The Confidential Agent

Title:                      The Confidential Agent

Author:                Graham Greene

Greene, Graham (1939). The Confidential Agent. New York, The Viking press

LCCN:    39023873

PZ3.G8319 Co

Date Posted:      December 5, 2016

Reviewed by Allan Kopp[1]

The hero/protagonist of Graham Greene’s novel The Confidential Agent is referred to only as “D.” That’s how confidential he is. He’s a middle-aged man (think Charles Boyer), a foreigner, travelling in Britain, and he’s not there to see the sights, either. He is a lecturer in the Romance Languages, a scholar and peace-loving man, but things haven’t been going so well for him. His country is at war, he’s been in prison for two years apparently because he was on the wrong side, and his wife was shot and killed by the enemy. He’s in Britain to negotiate a coal deal with the owner of a huge coal-mining conglomerate, a certain Lord Benditch. His side must have the coal to have a chance of winning the war. If the enemy gets the coal, D.’s side is certain to lose. Well, guess what? There’s another “confidential agent” from the other side, known to us as “L.” who also wants the coal. Will “L.” kill “D.” to keep him from getting the coal, or will “D.” kill “L.” to keep him from getting it? It’s a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning. D. is badly beaten (although it doesn’t seem to stop him) and his papers that establish his identity are stolen, and this is just the beginning of the obstacles that are placed in his way.

We realize early that the business about the war or D.’s side needing the coal doesn’t really matter. We learn nothing of the politics of the war or who is fighting whom. This is only a device to propel the plot. Don’t waste any time or expend any brain power trying to figure out the war.

Of course, there always has to be a “femme fatale” in a story like this. In this case she is the daughter (what a coincidence!) of Lord Benditch, the coal magnate, and her name is Rose Cullen (think Lauren Bacall). She seems to know D. and to know the importance of his mission, but where do her loyalties lay? Is she to be trusted? After a while she claims to be in love with D., in spite of their age difference and also in spite of his not being very lovable. Can D. make a go of it with Rose Cullen or he is only deceiving himself? Will they have a future together after the war business is settled, or is she only sucking up to him, seeking his vulnerable side to knife him in the back? In a story like this, you can never be sure.

We are told that Graham Greene wrote The Confidential Agent in 1939 in a matter of a few short weeks, fueled by Benzedrine (whatever that is), and that he wrote it for money. After it was finished, he was so unhappy with it that he wanted to disavow it and publish it under a pseudonym, but it was published under his own name and it turned out to be well-received by critics and the reading public alike. It’s rather formulaic, a “thriller” (in other words, “light” reading), but it lives up to its subtitle: An Entertainment.

[1] Allen Kopp (2015), “The Confidential Agent: A Capsule Book Review,” at Literary Fictions, downloaded December 5, 2016

Red Rabbit

Title:                      Red Rabbit

Author:                Tom Clancy

Clancy, Tom (2002). Red Rabbit. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2002067958

PS3553.L245 R39 2002


Date Posted:      June 7, 2015

Review by John Sutherland[1]

Tom Clancy is not, by conventional literary-critical criteria, a great novelist. But he is, without question, the novelist with the biggest ideological clout currently active.

Jack Ryan, his cold war superhero (stockbroker, two-fisted marine, doctor of philosophy, CIA spook, president of the US), is battling on two fronts. Red Rabbit will, for a certainty, be the beach book of 2002.

One of the problems with Ryan is that, once he has made it to the White House in Executive Orders, there’s nowhere higher for him to go. Like Alexander, he pines for new worlds to conquer.

In the cinema, Clancy and his Hollywood delegates have rejuvenated their property by replacing grizzled Harrison Ford with smooth-faced Ben Affleck. The miraculously young Ryan saves the world from Armageddon—although Baltimore takes a painful hit from a terrorist dirty bomb in the process. The setting is the very near future.

Red Rabbit backtracks along Ryan’s CV to 1981. He has saved the heir to the British throne (in Patriot Games) from Irish assassins and been knighted. As he is an asset with useful connections, the CIA has seconded him for a year or two to Britain’s intelligence service.

Jack, together with surgeon wife Cathy and little daughter, becomes a player in the Great Game. (No need for a spoiler alert—everything that follows is divulged in the novel’s blurb.) The Reds, under the unscrupulous KGB chief Andropov (Brezhnev is a senile zombie), plan to assassinate the Polish Pope, who has threatened to throw his papal muscle behind Solidarity. Having done for the turbulent priest, Andropov will take over and put some Stalinist lead back in the Soviet pencil. Meanwhile, at the top board, a complex game of superpower chess is developing. The Americans are scheming to destabilize the Soviet Union—their plan is called “The Masque of the Red Death” (if you believe Clancy, glasnost and perestroika were smart weapons devised by Washington).

