The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part four

olivia-de-havilland-captainblood-037A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3

 

‘Tell your goon if that paw touches me it’s coming off at the elbow.’

The shifner grunted in surprise as Eliane’s dagger flashed out towards its thick, questing hand. It rippled its enhanced shoulder muscles, the unconscious gesture a dominance display left over from the species’ prehistory on a distant world. Down in civilisation, shifner were mostly tank-bred as corporate muscle and cannon fodder; out on the Riff, among the runaways, you would sometimes find a flesh-bred like this one. There was a complex politics between the varieties, made more arcane by the ability of each to pass for the other, and by the fact that they were all, pretty much, competitors in the same line of work.

‘Don’t make me cut him, Spiker,’ she called out into the dark. She knew the would-be crime lord was watching, even if she could not see him. ‘I’m just here to do business.’

‘Then put the knife away,’ he replied from the gloom, ‘and leave it and the gun on the table.’

It was not within her nature willingly to give up weapons. They made the ground on which she was dealing a little less uneven, but they had also served their purpose. Spiker had his own utterly predictable dominance displays, easily subverted by a few more seconds performance of resistance before complying with his wishes. He was too arrogant to suspect her of concealing other weapons.

‘Good girl,’ he said, as Eliane unstrapped her forearm holsters and dropped them in front of the shifner. It grunted malice at her. She could not tell whether it was genuinely felt or just part of the job. ‘Come and sit with me,’ Spiker added.

He was ensconced in a deep alcove at the edge of the room. All the other tables were empty, and the bar shuttered. For Spiker, it was a surprisingly understated form of ostentation. He liked to hold court there and, Eliane suspected, thought of it, without irony, as holding court. But really it was just business. Money, power, influence, as scuzzy there as anywhere else.

She slid onto the chair opposite him. The upholstery was every bit as plush as Spiker’s taste was poor.

‘You know why I’m here,’ she said, ‘and we agreed a price. Why all the show?’

Her dislike of Spiker was finely balanced – part disliking his kind of nasty little crook with delusions of grandeur, and part disliking him personally. It was not just that there was blood on his hands, but that some of it had belonged to very specific people. Also, he always tried to hit on her, sooner or later, no matter what she turned up looking like. Tall, short, blonde, brunette, male, female, whatever, none of it made a difference to him. He was grossly libidinal, and thought himself charming. Or, she conceded, it was just about possible it was all an act. Which probably made it worse.

He poured them each a glass of something she knew better than to drink, and slid hers over towards her. She reached for it, knowing he would take the opportunity to stroke her fingers. It made her skin crawl but it was part of the cost of dealing with him.

His caress was surprisingly perfunctory. For a split second she was relieved, and then suspicious. On the several occasions they had done business, he had lingered over the prelude to their transaction, relishing any trace of discomfort he could produce in her. She had grown accustomed to disappointing him, not least because it tended to speed things up. The secret was to respond not with a stony glare, but with the appearance of not even noticing. He hated that. He could not stand to be frustrated.

In his sudden haste, he did not even pause to touch his drink. He summoned another shifner from where it had been standing impassively back in the gloom.

Something is definitely amiss, she thought, but he knows better than to try to scam me.

The shifner placed a containment cylinder on the table, maybe eight inches high with a diameter about a third of that. Its matt surface seemed to hold in light rather than reflect it.

‘I’m here for tech, not biologicals.’ Eliane started to slide out from the booth.

‘It is tech,’ Spiker replied, ‘xenotech. Exotic. Not exactly biological. Not exactly not-biological, either.’

Eliane paused. ‘Does it do what you claimed?’

‘Your AI will be able to infiltrate any other shipbrain,’ he said. ‘Overwhelm it. You want bloodless kills, or easy ones, it’s just the thing for you.’

She ignored the contempt in his voice, but his words troubled her. Never before had he said anything that implied he knew who she was and what she did. He was supposed to think she merely trafficked in curiosities, scouring the Riff for unusual artefacts and arcane knowledges to sell to xeno-groupies and other aficianados down in civilisation. ‘How does it work?’

‘It didn’t come with a manual.’ The casualness of his shrug seemed rehearsed.

‘Some kind of virus?’

‘A hack is a hack.’

‘Kinda old school, even for the Riff.’

‘It’s different. Quantum-level stuff, not software. It’s more, well, paracognitive, I guess. Telepathic.’

‘Taking me for a rube, Spiker?’

He did not reply.

‘Let me see it.’

Spiker slid the cylinder across the table. Once more he failed to take the opportunity to touch her as she reached out and picked it up. He wasn’t staring at her cleavage, either. Which should have been a relief. Last time he hadn’t done that, it was when she was male, although that didn’t keep his eyes from roving – or his hands.

She twisted the cylinder open, removed her gloves and reached inside. Her touch triggered something in the artefact. It moved in her hand, imitating her grasp. She did not allow herself to flinch.

She lifted it into view. It looked like a starfish. Its rays appeared metallic but moved as if organic, stiffened by something calcerous. It felt slick against her skin. She peeled one of its rays from her forearm and peered at it. Unexpectedly, the underside was as dry as the topside.

‘Nanofilaments,’ Spiker explained. ‘It needs to bond with your nervous system to work.’

Eliane released the ray, let it coil around her wrist. ‘Then why’s it not working?’

‘Your central nervous system.’ Now he was smiling. ‘It needs access points. Ears. Eyes.’

Her hand was halfway to her head before his grin faded.

‘Come on, we’ve done enough business before. There’s no need to test it here. Besides, you’ll need your ship systems within range to see what it can really do.’

She raised an eyebrow.

‘You know you can trust me,’ he said.

That was enough for Eliane. Not even Spiker was fool enough to think anyone actually trusted him. There was something he did not want her to know.

And he had said the thing was telepathic.

Without further thought she allowed it to crawl from the back of her hand to the side of her face. One ray curled around her ear, extended its tip into her earhole. It halted, but she could sense tiny extrusions were slipping inside, piercing her eardrum, but harmlessly, on a subatomic level. Another ray slipped over her eye. She would probably have flinched away from its touch if it hadn’t suddenly made her feel quite piratical.

Then it hit her.

A clangour of light, a peal of colour.

A cascading vertiginous kaleidoscope of sensation.

An intense vibration took her.

She did not have time to feel nauseous or giddy. It was abruptly part of her. A second consciousness, present everywhere within her, apart yet simultaneously inseparable.

Thoughts, she discovered, were nothing like voices.

Spiker knew who she was. And he’d peached. Sold her out. This was all a trap.

She needed to get out of there. Quickly.

‘Wow,’ she said, stumbling with artful awkwardness to her feet.

Spiker half-rose, uncertain.

‘You can feel it right down here,’ she said, smiling to assuage his anxiety, and reached behind her for the loops at the base of her spine.

In the dim light, Spiker probably did not even see the keratin blades as they slashed wickedly before him, slicing through his throat, leaving an elongated scarlet X.

The nearest shifner reached for the blaster on his hip. He roared in frustration, and then in pain, as he realised that all he was pointing at her was a stump, gouting blood.

She danced around his forward lurch, cutting deep into the backs of his legs.

He threw himself desperately at her. She sidestepped. He hit the floor with a crash. A blade in the back of the neck severed his spine. She could safely leave him to bleed out.

The second shifner, eschewing his sidearm, drew a pair of short swords and stepped heavily towards her, blades held steady in the low light. He seemed to know what he was doing.

She backed away, looking nervous.

The shifner swelled his shoulder muscles in gleeful anticipation of the kill.

She picked up the fallen blaster and shot him in the head. His face vaporised in the intense heat. Sizzling blood and brain sprayed the wall. He swayed upright for a second as if his body did not yet know it was dead, then collapsed noisily, spilling gore across the floor.

Eliane swept up the containment canister, and gently pulled the device from her head. It seemed reluctant to detach at first, and she did not know how much force to exert. She didn’t want to rip out anything vital.

She checked herself for spatter, and stepped carefully over the corpse. The first shifner was still alive, rasping ragged breaths. She drove a blade through its shoulders and into its heart. She hated killing, but sometimes it was a mercy. Besides, in this crazy messed up universe, what was a girl to do?

She grabbed her gun and knife and made for the exit.

She had completely forgotten – if, indeed she ever knew it – that shifners always work in teams of three.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 5

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Dandies in the Underworld

fantomasA giant figure in immaculate evening dress looms over night-time Paris. Stepping over familiar landmarks, he gazes out at us from behind a domino mask. And in his outstretched hand is a bloodied dagger. The image, by Gino Starace, is iconic. It is Fantômas. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. But despite his costume, he is not a gentleman.

