There is dumb, and then there is industrial strength dumb. I no longer know precisely how I came about getting my hands on Ted Bell’s massively disappointing and offensive novel Pirate. The library sent me an email and told me it had come in, so I drove there to pick it up. With its skull & cross bones cover, I had high hopes. Say what you will about them, I think the Johnny Depp pirate films of recent years are ripping good fun, are smarter than they’re given credit for, and feature a mind-bogglingly complex plot. So, pirates are definitely popular fare lately.
Why this particular book, the third in Bell’s series featuring his Batman meets James Bond hero Lord Alex Hawke, is named Pirate I can only guess at. Is there any piracy? No. Anything one might associate with piracy? Well, there’s some ships, but then Titanic had ships too. In fact, only two reasons come to mind why this book might be titled Pirate, and it’s really only one reason. The Chinese spy organization refer to Lord Hawke as “Pirate” in their codes. And why do they do that? Because he owns a ship.
No, actually, the real reason they do it is because pirates are clearly hot in the market these days, and there is nothing Bell’s book does more than position itself toward a certain market. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with writing for a niche market, but in Bell’s style and in his plotting he so aggressively angles his way toward his niche that it comes off as just another marketing stunt. If this third in the series is any indicator, the other books are just as bad.
I don’t want to suggest that merely because a man was once the Vice-Chairman of the Board and World-Wide Creative Director for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency he couldn’t write a decent novel, but there it is. This globe trotting novel tries to conjure up the pre-p.c. devil may care attitudes of Ian Fleming and the like, but all it comes up with stale, odious stereotypes.
Throughout this book a kind of advertising shorthand of plot and character contrivance exists, where Asians are inscrutable, the French untrustworthy, the Germans stern Teutonic Nazi sympathizers, Americans blustery but they get the job done, and the English stable, cool cucumbers. Any Chinese male is referred to as a “Chinaman” regardless of which character is speaking (even our omniscient narrator) which points to authorial attitude (or choice) rather than character prejudice.
The book starts off with a kind of reactionary spy from the CIA, Harry Brock, engaged in some 007 action. While this opening scene no doubt applies more directly to the plot than Bond films’ opening scenes, the book immediately backtracks to lay out some scenes and some more of the story. While ye olde in media res has a distinguished pedigree, there is something corny and overdone about these action sequences that open any number of spy books and films.
Chapter One, after this smash-bang-crash episode, introduces us to Lord Alex Hawke, a well-off supposed British privateer. He is your usual tortured hero, his wife shot down the year before on the church steps only minutes after their wedding, fulfilling the genre necessity for angst. Nevertheless, because the sex demands of this convention are stronger than human psychology, we meet rather quickly Chinese startlet named Jet. Where do we meet her? In Hawke’s bed, naturally. How this supposedly mourning older man picked up this woman and ended up bedding her is rather quickly glossed over, nor is it strictly necessary to know. Things just happen.
And, of course, how convenient that in a book featuring those “inscrutable” (Bell’s word) Chinese that Hawke should be romantically linked to a cosmopolitan Chinese starlet. We find out later that she is an agent for the Chinese spy agency and secret police. Tangled loyalties, no doubt, will provoke we readers to question where her interests lie. Apparently rather infamous for her employment, Jet is known for what she is by everyone save our man of mystery. How does that work? How could Captain Oblivion be so well trusted by the CIA that they use him with some frequency?
Didn’t I already answer a question like this above? There are no good answers to these Mack Truck sized plot holes. Things just happen.
For example, the crackpot action sequences don’t stop with the opening chapters, but we quickly are accompanying Lord Hawke as he swashbucklingly saves Harry Brick (or whatever his name is) from the Chinese, by smashing into their boat and throwing him over his shoulder. I kid not. Along the way we are given descriptions of Hawke noting his compatriot about to be killed by an AK-47 toting Chinese killer and in “a nanosecond less” than it would take for the death to happen, Hawke draws his pistol and puts three bullets into “the Chinaman.”
