Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review - Land of Black Gold by Hergé

Short review: Cars begin exploding and the mystery leads Tintin to Arabia. Captain Haddock vanishes for most of the book but shows up just in time.

Lots of cars explode
A missing Captain Haddock
Silly detectives

Long review: The Land of Black Gold is an oddly disjointed book. Begun before World War II and shelved for the duration of Belgium's occupation the story pulled out of mothballs and completed after the Axis defeat. The result is a schizophrenic book that is basically two disparate halves mashed together to form one strange story involving exploding cars, Middle-Eastern unrest, scheming returning villains, and a weird recurring gag resulting from a mixed up aspirin bottle. In a sense, this is the last of the pre-War Tintin stories, even though it was half-written and published after the conflict was over, and after the switch to more pulpy adventure of the previous four books, it feels odd to return to the more political tone that was set up in King Ottokar's Sceptre (read review). Despite this, the fairly linear first half of the story melds reasonably well with the more character driven second half, resulting in a strange but readable adventure.

The most noticeable thing about the book is the paucity of supporting characters in the first half. Because Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus were War-era creations, they don't appear in the opening portion of the book other than a single panel inserted into the story in which Haddock telephones Tintin to tell him that he has been activated by the Admiralty and has to report to his ship. Two supporting characters who do show up early are the detectives Thompson and Thomson, who make their appearance in the first panel getting fuel from a petrol station. In this sequence the pair behave like jerks, which makes me wonder if Hergé had intended to move them from being merely bumbling sticklers for the law to being somewhat insufferable elitists as a way of using his then existing roster of regulars in a more expansive way. This apparent elitism never rears its head again, possibly because when Hergé got back to working on the book, he had established the cadre of now-familiar characters surrounding his hero and no longer felt the need to take his comic relief in this direction - indeed in the second half of the story Thompson and Thomson reach truly absurd heights due to an innocent mishap.

Having gotten their tiny dose of gasoline, Thompson and Thomson stumble into the plot of the book when their car blows up. It turns out that cars start blowing up with regularity, as does Thompson's cigarette lighter. While consulting Tintin, the detectives have a fit of competence and identify the petrol as the source of the problem. But they then follow up this insight by asserting that it is obvious to them that the roadside assistance company "Autocart" must be behind the epidemic of exploding cars and so they charge off into a tangent where they get employed by the company and incompetently investigate while wrecking tow trucks and getting themselves into trouble (and once again the amazingly fragile nature of tires in the Tintin universe comes in to play). In the mean time, Tintin sets out to discuss the matter with the managing director of the oil company Spedol, soon securing a position as radio operator on the tanker the Speedol Star in an effort to get to the bottom of the mystery. I suppose Tintin could plausibly get an interview with a high ranking oil executive based on his alleged job as a journalist, but one wonders why the Speedol executive arranges for Tintin to investigate the problem rather than, say hiring a professional investigator. Throughout this section of the book, there is a constant background drumbeat of impending war, an element of the story that was probably at least partially responsible for Hergé shelving it when actual war broke out.

Before too long, Tintin is on the trail of the conspirators and on his way to the city of Khemikhal, but not before they frame him as a gun runner and frame Thompson and Thomson as opium smugglers. But before Tintin can be taken to jail, he is saved by a case of mistaken identity by the rebel sheikh Bab El Ehr. (Yes, that name, like most of the names in the series, is a bad pun, and a fairly insulting one to boot). The sheikh is expecting an arms shipment and rescues Tintin, but is somewhat understandably annoyed when it turns out that Tintin is not, in fact, an arms dealer. Once Thompson and Thomson clear their names, they learn that there is a substantial reward for catching Bab El Ehr and they set out into the desert in a jeep to find him, setting up a series of gags involving two incompetent nitwits wandering the desert. Tintin is dragged into the desert by Bab El Ehr and is then abandoned. This allows Tintin to wander the desert to just the right location to find the saboteurs who have been tainting the petrol supply hard at work.

