Thursday, November 23, 2017

Forgotten Book: The Fever Tree by Richard Mason

Richard Mason (1919-1997) was a British author who served in the RAF during the second world-war and fought on the Indo-Burmese front, later becoming an Intelligence officer. Best known for his 1957 novel, The World of Suzie Wong, Mason also wrote a handful of other novels, two of which, The Wind Cannot Read (1946) and The Shadow and The Peak (1949) were turned into movies as was Wong.

Mason's last novel The Fever Tree (1962) is set a decade after India won its independence. The changes are reflected in the restaurant that the novel's hero finds himself in the opening chapter of the book:

Birkett sipped the small whisky. His gaze fell on the mahogany honour-board behind the bar, listing the Club presidents in letters of gold. They went back over thirty years. Fotheringay, Whittington-Smith, Sir R. Boland, Bell-Carter . . . You could see the hands holding the whisky-sodas, the moustaches bristling under sun-helmets as they set off for polo or sticking pigs. You knew from the names they had all been pig-stickers: you only wondered that there had been enough pigs to go round. Smedley-Cox, Athelston . . . And so on until, with Sir Joshua Hindcliffe, 1947, the pig-sticking names came to a resounding end. And then: Sen, Desani, Muckerjee, Singh . . .

Yes, a decade ago, Birkett thought, the only Indians you’d have seen in this place were the waiters in compulsory white gloves to conceal the grey hands. And now the few British who came here fell over themselves to behave like Indians while the Indians behaved more like the British than the British themselves.

But it is not to reflect on the changes that has brought Major Ronald Birkett to India. Member of a shady organisation called the PACSAG , Birkett is on a secret mission which takes him to a minister in Prime Minister Nehru's cabinet, P.N. Gupta. Gupta tells him the work that he has to do involves the assassination of the young, newly-crowned king of Nepal, India's neighbouring country. The actual assassination would be carried out by a lowly officer in the Indian embassy in Nepal, Krishan Mathai, but Birkett has to provide him with a weapon and a plan.

As also persuasion, as Birkett discovers, once he arrives in Nepal and meets Mathai for the latter is not interested in killing the king, who he feels is leading his country well. A family man, brow-beaten by his wife and attached to his two sons, Mathai's interest have turned to literary accomplishments rather than actions 'for the greater common good'. But the party has not chosen Birkett for nothing and in a couple of superb passages, Birkett shows his Mephistophelian skills, manipulating Mathai in such a way that he becomes not only willing to pull the trigger but also to die a martyr for their cause.... But then, Birkett himself starts having doubts.

A loner all his life, a person who uses other people and then simply shuns them, Birkett finds himself getting emotionally entangled with Lakshmi Kapoor, an Indian woman whom he had met in Delhi and later called to Nepal. Unhappily married and having lost her child, Lakshmi is looking for fulfillment in her life which she thinks she would find with Birkett. More astute than Birkett assumed in their early meetings, Lakshmi is soon tearing down the defences that Birkett has spent a life-time constructing. If his interior life is changing, it also seems as though his mission is not as secret as he had assumed. Another British called 'Pilot' Potter seems to be spying on him.

What is Birkett to do? Does he surrender to Lakshmi and let go off his defences? Does he ask Mathai to drop the plan and if so would Mathai listen? Would the king get assassinated? What role does Potter play in this? Does Birkett, after a lifetime of intrigue and blood-shed, have a right to love and happiness? Well, you have to read the last pages, with their last twisty reveal:)

Reading this book was stepping into another world. A time when tongas plyed and jackals roamed freely on the roads of Delhi, and a time when (believe it or not) you could easily carry a firearm with you in a plane. Forget about metal detectors, body scanners, X-Ray machines, there was not even frisking. It made me aware of how much of an innocent world it must have been.

Despite one of the most pathetic preparations for the assassination of a head of a state (come on , Mathai doesn't even know how to handle a revolver properly!!!), the book still held my interest because of its old-world Cloak-and-Dagger charm: Nightly assignations, Codes and Passwords, Disguises, Mysterious phone calls with muffled that final reveal. Worth a one-time read.

The book has been reprinted by Bello and is easily available. I received a copy in exchange for a fair review.


First Line: Birkett had forty-five minutes before his appointment at the tomb.

Author: Richard Mason
Publication Details: London: Bello, 2017.
First Published: 1962
Pages: 308


Submitted for FFB @ Pattinase.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

For Fans of Raymond Chandler

A new story of Chandler has been discovered from the papers that he left behind. Read about it here:

Incidentally, this has made me want to (re)read a Chandler. The Long Goodbye is my favourite.

“You read about these situations in books but you don’t read the truth. When it happens to you, when all you have left is the gun in your pocket, when you are cornered in a dirty little hotel in a strange country, and have only one way out …there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it.”

Which one is yours?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

American Superhero: Coup D'etat by Ben Coes

To the author, Ben Coes, to be an American is to belong to the Master Race. Period. Superhuman strength; Always right; No doubts, no dilemmas; Always on Top. The only people who can come (somewhat) close to the Americans are the Israelites. The rest are wimps, nincompoops, bunglers, cowards, traitors, avaricious, and brutes. Actually this is not the kind of book that I read but since the scenario involved a nuclear war breaking out between India and Pakistan and the book was being offered at a throwaway price of Rs. 35/-, I picked it up. Unfortunately, even those rupees are too much for this piece of writing.

