on 11 August 2014
A well-known broadcaster has written a novel and it’s not very good. It’s probably only the identity of the author that would make you want to read it; if you hadn’t heard of him you’d probably not bother. I wonder if the publishers would have bothered with it if the author were an unknown.
The root of the problem is that it’s just dull – too many characters, none of whom you care about, a strangely elliptical, sometimes incomprehensible, style of dialogue, a plot that doesn’t engage your attention enough to make you want to figure it out. I can’t see how Kate Mosse was left (according to the front cover) hugely satisfied, thrilled and gripped.
Of course, none of this detracts from my opinion of the author as a broadcaster.
Will Flemyng used to be a British Intelligence spy and is now a Minister in the Foreign Office. When the body of an American agent, presumed murdered, is discovered in the basement of the House of Commons with Flemyng's phone number in his pocket, the inevitable web of deceit threatens to unravel....and threatens....and threatens....and threatens...
James Naughtie is a published author but this is his first novel - and it shows. Although the writing itself is able, the portentous tone and ponderous shaping of the narrative is frustrating in the extreme. Remind me again what it is editors actually do for a living?
Beneath this long-winded story lies not only England's 'special relationship' with America but also Flemyng's special relationship with his two brothers and their special relationship with Scotland where James Naughtie's prose picks up and glimmers with a genuine tenderness. But otherwise, this tale is badly let down in the telling. There is a much quoted phrase in the book: "a surfeit of allies". I'm afraid this one left me feeling rather more of a foe.
on 18 May 2015
Knowing how smart James Naughtie is in his journalism, political writings, radio presentations, notably "Today", and other shows, for instance, "Book Club", where he chairs discussions with authors, it is puzzling why this first novel is so weak. Maybe he is too enthusiastic a student of fiction because "The Madness of July" seems to be over-influenced by other writers and genres; for instance, it is easy to see how much he gets from John Le Carré, one of the guests on "Book Club". The story is of a rising government minister who is drawn back into his previous career as a spy. Whatever the explanation, too many leading characters are introduced too quickly and credited with too many expressions of deep emotion, particularly because we have barely been introduced to them. The style is over-portentous, as if Naughtie is straining for significance. In just a few pages we have: "cross-currents flowed beyond his reach"; "darkness beyond"; "the earth turned on its axis"; "planets moved through their ethereal orbits"; "mystery and precision"; "there was hope, still"; "she was entering the locked room where he kept his secrets"; "in three days at most the damn would break"; "the fire was burning deep within his own government. The flames might consume them all. Something evil." That this is a confused mix of political novel, spy story and family drama - all at their most formulaic -- makes the language and over-heated plotting seem even more over-blown and these British ministers and top mandarins even more ridiculous. Characters aside, Naughtie catches quite well the atmosphere of Westminster politics in a hot July in the 1970s London as Parliament prepares to break up for the summer. And the manoeuvring of ministers and civil servants is effectively conveyed - knowing how thoughtful Naughtie is in his other political commentary, I can only assume that he deeply disapproves of this shallow slice of British society.
As it is, the novel falls between different genres: political novel, though, unfortunately, not a novel of political ideas which, one would think, James Naughtie could excel at; spy novel but, here, the convolutions are so badly managed that I started not to care what was at stake; and family novel, where, in spite of the potential for connecting mystery and close relations any semblance of depth in the characters is sacrificed to the over-busy plotting. I do hope that John Naughtie doesn't bring back his hero in a second novel but, instead, sorts out what kind of novel he really wants to write. I also hope his publisher shows more discrimination in quoting from critics and other authors, some of whom surely couldn't have read the book!
on 31 August 2014
"You looked puzzled, dear", she said. "I am dear", Will Flemying said to Francesca, his two-dimensional wife. "I'm half way through this book and still have no idea what's happening". Somewhere in the corridors of power the balloon had gone up, the horse had bolted through the stable door but the train had already left the station. There was a body. In the house. Will's political masters and rivals moved, like pieces on a chessboard. There were rumours - a sex scandal, political sinecures, the intrigue of political wonks.
Francesa frowned. "Who's it by?" Will held up the cover to reveal, to her at least, the name of the author. "Oh, him", she said. "Tell me what you have found out so far", she continued. "Is there any opera in it? Perhaps something about Scotland?"
