Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Black Stone: Some Notes

I have no skill or aptitude for card games. A child could beat me at poker. I'm not good at second-guessing. I can't remember dealt cards, and have trouble remembering which combination of cards beats another.

But, if I knew nothing about a particular card game, and had to develop a scene in a novel that depended on how the game was played and who would win it, I would immerse myself in a study of the game and its milieu until I had dreams about it. Finished with the novel, I would retain some knowledge of the game but never concern myself with it again. The dreams would stop.

One of the personal delights of reading Ian Fleming's James Bond novels is a pure fascination with how Bond could take over a card or roulette game, or could make crucial observations about the way an enemy played golf. My favorite Bond coup occurs in Moonraker, in which he not only detects how a villain is cheating at contract bridge, but devises a way to foil the man and cause him to leave the exclusive men's club in London in a hurried and angry huff. And it is one of the few novels in which Bond doesn’t get the girl at the end. That was Fleming's dark sense of humor at work.

Cyrus Skeen, the detective hero in The Black Stone, the sixth title in the series, finds himself in a similar situation. He knows little about Islam, and only a little more about Judaism. He is an atheist; a man's religion doesn’t concern him, only his rationality (or lack of it). He is the wealthy son of lapsed Presbyterians. At one point in the story, he remarks to a character, "I can mock Judaism as well as the next religion, but not to a Jew's face." Or to any man's face, regardless of his religion. He demonstrates this rule in previous titles in the series. Religion is as far from his premier concerns as is contract bridge. And that naturally reflects on the author's concerns, as well.

In 1930, the time period in which the story is set, Islam was an alien creed few Americans had heard of. It was not regularly thrust into their consciousnesses as it is today. Nor was Judaism. But it is Islam, and not Judaism, that poses a peril in the story, just as it does today. Judaism is a religion; its adherents are not out to conquer or destroy the world. Islam, however, is more a political doctrine than it is a religion, and its inherent nature commands its proponents to seek global submission to it as the sole alternative to death. I have written extensively on this subject in the past, and won’t repeat any of my arguments here.

Skeen is advised to familiarize himself with Islam. He undertakes that task. By novel's end, he has not reached the same conclusions about it as I have; he does not yet see that it is essentially political. What he does note is its savagery, particularly where Jews are concerned. Later, he realizes that the savagery can also be visited on non-Jews. Today, we know that no one is exempt from the jihadi agenda, not even dissenting Muslims. Skeen has only a mere handful of victims of that savagery to observe. We have millions.

In The Black Stone, Islam, its iconic and probably mythical prophet, its core texts, and its practices, are liberally mocked. This would come naturally to men in Skeen's time. Political correctness in thought and in speech did not exist. Fear of offending Muslims was a mindset reserved for our own time. The creed is too ludicrous for anyone to take seriously. Skeen doesn’t even bother trying to imagine what Mohammad looked like. He just assumes that Mohammad was the Billy the Kid or the Clyde and Bonnie Barrow of his day, a brigand and a thief and a killer spreading "the word" by force, intimidation, and death.

One issue I do raise in the novel, but not to distraction, is the role of Western governments and Western oil companies in enabling Islam to become the threat it poses today. Oil companies were fairly certain that vast oil reserves lay beneath the blood-soaked sands of Arabia (not yet wholly Saudi) and in Persia, now Iran. Western governments, chiefly British and French, after World War I, carved up the former Ottoman Empire into utterly arbitrary Mandates which were later granted the status of sovereign states. Oil companies sought the aid of Western governments to interpose themselves on behalf of those companies in negotiations over exploration and drilling concessions with tribal leaders who were more successful in conquering and/or massacring their rivals. This is essentially the history of the Saudi dynasty that we know today, a family of squatters that thrives on stolen private property. Persia had a different background and a different history. Under President Herbert Hoover, the U.S. recognized Saudi Arabia on May 1st, 1931.

So, I do not focus exclusively on the fatal pragmatism of Western governments and oil companies, but raise the issue as a tantalizing clue to our current dilemma. Skeen's solution to dealing with nomadic barbarians, had he been faced with the question, would have been to recommend that the companies drill, drill, drill, and if attacked by Ibn Saud or Hussein Ali, or any other Arab mobster's tribe, to call in the Marines. And probably to plant the America flag on the whole sorry region, as we have on the Moon.

At the end of The Chameleon, in which Skeen has discovered and foiled a Nazi Bund, Skeen tells his wife that "Something wicked this way comes." In The Black Stone, he runs head on into a wickedness he could never have before imagined.

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