Why does the Evil Empire fall eight years later? Because it is atheistic (“Red Rabbit” is a defecting KGB operative who discovers God), because it has an unwieldy bureaucracy, and—above all—because its military machinery is naff. The AK47 is “a good weapon” for example, but not a patch on the M16 (SA80—forget it). The Russkis can’t make a sink-plug that works, let alone a stealth bomber.

Jack, heroic as ever (and a devout Catholic to boot), gets caught up saving John Paul II from the Bulgar assassin and, inevitably, is instrumental in saving the world for democracy, godliness, capitalism, and the American way.

Alas, Britain—his temporary domicile—is strictly second division. Cathy (who goes to work for the NHS) is appalled by the inefficiency of socialized medicine. Jack finds the country charming but always lurking at the back of his mind is the question, “Can you really trust the Brits?” Poor Tony.

It’s a feature of a sophisticated, ideologically driven country like America that its parts function in unison, without any formal instruction from above. Clancy, quite transparently, is preparing readers and filmgoers for war. The Iraq adventure, that is. In The Sum of All Fears, the American population is alerted to the imminent likelihood of a dastardly terrorist strike, and the urgent necessity to pre-empt it. In the original scenario, the terrorists were Arabs. The film was made before September 11, 2001, and the producers were prevailed upon, by lobbyists, not to demonize Islam. The villains were duly recast as European neo-Nazis. Same difference. Most of America thinks that Europe is comprised of anti-semitic liberal pacifists. In the fight to come, America stands alone.

Red Rabbit exudes a terrifying new confidence. The Vietnam syndrome is wholly purged. America can conquer by virtue of its simple faith in God, its “system” and its cutting-edge weapons technology. Praise the Lord and pass the smart bombs.

[1] Sutherland, John, The Guardian downloaded June 7, 2015. John Sutherland’s most recent book is Last Drink to LA (Faber).

The Life of Ian Fleming

Title:                      The Life of Ian Fleming

Author:                 John Pearson

Pearson, John (1966). The Life of Ian Fleming. New York, McGraw-Hill

LCCN:    66028297

PR6056.L4 Z82 1966b

Date Updated:  October 9, 2015


The creator of James Bond cut an extraordinarily dashing figure for most of his adult life, until he was bagged in marriage at forty-four and mended some of his more ruthless ways with women. With the added figure of .007 stalking these pages, or sitting a little to the rear of Fleming, this becomes a completely absorbing biography and one that works up a great deal of admiration and affection for Fleming in the reader. Pearson quotes Fleming as regarding his novels as disguised installments in his autobiography and Pearson spends much time naming and identifying the real people and places. There is very little critical analysis, happily, a job already vaguely well done by Kingsley Amis in The James Bond Dossier[1]. Perhaps the wildest note in the book is struck when Pearson suggests that Bond’s superior, M, is possibly a stand-in for Fleming’s mother.

Long before his late fame Fleming not only mixed with very posh society, but was the intimate of celebrities such as Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, Cyril Connolly, et al, all of whom contribute some waspishly good dialogue to these pages. His personal adventures were drawn mainly from work as a globetrotting reporter and as the personal assistant to the Chief of Naval Intelligence in London during WWII. Fleming’s last years were indeed pathetic, for his health was terribly crippled at the very moment the Bond series struck gold. Bond finally became Fleming’s Frankenstein and, Pearson states, killed him.

Some more about Fleming from Roy Berkeley[2]

In an odd building at 22A Ebury Street, London, described by Ian Fleming’s biographer John Pearson as ‘a setting rather than a home’, the young Fleming spent his first years in London.

The place wasn’t a home at all for most of its existence, having started out as a Baptist chapel (in 1830), then becoming successively a school for boys, a nightclub, and a furniture store before being turned into flats during WWII. But it was said to be haunted and the fun-loving Fleming found it irresistible. He redid the central portion with the help of ‘a lady interior decorator from Berlin.’ His bathroom was in an alcove that once held the altar. His bedroom and dining area were in the gallery. Workmen painted the windowless chapel grey, installed indirect lighting, and filled the skylight with dark-blue glass. Into the centre of this room Fleming moved a large black sofa, and in this gloomy space he kept a fire burning year-round. ‘It must have been a lonely and oppressive house,’ notes Pearson[3]. But .here Fleming pursued the obsessions so clearly manifest in his novels: womanizing, gourmandizing, and gambling. He didn’t pursue them long here. When the Blitz damaged the adjacent building (No. 20), Fleming moved to the Dorchester Hotel; it was relatively bombproof and very social besides.

