Condition Black by Gerald Seymour

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I first read Condition Black back in 1991 when the book first came out in hardback. In fact I remember it was around the time of the first Gulf War and the book was displayed for sale with topical headlines referring to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

In fact Seymour included an introduction referring to the then current situation in the Middle East, although the book is not directly related to the invasion. Instead it is set prior to the 1990 invasion and focuses on Iraq’s attempts to recruit foreign scientists to work on its nuclear program. In the aftermath of the 2003 WMD debacle it’s easy to forget that Iraq once was developing nuclear weapons.

For some reason it was never a favourite Seymour book of mine and I’ve been meaning to go back and reappraise it. I’ve finally got around to it 20 years after the paperback first came out and I was interested to see if I liked the book any better.

Unusually for Seymour one of the main characters is an American. Bill Erlich is a young FBI agent based in Rome. He hears that a CIA agent friend of his has been shot and killed while meeting an Iraqi exile in Athens. Erlich’s investigations lead him to a witness who heard the English gunman being called Colt. This leads him to London where gets varying degrees of assistance from MI5 and MI6.

Colt actually stands for Colin Oliver Louis Tuck. He’s a young Englishman who, after getting into trouble because of an association with a militant animal rights group, went on the run and ended up in Iraq. An Iraqi colonel recognised his potential and recruited him for assassinations in europe.

Colt’s assignment back in England leads him to Frederick Bissett. He is a scientist at the Atomic Weapons Establishment who is struggling to make ends meet on his government salary and is finding his specialised career is making it difficult to find work elsewhere. When the Iraqis hear of his dissatisfaction they send Colt to recruit him.

One thing I would have liked more of was further development of the Iraq segments of the book which are mainly confined to the Iraqi atomic research centre where a Swedish scientist is actually a spy for Mossad and is trying to glean some information for his spymasters.

So, did I enjoy the book? Yes I did, very much in fact. I think my original issue was connected will Bill Erlich. Something about the character didn’t gel for me. I do remember when I first read the novel I also had a problem with something that happened toward the end of the book. Indeed the ‘event at the airport’ was one of my strongest recollections. Perhaps knowing what was going to happen meant I didn’t mind as much about it this time around.

Pan Am episode 12 review

First of all I have to mention the fact that the BBC originally planned to show two episodes last night, but for one reason or another decided to just show one. When the announcement was made over the closing credits that there would not be the second episode, well, I was actually a little disappointed.

Anyway, on to the review.

Dean and Colette still aren’t talking over Bridgetgate. (Actually, that’s a good point. Bridget was completely absent from episode 12.) On a flight to Rome Dean gets jealous when he sees Colette being chatted up by a passenger. When the plane lands the Italian police come on board because there are lots of smuggled cigarettes in the hold. Dean is ultimately responsible as he’s captain of the plane. Was there anyone looking suspicious on board? You can practically see the thought bubble appear above Dean’s head with a picture of the chatting up guy in it.

Kate has a new mission. She has to pick to pick the pocket of some Italian guy who is going to give American rocket science to the Russians. There might have been microfilm in a cigarette case or something but I wasn’t really paying attention, distracted as I was by Kate’s hair. Kate was looking yummy in last nights episode.

Maggie is sitting alone at home fondling a JFK election badge (or ‘button’ as they call them in America). Ted’s fiancee comes calling to apologise for the kiss last week. Later Maggie decides to tell Ted that his fiancée appears to ‘like’ ladies. Ted is having none of it.

Laura is snapping photos in New York when a guy says, hey, I know you from those nudie photos in that art gallery. I’m paraphrasing here. Laura is upset and runs to the gallery to discover said nudie photos of her on display. It must be said that as this is a US network drama there is zero nudity in the photos beyond a bit of shoulder. The art gallery owner says he’s got a buyer for the photos but he will sell them to Laura at cost. She needs to find $500. ‘Ted!” everyone shouts at the screen.

