A tremendous and gripping read. Oh, of course, you can make fun of it all you like – the cross between John Buchan and John le Carré by way of Rambo, the certainty of the upper-class sporting Englishman whose name is known in the right circles, his superiority to the not-quite-Englishman with “the almost feminine delicacy of . . . bone structure”, the unquestionable right of the sportsman to “bag” tigers . . . the book is ripe for parody and mockery by today’s standards, but nevertheless you are hooked from the first page, when you are drawn into the aftermath of the failed attempt of a marksman to shoot a dictator in 1939. The protagonist must go to ground to stay alive and to avoid an international incident.
Literally “go to ground”. I’m sure Dr Freud would have had something to say about the dark holes that the protagonist finds himself in – whether as a stowaway, a human mole or metaphorically. Me, I found them graphically claustrophobic.
And the protagonist is more than a John Buchan character, although he comes close to it when he recalls his “initiation ceremony on the Rio Javary – the only way I could persuade them to teach me how their men can exercise a slight muscular control over haemorrhage”. In the very next sentence, though, he turns into George Orwell: “[The ceremony] lasted a day and a night, whereas the initiation ceremonies of the tribal English continue for the ten years of education. We torture a boy’s spirit rather than his body, but all torture is, in the end, directed at the spirit”.
Women feature hardly at all: they are either perfect and dead, or dismissed as over-hearty or tarts. As with Orwell, you get the authentic pre-war voice of the privileged male raised in an all-male environment. The narrator also has that didactic tone that all the other writers I have mentioned share: he lays down the law and makes tremendous generalisations. I think my favourite is his reference to “those bawling Englishwomen whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp”. (Shades of Orwell’s smelling-salts horror of the “dreadful-looking old men” who got on the Letchworth bus.) When I was young I used to read this kind of stuff and take it as gospel and a guide to forming opinions about the world; these writers were famous and feted, so of course they were right! Now I compare it to Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – she is so tentative in her descriptions and never judges; everything is left to the reader to explore and consider.
So: fascinating both as a thriller and as a text to analyse. And something of a love letter to the English countryside and Dorset in particular.