The author tells us more than once that in Australia, a ranch is called a station. Well done at this piece of research but at the same time, he doesn't know that India doesn't have a presidential but rather a parliamentary form of government. The President is just the ceremonial head, all the important decisions are taken by the Prime Minister. One click at google would have revealed the fact to him but no, neither he nor the editors at Pan Macmillan (hardly a novice publishing house) seem to have bothered about this. Ah! The stinking humanity of the Third World doesn't matter. That's why, Gen Karreff, the head of the Pakistani Military, is shown canoodling with his mistress and listening to Mozart when his country has just dropped a nuclear bomb and is staring at total annihilation, in retaliation. Nincompoop doesn't cover it.

At a point in the book, US President Allaire declares grandly to the Indian government that :" We are the country that has protected our allies, including India, with the threat of our nuclear arsenal, for more than a century." (Thunder and Lightening) Excuse me! I don't have much of knowledge about this but it is Pakistan which has received support from USA rather than India in all the wars fought between the two neighbouring counties. The geo-political realities might have changed now but lets not distort the past to fit in the present scenario.

And what's with the names. I have never come across such exotic Indian and Pakistani names. Sample these: Praset Dartalia, Guta Morosla, Darius Mohan, Benazem Banday, Faris Durvan, Rami Mavilius, Persom Karreff, Itrikan Parmir, and Xavier Bolin. The last named is not only the Field Marshal of Pakistan but is later made the President of the country. Will an Islamic country let a Christian become its Field Marshal let alone its President? It boggles the mind as to how little research has gone into the book. But, of course, Coes is not interested in the Sub-Continent (which just serves as an exotic background), he is only and only interested in the exploits of his Superhero:

Out stepped Field Marshal Bolin, followed by another man carrying a submachine gun. This third outsider had long brown hair and a beard and a mustache. He was tall. His chest was broad, barreled, his arm muscles tanned and ripped. Though Bolin was the ranking officer, the most decorated soldier in the entire Pakistani military, it was the stranger who commanded the gaze of every officer in the hangar.

In fact, while reading the book, I was reminded so often of a forgotten book:The Mouse in the Mountain by Norbert Davis. That book had shown me the greatness of USA: a country which could satirize itself and laugh at its own foibles even while in the midst of a war. That broadness of mind is what has made US great, Mr. Coes, not your testosterone superhero.


First Line: Jinnah International Airport

Friday, November 17, 2017

Forgotten Books: Three Arthur Crook Novels by Anthony Gilbert

"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves...."

One thing that I have always found problematic is the grading of writers. He/she is an A list author, we are told, the other is a B-lister. Who, I wonder, makes these lists and what does it depend on? Big publishing houses, sales of the books, critics/ reviewers?  I can understand this kind of grading in films where the production value can make a movie A-grader or not but books are a different kettle of fish altogether. Yes, a book can be interesting or boring; unputdownable or unmentionable; it can make you read the entire oeuvre of the writer or blacklist the author but authors in general cannot be bracketed like this.

In the Golden Age of mystery writing, we are told there are four Crime Queens: Agatha Christie; Margery Allingham; Dorthy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. The rest are dismissed as also-rans or B-graders. To me, this doesn't really make sense. I am not the only one who hasn't been able to proceed beyond the first book of the Peter Wimsey series; Albert Campion has his champions but an equal number of detractors; I was surprised to read the first book of Ngaio Marsh, this year, because the Roderick Alleyn of that book was completely unlike the sophisticated image of his that I had in mind. And "even great Homer nods" as in Third Girl and The Moving Finger.

Thus it is that an author like Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson) languishes in obscurity#, shrugged off as a second-rung writer. Yet almost all the books that I have read of her have been remarkable, much more interesting and gripping than the ones lauded and talked-about. Recently, thanks to the wonderful people at Open Library, I was able to read three more of hers. And though none of them could equal her masterpieces: Death Knocks Three Times and The Clock in the Hat Box, they were nevertheless engaging reads.

Murder Comes Home (1950): A young couple on their way home are called in by a doctor to witness a will. His patient is one cankerous old lady (and Gilbert's portrayal of such vinegary old ladies is masterly) who is found dead the very next day.

First Line: It might be said that the affair started for Arthur Crook that unnaturally hot afternoon in early spring when London baked and sulked under a sky that would have seemed tropical in August.

A fine review of the book can be read @ The Passing Tramp.


Death Takes a Wife/ Death Casts a Long Shadow (1959): Helen, a young nurse, finds herself in a dilemma when she falls in love with her patient Blanche's husband, Paul French. Soon Blanche has died under mysterious circumstances and Helen has to decide whether she is so much in love that she can marry a murderer. How Gilbert manages to keep things suspenseful even when the cast of characters is so small is beyond me.

First Line: 'In the midst of life we are in death,' intoned Dr. MacIntyre genially.

A write-up on the book can be found here.


A Nice Little Killing (1974): A Dutch au-pair, stood up by her boyfriend, returns to her employer's home only to find it burgled and worse. An interesting cast of characters though some of them are completely superfluous to the main story, as are the windmills on the cover which are there presumably because of the Dutch connection!!!

First Line: The clock in the public bar of the Bee and Honeysuckle was always kept five minutes past, so that laggard drinkers shouldn't get Joe Severn, the licensee, into trouble with the authorities.


Source: Open Library.


#: With the British Library publishing her book, Portrait of a Murderer, a book she wrote under another pseudonym, Anne Meredith, things might change.


Submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books, today @ Sweet Freedom.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: The Film of Fear

The Film of Fear The Film of Fear by Frederic Arnold Kummer Jr.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An okay mystery interesting only because of its background of a budding film industry in the US.


First Line: Ruth Morton finished her cup of coffee, brushed a microscopic crumb from her embroidered silk kimono, pushed back her loosely arranged brown hair, and resumed the task of opening her mail.

Source: Feedbooks.

View all my reviews