In drama, certain backdrops are perennial. Cops and hospitals top these particular charts, with crime and criminals, death and saucy nurses providing a base that just cannot go stale. Behind these stalwarts but still instantly recognisable, is the Underworld. Whether it be baddies (muscular homies trading in things Tesco don’t sell) or goodies (spies working for Her Majesty), this too provides a rich setting for thrills and spills – the escapism us boring citizens crave.
But still… A basket full of low hanging fruit deserves no special attention. Any film, made-for-TV drama or novel needs more than good basic ingredients to be viewed as art. The elemental, on its own, is just not enough – but when fused with something new, it can yield magic. Think of the torture scene in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond. At the start, he does the unthinkable – he shows mortal fear; he almost sobs at the thought of the pain about to be inflicted upon him. And later, when Bond is in recovery, we witness him sitting alone in a wheelchair. It’s precisely this – the preservation of something eternal, but spun to give us a new angle, that transforms a mere factory production into high art.
In Paris Spring, James Naughtie’s second novel, we are taken to a time and place that is ripe with potential. Europe, 1968, and from Warsaw and Prague to Paris, the unstoppable force of youth is on collision course with the immovable object of authority. Students and other agitators are joining forces; the streets are brimming with unrest. And bearing witness to the very world turning are a cadre of young international journalists, as well as spies, Communist Bloc and Free World, working in the shadows to control a situation that’s threatening to go spastic. Here, without doubt, are ingredients for a cracking tale: the epoch-defining Cold War, power, espionage, the romance of Paris… The confluence of factors could not be more pregnant with promise. Unfortunately though, this novel is stillborn. The book is chock-full of clichés and well-worn tropes. Many of the characters are instantly recognisable: there’s the larger than life / loveable rogue / pseudo-intellectual boozer – a Jeremy Clarke from an age when chasing skirt was relish on the side, not starter, main and dessert. And the hero’s last love interest was, of course, “…an English pianist who’d settled in Paris to be near her famous teacher, and thanks to her he had waltzed elegantly into the city’s artistic life. He’d been persuaded into languid weekends in her apartment … where they lost whole days together.” De rigueur, Darling. Perfect for that after-the-watershed bit of rumpy-pumpy. Indeed the characters feel so similar to 2-D templates from some ITV drama – lacking the nuance, the richness that literature can add – that one begins to picture the unfolding story in exactly this way, rather than through natively engaging one’s imagination. (Personally, I cast the hero as a young Rupert Everett).
Stylistically, the novel feels less 1968, more 1821 – with characters being introduced with a meticulous height/weight/clothes description:
“He was short and trim, and always dressed by the rule. His shirts were white and his two office suits dark, one of them striped. At the weekends he was in brown. The only hint of rebellion was in a shock of auburn hair that he allowed to blossom so that it seemed to redden more, as if he were allowing his garden to flirt with the wild. It made his head seem too big for his spare body, but he had graceful feet and they gave him a physical ease and spring.”
And the prose per se lacks tension. Even the business-end of espionage – the handling of secrets, the bluff and counter-bluff, chance encounters with enemies – it’s all surprisingly tepid. Instead, the author keeps ostentatiously dropping in names of famous cities. The impression given is that a sentence becomes exciting – indeed readers will swoon – simply by repeatedly mentioning New York and Saigon. Naughtie is banking heavily on nostalgia here but it just doesn’t come off.
It feels cruel to say, but I cannot see how this book would’ve been published were it not for the guarantee of the big name behind it. (Naughtie is a journalist and former BBC Radio 4 Today presenter). Critiquing is enjoyable, but there is no relish whatsoever in bare-naked criticism. However
Any Cop?: The conclusion here is unavoidable – Paris Spring is resoundingly bland.