Laura goes to Ted but he has to answer a well scripted phone call that will leave Laura alone with Ted’s fiancée. Laura explains why she needs the money and the fiancée writes her a cheque before getting a little embrace-a-girl action. Ted observes the embrace with a look on his face that can only be described as “hey, Maggie was right”.

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In Rome Kate manages to get the microfilm from the Italian, while looking continuously yummy. At the same party Colette is dancing with the passenger when Dean strides in with the police. “There is the scoundrel, officers!” he shouts. Well, not exactly, but it’s the impression I got. The police however practically grovel as it turns out the mystery passenger is actually a prince who ran off to have some fun. He invites Colette to be his date at some White House function. Dean realises his mistake and punches the other pilot who he realises is the smuggler.

Laura goes back to the gallery to buy the photos and experiences the adulation of the folk there. Two of them anyway. The gallery owner says the buyer wants to meet her. He’s a local artist. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Andy Warhol. That crashing noise is the sound of clunky dialog smashing on the gallery floor.

Ted discovers that his fiancée wants a fake marriage that will let them both see the people they really want to see. “I’ve seen the way you look at Laura” she purrs. Actually no. Ted was out of the room answering the phone. Never mind.

Suddenly we hear the sound of people being shocked from a hot dog stand. Obviously something has happened. Our characters gather round radios and tv sets because the president has been shot.

Damn! That was foreshadowing when Maggie was fondling the JFK election badge.

Only two more episodes to go. If canceled I may miss you on a Saturday night.

Pan Am episode 11 review

After last weekend’s Pan Am double bill on the BBC it’s just a single bill tonight. The episode is titled ‘Diplomatic Relations’ and mainly concerns itself with a trip to Moscow to test the waters of running a scheduled service between the USA and the USSR.

Dean sits glumly looking out the window after his night of passion with Bridget. One look at his face says ‘regret’. Oh, and he’s lost his cuff link. This will prove to be an Important Plot Point. He and Colette later decide they want to be together.

Meanwhile Ted has an engagement ring for his lady and Maggie is still seeing the senator (or congressman or whatever he is). She is feeling a bit conflicted because she was the inside source that was used in an article that attacked said politician.

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Kate, the sister who is a spy, has a mission in Moscow. She had to look in the window of an apartment building to see if a lady agent is still there. (Does the CIA not have someone at the American embassy to do this, or a local who will do it for a few roubles? Apparently not.)

So Kate convinces the Russian hostess lady to take the stewardesses on a tour of Soviet apartment buildings where she is able to confirm that the agent lady resident is still there.

Cue sound of sirens and some obvious KGB types turn up in big black car and arrest Laura and Bridget for taking photos of Soviet apartment building. Is obviously forbidden. They conveniently don’t arrest actual American spy Kate.

Meanwhile back in the USA Ted asks his gal to marry him at a rich folk type party and she accepts. That can’t be right because he liked Laura and in the last episode she was having thoughts about liking Ted. Methinks there must be a plot twist coming…

Maggie is upset at the same party because the congressman (or senator) discovers she was the source for the article that attacked him. Ted’s gal comforts Maggie by kissing her. On the lips.

Lady kissing on the lips. May or may not help the ratings, but there’s your plot twist.

Back in Russia Kate and Colette are gathering up Laura’s and Bridget’s things so the KGB can’t plant spy stuff. Colette finds Dean’s cufflinks in Bridget’s things. This is obviously upsetting.

Kate gets the pilot who isn’t Dean to get a Russian government guy to accept a bribe to release Laura and Bridget. They fly out of Soviet airspace and all is well, except Colette is upset with Dean and runs off, no doubt to crumple up some more tickets to a Beatles concert.

Next week we are back to a double bill and I fully expect there to be repercussions of the lady snogging incident.

Upstairs Downstairs series 2 on BBC1

One of the highlights of my television viewing for Christmas 2010 was the new iteration of Upstairs Downstairs which was aired on BBC1 over three consecutive nights. Series 2 was promised and it’s finally here. Almost.

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I found the first series a refreshing antidote to the just-completed first series of Downton Abbey. For one thing the 1930s setting for Upstairs Downstairs seemed a little bit edgier then it’s ITV rival. I recall one episode dealt with a fascist march in London and the riots it provoked. Also you’ve got the whole Edward and Mrs Simpson thing going on in the background and the likes of von Ribbentrop coming to dinner.

And then they make the younger sister Percie, played by Claire Foy, a bit of a trouble maker. She’s sleeping with the fascist chauffeur because she’s looking for a bit of excitement and he’s obviously a bad boy.

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(And oddly enough, what did Downton Abbey do in its second series? They got lady Sybil to hook up with the chauffeur, although that romance was as convincing as, well, a big unconvincing thing.)

So, series two airs this month and we have six whole episodes to look forward to instead of just three. As well as Keely Hawes’ Lady Agnes and Claire Foy’s Percie there appear to be a bunch of new characters including Blanche Mottershead played by Alex Kingston and Portia Alresford played by Emelia Fox to mention just two well-known telly folk will will be sporting unlikely yet probably authentic 1930s names.

Upstairs Downstairs starts on Sunday 19 February 2012.

Pan Am Review – Episodes 9 and 10

So Pan Am returns on BBC2 for an hour and a half of agreeable escapism on Saturday evening. Last night’s double bill started with episode 9 where most of the main characters flew off to London.

The sister who is a spy, Kate, got her new mission. She has to take a fake list of spies and give it to the MI6 guy Anderson who will substitute it for a real list of spies. The lives of agents depend on the list getting exchanged. So I wonder why MI6 cant just make up their own list and need the CIA to send one over. Never mind.

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On the flight there is a different pilot than usual. He likes telling old war stories, but worse than that, he likes to check out the stewardesses in an inappropriate way. Laura, the sister who isn’t a spy, catches him looking down her blouse and spills coffee on him. He’s angry and says he will report her but the copilot Ted says something to change his mind.

Meanwhile the main pilot guy Dean took the French stewardess Colette for a flying lesson, which turned out to be an excuse to introduce her to his parents. Unfortunately his dad could only glower ‘Where’s Bridget? Is this Bridget?’ Colette runs off to the barn where the pilot guy ‘makes up’ with her in a way that doesn’t involve flying.

There’s another plot involving Maggie, who it turns out is the character played by Christina Ricci, where she gets together with a pro-nuclear bomb senator even though she hates his politics.

But back to the spy mission. Kate is supposed to distract the enemy agent who is a jeweller while the MI6 guy is swapping the lists at the jeweller’s office. But the jeweller goes back early and Kate follows. When she arrives she sees A Big Fight in progress. I was hoping for some Jason Bourne action, or maybe the fight in the stairwell in Casino Royale. Not quite, but I’ll accept any 1960s spy fight.

Anyway, a gun is produced and knocked to the floor. The MI6 guy is about to be stabbed by the jeweller so Kate lifts the gun and pulls the trigger. Screen goes dark. End of episode.

So on to episode 10.

As expected Kate shot and killed the jeweller. A week later she is told MI6 want her to take a polygraph test to see if she’s telling the truth about what happened that night.

The problem is she isn’t telling the truth as the MI6 guy Anderson says he shot the jeweller. He says he will be protected because he’s an MI6 agent whereas if they knew it was Kate that did the shooting they would let het take the fall. Seems a bit risky to me as she could then tell everyone she worked for the CIA, but never mind.

So Bridget s back. She wants Dean back. He says no. She makes up a story about being sick, where she got some unspecified terminal disease but ‘got better’. Dean says no. She says ok, I was a spy. Dean says no. She says tell me you don’t love me and they’re off to her hotel room.

Meanwhile down the corridor Colette is in her hotel room crumpling up two tickets for The Beatles (quite popular,I understand says the hotel reception guy) as she know Dean is off with Bridget. I thought maybe she was going to do The Acting, perhaps collapsing onto the floor thus displaying inconsolable grief. But the scene ended. Oh well.

