Cornell, or the Unfunny Clown

by Arthur B

Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornell stories were written for laughs. Unfortunately, they're not that funny.
Michael Moorcock's stories of Jerry Cornell should not be confused with the Jerry Cornelius saga. For starters, elite secret agent Jerry Cornell in no way resembles Jerry Cornelius - he's not as clever, not as capable, and is certainly vastly less cool, though I'm sure he'd like to imagine he's all three of those things. For another thing, Jerry Cornell isn't actually Jerry Cornell - he's Nick Allard.

A little history. Once upon a time there was a magical land called 1966, in which Moorcock was publishing a lot of work through cheap and cheerful Compact Books (an arrangement I detailed at the start of the Michael Kane review). Compact Books decided they wanted a James Bond-like espionage series to round out their line, and wannabe author Roger Harris stepped up to the plate with a novel entitled The LSD Dossier, starring the dashing new character Nick Allard. There was, however, a mild problem - the novel was shit, too shit for Compact to consider publishing - and Compact were willing to straight up pirate Dennis Wheatley novels to line their pockets.

Always up for a bit of extra pocket money, Moorcock agreed to take the manuscript and tighten it up. In reading it, he noticed two things. Firstly, it transpired that the writing was so incredibly shitty that he'd have to essentially toss most of the book and rewrite from scratch, following the vague plot structure previously established. Secondly, whilst super-spy Nick Allard was clearly intended to be a charismatic and awesome secret agent, he actually came across as a nasty, slimy piece of work. So, Moorcock rewrote the novel playing it for the lulz, doing a hatchet job on Allard's personality, and sent it back to Compact. Who then turned around and published it in that form.

Harris, it seems, was upset and never wrote for Compact again. Compact, meanwhile, were pleased with what they got and convinced Moorcock to produce two more Allard stories under the pseudonym of "Bill Barclay" - Somewhere In the Night and Printer's Devil. In both cases, Compact happened to have cover art lying around for cancelled books and essentially asked Moorcock to compose something fitting the art - the first one was a modern-day thriller involving the Tower of London somehow, the second was for a pirate edition of The Devil Rides Out which got shitcanned when Dennis Wheatley's lawyers said "no". In these sequels the laughs were emphasised and Allard's essential uselessness and scumbaggery was turned up to 11.

The LSD Dossier would not see future reprints due to people being leery about the copyright situation, since it did include some of Roger Harris's own writing. (That said, you can download it for free from Moorcock's website - Moorcock's stance being that nobody should pay more than £1 for the thing, never mind the ridiculous prices commanded for it at auction.) The other two, however, would eventually be republished as The Chinese Agent and The Russian Intelligence respectively - with revisions to change a bunch of names just to make sure there was no copyright nastiness. And as part of that process, Nick Allard became Jerry Cornell because whenever Moorcock is stuck for a name he goes for some variation on "Jerry Cornelius".

So, it's essentially a Moorcock series written purely for the lulz. But are these high-class lulz that have stood the test of time or are they tired-out sub-Austin Powers crap? Let's see.

The LSD Dossier

According to Moorcock, only chapter 1 and one of the middle chapters include Roger Harris's own work - and even then, they were heavily revised by Moorcock. Still, in chapter 1 at least you can kind of tell that it wasn't written by Moorcock, because the style is very slightly different from the rest of the novel - whereas in most of the novel the narration is terse, action-packed, and immersed in the viewpoint of one of the characters (usually, but not always, Allard), here the narration is sloppy, detached, and bloated. In particular, Harris appears to have had a bad habit shared by Matthew Reilly of taking time out to transcribe the notes he's taken from encyclopedias when researching the novel directly into the narration, dumping useless information on the reader for no purpose other than to convince them that Harris did, in fact, do his research. Check out this paragraph as a representative example:
Beyond the frontier rolled ten thousand square miles of the Guatemalan department of Peten, growing 800 million feet of mahogany for the country. Inside the Yutaxan frontier mahogany also grew, but in no great quantity, for the entire country was smaller than the Guatemalan department of Peten.
So, here Harris takes time to note that the primary economic product of the Guatemalan department of Peten, a place that the characters in this story will never visit, is mahogany, and further explains that Yutaxan, the setting of the story, is also a place where mahogany grows, but that it isn't the primary industry of the country because it's smaller than the Guatemalan department of Peten. In short, the paragraph tells us more about places where the story does not occur than it does about the place the story does occur. He also demonstrates that whenever he mentions the Guatemalan department of Peten he feels the need to write "the Guatemalan department of Peten", rather than just saying "Peten", even though the phrase "Guatemalan department of Peten" appears in the previous sentence.

