Veni, vidi, video

D.A.N. Jones

  • Dangerous Pursuits by Nicholas Salaman
    Secker, 192 pp, £7.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 436 44086 5
  • Monimbo by Robert Moss
    Weidenfeld, 384 pp, £7.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 297 78166 9
  • The Last Supper by Charles McCarry
    Hutchinson, 427 pp, £8.96, May 1983, ISBN 0 09 151420 7
  • Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Heinemann, 179 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 434 23700 0
  • August 1988 by David Fraser
    Collins, 235 pp, £8.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 00 222725 8
  • The Cure by Peter Kocan
    Angus and Robertson, 137 pp, £5.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 207 14589 X

It would be easy to overpraise Dangerous Pursuits. This is a comedy of surveillance, dealing with in-store video monitors, hardware and software, amateur and professional police espionage, counter-terrorism, peeping toms and voyeurs. Everyone is bugged. Nicholas Salaman has plotted his book so deftly, with almost plausible pranks and conspiracies, surprises and reversals, sexual depravities and savage cruelties, that it sometimes resembles a first-rate spy thriller. But, despite the melancholy conclusion, Dangerous Pursuits is truly comic, dipping easily into absurdity when events become too nauseous to be taken seriously. There are passages that read like a parody of such long, morbid, humourless para-political thrillers of espionage as Monimbo (copyright Mossgrave Partnership) or Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper – so ambitiously titled but with all the human interest of a computer or a ventriloquist’s dummy. Charles McCarry must not be confused with Edgar Bergen’s famous doll, Charlie McCarthy, since he is never intentionally funny: but his narrative and dialogue benefit by being read aloud, in a quacking, inhuman voice, without movement of the lips.

Nicholas Salaman, by contrast, offers dialogue that an actor might roll about his tongue. The principal narrator is Roy Croucher, an unreasonably self-satisfied Londoner, in his fifties, with experience of jungle warfare in Malaya and a subversively conservative attitude towards anything that smacks of modernisation. Croucher spies on lovers, dyes his enemies’ milk green, stuffs potatoes up their exhaust pipes: he disguises himself as a pest officer, a Greek Orthodox priest, a knapsacked botanist, a video librarian (who can transform enthusiastic commercials into Buñuel-like fantasies of gluttony and nausea). Croucher recounts his exploits with the unctuous self-righteousness of a ponce in court, a madam dictating her memoirs or a contributor to the Daily Telegraph correspondence column:

As I sipped the nut-brown brew I reflected that there are still some things that we do incomparably better than other nations if only we could stop this Gadarene rush down the slope of trans-Atlantic replication ... I actually saw her embracing her friend Margaret in a manner that I can only describe as fulsome. I was observing through a chink in the french window draperies. They appeared to be scantily clad. It was not a sight calculated to refresh the spirit. I had difficulty restraining myself from rapping on the window.

Croucher’s bloody-mindedness is gradually revealed as he tells us with disgust about an American marketing executive with a Robert Redford moustache who is ordering Pimm’s in an irritating manner, spoiling the atmosphere of a pub which Croucher favours. This bounder is called Tony (Croucher’s least favourite name) and kisses a British girl ‘full on the lips’. This is ‘not the English way. To see such a respectable-seeming and well-brought-up girl embracing a foreigner, one of a nation that has contributed so signally to our present abasement, brings me out in a cold rage which frightens even myself.’ Croucher decides to investigate Tony and his English rose. When he finds that Tony is in the business of video-monitoring and security-surveillance, Croucher surveys and monitors him almost to death, with good old British bushcraft. This leads Croucher into some pretty tight corners, with Irish commercial terrorists and a Lebanese millionaire, until practically the whole cast is assembled in the woodland around Tony’s cottage, armed to the teeth, only to be thwarted by an announcement:

This is the police. You are in a protected wood. There is a Berks, Bucks and Oxon Naturalists’ Trust birdsong project being conducted here. You have been recorded. Unload your weapons.

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