Sunday, 8 June 2014

Penguin no. 2241: Night's Black Agent
by John Bingham

Cover design by Anne Gibson
     In the public imagination certain categories of people fall into what are known in the advertising world as brand images. Retired Army colonels are supposed to be peppery, clergymen vague, landladies and mothers-in-law fierce, and professors absent-minded. Keen fishermen are usually regarded as harmless, patient, good-natured, gentle people prone to sit on camp stools communing with nature and watching a float.
     Green was a keen fisherman.
     He was also at least a double murderer, a blackmailer, a seducer, and one of the most sadistic and vindictive persons it is possible to imagine.

Consider a man who finds pleasure in killing - fish, animals, people, it doesn't matter which. More than this, he is determined and unwavering, so that if he should be thwarted in any way, his first thought will be to revenge himself through an act of murder. But it will not be the person whom he considers his adversary who will be at risk of death; instead he will select the one person, completely innocent of any contributory act, whose death will cause his adversary the most pain, or perhaps the most trouble.

John Bingham's narrator considers such evil, dismissing any notion that such a man should not be held accountable for his actions because of an assumption that he cannot be other than mentally ill. And he reflects on what should be done about someone who kills in this way, obliquely rather than rationally.

He suggests that the justice system cannot offer a reliable solution, for juries invariably require motives, and a motive is difficult to demonstrate where a man enjoys the act of murder for its own sake, and has little interest in the person he plans to kills. And as this man will go to any lengths to ensure that appearances suggest his adversary as the killer, the police too are of little help.

The narrator decides the man should die, and he decides that he will kill him; this brief story serves as a justification of his intentions and of his actions.

But then the narrator is in the unusual position of having realised that this man, who always calls himself Green, is a serial killer. This realisation comes because of an oddly fortuitous series of work placements, which see him working for a newspaper in London when one crime was committed, and for another in Hollington three months later when Green strikes again. His work gives him access to detailed information about the crimes, and his personal stake as the future son-in-law of one of the people Green decided to target and of another that he chose to kill, provides him with even further insight. And while he can only guess at the full extent of Green's criminal activities, he notes that the man is practised and confident, suggesting that there may be many unsolved murders, and maybe even a few incorrectly-solved murders, which could be laid at his door.

The story is narrated in an unusual way, with everything that is to happen flagged in advance. But despite this, the story remains tense and engrossing, even if a little far-fetched, for while his principal focus may be on justifying his actions, the narrator's ancillary focus is on contrasting the experiences and reactions of the two men Green is known to have targeted, and on exploring the consequences each man endured as a result. And it is this focus on character, seen through the analytical mind of a journalist, which keeps the story interesting in a way in which the plot alone could never sustain, for there are really far too many convenient coincidences for it to be considered believable. It is a story which explores the motivations of a serial killer, his beliefs about himself, the price his victims must pay, and whether, in such circumstances, murder can be justified.

First published by Victor Gollancz 1961. Published in Penguin Books 1965.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1420: Five Roundabouts to Heaven

Reviewed elsewhere:
Kaggy's Bookish Ramblings


  1. This sort of plot was done before by Cornell Woolrich in his book Rendezvous in Black (1948). This book is in my top 20 best crime novels, but it is too depressing to reread.

  2. John Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris, was also an MI5 agent and the model for John Le Carre's Smiley. A biography was published recently.

  3. Sounds fascinating. I recently acquired some penguin greens, something I have always avoided doing as I feared a collection would begin. Well now it has in a very small way.

  4. Very interesting, Karyn. I've been meaning to try some of Bingham's spy fiction but now you have me intrigued by his crime fiction.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...