Thursday, March 19, 2020

23. The arena by William Haggard

I have been having a hard time reading consistently in these first days of the Covid-19 pandemic.  My twitter addiction, which I had really gotten under control to the point of seriously considering deleting my account on principle due to their ongoing "free speech" tolerance of racists, trolls and fake accounts, has flared up like the virus itself.  It is my main news feed and probably also fulfilling a social need that is not getting its fix on the basketball court or the office or even day-to-day interactions with neighbours and merchants.  I am really struggling to get to that place where I can't stop turning the pages and won't put the book down.

I picked The arena because Haggard writes so well and his characters are all about pragmatic efficiency that I thought it would keep me engaged while helping to model emotional distance in this time of crisis.  It was mostly succesful, given the situation.  It still took me almost a week to read a book I would have read in three days in 2019.

The story centers around the merchant bankers in London in the early 60s as they were evolving from family-owned, aristocratic entities to more and more mercenary affairs driven primarily by profit.  I am not sure about the title, nor why it is in lowercase on the cover (could that just be part of the design?).  The protagonist is William Hillyard, a director and shareholder in the Bonavias bank, a fourth generation company that is threatened with a takeover bid.  That this is happening is because the firm cannot keep up, but behind it there is also espionage.  One of their holdings is a small radar development firm who, unbeknownst to them, is working on some technology that could be very beneficial to the British government.  This is where Haggard's "detective" Charles Russel, head of the Executive branch and his competent assistant Mortimer step in.

There is a lot packed into this thin book, much of it involves Hillyard and his struggle to resist the takeover (he is the only one who is against it), which puts his own life at risk.  Class plays a huge role.  The antagonist, Scott Sabin (whose character comes in strong only late and thus, at least to me, lacked enough depth to feel satisfied with the denouement) is not of the class that I guess family bankers are or were in England and he is driven by a deep resentment.  We are supposed to loathe him, either because he is not of the correct class or because in his insane desire to move up a class, he has lost all sense of ethics and character.  You get the feeling that this book was written for the landed class, but were there enough of them in 1961 to make up a readership? 

As I alluded, the ending was a bit unsatisfying.  The rest is really good, very subtle, very strategic and political. Haggard has a way of making two men in a room speculating about other men's actions seems really cool.  There is also an attempted murder on a train in a tunnel in Italy, thwarted by one of Mortimer's "top men" that is an excellent example of subtle action and skill not requiring much firepower or physical excess.  Haggard is really good, though you have to keep an eye on the class perspective.

No comments: