The author Norman Lewis may not mean much to the contemporary reader but as a notoriously shy man the travel writer would have preferred this. He once described himself as the only man to come to and leave a party without anyone noticing. Like many private people,there was much to him. A gifted travel writer best known for his superb work Naples 44 where he evokes the city broken by war and immersed in poverty , he raced Bugattis, grew lilies, wrote a brilliant book on the Sicilian Mafia and is the author of espionage thrillers that I would say have worn better than Graham Greene who much admired him.
I have written before of recommendations by friends. One of mine, who worked for Reuters most of his life in senior postions came across a yellowed second hand paperback edition of A Suitable Case for Corruption in a Putney bookshop which he acquired for 1p. It’s so little known that in an obituary of Lewis it’s not even mentioned. The story is set in the time of Sadat and Gadaffi and a CIA plot to overthrow the Libyan leader by an amphibious landing. They require local information which they obtain from a Brtish journalist Kemp based there. The attempt was a fiasco as was most if not all such CIA operations post-war and the novel ends with the assassination of Sadat.
Lewis is such an evocative writer, he describes Libya well and here lies my contention that he has lasted better than Greene in the espionage field. Greene’s Stamboul Train is difficult to read these days for the anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew. Lewis does not revile the Libyans whose police, a senior hospital doctor and Kemp’s editor are all uniformly courteous and helpful. Rather it’s the hard drinking ex-pat community, mainly oilmen, that emerge as deeply unpleasant. In one set piece in the novel Kemp hosts a party where moonshine is dispensed and he dresses up in Nazi uniform.
As a depiction of Libya under Gaddafi the novel is interesting but there is also a fast moving plot, romances and a central character estranged from his wife that epitomises the foreign correspondent. Kemp may be modelled on Lewis. Both fell for nurses, Lewis was to marry the one that cared for him in Naples. The book is less than 200 pages but never a superficial nor sketchy read. Another feature of the book I found interesting is a reference to a trout fishing venture in Libya. Could this have been the inspiration for Salmon Fishing In the Yemen? John Le Carre epitomises the insider, ex-M16 man who can write on the ‘Circus’, but personally I feel he lacks something as a writer. No such critique can be made of Norman Lewis.