"Funny you should say that", said Will. "You have an improbably glamorous job at the Royal Opera House. We've invited some American friends along - we need them onside. What are we seeing?" Francesca sighed. "Didn't Lucy, your assistant who I fancy but who fancies you tell you it's Eugene Onegin?" - "Ah, Russian", said Will. "Is that a clue?"
"No, dear" she said, "too obvious. Just one word though. Berlin". Streets where secrets lurked, where shadows fell, where people whispered in dark corners, where [get on with it, Ed].
Meanwhile, Munroe Flemying, Will's elder brother, solid as a Scottish mountain, was troubled. "I've found out a dark secret about our mother", he told his brothers. Babble, the family retainer in their home in the glens nodded sagely. He had known, but Babble hadn't blabbed. "Yeah", said Abel, the other brother - "it was...". He paused. "It's late, lets finish this discussion tomorrow".
"So," Francesca asked - "was it her that held the key?" - "Well dear, I will explain this to you soon, I promise, just as soon as I get to the end of the book", Will replied.
Later, Will was still little wiser, just older. His mother's secret was safe; the body and scandal were tidied up and Berlin - well, was that it? Oh, and Will's friend Janus - he really was two-faced.
on 23 May 2015
The author's achievements elsewhere were what made me buy this book. I suspect that will be the case with ninety-plus percent of readers who, like me, will be sorry they did, and will find nothing but disappointment and frustration with it.
It is the most extraordinarily unrewarding and impenetrable rubbish. The dialogue is written in such an oblique style that it borders on the bizarre. Every character speaks virtually in riddles. Almost every other sentence hints at some dark secret of the past, some shared history of supposed achievements in earlier times, which are never properly explained and therefore not understandable. Consequently, the plot feels like is not just about the secrets of spies, but is a secret to the reader.
One word sums this book up - frustration. Don't waste any of your life reading it. It just isn't worth the effort.
on 13 December 2014
No, it's NOT a thriller, I'm afraid. It sparks our curiosity (Who killed the visiting American and stuffed him in a cupboard in House of Commons building?), but there's no tension in the narrative, and although some behavior is referred to as "evil" and though some lives are said to be in danger, at no point in the narrative is there anything close to a threat to anyone's life, nor do we really see a confrontation with "evil." It's an odd book, though, and I think Naughtie was trying something more ambitious than a standard thriller. For one thing, the problem, insofar as it relates to spying that the main characters face is the question of whether a spy in Berlin whom the British had thought of as "their" man is or isn't working for the Americans -- that's right, not the Soviets (the setting is the early 1970's), but the Americans. So it's really a kind of family difficulty. That fact is made manifest in the main British character Will Flemyng's brother Abel being an honest-to-God American spy. We learn in the course of the book why Will, an ex-spy, now a Government Minister, and Abel live and work on different continents. Their work isn't a secret to either, and many of their colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic know that they are brothers. There seems to be a degree of estrangement between them, but it doesn't seem difficult to overcome when Abel comes over to lend his expertise to the case of the murdered American (who happens to be a spy too).
There is a third Flemyng brother, Mungo, who lives in the Scottish Highlands and manages the family estate. Mungo has retired from academic life in his early fifties to write a family history. What he discovers about his parents is the focus of a long section in which the three brothers spend a weekend with Mungo and end up reaffirming and even strengthening the bond between them. So . . . the repairing of familial bonds and efforts to repair, or keep from loosening, the bonds of the transatlantic alliance: this is the big structuring parallel of the book. And I think it's potentially interesting, but there are two problems: the first is the aforementioned lack of suspense or tension in the plot. Most of the scenes not in Scotland are in offices in Whitehall and Downing Street. The second problem is one of language. Naughtie makes it clear frequently that world of spying and the world of politics are, like family relations, driven by emotion. I can't think of a "thriller" in which more male characters burst into tears or seem about to. That's fair enough, too -- but the language of interiority (and we have access to quite a few inner lives) needs to be more precise and interesting than what we get here -- a mass of doubt, worry, self-mistrust, sadness etc. It's not particularly fresh, and there's too much of it.
