Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Leslie Charteris: Salvage for the Saint (1983)

Edition: Thomas & Mercer, 2014
Review number: 1519

After almost forty years, this is the final Saint book which I am reading for the first time, as well as being the last one published (aside from the Burl Barer contributions, neither of which I've been able to like enough to read right through). Salvage for the Saint was adapted  by Peter Bloxsom from a double episode of The Return of the Saint TV series written by John Kruse, the two of them being frequent choices by Leslie Charteris to work with turning TV scripts into books.

The story starts at a motorboat race on the Isle of Wight, in which Simon Templar is unable to save fellow competitor Charles Tatenor from a fatal accident - or possibly from murder.  He also meets the dead man's beautiful widow Arabella. The action moves to the south of France (one of the favourite European locations of Saint stories), Simon to investigate the murder and Arabella to sell a yacht, as her husband unexpectedly left nothing but it and debts.

In places, Salvage for the Saint has a wistful atmosphere which is appropriate to the last novel in such a series, and includes a number of melancholy references to older Saint stories. This is far more subtle than in the Burl Barer-penned Capture the Saint, which is full of contrived attempts to introduce names of older stories into the narrative - a piece of silliness which becomes infuriating after a few pages. It was Leslie Charteris' decision to stop at this point, and these touches are perhaps pointers to this being the final Saint story.

Diving is an crucial part of Salvage for the Saint, as it was to the early novel Saint Overboard, published almost fifty years earlier. In both novels, the diving technology is important to the plot, and it is hugely different - heavy suits with air hoses to the surface are now replaced by compact scuba tanks; to read both is to have a glimpse of how much had changed during the time that Leslie Charteris was writing.

All in all, this is a worthy conclusion to the Saint saga, though it doesn't match up to the quality of the early stories. My rating: 7/10.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Leslie Charteris: Count on the Saint (1980)

Edition: Coronet, 1980
Review number: 1518

According to the saint.org website, this is by uncredited (as far as I can see) writers Graham Weaver and Donne Avenell - the same as the previous Saint book, The Saint and the Templar Treasure. Like many of the books which originated from the TV Saint adventures, Count on the Saint contains two independent stories, The Pastor's Problem and The Unsaintly Santa.

As soon as I started reading the first story, it felt as though I was back in the heyday of the Saint. This is a big contrast to The Saint and the Templar Treasure, which is a competent thriller but which is not convincing as part of the series. The setup is very Saintly indeed, as Simon Templar steals a chalice belonging to a church in order sell it to help the pastor raise money for the parish; the chalice can't be sold legitimately to raise money directly. (The chalice is meant to be real; the very obviously fake chalice shown on the cover of this edition does the story no favours.)

In his long history, Simon Templar points out several times that he is not a detective, usually before solving a mystery. The Unsaintly Santa is definitely a mystery, and Simon is definitely detecting. Set in Cambridge just before Christmas, the puzzle is to work out the identity of a killer dressed as Santa. Unlike some of the earlier attempts at detecting (where Simon's method is basically to accuse each person until the right one is exposed), this works quite well as a puzzle - but there very little need for it to be a Saint story.

For the reader, this is one of the best of the late Saint books. My rating: 8/10.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and the Templar Treasure (1978)

Edition: Coronet, 1978
Review number: 1517

Another late Saint novel, written by Donne Avenell and Graham Weaver in the days when Leslie Charteris was editing new entries in the series rather than writing them himself.

It feels like a somewhat trite idea that Simon Templar should become involved with the Knights Templar, but in fact the way it is handled is competent, if a little clich├ęd for a thriller setup - Simon gives a lift to a couple of young men heading for a French vineyard to work in the summer, and gets there to discover that someone has set the barn on fire. The vineyard is at a house which was originally one of the last Templar castles to remain in the hands of the knights after the suppression of the order by the French king in 1307, and suspected by some to hold the hidden Templar "missing" treasure (while more sober individuals suspect that the treasure never existed in the first place, and that the riches of the order were exaggerated).