As far as the other Harris original goes, I've little idea but I suspect it's the middle chapter where Allard is attacked by the Mayan from the first chapter and ends up killing him, but I can't be too sure; either way, I think Moorcock must have more heavily revised that one because it shows his command of action sequences and seems pitched to make Allard look like a violent brute, which seems in-keeping with his agenda here - but more on that later.

Anyway, the story - mostly under the safe custodianship of Moorcock - goes a little something like this: a military leader loyal to the current government in the small South American country of Yutaxan is assassinated. This paves the way for mysterious figures to approach Toriello, a former agricultural minister who has lived in exile since the coup that deposed the old regime, as well as his daughter Gregoria, a talented pharmaceutical researcher. They tell Toriello that they represent certain factions who hope to see a new government come to power in Yutaxa, with Toriello as its figurehead; they tell Gregoria that Toriello is sick and has returned to Yutaxa to die, and is begging her to join him. With the Toriellos safely abducted, Commander Moody of British Intelligence's elite Cell 6 - an espionage division working under the cover of the National Insurance Company - sends his top agent Nick Allard to find out exactly what is happening - for Yutaxan is close enough to British Honduras to put British interests at stake, and it's also subject to the attention of the American, Russian and Chinese secret services. It's a dangerous game and all the players are willing to kill to get ahead, but Allard has one crucial advantage over the other agents.

He doesn't give a fuck.

Moorcock's revision of the novel is based on a moment of inspiration he had whilst reading over Harris's draft, in which he realised that Allard came across not as the sort of charming, charismatic, heroic individual that Harris seemed to be trying to write him as, but as a slimy and dubious individual, more like a sleazy estate agent - or an insurance salesman like he pretends to be as his cover story - than a square-jawed two-fisted champion of our way of life. This tied in sufficiently with his negative response to the Sean Connery-era James Bond films that he decided to make this the guiding principle of his rewrite.

Thus, Allard doesn't have a flash military background or any particular loyalty to his service, beyond the fact that the service pays him reasonably well and is particularly generous about expenses. He's a former petty criminal whose dabbling in the drugs trade led to attention from the authorities, who press-ganged him into the secret service as an alternative to going to jail. He half-asses his first attempt to make contact with Gregoria because he doesn't care sufficiently to do a proper job, his sexual entanglements over the course of the book reveal him to be a complete creep who leches over every woman he meets and has no qualms about taking advantage of them in incredibly dubious circumstances, and he spends most of his time working out ways to buy himself huge meals on his expense account. He thinks nothing of helping out agents of rival powers or not disclosing details of his investigations to his superiors if it will give him a quiet life.

The best and funniest part of the novel, in fact, are the parts where Moorcock goes into detail about Allard's interactions with Commander Moody, the head of Cell 6. Moody believes that Allard is his best agent and is enormously indulgent of Allard's missteps - usually because Allard is a master at manipulating Moody emotionally. Allard loves to torment Moody by talking about rich, delicious food all the time - a ploy sure to irritate Moody's stomach ulcer. Moody is convinced that this is simply a friendly joke between the two; Allard, on the other hand, sees it as his way of getting some kind of revenge on Moody for press-ganging him into this job. The relationship as a whole is pretty damn hilarious as an interaction between a weak man promoted beyond his competence and a manipulative bastard adept at hiding his own incompetence.

However, for much of the rest of the novel Allard isn't so palatable. As mentioned above, whenever he comes into contact with a woman he makes sure to behave in as odious a way as possible. On top of that, he's just as violent as Bond or other spies of the era - but his violence is in no way sanitised. Quite the reverse, in fact - Moorcock goes out of the way to make sure all of the violent acts he commits are described in as visceral and as disturbing a way as possible. In general, Moorcock seems to have been trying to say with the novel that spy thriller protagonists such as Allard are disgustingly violent and callous individuals, and he establishes that with great success. The result of this, however, is that the book ends up being rather uncomfortable to read. Moorcock's written horrible protagonists before, of course, but they either get their just desserts in the end (like Elric) or are at the very least have enough positive qualities to make the reader's reaction to them a bit more complex than outright revulsion (see Jerry Cornelius, for example). Allard, however, has more or less no redeeming qualities, and whilst it isn't impossible to enjoy a story about such a person, two-fisted adventure tales aren't the easiest genre to pull that sort of thing off in.

