A puff of smoke and it’s Raymond Chandler redux
Our choice of the past fortnight’s books that matter
Let’s do some crime, shall we? Some aficionados of the genre would suggest that is exactly what Lawrence Osborne has done with Only To Sleep (Hogarth), which reimagines Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe Philip Marlowe as a 72-year-old pensioner living a quiet unremarkable life in Mexico and not, as you’d have imagined, his beloved Los Angeles. It is now 1988 and, in an unlikely scenario, Marlowe is drawn out of retirement by insurance agents who want him to ascertain whether one of their clients has really drowned or is just pulling a life insurance scam.
Osborne is the third writer, after Robert B Parker and John Banville (aka Benjamin Black), to have been approached by Chandler’s estate to pen a Marlowe novel. It is, as critics have noted, not an easy task; the writing could so easily slip into pastiche. There is some shakiness here at first, but Osborne soon settles into familiar territory and things get, well, Chandleresque: there’s a decaying grandeur of sorts to the ageing Marlowe, plus the familiar tropes of an alluring femme fatale and the mordant observations on moral exhaustion that come with life on the wrong side of the tracks – all of which makes for a satisfying and gritty read.
More darkened streets, this time London. It’s December 1952, and the post-war gloom of the city is exacerbated by thick fog, which throws up all sorts of health hazards, not the least of which is the serial killer on the loose in Dominick Donald’s impressive debut, Breathe (Hodder & Stoughton). Military veteran Richard Bourton is a probationer police officer struggling to both fit in with the force and, more importantly, convince his superiors that they have a murder mystery on their hands. They refuse to believe him, but readers will think otherwise. This is a terrific read.
Staying in London, and equally enjoyable, is another debut, Amer Anwar’s Brothers in Blood (Dialogue Books), which is set in the capital’s Asian community. Reluctant sleuth Zaq Khan, a Muslim fresh out of jail and trying to keep himself out of trouble, is ordered by his Sikh employer to find his missing daughter, Rita. Then Zaq discovers that Rita may just have had good reason to go missing.
Although routinely discredited by psychologists and academics, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator continues to be used by the lower life forms that run our human resources departments. The claim that MBTI offers meaningful insight into human personality has scientifically proven to be false, and yet companies, government departments and even academic institutions insist on using it to assess applicants and employees.
As Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford, points out in her new work, What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (William Collins), the mere explanation of the MBTI test is enough to arouse incredulity and suspicion, based as it is on the notion that our personalities are fixed at birth, and that the entire mass of culture and experience out there has no effect on shaping our lives whatsoever.
At the heart of Emre’s book is the story of the test’s developers, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. The former was born in Michigan in 1875, the daughter of a zoologist and an intensely religious mother. She married a scientist and they had three children, two of whom died. Katherine then became obsessed with the surviving Isabel, born in 1897, who was educated at home.
Isabel would eventually marry Clarence Myers, an Iowa farmer whose abrupt, no-nonsense manner came as a rude shock to Katherine, who then began to formulate her ideas of “human types”. She grew more passionate about her theories when she discovered the work of Carl Jung. Her “testing business”, and later Isabel’s, would eventually grow, according to Emre, into a global $2bn empire.
What’s Your Type? has been praised for its acute analysis of our contemporary craving for certainties about ourselves. But the truth is there are no “types”. We are, Emre suggests, all one-offs.
The shortlist for the Man Booker prize will be announced next week. Meanwhile, comes news that the prestigious award was once decided by the flip of a coin. According to the Daily Telegraph, David Storey collected the then £21,000 prize for his novel Saville through sheer luck in 1976 after a three-judge panel was unable to come to a decision.
“Novelist Walter Allen and Telegraph critic Francis King were torn between Storey’s novel and another book,” the newspaper reported. “Mary Wilson, the poet and wife of prime minister Harold Wilson, should have had the deciding vote – but she was so offended by the amount of sex in that year’s novels she refused to take part in the debate, according to the prize's former administrator Martyn Goff.”
The newspaper quoted Goff as saying, “They could not agree, and she didn't want a vote. We got to a total stalemate. Eventually, one of the other two judges said ... ‘The only thing we can do is –‘ (and this has never been revealed before) ‘– is to toss for it.’ So they spun a coin, and that was the winner.”
