Three of these novels might almost be called thrillers, their plots resembling sensational news items. With Norman Lewis we read of plans to assassinate statesmen in Egypt and Libya, with evil American agents blackmailing honest Britishers. John Collee tells of a wonder cure for cancer devised by a Hindu mystic in a Scottish city where surgeons’ knives are used too readily and callously. Randolph Stow’s The Suburbs of Hell deals with ‘juicy murders’ committed in a Suffolk seaside town peopled by retired gentry and genial fishermen. All three are sufficiently intelligent and sensitive to make the reader feel, almost guiltily, that the horrors and terrors should not be treated quite so entertainingly.
The exception is the reprint of Randolph Stow’s earlier book, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. First published in 1965, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is a near-autobiographical narrative about a little Australian boy, aged six in 1942, and his large extended family which includes an adored 20-year-old cousin, conscripted to fight and, eventually, to be captured by the Japanese. The return of this battered soldier, without his former simplicity and athletic grace, makes the boy (now ten) feel melancholy – and henceforth suspicious about exciting news from battlefronts.
The Suburbs of Hell is harder-boiled, perhaps more playful. It begins with two epigraphs from Jacobean plays, one of them being:
Security some men call the suburbs of hell,
Only a dead wall between.
It deals with the deeds of a murderous maniac, and we are encouraged to suspect eccentric old ladies and retired naval officers, Harry the fisherman and his small-boy pal, Killer, while feeling mildly compassionate toward the innocent, the potential victims and suspects. But the author has tried to make the book more challenging than Agatha Christie’s yarns. Randolph Stow, we are told, is of Australian birth and has worked among the aboriginal people of his homeland, as well as assisting the Government Anthropologist among the subject peoples of Papua New Guinea. After spending many years in East Anglia, he now seems to take an almost ghoulish interest in the possibilities of savagery among the comfortable people of Suffolk. He frames his story with Jacobethan verses – murderers like Barabas the Jew and Aaron the Moor expressing evil desires – and his last page offers a Tarot-card drawing of Death scything off mortals’ heads.
Facing this memento mori is a page made up of headlines from the Suffolk newspaper Stow has invented for the purposes of his fiction. Most of these headlines are World News, starting with ‘1,000 Bengalis massacred in Assam’ and ‘Belfast pub holocaust’, concluding with ‘Headless corpses in El Salvador’ and ‘ “I am not a cannibal” – Ex-president’. Tucked among these items is a paragraph of local news: ‘The Coroner was told that De Vere had been drinking heavily on that day. Death was due to inhalation of vomit.’ The story that Stow neatly tells is about the events leading up to that coroner’s verdict: but his way of displaying it suggests that he is attempting, as well as a skilful whodunnit, a stern comment on the reader’s appetite for bad news and juicy murders.
Turn back to The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea and we find the little boy touching, ‘with pleased interest’, the scars on his cousin’s ankles, souvenirs of his imprisonment by the Japanese. ‘Gee, you did get tortured, then,’ says the boy. The released prisoner replies ‘in a small, strained voice’, looking at his little cousin with apparent hatred: ‘You’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t, wouldn’t you? I bet none of your bloodthirsty little mates has got a cousin who was tortured.’ He tells the boy that the scars came from a red-hot bayonet and the boy feels sick. Then they walk down to their cheery Australian farm to watch a man castrating pigs, while sheepdogs gobble down the pale, severed organs. Now it is the ex-soldier’s turn to feel sick, muttering: ‘Mutilation – I can’t take it – oh, Christ.’
The boy reads some of the soldier’s writing about his experiences of war: ‘It never ceases to exist, because while it is flourishing its language and its songs become part of the experience of children, growing into a heroic nostalgia, so that once every twenty years or so that nation is refounded, and begins enthusiastically to die.’ The writing of The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea seems to have been heartfelt; but The Suburbs of Hell, despite its portentous decorations, is surely little more than a game, a puzzle for unsentimental readers. So, it would be best not to spoil the game by discussing the plot and characters here, but rather to commend Randolph Stow’s skill in recording the customs and speech patterns of modern Suffolk.
Kingsley’s Touch takes us to an Edinburgh hospital, menaced by monetarist assaults on the National Health Service. The doctors and surgeons are hard-headed, practical men, keen on squash, golf and good, clean, clinical sex-lives. ‘You see that statue?’ says Kingsley the surgeon to his patient. ‘Douglas Calder. He founded this place. Campaigned all his life against disease and immorality. Died of syphilis ... Pop up on the bed, would you? I’m just going to feel up your back passage.’ Kingsley’s gloved hand is thrust up the man’s rectum. The cancer is found, and Kingsley must cut it out.
The trouble is that the biopsy reveals that the cancer need not have been cut out: the patient had begun to get well directly Kingsley’s hand examined him. The same thing happens with two other patients, one of them a woman whose husband resents Kingsley for cutting off his wife’s breast. Since this husband is a journalist, he is able to publicise the theory that Kingsley possesses a magical healing touch – like the power presumed by Queen Anne when she touched for the King’s Evil. The general public, of course, would not believe in such magical power stemming from the royal house of the Stuarts: but when the theory is put about by an Indian guru, who claims to have read prophecies about Kingsley in ancient Hindu texts, the whole story becomes newsworthy. The guru is permitted to build a little shrine in the mortuary of the Douglas Calder Hospital, where he performs horrid rituals with corpses to increase Kingsley’s magic. Kingsley’s acolyte is called Dr Danghi: if the author is making a little joke about Ben Kingsley’s film performance as Gandhi, he keeps a remarkably straight face.