The rest of the cast, meanwhile, are as nondescript a bunch of extras and cliches as you are likely to find in a spy thriller, and the plot is similarly uninspired. It appears that Moorcock has spent most of his energies here in establishing the character of Allard as a complete cad, with little effort in finding anything interesting to do with the rest of the story. About the only interesting feature is the inclusion of American agents as adversaries rather than as allies, as would be typical for spy fiction at that point in the Cold War, but otherwise the story is no different from any other Bond rip-off of the era. I can't say I blame Moorcock - he seems to have been working with some pretty horrendous source material - but at the same time I have to agree with him that there's no real point to reading The LSD Dossier - not unless you want to get really pissed off at Allard.

Multiverse bollocks: There's a bit where Moorcock, clearly despairing of Harris's ignorance of LSD (apparently it's more addictive than crack and heroin and meth combined), decides to roll with it and write in a ridiculously over the top hallucination sequence when Allard is dosed with acid. This includes allusions to him living entire hallucinated lifetimes in times and locations across the cosmos, raising the delicious (by which I mean completely reductionist and stupid) possibility that the entire Eternal Champion sequence was just a bad trip. Otherwise, not much.

The Chinese Agent (AKA Somewhere In the Night)

In his next adventure, Allard - or Cornell, as he's known in the revised version - is back in action for Cell 87 (Cell 6 in the original), but his predilection for violence is scaled back massively. In fact, Moorcock seems to have felt little need to maintain much consistency with the portrayal of Cornell from novel to novel - perhaps gambling on the admittedly high odds that nobody who read The LSD Dossier would read the sequels - and decided to inject the man which a hefty dose of cowardice. Far from being the thug of the previous novel, this incarnation of Cornell evades physical violence to the greatest extent possible, as well as continuing to be a serial womaniser and glutton whose devotion to his job is entirely feigned.

The action this time kicks off when Chinese-American law school graduate Arnold Hodgkiss, a kleptomaniac who uses his cover identity as a patent attorney to mask his career as the internationally wanted gem thief Jewellery Jules. Visiting London, Arnold is of course compelled to visit the Tower of London to gaze lovingly upon the Crown Jewels and plot their theft; as he's basking in their sparkly glory, a mysterious man sidles up to him and says "The crown is large" in a pointed manner. Bewildered, Arnold says the first thing that comes to mind: "And very heavy", at which point the man gabbles something about the proletariat, hands Arnold a package and scurries off. It turns out that the package contains vital intelligence - to wit, the blueprints for a top-secret death ray invented by a British government scientist who, following a nervous breakdown, decided to sell the plans to the Chinese government. The mole handing over the documents assumed that Arnold was the Chinese agent, when of course he's nothing of the sort - and the real agent works for none other than Kung Fu Tzu, Mao's deadliest and most feared spymaster.

Cornell is put on the case by Commander Fry (formerly known as Moody), who tasks him with either recovering or destroying the documents, a task complicated by the fact that Kung Fu Tzu and his hapless assistant Choong will exert all the resources available to them to obtain the documents. (This is not helped by the fact that those resources only extends to £100 due to budget cutbacks.) Cornell has to contend with not just this, but also his blossoming relationship with Shirley Withers, Commander Fry's receptionist. On top of that, when Arnold unwisely tangles with some stall-holders in the Portobello Road market Cornell has to take the one course of action he most fears in order to stay on the case: he needs to visit his family, and in particular the malodorous rag-and-bone man Uncle Edmond.

Cranking the dial up from "satire" to "farce" (there's a policeman called Inspector Crapper, for god's sake), Moorcock turns the entire novel into a series of unlikely but amusing coincidences. Cornell blunders along chasing the documents and makes very little progress; Tzu, however, in his ignorance of Cornell's arm's-length relationship with his relatives, believes that Cornell has already obtained the documents, and engineered Arnold's accident himself. In fact, by the end of the novel the Chinese agents have become thoroughly convinced that Cornell is a master manipulator and remorseless assassin, a terrifying force who needs to be assassinated for the safety of the whole world; when even this assassination plan is foiled by sheer coincidence, they're left quivering wrecks, compelled to simply fall to their knees and surrender when in fact Cornell hasn't lifted a finger to try and apprehend them. Similar comedies of errors surround Arnold; there's one bit where Tzu approaches Arnold and tries to convince him to come and have a reasonable talk about the documents in private. Arnold assumes Tzu is hitting on him and, after making it clear he's not interested several times, punches him in the face.