Fleming was then a junior partner in a stock-brokerage firm but said he didn’t like finance, didn’t understand it, and wasn’t good at it. The idea of wealth fascinated him (many of his villains have immense wealth) and one detects a hostility mixed with envy, in Fleming/Bond, for such persons. But he had neither the skill nor the desire to acquire great wealth himself—that is, to earn money with money—and when his books brought him undreamt-of riches he was probably as surprised as anyone.

A previous occupant here had been Sir Oswald Mosley of the BUF (see Site 8). And after Fleming left, still early in the war, the building became something of an annexe to the Ebury Court Hotel (see Site 18); Yvonne Rudellat and several other women who worked there sIept here. I don’t know whether they changed the decor.

Further comments by Roy Berkeley:[4]

In Chelsea, along the Thames is Chelsea Walk. The grand Victorian building just past Cheyne Row is Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk. Newly married, Ian Fleming moved into a river-view flat on the third floor (above T. S. Eliot) in 1952.

Newly married, Ian Fleming moved into a river-view flat on the third floor (above T. S. Eliot) in 1952. Fleming had known his wife for a dozen years, through many of his other love affairs. She was Lady Rothermere when she had a child by Fleming; the baby died at birth. She was pregnant again by Fleming when Lord Rothermere divorced her. This child, Caspar Fleming, also died young—of a drug overdose in his teens.

Fleming joked that he began writing novels to take his mind off e shock of marrying at the age of 44. To call the Bond books a diversion is, I think, a classic piece of disinformation, part of the Old Etonian image that Fleming affected of immediate and effortless success at anything he touched. John Pearson observes in The Life of Ian Fleming that Fleming carefully built a network of literary people who would support his novelistic efforts when he was ready. Undoubtedly, too, the soon-to-be Anne Fleming exerted formidable pressure on the man she was marrying, to the end that he should make his mark in the field of letters and not the field of finance. (Fleming had been in journalism but primarily in the business end of it.)

In January, 1952, he and Anne were at his Jamaican retreat, her divorce imminent. Full of foreboding about the marriage, Fleming began writing Casino Royale[5]. He finished a draft in seven weeks. In his bedroom here at Carlyle Mansions he revised the manuscript, with characteristic panache using a gold-plated typewriter ordered from America. The book went into its first printing, a cautious 7,000 copies, in April, 1953. By then Fleming had returned to Jamaica for his annual retreat and had finished Live and Let Die[6]—in 12 fewer days than the first book. The characters were established by then. “M”was modelled after Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s wartime boss. Pearson reveals that Fleming often called his mother “M;” and that she gave young Ian the same “grudging praise” and “terrifying blame” dished out to Bond by the fictional “M.” Miss Moneypenny was based on Miss Pettigrew, secretary to Menzies. And Bond owes his name to the author of a bird book on Fleming’s breakfast table in Jamaica. Fleming had wanted a superlatively colourless name for 007 and happily appropriated this one. “The name later became so associated with adventure and excitement,” Henry A. Zieger writes in his biography of Fleming, that the ornithologist’s wife wrote to Fleming, “thanking him for using it.”

The fictional Bond is not the real Fleming, despite Fleming’s statement that with Goldfinger [7]he was writing “the next volume of my autobiography.” To John Pearson, the Bond character is “Fleming’s dream of a self that might have been—a tougher, stronger, more effective, duller, far less admirable character than the real Fleming.” Today Fleming might be described as an intelligence “wannabe.” He carried a commando knife and a teargas pen during WWII while working safely behind a desk in London, and he subsequently encouraged people to think he”d been involved wartime matters of great danger and drama. The plot of Casino, Royale, for example, came from a gambling experience that Fleming said he”d had himself—Fleming pitted against a group of Nazis. The real evening was nothing of the sort; the “Nazis” were Portuguese, the stakes were low, and Fleming played on in the almost-empty casino until he was completely cleaned out.

[1] Amis, Kingsley (1965). The James Bond Dossier. New York: New American Library. [LCCN: 65015687]

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, Pp. 40-41

[3] Pearson, John (1966). The Life of Ian Fleming. New York, McGraw-Hill

[4] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 71-74

[5] Fleming, Ian (1954). Casino Royale. New York, Macmillan

[6] Fleming, Ian (1954). Live and Let Die. London: J. Cape

[7] Fleming, Ian (1981). Goldfinger. Geneva: Edito-Service