Saturday, 23 February 2013

Derek Robinson: Operation Bamboozle, and indeed Luis Cabrillo in general

When I posted earlier this month about Derek Robinson, I made a glancing comparison between his approach and Elmore Leonard's; for a book where the comparison is impossible to avoid, try Operation Bamboozle, the fourth book he's written about the charming con-man Luis Cabrillo. In an afterword, Robinson says that he looks forward to seeing Cabrillo does next, and I have a feeling that Cabrillo is his favourite character. He wrote the first Cabrillo book, The Eldorado Network, when he happened across the true story of Garbo, one of the leading double agents of World War II. Garbo, rather magnificently, made up a whole spy ring in Britain and managed to fool the Germans into thinking it was real; the whole exercise was such an unlikely success that MI6 eventually hired him to do it properly. The real life story sounds too good to be true, and indeed Garbo's motivation was so idealistic that Robinson's own native cynicism kicked in hard when he decided to fictionalise it all; Luis Cabrillo is a grifter who does it all partly for money and partly for the sheer anarchic fun of fooling so many stuffed shirts.

The Eldorado Network came out in 1979 and seemed to stand on its own quite well; it wasn't till 1991 that Robinson came back to the characters to see how the rest of the war went for them and how Cabrillo's anarchic spirit would have stood up to following orders from MI6. Artillery of Lies is a much blacker farce than the first book, particularly in the fates awaiting the real German spies which the Abwehr foolishly sends to reinforce Cabrillo's legion of non-existent ones. But again it wrapped up nicely; the first book had ended with Cabrillo going corporate and the second ended with him helping to tip the balance of the War. We heard nothing more from Cabrillo for 15 years, until Red Rag Blues saw a bored Luis showing up in the US in the 1950s, just in time to try to make some money and have some fun by disrupting the McCarthy era. A lot of the fun in Luis is watching how he thrives on chaos and improvisation, and like most fiction about mildly sociopathic people, it works better if the people he scams are much worse than he is. The McCarthy hearings didn't give him quite the stakes and license-to-mess that defeating Nazi-ism did, and it's not as good as the earlier books. Still fun, as Robinson alway is.

As Operation Bamboozle begins, Luis and his partner-in-whatever-he-does Julie Conroy have narrowly extricated themselves from the McCarthy mess, leaving a confused FBI and an unfocussedly vengeful Mafia in their wake, and are trying to put some distance between them, their ill-gotten gains, and all the people who want a word with them. Chaos inevitably follows as they rattle around Texas, confusing everyone, swindling the rich and attracting a coterie of eccentrics before bouncing into LA and a bit of sustained plotting.

There's not a whole lot of plot to Operation Bamboozle, but the closest thing it has to one is Luis deciding to run a long con on the Mafia by persuading them to subscribe to a Ponzi scheme based on them thinking that they're patriotically defrauding the Ukrainian national lottery and thus destabilising communism. We're almost half way through the book before this even occurs to him, and by this stage, the couple's misadventures have left a trail of bodies as their cloud of confusion bewilders various hoodlums into violent over-reaction to things that they were never even meant to notice, let alone understand. Which has in turn attracted the FBI, convinced that there's something wrong, but unable to make sense of what it might be. Luis, meanwhile, is blissfully self-confident, as always, and blithely unaware of how much trouble he's caused and how much danger he and Julie are really in. 

It all ends in a cartoon explosion of misunderstanding which miraculously leaves Luis unscathed, and most of the people who were mad at him in no position to do anything about it. And thus Robinson saying he's looking forward to what he might get up to next, though this was four years ago now, and there's been no sign of movement. We can but hope, I suppose.

Why is all this Elmore Leonard-esque? Well, Robinson is more writerly than Leonard, more fond of the stylistic, almost distracting flourish. But he has that same happy knack of conjuring up a sympathetic character, bringing him to life, and then cutting him almost casually out of the story as the natural cussedness of life and other people takes its toll. Plot is secondary; what matters is character and contingency, the way that people react to the randomness of things around them. The real theme of the book is that Luis thrives of chaos and carries it with him wherever he goes, oblivious of the effect it has on the people he touches. There is a moment when Luis finally has his latest scam bought out from under him by the government because even they've fallen for it, and Robinson finds a sentence which is both a perfect description of what's wrong with Luis and a nifty piece of writing "… his eyes had the look of a man who has just won the Nobel for piracy on the high seas." When you can do that, you write whatever the hell you want to.

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