Thursday, August 29, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE by Barry England

In an unnamed Asian country two western soldiers, MacConnachie and Ansell, escape from a column of marching POWs and make a run for it. Their goal is to make it across the hostile alien territory and reach the mountains, and safety, four hundred miles away. Yet all the while they're shadowed by an enemy helicopter, piloted by a nameless nemesis who's able to outguess their every move and mark their position for the ground troops chasing them down below...

And that's pretty much it as far as the plot's concerned. But that's really all that's needed because what we've got here is a great example of the existential chase thriller (the generic title kind of clues you in on the existential part). And while it may not be in the same league as Alfred Camus's classic, 'The Stranger,' I have to say this 1968 novel from Barry England gives that old warhorse a good run for its money (ahem) in the suspense stakes. For a start, it's a lot more gripping - and England doesn't waste any time diving into the action, either. In the very first paragraph, we see MacConnachie sidling up to Ansell with a curt, 'If I go left, will you come?' And then we're off the races for the whole rest of the book. Literally.

To be honest, everything is stripped down to such a level that I'm surprised the author even bothered to name his two protagonists - although maybe he thought that would be a little too minimalist, even for him. Still, we're not given their first names, and we're told almost nothing of their pasts or backgrounds either. England clearly doesn't want any unnecessary baggage getting in the way of his story. The past is irrelevant. Only the present matters. Survival is everything.

As it is, all we know about MacConacchie is that he's the older and more decisive of the two, that he's a professional soldier - possibly an NCO of some kind - who generally trusts his instincts and his years of experience to get him out of dangerous situations. Ansell's much younger, possibly still a teenager. But he's also smart, educated and insightful, with a natural-born knack for problem-solving. So clearly two opposites: the thinker and the doer. And it's through these two disparate characters that England's then able to go on and explore the whole spectrum of human experience. Despair, hope, self-belief, friendship, physical and mental adversity. All that good stuff we writers love. And readers too, of course.

As for the other details, we know there's a war going on between east and west, but we don't know the countries involved. The enemy, whether they be civilian or military, are simply referred to as 'Goons' all the way through. The US and Vietnam, maybe? Who knows? England certainly isn't saying. In fact, I'm only guessing that it's set in the east at all. The only clues are the references to the torrential rain seasons, which could equate to monsoons. And there's also a brief reference to the dark skin of a native boy. And it's mentioned more than once that our two heroes look different to the indigenous peoples. But to be honest, it could be anywhere. And it's immaterial anyway. It's really the relationship between the two main characters that matters the most. And the chase, of course.

For the rest of the book, we follow these two outsiders as they face one obstacle after another in their hopeless bid for freedom. And that's another thing. England makes it clear from the start that the situation is hopeless. That there won't be any happy endings. As the book progresses and their options narrow and their supplies dwindle down to nothing, it only becomes more and more obvious to them.

And the main reason for that is the presence of the third character, the enemy helicopter pilot chasing them. We never see his face or hear his thoughts, but he possesses an almost supernatural ability to locate MacConnachie and Ansell each time he returns from refueling. And then the game starts all over again. Duck and dive. Hide and seek. Hit and run. MacConnachie even gradually begins to respect him as one soldier to another, referring to his expertise with a certain reverence even as they try to outmaneuver him. Which they rarely do. At least, not for very long.

It's strange. On the one hand, by keeping things so stark England makes it hard to really know Mac and Ansell, yet it's surprising how well he brings the two men to life, given the restraints he sets for himself. Naturally, neither man likes the other too much at the beginning, but as the situation steadily worsens the relationship between the two men gradually strengthens to the point where they come to respect, and even love, each other. And not in a cliched way, either. Because everybody's a potential enemy, they know it's just the two of them against the world. In fact, it was only as I was reading the book for the second time that I realized that England also throws the four elements - fire, water, air, earth - at them at various points in the narrative. Man, when even nature's against you, you know you're really in some deep shit.

That's not to say the book's a total downer. Okay, it's no laugh riot, but during the earlier sections of the book England manages to insert the odd one-liner here and there - and usually when the reader least expects it. There's a fairly tense moment early on, for example, where Mac and Ansell watch two hundred soldiers closing in on them and Ansell turns to his partner and whispers, 'Nip along and see if they've got a couple of fags to spare, Mac. You're better at that sort of thing than I am.' That one sure took me by surprise - especially as there was no hint beforehand that these characters possessed a sense of humour. And I like how England divides the story into chapters but refuses to number them. Just a small thing, but that made me smile as well.

I also love how he keeps everything unexplained and indistinct throughout the book (I'm a big fan of 'The Prisoner' too). How the reader's left with more question than answers. For instance, we know the mountains represent freedom to these two, but we don't know why. Is it because the harsh terrain will allow them to finally lose the helicopter? Or is there a border of some kind over the next hill? Again, who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

And then there's the climax, which is a real nail-biter. I mentioned there was no happy ending in this one, but that's not to say the climax isn't satisfying. Because it most assuredly is. The last line in particular stayed with me for hours afterwards, and that's really all I can ask of any book.

** They also made a movie version in 1970, which starred Robert Shaw as MacConnachie and Malcolm McDowell as Ansell. And I can't think of any other two actors more perfectly suited for the roles - they're both excellent. However, Shaw's adaptation of the book (he wrote the screenplay) is somewhat less successful. It's not bad as such, but he makes a few glaring changes (such as softening the ending and adding unnecessary backstory to the characters) which really don't help the film at all. Still, if you can find it on DVD for a decent price, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

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