All very amusing, but whilst these more clever aspects of the comedy have stayed fresh, other parts have dated horrendously. Whilst Moorcock appears to be trying to make some kind of point about racism - after all, the whole plot is set in motion by someone assuming that Arnold is a Chinese spy simply because he happens to be a Chinese-American guy hanging around the Tower of London - but you don't get to claim any anti-racist points when your villain is specifically described as a cross between Dr No and Fu Manchu. Likewise, actually putting a character like Cornell who aspires to a Bond-like lifestyle without the danger in what rapidly becomes a committed relationship is interesting; coming up with some sort of espionage super-prostitute who likes to make "slaves" of men brings all the James Bond sexuality back in a double dose. It's almost as though Moorcock wasn't really thinking this shit through when he was writing the novel - well, actually, he almost certainly wasn't since he was knocking this one off for cash and the lulz.

One aspect of the novel in particular which doesn't sit right with me is Jerry's hostility towards his family. Jerry has a horror of his family because they're poor and usually running some sort of scam and breed like rats and they're perfectly happy that way. Whilst Moorcock usually guns for the middle classes whenever he gets his class war on, in this case he seems to be constructing a horrible stereotype of working class people, which in fact has many similarities with the tabloid perception of "chavs". He seems vaguely conscious that he's doing it, because he stuffs in a reference to the extended Cornell clan having a neat sideline in appearing in gutter press exposes of the horrors of the underclass and thus making worse for everyone else by giving right-wing politicians ammunition against the working class, but they're still more or less the only representatives of the working classes who get a decent amount of attention in the book. The whole section seems to be Moorcock talking trash about the bit of London where he grew up, but rather than being the considered portrayal that would be seen in The Condition of Muzak he's just going off on a rant stuffed with unsupportable hyperbole this time around.

In short, whilst The Chinese Agent has a pretty funny conclusion as the various plot threads collide and explode, that doesn't change the fact that it's Moorcock doing very typical mid-60s broad comedy of the sort which looks dated at best and offensive at worst these days. And the bits with Uncle Edmond threaten to stray into Steptoe and Son fanfiction - extremely silly fanfiction involving hungry, tentacular trash heaps in Uncle Edmond's yard. There's a fine line between stupid-but-funny and just plain stupid, and The Chinese Agent wobbles from one side to the other on a page-by-page basis.

Multiverse bollocks: The mole who hands the documents to Hodgkiss is named - in the revised version, at least - as "Maxwell", a reference to Moorcock's use of a thinly-veiled version of Robert Maxwell in the Jerry Cornelius short stories stories. Cornell's horror of his down-at-heels relatives is a character trait which also seems to have been derived from the Cornelius shorts - or maybe Cornelius caught it off Cornell. In the revision,Jerry's brother, a stereotypical effeminate homosexual, is named Frank after Frank Cornelius. Finally, in the revised version there's one bit where Cornell's name is misremembered as Cornelius by Shirley.

The Russian Intelligence (AKA Printer's Devil)

The final Cornell/Allard novel begins with Cornell discovering a dead body, after which point he does his absolute best not to do any proper work over the course of the novel. Having arrived at a rendezvous with fellow agent Thorpe, who's been investigating leaks of vital intelligence to the Russians, the only clue Jerry is faced with is a copy of Whoomf!, a boys' adventure comic prominently featuring The Devil Rider, the violent saga of a Satanically-themed highwayman.

Tasked by Commander Fry with finding out who killed Thorpe - and, in particular, whether it was the work of Communist spies or Satanic cultists - Cornell intends to do no such thing. I mean, it might be dangerous! Instead, he spends most of the novel contriving ways to cheat on Shirley and get away with it. Jerry has married Shirley since The Chinese Agent (during which time her maiden name apparently spontaneously changed from Whithers to Garmon), and Shirley has proved to have an uncanny knack for working out when he's been up to naughtiness, and has an odd ability to make his various mistresses pack it in and flee by giving them some sort of warning that puts the fear of God into them.

Despite Jerry's determination to not do any work, the bodies continue to pile up around him and it looks depressingly like he might actually have something resembling a lead in the case; despite Shirley's determination to stop him getting any extramarital action, Cornell ends up striking up an intimate acquaintance with the mysterious Polly Snapgirdle, whose yacht on the Norfolk Broads turns out to be the perfect hiding place when the bodies start piling up. Of course, trouble tracks down Cornell even there - in the form of the Devil Rider on the one hand, and on the other in the person of the deadly Soviet spymaster Joseph K. (whose past triumphs include setting up an interrogation facility entitled the Castle, where the interview technique of choice is entitled the Trial...), and Joseph's unwilling compatriot Pyotr Zhivako, who conceals a secret urge to wear "fab" clothes and hang out in the swinging London scene.