My summary might make the novel sound like a sick joke, too horrible for a BBC horror-film season, almost foul enough to be banned as a video nasty. But John Collee tells the story so rationally and persuasively that we begin to take it seriously. We find Kingsley on the golf-course, discussing the problem with his colleague, Richard Short, while they wait for ‘the brisk, serious teenagers’ of Edinburgh to finish with the hole before them. Short says: ‘You’re on a real winner. Even if it is a total red herring, spontaneously resolving cancer is big news. The press will be on it like a shot. Just the kind of publicity we need. You can forget about them closing down the hospital. It certainly beats bloody gymkhanas and car stickers.’ But honest Kingsley bites dourly on the stem of his pipe and replies: ‘The fact remains, I’ve cut off a woman’s breast, I’ve ripped out half a chap’s bowel, I’ve ballsed up at least one old boy’s waterworks. Now I’m told they might have recovered without the operation. Wouldn’t that play on your conscience?’
There is worse mutilation to come. This novel is not for the squeamish: in fact, the squeamish had better stop reading right now. What has happened to the Scottish mortuary attendant who messed up Dr Danghi’s shrine? There are no marks on the body. Examination reveals that Dr Danghi has thrust his hand up the rectum and pulled out half his bowel. Just when the poor chap was on his way to the hospital social. Richard Short says, in his medical way: ‘Certainly gives a new meaning to getting arse-holed before the party.’
Then there is the episode of Kingsley’s wife: she has some form of cancer in her leg, but Kingsley will not let his colleagues cut it off since he has come to believe in his magic touch, supported by Dr Danghi’s magic. The suspicious journalist wonders why his own wife should have lost her breast to the surgeon’s knife while Kingsley’s wife is permitted to keep her leg. Crowds of cancerous patients besiege the Douglas Calder Hospital demanding Kingsley’s touch ... Is this story a little too gruesome to be written up in a light, detective-story manner? Yes, I think it is. Nevertheless, Kingsley’s Touch is not only a ‘good read’ for the un-squeamish but also a serious comment on the world of hospitals, the hard-boiled rational healers with their valuable pretence of scientific certainty and their awareness of the temptation of irrational forms of ‘alternative’ medicine. The author, we are told, studied medicine in Edinburgh and went on to practise in the West Country before becoming Radio Bristol’s ‘phone-in doctor’. So he must be well aware of the newsworthiness of medicine and disease, and the sense of responsibility required when discussing these matters before a credulous public.
A Suitable Case for Corruption begins with a very senior American politician driving through Cairo, not seeing the beauty of the view through his car window but only disturbing, repellent detail. He is most irritated by the cows blundering through the traffic in the main street. Then, there is a blind beggar, with grey pebbles for eyes, who is chewing at a grilled sparrow on a skewer and rapping with his free hand at the window. The politician’s purpose is to get his henchmen to destabilise the regime of Gaddafi (nicknamed ‘the Gadfly’) in Libya and to try and prevent the forthcoming assassination of President Sadat (nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’). They need the services of a British journalist, Ronald Kemp, who is stationed in Libya, working for the Government’s English-language journal and also as a stringer for Le Monde and the Times. The Americans know all about Kemp – his ‘over-susceptibility to feminine charm’, his sons’ expensive schools in England, his wife and her man-friend. They should be able to secure his assistance through a judicious mixture of bribery and blackmail: it is not difficult to blackmail Europeans in Arab countries since they are always breaking Islamic laws in ways which may or may not be tolerated by the authorities. When a British girl falls to her death from a balcony, at Kemp’s dodgy-alcohol party for his fellow expatriates, we are reminded of news items about similar deaths in suspicious circumstances. When considering Libyan law enforcement, Kemp is more frightened of the government hospital than of the straightforward policemen, who are so sympathetic that he wonders about the rumour ‘that a profound error in the young nation’s vocational guidance programme had directed all those temperamentally equipped to be policemen into medicine, and all the nation’s natural doctors into the police.’ Kemp does not recognise very quickly that he has less to fear from the Libyans (who in fact protect him) than he has from the American secret agents – who consider the shrewd-seeming Kemp ‘very naive, a man who likes to believe what he hears’.
Norman Lewis’s novels about foreign lands have something in common with Graham Greene’s. He is quick to draw attention to offences committed by United States agents and the regimes they support, inclined to invite sympathy for populist or revolutionary groups inimical to American interests. Unlike Greene, though, he writes from a non-religious viewpoint – in a period when religious belief and church membership is of obvious political importance. Kemp’s lack of religion makes him rather more ordinary than Greene’s heroes. There is a minor character called Parsons, an American agent, who is interestingly pious: he is threatened by his superiors that unless he does their dirty work he will be sent to ‘some shit-hole like Guatemala’ – and Parsons likes being in the Middle East, a prominent member of the Southern Baptist community among the Muslims. It is Parsons who holds that President Sadat has misread the Koran and ‘fallen victim to the sin of pride’. Before committing sins for his government, Parsons mutters a text from St Paul about ‘total submission to his superiors’, and another about ‘doing evil that good may come’.