There’s another plot where Ted wants to marry this girl and Laura’s starting to feel Conflicted as Ted has been nice to her, even buying her a proper camera for her to take photos with. Ha, Laura has changed her tune! I remember when they were in Berlin and he tried to hold her hand while listening to Kennedy’s speech.

Anyway, back to the spy story. Kate passes the polygraph as Anderson teaches her to beat it by answering another question in your head. It actually kind of makes sense but I doubt it would work in real life. Kate wants out of the spying but he seems to convince her that she’s a good agent.

I would say the episodes are instantly forgettable except I’ve remembered them well enough to write this the next day. I do think the show would be livened up with a few hijackings and mid air collisions. But its diverting enough entertainment for a Saturday night.

I note that the Radio Times listings suggest that there are only 14 episodes, so I assume there are only 4 more.

Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Command by Paul Garrison

Last night while browsing around Amazon UK I saw a listing for a new novel by Robert Ludlum.

Correction, I should say a new Robert Ludlum novel by someone else. Ludlum died in 2001 but since then there have been numerous novels by other authors under his name, most notably the continuation Bourne novels by Eric Lustbader.

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This new book is called The Janson Command and is a follow-up to the Ludlum novel The Janson Directive published around 2003. I was going to ignore this new book but I thought I’d see who the publishers had got to write the thing. The name on the cover was Paul Garrison.

Well, that changes everything.

Because Paul Garrison is a pen name used by Justin Scott, and Scott is one of my favourite authors, responsible for, among others, the shipkiller, normandie triangle and a pride of kings. A quick check of his website www.seastoriesbypaulgarrison.com confirmed he was the author so this moves the book very high up the list of what I want to read this year.

The uk publication date is given as 1 March, which through coincidence or design is the same day that The Thief by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott is published. That one is the newest entry in Cussler’s Isaac Bell series of adventures set in the early 1900s.

Here’s the blurb for The Janson Command

Reformed from his days of assassination and international conspiracy, Paul Janson has a new mission and a new partner. Working with kickass sharpshooter Jessica Kincaid, he helps other disenchanted covert operatives to be rehabilitated and create new lives. He also accepts independent jobs, but only missions he believes will contribute to the greater good. Janson takes the job to rescue a doctor who has been kidnapped by West African rebels during an ambush of an American oil service boat. At first, it appears that the doctor’s life was spared in order to treat the rebels’ wounded leader Ferdinand Poe, a beacon of hope against a cruel dictator. But when the mission goes haywire, Janson realizes he’s in the middle of something much bigger. The puppet dictator has anonymous backers with designs on the oil reserves of this struggling nation – and Janson may find he’s been fighting for the wrong side the whole time.

I note there is another book in the series called The Janson Dilemma due for publication in 2013.

Avengers Black Widow cover on Empire mag

Just spotted this news over on marvelousnews.com. Empire magazine is doing four different character covers for the new Avengers movie, namely Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Black Widow. Oddly enough the Black Widow cover featuring Scarlett Johansson is the one that got my attention.

You can see the other covers by following that link above or go to the horse’s mouth at www.empireonline.com.

Now, I used to be regular reader of Empire and bought it just about every month since around 1990(!) however in the last year or so I pretty much stopped buying it regularly, although I would pick it up on special occasions.

Yes, I think this counts as a special occasion.

The new issue is out this week. Note the March cover date. That sounds about right as it’s still January.

Pan Am back on the BBC

Back before Christmas the BBC was showing Pan Am on Saturday evenings, two episodes at a time. Then they must have run out of episodes because it vanished from our TV screens.

To be honest it isn’t exactly a ground-breaking piece of drama, but to my surprise I discovered that I was much happier watching two episodes of a light and frothy 1960’s set show with unconvincing CGI jets on BBC2 than turning over to BBC4 to watch a Danish crime drama with people going to political meetings and discussing stuff.

Plus Pan Am features four pretty stewardesses in 1960’s Pan Am uniforms. On reflection its possible that might have had something to do with it.

In any case it’s a watchable little show and it’s back next Saturday on BBC2. The blurb I read says that Maggie get involved with a senator on her flight. Now, it’s been so long I’m not even sure which one Maggie is. But I’ll watch it and find out.

Who’s with me?!

Scarlett Johansson Black Widow poster from The Avengers

A friend just emailed to say they saw a bunch of Avengers movie posters featuring the individual character displayed in the cinema. So my first thought naturally is something along the lines of “is there a poster of Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow?”

After a quick bit of online research I have confirmed that such a poster does exist. And I like it.

The Black Widow has long been one of my favourite Marvel characters so I was pleased when she appeared in Iron Man 2. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure about the casting of Scarlett or the look of the character in that movie. As it turned out I think Scarlett did a good job with what she was given to do. Also I think she looks more like the comic character in The Avengers.

Anyway, here is the poster. It’s why we’re all here.

Yes, I could have mentioned the other posters and included them here, but I’m only interested in Scarlett. And who can blame me.

The Avengers opens in the UK on 27 April 2012.

PS All the individual character posters can be seen here: http://collider.com/avengers-haywire-movie-posters/133351/

Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie review

Last week I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes on DVD. I wasn’t expecting much from it to be honest, but it looked vaguely interesting. I stuck it into the player expecting to watch maybe 30 minutes of it. In the end it was quite entertaining and I ended up watching the whole thing.

In a nutshell it’s a prequel story setting up how the apes got intelligent. Never mind that the third movie in the series established a terminator-style time loop where Roddy McDowell’s ape went back to the 1970s.

In the new movie we have James Franco (Harry from the Spider-man series) trying to develop medicine that will cure people from alzheimer’s disease. He has a personal reason for doing so as his father (played by John Lithgow) is deteriorating from the condition.

The medicine is being tested on apes to whom it gives a greater than normal intelligence. He has promising results from a female ape he calls “Bright Eyes” but the research gets halted. He takes her baby ape Caesar home and realises the intelligence has been passed on to him.

The apes all appear to have beon done by CGI and it’s pretty impressive. Much screen time is taken by Ceaser and his ape followers and the performances are good enough to forget you are watching an extended visual effect.

There’s lots of nice little nods to the original movies. I probably missed some but here are a few of the ones I caught.

  • At the start of the movie apes are hunted and captured in a jungle much like the humans are in the first movie.
  • Obviously naming the main ape Caesar.
  • His mother is nicknamed Bright Eyes – What Charlton Heston’s astronaut character was called by the apes in the first movie.
  • A female ape called Cornelia is mentioned.
  • Caesar makes a model of the Statue of Liberty.
  • In the ape house a nasty keeper shouts “It’s a madhouse!”
  • He also gets Hestons’s other famous line “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”
  • Caesar gets hosed with water in his cell.
  • We see Caesar ride a horse near the end of the movie.
  • Towards the end of the movie a space mission blasts off for Mars. Later contact is lost with the crew. Is an astronaut called Taylor on board?
  • We get to see chimps, an orangutan and a gorilla – the three “castes” of apes from the original movies.

I suspect the movie may have had it’s ending altered to not be quite as bleak as it could be. We discover that the aerosol medicine that makes the apes more intelligent causes the death of at least one human lab worker when he gets infected. Before he dies he managers to sneeze blood over another human, the implication being he infected him as well. I assumed the movie would end with humans either subcuming to the illness or survivors becoming less intelligent.

However it was an entertaining movie well made. I suspect I’ll watch it again before too long.

Update. It turns out there is a further scene during the closing credits that does give the movie a bleak ending. The infected neighbour (played by David Hewlett from Stargate Atlantis) is an airline pilot and brings his infection to the airport, thereby spreading it throughout the world. So that’s jolly.

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