Created in 1911 by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre for a series of 32 monthly novels, the enormously popular Fantômas soon crossed over to the movies. In 1913 and 1914, Louis Feuillade directed five films about the endless quest of Inspector Juve and journalist Jerôme Fandor to capture the criminal mastermind. However, although Starace’s picture was used to promote Feuillade’s Fantômas, he only once appears costumed like this – and then as a figment of the defeated Juve’s imagination.

The head of a vast criminal organisation and a master of disguise, Fantômas has less in common with the gentleman thief than with the villains of Fritz Lang’s Die Spinnen (1919-20), Spione (1928) and Dr Mabuse films (1922, 1933, 1960), in whom the terrors of disempowerment and anonymity that accompany capitalist-industrial, urban modernity coalesce. Brutally instrumentalist and utterly impersonal, there is no true identity to be discovered behind his series of disguises.

Starace’s dapper but knife-wielding gentleman is – in the face of the globalising forces of empire and capital squaring off on the eve of World War I – at once reassuring, anachronistic, transgressive and fantastical. Perhaps this is why Fantômas, the product of arch-conservatives, so appealed to such radical avant-gardists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Blaise Cendrars, René Magritte and Kurt Weill. He embodies the contradictions of his age.

The probable source of Starace’s gentleman-thief image is AJ Raffles, perhaps channelled through Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin. Created by EW Hornung in the 1890s, Raffles is the finest slow bowler of his generation. Penniless, he is nonetheless proud to be a Gentleman rather than a Player, and likewise insists on his amateur status as a thief. Selecting only the most challenging jobs and most exquisite loot to support his bachelor lifestyle, he robs from the rich and is not averse to others helping the poor.

raffles-1917He appeared in a dozen films between 1905 and 1939. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917) stars John Barrymore in a breakneck mash-up of Hornung’s stories that only ever pauses to display The Great Profile’s great profile. This Raffles appears to be not so much a gentleman as someone who knows a gentleman’s tailor (Barrymore, his looks and his star both fading, is a more compelling gentleman thief in Arsène Lupin and Grand Hotel, both 1932). In Raffles (1925), House Peters, known as ‘The Star of a Thousand Emotions’, can muster only a handful of them, including ‘stolid refusal to be charismatic’ and ‘discomfort in ill-fitting evening dress’. In contrast, da993b7bbe01f24bdfcf2ae6e48c04bbRonald Colman in the first talkie Raffles (1930) gives one of his most effortless-seeming performances – as if acting were too vulgar even to contemplate – and the warm timbre of his Surrey burr modulates plummy received pronunciation into something quite sensuous. But the narrative material had already been filleted of its fundamental queerness. Hornung’s stories, focused on the close bond between Raffles and his accomplice Bunny, are full of innuendo and double entendre, with occasional allusions to amyl nitrate and Oscar Wilde.

Once the Production Code was enforced, the gentleman thief became not merely straight but almost completely desexualised. In the 1940 Raffles, David Niven is too young, his Raffles too boyish, and the casting of classical Hollywood’s very best good girl, Olivia de Havilland, as his love interest compounds an error that would not be corrected until Yorkshire Television’s 1977 Raffles series, raffles_tll10starring Anthony Valentine. Perfectly cast, Valentine’s precise delivery and slightly faded looks – the contrast between his crow’s feet and seemingly plasticised cheekbones suggests more than merely a youth misspent – unleash the homoerotic appeal of the gentleman thief: the tastefully furnished, comfortable quarters, devoid of women; the endless flirtations, but avoidance of romance or entanglement; the gentlemen’s clubs; the secret nocturnal identity; the dressing-up to break into other men’s houses; the crossing of class barriers; the mixing with rough trade…

But, queer or otherwise, this sexual undercurrent is not the only source of the gentleman thief’s appeal. The flipside of Fantômas, that anonymously devastating force of modernity, the gentleman thief negotiates modernity’s transformations of economic and social structures. This is beautifully captured by the prominence afforded a bust of WG Grace in the apartment of Valentine’s Raffles. As the finest cricketer of his generation, Grace is worthy of Raffles’s respect. But despite being a Gentleman, he was only nominally an amateur, making more money from the sport than any professional Player. A similar whiff of disrepute surrounds Raffles.