Although The Russian Intelligence is not as offensive as The Chinese Agent, it's also not quite as funny. Around the only improvement is the continued amping-up of Cornell's uselessness - this time around the case more or less gets solved without any real effort on Jerry's part. However, a good many of the scenes and jokes on offer here are essentially riffs on ideas from the previous book. For a third time Cornell torments Fry with mentions of rich food, Joseph K. and Pyotr are clearly Kung Fu Tzu and Choong with different names and a switched allegiance, and Jerry's distaste for Uncle Edmond is dragged out for the sake of padding out one of the early scenes. The new running joke of Shirley using various means to confound Jerry's philandering is just tiresome. Pretty much the only gag in the book with any sparkle is the way the staff of Whoomf! are juvenile dorks who act like they've stepped out of a Billy Bunter comic - you get the impression that Moorcock is drawing on his own experience as editor of Tarzan Adventures there. As far as the plot goes, there's a good twist or two, but the complex network of coincidences seem more contrived and less carefully engineered than those in The Chinese Agent. On balance, as far as The Russian Intelligence goes I'd rather not know.

Multiverse bollocks: Shirley turning out to be infinitely better at the whole spy thing than Jerry kind-of-sort-of might have influence Moorcock's decision to make Una Persson the true cosmic Harlequin and Jerry a phoney who's better off doing the Pierrot thing in the later Jerry Cornelius novels, though given that Jerry regularly gets upstaged by women from The Final Programme onwards this might just be a general Moorcock thing.

The Picky Buyer's Guide

To be honest, unless you're a Moorcock fanatic none of the Jerry Cornell novels are really worth going out of your way to track down, and as such I don't really feel like recommending them. Sure, they're amusing and they raise a smile, but they're disposable by design and as far as entertaining read-once-and-forget schlock goes, there's plenty of better material out there. So the buyer's guide remains as it was at the end of the Cornelius review.

If you're intent on reading the material, you should bear in mind that the Jerry Cornell's Comic Capers omnibus by Immanion Press which collects The Chinese Agent and The Russian Intelligence is pretty terrible in terms of editing and presentation. Paragraphs indentations being completely botched happens depressingly frequently, typos are common, and the first page of The Chinese Agent gives Mr Hodgkiss's name as variously "Arnold Hodgkiss", "Albert Hodgkiss" and "Arthur Hodgkiss". (They're clearly getting their names of super-awesome IP professionals confused towards the end.) To add insult to injury, the page headers and chapter titles are in comic sans, for crying out loud. I strongly suspect that they just OCR'd copies of the original novels, put in their own page headers and chapter titles, mucked about with the margins, and then completely failed to do any proofreading whatsoever.

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 11:23 on 2011-07-26
British Intelligence's elite Cell 6 - an espionage division working under the cover of the National Insurance Company

...because that would allow them to deploy squads of elite actuaries?
Arthur B at 11:27 on 2011-07-26
It's not a completely stupid cover story, to be fair. Masquerading as an insurance investigator lets you go around and ask awkward questions about accidents, fires, burglaries... pretty much anything, really. And if your cover story involves selling insurance door to door then at worst you still get a chance to get a quick look at who's residing in a particular location without making yourself look too memorable or out of place, and in the best case scenario it's an excuse to sit down with someone and interrogate them about their affairs under the guise of working out a policy.

Of course, Moorcock never actually does anything with this in the novels.
Robinson L at 15:02 on 2011-09-12
Jerry has a horror of his family because they're poor and usually running some sort of scam and breed like rats and they're perfectly happy that way.

That … actually doesn't sound necessarily bad to me, so long as “some sort of scam” doesn't mean something horrible like kidnapping or the like. I mean, if Moorcock depicted Jerry's family as described, but portrayed his horror at their lifestyle as an irrational prejudice rather than a legitimate objection, that would seem reasonable enough to me, and totally in line with what Moorcock is apparently trying to do with the Cornell character.
Arthur B at 15:11 on 2011-09-12
That's kind of the issue though, the portrayal of the family has one foot in the "Jerry's irrationally prejudiced" camp and one foot over on the "Jerry has objectively verifiable reasons to dislike and despise his relatives, especially considering most other people who meet them end up having similar experiences to him, if not worse ones" side of the line.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2011-09-12
Right, sorry, I meant that from your description, it sounds like the problem with regards to Jerry's family is that Moorcock treats Jerry's prejudice as partially justified, rather than there being anything inherently objectionable about how they live. (Again, with the possible exception of the scams, depending on their severity.)
Arthur B at 15:47 on 2011-09-12
Well, it is treated as partially justified and part of that is the implication that there is something nasty and sordid about the way they live.
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