Thursday, 13 November 2008

Not exactly thrilled

Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood (although when I bought it I thought I was); maybe it was watching the excellent BBC series, The State Within, at the same time as reading; maybe it was coming to the book straight after Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – but Frederick Forsyth’s ‘thriller’, The Afghan proved to be more a damp squib than pyrotechnic display.

All the constituent parts were in place – action man hero, terrorist bad guys, secret service intrigue and obligatory cock-up and miss-timings; suitable locations were exploited; enough people, including the obligatory innocent, were killed – but nothing stood out, nothing gripped – it was just like sitting in a cooling bath – warm enough to keep you in, but almost cold enough to force you to move: Inertia is a significant factor in the choices people make.

In previous Forsyth reads I’ve never been so unexcited – or uninterested.

Key to my disappointment is this feeling of detachment – I quite frankly didn’t care about any of the participants. It is in the nature of the genre that character is not greatly developed, but there is a need for a sharpness of outline, some individuation, telling details to hook on to. Mike Martin, the hero, is far too obvious to be real – there is no way I want a Colonel in the SAS to have Lawrence of Arabia as his favourite film – or to think in terms of tatty emotional-knee-jerk poetry: This is dumbing-down in an obvious way. The Afghan himself – prisoner in Guantanamo - despite showing flickers of life, especially in his youth, turns into the ‘justified’ terrorist; Forsyth’s attempts to humanise sounding more like wishy-washy liberal, coffee-table sociology than solid realities.

So too with the locations. In Forsyth’s Icon I could recognise Russia – the Moscow of post Soviet collapse – and that despite knowing factually it was not quite right in several places (I was living in Moscow at the time I read it); what it captured was one of the senses of psychological place that were potentially post Yeltsin Moscva.

Not one location in The Afghan gave me anything other than a feeling of umbrella-stand to hang a piece of plot on. Whether it was the seriously spectacular mountains of Afghanistan, the luscious blues of the Arabian gulf, the dripping mosquito heat of the tropics or the cold chill rounding the southern tip of Africa late in winter – none appeared in my inner mind as I read of events taking place ostensibly in a globalised terrorists-free-to-wander world.

Strangely, at times, I had a suspicion that Forsyth was thinking in terms of film – sketching in plot and focus points which the actual location will screen fill, the sound effects and music-track excite, the quick cutting and camera close-up thrill. There was no stronger incident in the book than the Russian helicopter rising into the air and coming into the attack – it would make a stunning sequence – on the page it was reduced to events.

I will watch the film when it comes out – it should be a good action movie (although the basic terrorist plot did stretch believability I’m afraid). The book, however, is destined for the reject pile.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Ultimate Deception

Agatha Christie’s job, as a writer of Detective Novels, was, paradoxically, to hide the criminal – much like a spiv with the card game, Hide the Lady. Even though the punter aims to find the card – and makes wild guesses (based, of course, on superior talents) the side-show spiv will win every time – maybe it’s just a trick, a slight of hand, but we come back again and again in the vain hope of putting one over on the expert.

Not much hope, I’m afraid!

‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ has to be Ms Christie’s ultimate deception – it certainly had me fooled right ‘til the end. No matter where I looked, the Lady was hidden.

Up pop all the usual suspects – and with a Christie you know if someone is accused, it isn’t them. One by one she knocks out everyone – and I do mean everyone! Surely she hasn’t had a total stranger do the murder?

No, the wrist works it’s magic: Poirot, shows you the superiority of his little grey cells and you loose again.

And I can’t tell you the secret – I won’t spoil the thrill.

What I will say is it is beautifully done.

Agatha Christie manages here to exploit the genre ‘Detective Novel’ in a way which relies on the reader’s knowledge of all the usual tricks, of lulling them into a false sense of security and then flipping them onto their backs. It is a book to be read rather than a story to be told – and despite the amazing craftsmanship of Granada television’s version with David Suchet, it fails precisely because this is not only a story but an exploration of the relationship between reader and writer.

Poirot has gone into retirement – Hastings is away in Argentina, Scotland Yard is not involved. A local rich man is the victim of murder (the only one, incidentally in the story – the TV version needed to double the number, bring Inspector Japp in where he wasn’t wanted and simplify the plot by removing a couple of key characters). There is blackmail and love, lost wedding rings and phone calls in the night.

Poirot, after throwing marrows around, one of which lands in his neighbour’s garden and smashes open at the feet of the doctor, is brought in on the sidelines – he hardly features in fact. There is a chair out of place, a man arrested in Liverpool, and the delicate feelings of the local constabulary all to be taken into consideration.

And a lot of consideration is being done by a local tribe of Miss Marples. Nosey old women pop up in profusion – and references to the greatest detective of all times can’t be avoided: The story is retold by the Doctor whose shoes were splattered – a Watson to Poirot’s Holmes.

As you would expect, it is the twist and turns of the plot that matter rather than deep characterisation, but to suggest the book is shallow as a result would be to deny the profound insight Ms Christie shows into the psychology of her readership.

The term masterpiece has been justifiably applied to the book – and I fully concur.

Just make sure you read the book before you see the film!