Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:
TED BELL – Phantom. William Morrow, hardcover, March 2012. Harper, paperback, August 2012.
Phantom is the seventh novel in Ted Bell’s popular series about Lord Alex Hawke, latter day privateer, secret agent, dashing lover, fabulously wealthy aristocrat, and mover and shaker at ease in the corridors of power with presidents and kings — or at least Queen Elizabeth.
Doc Savage at least had trouble talking to women, Tarzan was uncomfortable in civilization, and James Bond drank and smoked too much, but Hawke is not only wealthy and handsome, but has his own navy and special forces. His yacht the Blackhawke, named after his privateer ancestor, is armed like a destroyer and does everything but space flight. Hawke is easily the best equipped hero since the days of Arsene Lupin’s yacht and private submarine.
Hawke doesn’t do it all alone, he has a team, and what a team. We begin with Pelham, his faithful servant and friend (he raised Hawke when Hawke’s parents were killed by pirates — see Hawke), who is basically Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. After Pelham comes his oldest friend Ambrose Congrieve, formerly of the Yard, and closer to John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Fell than any real Scotland Yard sleuth, a Sherlockian-quoting unlikely copper so far off of any realistic context as to be virtually alien.
Next is Stokely ‘Stoke’ Jones Jr. ex US SEAL, and the most jive talking unlikely black man since George Baxt’s Pharaoh Love. The only reason I can see no one has been offended by this character is that they just haven’t read them. The cast is rounded out with Harry Brock, ex CIA; Nell Spooner, ex Special Branch and nanny to Hawke’s son by Russian Anastasia (her father tried to become the next Tsar — in Tsar — and was foiled by Hawke), Nell would willingly give aid and comfort to Hawke in a Biblical manner if he ever noticed; the head of MI6 Sir David Truelove; at least one American ambassador formerly head of the CIA; and, a Dubya like American president who trusts Hawke implicitly.
In addition this all takes place against a background of a forelock-tugging Never-never-land of an England that didn’t really exist when P.G. Wodehouse was writing about it. (Hawke is a huge Wodehouse fan.) My willing suspension of disbelief gets sprained just thinking about it. If you want to see the society Bell is attempting to write about handled with artistry, savagery, and insight try Simon Raven or Anthony Powell. This wouldn’t pass for reality in a Monty Python sketch.
In Phantom there is about half a book of leftover soap opera elements from Tsar to deal with including Hawke discovering Anastasia is still alive, traveling to Russia to save her, losing her again but discovering his son, Alexi, and his friends Stoke and Brock taking on a group of survivors of the royalist Russian plot out to kill Hawke and his son — their I Spy like banter easily the most annoying and flat in the genre. Sheldon Leonard has a lot to answer for.
You can understand why the plot of Phantom doesn’t show so much as a hint of kicking in until page 118. (Even what went before the openings of movie serials didn’t last ten of the twenty minute chapter.)
You see, Stoke is getting married to Fancha, a pop singing star, in his old home church in Louisiana by his old pastor (think Rex Ingram’s de Lawd from Green Pastures with a touch of Juano Hernandez) with Hawke his best man. After far too much of the wedding in the most unlikely parish in the state’s history, the happy couple take a cruise, and their ship is promptly sunk by a Russian submarine. (Someone in the Russian navy must have been on one of those cruises from hell we see on the news.)
Not that the Russians intended to sink the cruise ship, they couldn’t help it. Their ship itself sank the floating tourist trap.
Naturally our government doesn’t really buy that until one of our F-15‘s almost shoots down Air Force One.
Who you gonna call?
You got it.
Cyber-warfare on an unimagined scale has broken out, and behind it lies a secret that will shake the world to its core. If you haven’t figured out that secret by now you haven’t seen a science fiction movie since the 1950‘s.
Perseus, the worlds most powerful computer, has reached Singularity. True AI, and like all super computers that reach consciousness, it wants to rid the planet of that nasty virus called mankind and start over. Somewhere Fred Brown, who supposedly wrote the first such story, is tossing in his grave. (Scientist: “Is there a God?” — Computer: “There is now.”)
You just know Hawke will have the usual good guy/bad guy tete-a-tete with Perseus before pulling the plug. Not bad, considering he was in a full-blown drunken state of abject depression in chapter one.
I can’t tell if Bell is having us on or is completely serious, but I think he may actually be serious and think there once was an England like this. Hawke is a fantasy figure, but at some point you have to curb your imagination a little. I should have known I was in trouble in the first book (Hawke) when Hawke sashayed into a tough pub in white tie and top hat a la Simon Templar and chose to incite a brawl for fun.
Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels in a whiskey-soaked Fleet Street drawl, layering a coating of fantasy over thinly disguised events and people from the war giving a twist a la the Fleming effect and an ear for the poetry of violence as well as an eye for memorable women; Trevanian was a savage social and political critic with a sharp eye and tongue and an ironic tone that dripped venom and wit in equal doses; Bell, despite impeccable credentials, writes Boy’s Own Paper tales on the level of Waldo the Wonderman and Nelson Lee. He is more Sax Rohmer than Fleming or Trevanian, and more Jack Armstrong than Rohmer.
He does remind me of Sapper a bit. He never met a cliche he won’t embrace wholeheartedly.
All this to one side, the Hawke books are great fun if you lower expectations and sit back for the ride. There is no substance to them, their relationship to the real world is roughly comparable to the relationship between Diet Coke and the real thing, merely disposable time wasters on the literary scale of a big summer movie blockbuster full of noise and movement, but they are wide screen 3D Technicolor diversions.
That said, popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, corny dogs, and burgers may not be memorable but they will fill your tummy even if they are instantly forgotten. Don’t mistake these for anything more than they are and you will get your money’s worth.
But twenty or thirty years down the line when they are still reading Ian Fleming and even Doc Savage, Bell and Hawke won’t even be a footnote — they are strictly literature as junk food. Here today, at the bottom of the trash can tomorrow.