This little bit of serendipity leads Tintin to the ringleader of the villains who turns out to be an old enemy last seen in The Black Island (read review) who has apparently switched from counterfeiting to fomenting war. The fact that the villain turns out to be German may be another reason that Hergé shelved the story during Belgium's occupation, and perhaps following the Nazi withdrawal continuing the story with Müller as the bad guy was a bit of minor revenge. After some twists and turns with Thompson and Thomson and a sand storm, Tintin finds himself talking to Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab and at this point Müller's plan becomes clear: to get the Emirate to switch from Arabex to a contract with his employer Skoil Petroleum, and since it seems that Bab El Ehr isn't going to be able to topple Ben Kalish, he kidnaps the Emir's son Abdullah.

At this point, the story turns into the now familiar "Tintin against the mobsters" format as Tintin convinces Ben Kalish to let him try to track down where Müller has taken the child. Showing his penchant for bringing back characters from earlier books, Hergé pulls Oliveira de Figueira out of the mothballs he had been sitting in since Cigars of the Pharaoh (read review) and sets him up as Tintin's avenue into the gangsters hideout. Because bringing recurring characters back into the series has become de rigeur, Hergé also works Bianca Castafiore into the book with a radio performance. In short order Tintin has infiltrated Müller's compound and finds that rescuing the prince is not quite as easy as he might have thought. It is difficult to determine exactly what part of the story was written before the War, and what part came after: Is it when Müller is introduced as the villain? When de Figueira shows up? Madame Castafiore? Perhaps, but then again all of them appeared in pre-War Tintin books. But what is certain is that when Captain Haddock shows up out of the blue to rescue Tintin from a locked basement without explanation, that the rest of the story is material that was produced after the conflict was over.

And this part of the book is more or less a fairly linear extended chase scene as Tintin and Haddock team up to try to apprehend Müller after he has run off with Abdullah. Once Haddock shows up the remainder of the book is divided between straightforward action and comic silliness. Tintin repeatedly asks Haddock what he has been doing and how he happened to find Tintin at just the right time, and Haddock repeatedly starts to answer only to be interrupted right before he can deliver his explanation. In the end, no explanation is forthcoming: Hergé just kicked the can down the road until the book ended and left it as an unexplained mystery, playing off Haddock's extended absences as a source of humor. Thompson and Thomson also give chase after Müller, in their own endearingly incompetent way, their elitist jerk tendencies of the opening pages now forgotten, and stumble into a joke that launches the humor surrounding them from a poke at bumbling incompetence to absurd heights of silliness - a joke which becomes part of the front cover of the book (and which is, incidentally, the only cover of the Tintin series on which Thompson and Thomson appear). Even the denouement of the chase after Müller takes on a humorous tone as he falls for one of Abdullah's pranks. Land of Black Gold, which started as an investigation-heavy mystery, ends up as a Keystone Kops style farce.

Stuck in the middle of the Tintin series, and sandwiched between two much better two-book adventures, Land of Black Gold is something of an odd duck out. Disjointed as a result of political circumstances that forced it onto the back burner for several years and six intervening books, this story has a very uneven quality. Even more so than most Tintin books Land of Black Gold cannot decide if it wants to be an adventure, a mystery, or a comedy, and as a result, it does a mediocre job at all of them. Having made Captain Haddock an integral part of the series during the war, Hergé had to figure out a way to wedge him into a story that was started before he even existed, and did so in a fairly clumsy manner that is used for nothing but cheap laughs. Despite all of these problems, the book is still a good read, and is actually made even more interesting because of all the flaws which were driven by outside world events and therefore give a reader a view into just how much impact the experiences of World War Two had upon the series. Although the story is messy at times, it is vintage pre-war Tintin mixed with War-era Tintin in a strange but fascinating soup that is both entertaining and revealing.

Previous book in the series: Prisoners of the Sun
Subsequent book in the series: Destination Moon

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