As old hierarchies crumbled, signifiers of social class were disrupted by wider access to certain varieties of commodity. Appearances begin to deceive. In Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, pre-Code Trouble in Paradise (1932), a Baron (Herbert Marshall) and a Countess (Miriam Hopkins) only fall in love when each discovers the other is a fake and a thief. Self-made and simulacral, they can play any social role – given the right costume – but the only place they really belong is with each other, conning, stealing or on the lam. However, such semiotic manipulations rarely succeed. In Pépé le moko (1938), Jean Gabin’s proletarian thief is unutterably stylish, but he cannot escape his class or fate.

In the post-war period, values shifted. Consider the contrast in The Pink Panther (1963) between the aristocratic Phantom and his nephew: David Niven is too old, Robert Wagner too American, too glib. A new consumerist masculinity was taking over, and gentleman thieves were no longer gentlemen. And they were as likely to solve crimes as commit them.

The character-type saw a popular resurgence in 1966, the year in which Cary Grant, Hollywood’s master of sartorial transformation (and a gentleman thief in To Catch a Thief, 1955), retired from films. The charm of Gambit’s Harry Dean (Michael Caine) is located in the gulf between his East London vowels and his dubious received pronunciation when posing as Sir Harold Dean. That of Kaleidoscope’s Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) depends entirely on his transparent reliance on a broad smile to buy time when he is out of his social depth. This league of ‘gentlemen’, which also includes Oliver Reed in The Jokers (1967) and Stanley Baker in Perfect Friday (1970), consists of working- (or middle-) class boys made good, and valorised for doing so. The very best of them is to be found in How to Steal a Million (1966), less a film than an opportunity to ponder whether Audrey Hepburn – as elegant when disguised as a cleaning lady as when dressed by Givenchy – or a young Peter O’Toole is the more beautiful (although it is probably a draw, O’Toole does showcase some of the most remarkable cigarette-handling you will ever see).

21129_Danger-Diabolik-05Costume, commodities and consumption are also at the heart of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968). The eponymous Jaguar-driving criminal mastermind (played by John Phillip Law, who looks like the offspring of Alain Delon and a Vulcan mod) dresses in full-enclosure leather and rubber body suits to commit his crimes, only his eyes visible through a domino-shaped cutaway. Based on a 1960s Italian comic book character, Diabolik is an intriguing inversion of Fantômas. His ‘terrorism’ is restricted to destroying the taxation system because the government have wasted so much public money pursuing him, and his subterranean base is a fantasy of modish, high-tech apartment living – a love-nest shared with Eva (Marisa Mell), his beautiful blonde accomplice with a taste for mini-raf_bun2dresses, hotpants, hipsters, peekaboo tops and kinky boots. Crime, for them, is passionate foreplay and, in contrast to poor Raffles and Bunny, it need never go unconsummated.

This dynamic between class and consumption was repeatedly played out on British television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Adam Adamant (Gerald Harper), a Victorian secret agent revived in swinging London, was a gentleman (and misogynistic prig) but not a thief. Peter Wyngarde’s deliciously-voiced Jason King was no castgentleman, although he was certainly a player. Tony Curtis’s brash self-made millionaire Danny Wilde partners up with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair to fight crime in expensive locations in The Persuaders!, although Moore always seemed less an aristocrat than a bemused estate agent. However, the pattern was most decisively set when, in the fifth season of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, formerly so well-dressed that you forgot he was a government functionary, let himself be costumed by Pierre Cardin. Bringing modern touches to classic Savile Row designs might have sounded innocuous, but from there it was only a short step to working with Gareth Hunt…

Perhaps it was the backlash against the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s and 1970s, or perhaps it was neo-liberalism’s success in persuading otherwise sensible people that there are no such things as society or social and economic classes, that finally did for the gentleman thief. Where is he now?

In Entrapment (1999), Sean Connery – whose James Bond negotiated so intriguingly between working-class physique and access to style, articulating social mobility as a semiotic possibility – is just some rich guy, no more convincing as a gentleman than he was as a Soviet submarine commander. There is too much of the catalogue model about Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and George Clooney’s Danny Ocean merely gentrifies the rat pack. Remorselessly heterosexualised, they reek of new money. And then there is The Gentleman Thief (2001), which only exists because the BBC realised – far too late – that they should lazily cast Nigel Havers as Raffles before it was too late. Or former Eastender Michelle Ryan as Doctor Who’s ‘aristocratic’ thief/Emma-Peel-wannabe, Lady Christina de Souza…

Frankly, I’d rather work with Gareth Hunt.

[A version of this piece first appeared in Electric Sheep back when it was hard copy; but issue 12 (winter 2009), is now out of print.]