To the UK, where Brexiteers have been warned against “refighting” World War 2 and urged against regarding Britain as a lone and brave island resisting the tyranny of Europe. Thing is, though, they can’t help it; the war is a national obsession that, as one London columnist put it, is “celebrated and dissected” over and over. Bestseller lists, Clare Foges, wrote in the Times, “almost continually feature tomes on the war; Amazon has more than 20,000 books on Churchill alone”.
How refreshing then that almost 75 years since the end of the war, historians are still able to uncover new stories – and, indeed, previously unsung heroes – from the conflict to enthral readers. One such author is Robert Hutton, whose new book, Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), reveals the story of a remarkable “Fifth Column” operation.
The Jack of the title was Jack King, supposedly an undercover Gestapo agent in wartime Britain, and a man to whom would-be saboteurs, seditionists and spies, as well as angry housewives, antisemitic extremists in the aristocracy, Churchill-haters, hardcore members of the British Union of Fascists, lonely spinsters and various nutters, would hand over information to be passed on to Berlin. Many of them, according to Hutton, were exceptionally stupid.
In real life, though, King was Eric Roberts, a mild-mannered banker who had been recruited by MI5 shortly after he’d joined a small extreme right-wing organisation in 1924. Set a fascist to trap a fascist, as they say. By the late 1930s, and as the war progressed, Roberts built up an extensive network of British Nazi sympathisers. A small inner group readily supplied him information they believed would be going to Berlin. Instead, it went to MI5.
Two of Roberts’s “star traitors” were Hans Kohout, an Austrian-born scientist who had lived in England since 1929 and had, among other secrets, passed over details of early night vision equipment for aircraft and radar-fooling technology, and Marita Perigoe, a housewife who had stolen blueprints from Rolls Royce, makers of the powerful Merlin engines used in RAF fighters.
After the war, MI5 chose not to prosecute any of their spies, partly because they feared they wouldn’t secure convictions if their defence could successfully argue in court that they had been provoked into disloyalty. They also didn’t want the Home Office to be aware of their wartime activities, some of which, according to Hutton, were even kept from Churchill. It was also decided that the spies could still be useful sources after the war if they continued to provide information on fascist organisations. To encourage them to do so, MI5 gave the spies forged Nazi medals in a secret and solemn ceremony in January 1946.
The “medals” were the brainchild of Victor Rothschild, the banker who had started the fifth-column operation after joining MI5 in 1940. During the last months of the war, he’d asked the Royal Mint, which his family owned, to knock up copies of the bronze Kriegsverdienstkreuz Second Class, the Nazi medal awarded for non-combatant gallantry. According to MI5 records, Perigoe and Kohout were “extremely gratified” and Perigoe even said she would keep hers in the stuffing of an armchair.
“There were quite a few of these medals around at the end of the war,” the Times quoted Hotton as saying. “So it’s quite possible they were given genuine ones. But the records do suggest that having spent the war as fake German spies, Perigoe and Kohout finished it receiving Nazi medals that were forged by the world’s most famous Jewish bank.”
MORE WAR STORIES
Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard, covered the Vietnam War as a young correspondent in the early 1970, and has now written an acclaimed history of that conflict, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (William Collins).
One advance notice, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Fredrik Logevall, describes it as “a tour de force, a deft, engrossing and admirably fair-minded chronicle of the three-decades-long struggle for Vietnam. It’s narrative history at its very finest.” Another, by General Walt Boomer, a US Marine veteran, claims it is “the ‘bible’ for anyone who wants to understand the war”.
Among the many personal accounts of the war that Hastings has assembled for his book, published later this month, is the story of Nguyen Thi Chinh, South Vietnam’s foremost screen star. She flew out of Saigon in 1975 with a diplomatic passport in the dying moments of the war but by the time she landed in Singapore it was worthless; the Thieu regime which had given it to her had collapsed.
After being detained in Singapore, she flew on to Paris, where immigration authorities pushed her on to London where officials put her on a flight to New York. There she was again turned away before finally being admitted to Canada. In Toronto she was given a coat, $75 and, as a strict condition of entry, ordered to find immediate employment. Canada’s first ever Vietnamese refugee got a $2 an hour job as a cleaner on a chicken farm.
She had some friends in Hollywood, though, and eventually Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock’s The Birds, flew her to Los Angeles. There, in the years that followed, she went on to act in almost a hundred movies, including the screen version of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, as Kieu Chinh.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“I lost myself in Ted rather than finding myself.” — The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume II, 1956-1963, edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil (Faber).