While the book is satisfying as a thriller, it doesn't really read like a Saint book. It could almost be any late 1970s British thriller writer. The early Saint stories were unique, standing out from the crowd (even if they had obvious debts to Dornford Yates and Sapper), and Leslie Charteris was an expert at maintaining this specialness. It was partly that he made Simon Templar a genuinely charming character, rather than the direct man of action favoured by many other writers. That is really what is missing here; Simon Templar just isn't Simon Templar by 1978.

My rating: 6/10.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in Trouble (1978)

Edition: Coronet Books, 1978
Review number: 1516

Another compilation of stories which originally were TV episodes of Return of the Saint, The Saint in Trouble comprises The Imprudent Professor (by Terence Feely) and The Red Sabbath (by John Kruse), both adapted from the TV scripts by Graham Weaver.

In the first story, Simon Templar is asked to look out for the safety of Professor Maclett by his daughter, in the glamorous setting of Cannes. Maclett is the centre of a lot of attention, being of interest to both British and Russian spies, and the story is a hectic series of encounters between the various parties involved and the Saint. Even if only ranked against the other TV adaptations, The Imprudent Professor is not a high quality story. It seems to be Saint-by-numbers - a location which would have been exotic in 1978, beautiful women, Saintly tricks, and Simon sorting everything out in the end.

The Red Sabbath is better. It follows on directly from The Imprudent Professor, as Simon disembarks in London from the plane he took in Cannes at the end of the first story, and is accosted by men who take him to talk to an Israeli intelligence officer. This leads to Simon hunting an Arab terrorist through London, a task he invests in personally. It is perhaps more typical of other thrillers of the second half of the seventies than of the Saint oeuvre, though the nature of the story reminds the reader that Arab terrorists are not new in fiction post 9/11.

Averaging out my ratings for the two stories, I would give The Saint in Trouble a solid 5/10.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and the People Importers (1971)

Edition: Thomas & Mercer, 2014
Review number: 1515

In recent years, the news has been full of refugees; immigration, legal and illegal, is seen as a problem by many. But people have been concerned about it for decades, and even centuries, and this is a novel about illegal immigration from the early seventies (the TV episodes that the novel was based on were aired in 1969 and the book came out in 1970).

This is not the first Saint novel to take on social and political issues, including pre-war attacks on the Nazis in Prelude for War (aka The Saint Plays With Fire). Many Saint stories have a moral content, as Simon Templar is almost always taking on the bad guys in order to help an innocent victim. Here, his activity is prompted by a newspaper report of the killing of one of the immigrants as a warning by the traffickers. However, there is no serious attempt to integrate any of the issues surrounding immigration into the story, the abuse of would-be immigrants by traffickers being only the motivation for a TV thriller. The eventual "solution" to the problem of the existence of a group of rescued immigrants seems crass and insensitive today. To be fair, the TV episode and this novel were not intended as any kind of serious exploration of the issue; the adventures of the Saint are about entertainment pure and simple. The nature of the MacGuffin in The People Importers is not really suitable for this treatment, and it shows.

Like many of the TV based stories, this is a much more straightforward thriller than the earlier Charteris stories. Although his introduction says that he added his own signature touches to each one, that is little in evidence here. One for Saint collectors only, really.

My rating: 6/10.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice (2013)

Edition: Orbit, 2013
Review number: 1514

Back in 2013/4, Ancillary Justice won just about every award going in the science fiction genre: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BSFA. It's the only novel to have done this (no others have won even all the first three), though the more limited scope of some of the awards makes this slightly less impressive than it otherwise would be. It also led to suggestions that Leckie was a natural successor to Iain M. Banks (as reprinted on the back cover of this edition).

Ancillary Justice tells the story of Breq, a Radsch ancillary. The Radsch are the rulers of a space empire, colonialists dedicated to the expansion of their civilisation, and ancillaries, known colloquially as "corpse warriors", are their soldiers, basically zombies with added artificial intelligence, sharing a gestalt mind with several others of their kind. Breq is part of the mind of a warship, and she is at a colony planet when the human officers of the ship are ordered to carry out a mass murder. The ship's reaction to this leads Breq to discover that the gestalt human mind which makes up the leader of the Radsch is divided against itself, and to a journey to kill this group individual. Rather unusually for a part of a trilogy, Ancillary Justice has its own satisfying ending, which leaves enough openings for a promising second and third volume (which I have already read, as this is my second reading of the series).