Well, why are the Chinese secret police kidnapping American CIA agents anyway? Hang on to your hats, because this one’s gonna knock ‘em off. The somewhat incredulous (except, I’m sure, to some types) set up of the novel is that France, realizing a shift in world power is in the making, decides to cozy up with Communist China in order to get in on the ground floor when China takes over the Middle East.
France, lead by a self-claimed descendant Napoleon (who comes to power through skillful political assassination and so on), doesn’t realize how it’s being used by China, while the Chinese, realpolitik to the core, need a Trojan Horse to get them into the business of seizing all that sweet rich crude. To this end, two means are contrived. One is to convince France to invade Oman. The other is to get a Nazi sympathizing German billionaire shipbuilder to make you four enormous ships which you will stockpile with nuclear devices. Dock these ships in major American ports and there’s no way the Yankees can stop you from sucking the wells dry.
All of this is fairly patently absurd, and Bell is sure to pile it even thicker. It’d be one thing if he did this tongue in cheek with a sense of humor, but that’s not his style. The ideas seem to roll off pretty straightforward as if a.) he thought his geopolitical plotting were cutting edge smart and b.) his super-duper hero were plausible if a little extreme.
Bell meshes this super hero plot with what’s supposed to be some kind of detective story, an old friend of Lord Hawke’s named Congreve whose investigating the British end of things. Congreve’s a detective who we’re supposed to take for part Sherlock Holmes (he’s even described as wearing a deer stalker hat) and part Hercule Poirot. This two-dimensional also regularly wears tweeds and smokes a briar-bowl pipe as he peruses his Conan Doyle first editions. He is also given to considering things “cracking good” and “jolly good” and remarking how things are “arse over tea kettle” and other such PBS 1970s Britishisms that ring hollow and false. Perhaps, I thought, he’d stalk the villain in the end down a fog-choked cobble stone street, the gaslights extinguished etc.
One of the unintentionally funnier bits with this detective comes when he is pondering all the effeminate types who surround him, all the milksop so-called men who crawl the earth. He then shifts gears immediately to think wistfully of his dead aunt’s Minto tea service that might be left him in her will and her sweet little cottage.
It’s simply more of the author’s cliched view of the world coming in to play here. I don’t know what you can say for a novel wherein not only the villains and the minor characters are stock pastiches but the main characters as well. Postmodernists have had fun tinkering with ideas like this, but Bell’s neither smart enough nor author enough to be that self-aware of what he’s doing.
What gets me about this is how predictable and silly it all is. For example, the villains are all deformed and ugly and misshapen as well as deranged. Hu Xu or whatever his name is, a psychotic hit man for the Chinese secret police, has a razor thin nose with vertical nostrils, a crooked spine, and a smaller than average size penis which gives him a greater sexual appetite. You see, a monster by profession, he is a monster in appearance (but he also has to be diminished, which is why we find out his package dimensions).
Part of what’s so silly about this is how we have come to learn of the banality of evil. How vicious monsters are vicious per se generally speaking professionally, but in their private lives they are often into model trains, opera, dog breeding, stamp collecting, and all other kinds of simple hobbies. But in books and films of this nature, evil men are evil 24/7 and the killer, Hu Xu not only kills and maims for pay, but he keeps a boat in the harbor where he chops people up in bits and pieces, rearranging them as sadistic art projects. Even Saddam, uber evil, wrote novels.
And all too often, authors like to resort to this one-dimensional evil, but they also like to flinch at their own creation. They’ll make these bloodthirsty fiends, but when the time comes to allow them on the stage, the lights always dim, the curtain falls a second ahead of the knife. It’s a kind of moral chickenshittedness. Have the courage of your pretend authorial convictions. If you want to deal in nightmares, stop pussyfooting around.
Bell’s novel however is just that. A cowardly dream of bravery. An adman’s fantasy about what makes a good novel. A few types splashed about liberally for the dum-dums, a plot so contrived of nonsense as to make Hollywood execs giddy, and enough racial offensiveness to aim for that angry white male demographic. It’s beyond pathetic and beyond bad. Someone slip Bell the Black Spot, pronto.