Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Title

To celebrate the publication of the American edition of Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy by The Johns Hopkins University Press, I shall discuss various aspects of the book here over the next few weeks and months.

The title Pistols! Treason! Murder! is a quotation from The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean potboiler variously attributed to either Thomas Middleton or Cyril Torneur. I first read this play in 1987, in school, in Liverpool, as a set text for my A-level in Eng Lit. In 2002, when I was writing the early drafts of my book and looking for possible literary models, I discovered Alex Cox's ‘cyberpunk’ film version, starring Christopher Eccleston (pre-Doctor Who), which was set – obviously! – in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool. Of course contemporary Liverpool actually is post-apocalyptic, more or less, so for anyone who’s lived there the film's setting isn’t that much of a stretch.[1]

[Left: Christopher Eccleston as Vindice] Unfortunately, Frank Cottrell Boyce's film script alters the mock-hysterical, climactic line, ‘Pistols! treason! murder!: Help, guard my lord The duke!’, which, in the play, is uttered by the protagonist, Vindice, the titular ‘revenger’. Vindice is, directly or indirectly, responsible for the mountain of corpses littered all over the stage at the play's end, including that of the soon-to-expire duke in question (only recently elevated to the position by virtue of the murder of his father). The line might be described as ironic, except for the fact that ‘irony’ doesn’t really do justice to the Machiavellian perversity of the speaker’s intent.

Unlike Cox, I thought this exclamation – with its bug-eyed punctuation and its spiteful, gleeful subversion of the conventional pieties of both morality and generic convention – summed up the play perfectly, and was therefore the ideal motto for my book, whose protagonist has much in common with Vindice. The line is all the more appropriate in that that it comes from a play of doubtful attribution, a problem that also characterises much of the content of the surveillance reports written by my Vindice substitute: Gerolamo Vano, Venetian General of Spies.

It all looks rather cheap and nasty - but that's precisely the point. As Brecht would say, 'Crude thinking is the thinking of great men'.

[1] See here for Alex Cox’s thoughts on the play and film, and here for a review / discussion of the latter.

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