The first thing that strikes me about Ancillary Justice (and its sequels) is the originality of the universe that Leckie has invented. Yes, it has echoes of other pan-galactic civilisations in science fiction, especially Banks' Culture, but it contains many different elements which make it unique, and also fascinating as expert world building. Many details contribute to this, especially the otherness of Breq. Leckie very cleverly takes ideas used in much science fiction (artificial intelligence, space travel, interstellar wars and colonial empires, telepathic communication, and so on) and gives them a novel twist, guaranteeing the interest of the long term science fiction fan.

Engagement with issues is also very clearly part of what Leckie wished to achieve, from nearly the beginning of Ancillary Justice: there are few novels which deal with why people follow orders to commit an atrocity, and what effect this has on otherwise normal, decent human beings when they have done so. And it is unusual for science fiction to deal with this kind of issue. The fictional discussion of colonialism is more commonplace, but adds another aspect to an already multiply faceted background.

Leckie manages to describe the feelings of Breq-as-part-of-a-gestalt in a convincing way to those of us who have never experienced being a mind split between several bodies. This experience is used to make Breq seem alien to the reader: successful portrayal of the alien is rare in science fiction, when it is so much easier to make an "alien" just like a human being inside a costume. Another aspect of this is provided by making Breq unable to identify the gender of the humans she meets, assigning (as she says at one point) masculinity or femininity to people based on whether she thinks their actions are masculine or feminine, which results in a fluid concept of gender, one very different to the still common binary expectations of many of today's humans. This also ties into Leckie's use of the novel to engage with issues, with its clear ties to discussions of what gender means in the twenty first century.

Science fiction, it is said, is always about the era in which it was written. And Ancillary Justice definitely has contemporary relevance. It is also a fascinating portrayal of an alien world, and an exciting story about characters the reader cares for. It is perhaps in this way that Leckie can be described as a successor to Iain M. Banks, and she joins him in my list of favourite science fiction authors. My rating: an unsurprising 10/10.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Matt Ridley: The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge (2015)

Edition: Harper Collins, 2015
Review number: 1513

While there are many interesting ideas, points and quotes in this book, I found it frustrating and unconvincing. While it is apparently about how evolution works in a number of settings, essentially those of complex emergent systems, much of it uses that as the basis for an attack on any form of control or management of these systems - it's a libertarian manifesto in all but name.

I have a fair number of issues with the book. First, and fundamentally, I don't think it makes a case for the word "evolution" being applied consistently to all the subjects. It starts, naturally enough, with one of the best known and best understood subjects, the evolution of life. Here, there is a sound mathematical foundation, a set of statistical rules which can predict many things (such as, for instance, the ways in which altruism can bestow an evolutionary advantage despite the immediate appearance that it shouldn't). While there are mathematical models for some of the other concepts, such as the economy, there isn't the same broad agreement on the most acceptable model. In some cases (education, for instance) it is hard to even see what a model would be like, and here it feels more as though something is evolutionary because it is complex and changes over time.

Second, the shortness of the treatments of the different topics makes it appear that Ridley makes his points through selective quotation. Some of the discussions do talk about other ideas in the field, but I think they are not given even the appearance of a fair hearing. Some authors are quoted repeatedly, which makes selective quoting seem more obvious. I don't think that this appearance was Ridley's intention, but it does reduce the impact of the book.

Thirdly, the book seems to me to avoid talking about some of the ethical issues involved in taking the libertarian approach. While he talks approvingly of unregulated private enterprise, and even makes it seem that this will improve the lot of everyone, the problem is that even in today's heavily regulated world, unethical individuals abuse positions of power over others: there have always been companies run as sweat shops, and we still see prosecutions for slavery and exploitation on a regular basis (especially, it seems, in those underground industries which are less regulated because of their essentially criminal nature, such as prostitution). It often seems that those who put forward libertarianism do so because they expect that they would be among the winners, and they don't really think about what this means for the losers. This isn't to say that live isn't going to be grim for the losers in the world as it is today, or hasn't been miserable in the past, and Ridley does cite several examples, including some from the worst moments of British colonialism.

Overall, there is much said which is interesting, but I found the book more frustrating than convincing. My rating: 5/10.