It turns out that the Americans (CIA, I suppose, though never identified as such) are worried that an ambassadorial appointment to Washington might cause problems and that the spy whose corpse turns up in Parliament might have known of that and (worse!) mentioned that to someone. Well, it all works out, but the wrap-up is very clumsy, with Will Flemyng explaining to a colleague who has been working on the matter with him things that that colleague has also worked out by this time and doesn't need to be told. But we (readers) do. I'm not at all convinced that the "clues" that have been dropped in the course of the narrative would enable even a deft thriller/mystery reader to have reached a conclusion before it's all explained. So . . . it's not a conventional thriller, and one could applaud the effort not to retell a familiar kind of story, but finally it isn't thrilling enough and as a psychological study, it isn't interesting enough.
July 1976, it's scorching hot as Parliament winds down for summer recess. Deals are done in Committee rooms to ensure our elected best can scuttle off for their break. Then a body turns up in a cupboard. The deceased is American but who killed him and why?
The scene is set for a powerful and complex debut where James Naughtie dips into the dirty world of Westminster and spymasters. But it's much more than a spy thriller or murder mystery. There's intrigue around ambition, regardless of cost, where both political and personal loyalty is tested. There's treason at the top, family secrets are laid bare and there are certainly hints of the madness alluded to in the title.
This is very much a tale of watching and listening. Clues are dropped throughout the story, but so subtly that they're easy to miss. The oppressive and overpowering heat in London is captured to perfection adding to the claustrophobic and introspective investigations around the death. Manipulation, layers of deceit and secrets within secrets are the order of the day; where is the real seat of power?
A central character returns to Scotland for the weekend and the difference in the descriptive narrative is striking. The sweeping open air, dogs, moors etc were like taking a deep and refreshing breath before returning to the world of spooks and dirty tricks.
The characters, particularly the men, are well drawn. The dialogue is spot on. Mr Naughtie has captured the clipped speech style adopted by a particular type of politician. His depiction of what goes on behind closed doors is worryingly authentic. I found the first pages a little confusing, but suddenly it all slides into place and overall the pace is well balanced. It kept me engrossed and I'd certainly read further books by Mr Naughtie.
on 17 June 2016
I should have been guided by the reviews and not by my regard for Mr Naughtie, having so enjoyed listening to him on the Today programme for many years.
I got to 20% and could not stand any more of this dreadful book; maybe it got better later on but I doubt it.
It is boring, opaque, done in a clunky, at times incomprehensible writing style and just drags on and on and....
I see that Kate Mosse thought it was "hugely satisfying" - I wonder if there is a spelling mistake here and that this comment actually came from Kate Moss the model, as I could not imagine any professional author writing it, but, anyway, I will make sure to never read any book by Kate Mosse or Moss, whether author, model, bryophyte expert or whatever.
I see also that folk see similarities with le Carré and accept this - the first name of both begins with a "J" but that is as far as it goes.
I also have Mr Naughtie's "Paris Spring" in my Kindle library; I just hope that is far better.
on 21 March 2016
The author is a great journalist, but am not so sure about his fiction. It was a blessing that a full 'cast' list was included at the beginning of the book - I was still needing to refer to it when on the final ten pages. As a political thriller it was confusing and hard to feel much sympathy for any of the characters – politicians, civil servants and more besides. Why does the central character have to be known by his surname (Fleming), when his two brothers are called by their first names? The secondary story of the Scottish family and its slightly mysterious and unusual history did not seem to gell well with the corridors of Westminster (in one of which the murder that is the 'link' in the story takes place). It was almost as if it was two different books that got mixed up at the printing presses. And is that surname a coincidence or a pun? Ian Fleming meets John Buchan, and they don't seem to get along very well together . . . Two more tales of this same Fleming to come, but am not on tenterhooks.
on 22 November 2014
The cover says 'echoes of John Buchan and John Le Carre.' Well if this is like Buchan then I'm Charles Dickens and as for Le Carre...only in Naughtie's naughiest dreams. I found this a spectacularly tedious, irritating read full of pomposity and pretension and some of the worst dialogue I have ever seen written down. I suspect Naughtie was yearning for the gripping slow burn tension of Le Carre's best but he's completely forgotten to give the reader a reason to turn the page. Nothing happens and I really couldn't give a monkeys about any of the cardboard characters, none of whom are remotely believable. I finished it mostly because I was agog at how bad it really was. I shall never hear his voice on Radio 4 without remembering this waffle, and shuddering.