Saturday, May 12, 2012

White Eagles Over Serbia - Lawrence Durrell

I decided to follow my candy up with a novel by Lawrence Durrell.  I consider Durrell a brilliant writer - the word choice, the plot, the flow, the dialogue, the descriptions...  His books are everything I love in a novel.  What's more is that Durrell wrote about what he knew.  His life was like living a novel.

His real life involvement in politics and travel couldn't help but work their way into his fiction.  He with the Foreign Office.  He lived in Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia, England, India, etc.   He disliked English culture but has a knack for detailing it quite well.

Durrell is best known for the Alexandria Quartet.  The first three of the four tell the same story but from different perspectives.  You get a love story, a political thriller, an action story.  The final of the series, Clea, advances the story and brings it to a close.  I remember reading the quartet in undergrad and falling madly in love with Durrell. 

I picked up White Eagles Over Serbia (1957) at the library sale.  It was published just before the Alexandria Quartet and is pretty much defined as a spy thriller.  The story revolves around Methuen, a spy for the British Secret Service and his mission in Serbia.  It is reportedly based on Durrell's own experiences with the Foreign Office.

The novel opens with Methuen, having just returned from the jungles of Malaya and craving the sound of English, hanging out in a private lounge.  He simply wanted human company.  The reader learns of Methuen's involvement in the Awkward Shop (the British Secret Service) and how it was his ability to speak many language, "a gift of tongues," that made him a most popular spy.  Methuen essentially gets tricked into deciding to do the mission in Yugoslavia.  The trickery is that Dombey convinces Methuen that he really wants to go - and maybe deep down he does long for more adventure.

A fellow spy had recently been murdered in the hillsides.  It is suspected that the underground Royalists group, the White Eagles, was behind it.  Dombey wants Methuen to get in there and figure out what the White Eagles are doing that is worth killing over.

Methuen sets up camp in a cave with a snake.  (A snake that basically saves his hide later.)  He waits for someone to find him while fishing.  (What he had HOPED to be doing in Scotland.)  The man alone in a cave quickly finds himself sought after by the Communists and the Royalists.  A lucky chain of events helps Methuen join the White Eagles as one of them.  It is then that Methuen learns their secret:  they are trying to get the gold that was stolen from the banks years ago out of the mountains and out of Yugoslavia.  This gold can give them the army they need to overthrow the Communists.  Methuen finds himself weighed down in gold as he joins the White Eagles in their walk to get the gold out of Yugoslavia undetected.

He nearly dies doing it.  The White Eagles are not successful.  When he returns to England, he finds a few of the coins in his pockets that support his story.  There's a woman involved, Walden as a codebook, and poetry that sends the White Eagles into action.

It is an artfully written spy novel.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton

*I'm slightly ashamed that it has taken me this long to get another review up.  I apologize.  2L year has been a touch brutal, but here you go!*

I consider Michael Crichton novels to be excellent candy.  The books aren't earth-shattering and the language isn't awe inspiring, but they are damn fun reads.  When I found myself bogged down in law school land and in need of candy, I picked up Pirate Latitudes.  As most of you are aware, Crichton passed away in late 2008.  After his death, his assistant found the complete manuscript of Pirate Latitudes on Crichton's computer.  Harper Collins published it in 2009.  While it is by far not my favorite Crichton novel, it is classic Crichton.  Enriched in history and packed with adventure, the book does not fail by an stretch of the imagination.  There are some glitches, some hurried subplots, some shoddy character development, but the core of the story is strong.  I'd like to think that what I read was a draft.  A very good draft.  But a draft all the same in need of some edits and revisions.  (Mainly because I feel that Crichton would have done a little with certain aspects of the novel.)  All that said, I am in no way bashing this novel.  It is perfect candy and would make a perfect beach read.

The novel is set in Jamaica in 1665.  A English colony, Jamaica stood alone against the Spanish empire that was attempting to control the area.  The port city, Port Royal, is full of hardened characters who will live and die by the sword.  But whatever you do, don't call them pirates.

"And further," Hacklett continued, " we were everywhere treated to the spectacle of bawdy women half-naked in the streets and shouting from windows, men drunk and vomiting in the streets, robbers and pirates brawling and disorderly at every turn, and -"
"Pirates?" Almont said sharply.
"Indeed, pirates is what I should naturally call these cutthroat seamen."
"There are no pirates in Port Royal...  There are no pirates in this Colony... And should you find evidence that any man here is a pirate, he will be duly tried and hanged.  That is the law of the Crown and it is strictly enforced...  I am charged with protecting this Colony.  How am I to do that?  Clearly, I must acquire fighting men.  The adventurers and privateers are the only source available to me, and I am careful to provide them a welcome home here.  You may find these elements distasteful but Jamaica would be naked and vulnerable without them."

And so the scene is set with pirates carrying the name privateers.  Captain Hunter is perhaps the best privateer in the Colony and when Almont gets wind of of a Spanish treasure galleon making its way to Matanceros, it is Hunter he wants to take the treasure.  Hacklett makes a grave mistake when he calls Hunter a "murderer, scoundrel, whoremonger, and pirate."  Being called a pirate is what sets Hunter off.  He shoves Hacklett's head into his dinner.  "Dear me," Almont said.  " I warned him about that earlier.  You see, Mr. Hacklett, privateering is an honorable occupation.  Pirates, on the other hand, are outlaws.  Do you seriously suggest that Captain Hunter is an outlaw?"

Thus a deep hatred develops in Mr. Hacklett for both Almont and Hunter.  (Especially when Hunter decides to get busy with Mrs. Hacklett - a relationship that isn't fully explored but does return near the end of the novel when Hacklett has taken over and Hunter is charged with piracy.)

The brunt of the story is the journey to Mantaceros and the attempt to seize the treasure ship.  Hunter puts together a small crew, full of interesting characters that I would have loved to have had more information about.

Whisper:  the sole survivor of a raid on Matanceros.  He had his throat slit and was left to die.  He lost his voice and his courage.  Hunter uses Whisper to get information about the layout of the island and the weapons.  Whisper provides him with a map and useful information, but his advice is simply that the attack will never succeed.

Black Eye (the Jew) runs a jewelry store but had formally worked in explosives (until an explosion resulted in a blackened constantly runny eye and a hand with only two fingers.  Hunter convinces Black Eye to help.

Mr. Enders is a barber-surgeon is needed for his skill at the helm.  He quickly agreed to join the raid.

Lazure is a woman who lives as a man.  She was known for her remarkable vision and her marksmanship.  She was also know for baring her breasts in combat to confuse the opponent.

The Moor, an escaped slave who could not speak because his former master had cut his tongue out.  He is need for his extreme strength.

Sanson can't be trusted as far as one can spit but needed on the expedition because he had not problems killing and seizing the Spanish treasure ship would surely require some killing.

Once the crew was assembled, it was required that the true mission be kept under wraps.  The story then truly sets sail. It is an action adventure that is made for the screen, which is perfect since Steven Spielberg plans on making a movie.  He has hired a screenwriter and it is currently in production.

All in all, this is not a bad book.  Even if I found some parts lacking, it does not fail to deliver as a whole.