts, the parts where you laugh the loudest, are tragic. That’s where the genius comes in…”

Good stuff, eh, even if Freudian interps always start to feel sterile and reductive after a while. Incidentally, if the one-reeler cited is genuine, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can identify it.