Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Review: The Secret Servant by Gavin Lyall

Hodder & Stoughton 1980
British thriller writer Gavin Lyall may not be completely forgotten, but he is sadly – and unjustly – increasingly overlooked. Most (possibly all now) of his books are out of print, a turn of events that's all the more striking when you consider that from the 1960s to the 1980s he was one of Britain's foremost action and suspense authors, with bestsellers on both sides of the pond. For the first fifteen years of his career he crafted a string of first-person novels often featuring hard-bitten pilots caught up in international treasure hunts and the like, but after the publication of Judas Country in 1975 Lyall was beset by writer's block, and his next novel, The Secret Servant, didn't appear until 1980.

The Secret Servant actually began life as a proposal for a BBC TV series, eventually broadcast in 1984 with Charles Dance in the role of Harry Maxim. Lyall went on to write a further three books starring Maxim, an ex-soldier and former member of the SAS seconded to 10 Downing Street as a troubleshooter. Major Maxim is damaged goods as The Secret Servant opens; the first scene in the book has Harry witnessing the death of his wife, as the plane she's in disintegrates while he watches helplessly from the ground. Lyall's elegant prose is evident from the off; it's what marks him out from other thriller writers, a wry, sometimes world-weary tone that acts as a lens through which events are viewed. In lesser hands that might diminish the action, but Lyall's understatement conversely lends certain scenes a greater impact – the old maxim (pardon the pun) of less is more. Take the first paragraph or so of the book, particularly the part where Lyall plays on the relative speeds of light and sound:

To Harry Maxim it seemed as if his wife died twice. He was watching the boxy little Skyvan climbing slowly away up the white-hot desert sky when it suddenly shuddered. A puff of smoke flicked out behind and immediately dissolved. Then one wing twisted gently off and fluttered away and the aeroplane was just a thing tumbling down towards the plain.

And all the time he could hear the distant whine of the Skyvan when it was still flying smoothly and Jennifer was still living...

Pan 1982
That final line, matter-of-fact as it is, only increases the horror of the situation. Lyall deploys this understatement throughout the book (and indeed throughout all of his books), sometimes mixed with a sardonic wit, either in the descriptions or in the gallows humour of some of the characters. And the characters, in particular the supporting ones, are the real gems here. Maxim himself is fine – a solid, flawed hero type – but his main co-stars, George Harbinger and Agnes Algar, are sublime.

Harbinger is a private secretary to the Prime Minister (who he calls Headmaster) and Maxim's direct boss at Number 10. He's akin to Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister, except perhaps even more cynical and with more of a taste for the booze. He forms a kind of double-act with Agnes Algar from Box 500 – a.k.a. MI5, the domestic security service – who for her part takes endless pleasure in needling Harbinger. The two of them pop up throughout the novel, offering commentary on Maxim's exploits and a guiding hand when needed, and they're invariably thoroughly entertaining.

Coronet 1991
As to the plot, Lyall does a decent job of keeping us guessing right up till the end, as a fake terrorist incident, an Eastern Bloc defection and the direction of Britain's nuclear deterrent policy become linked via a mysterious letter. There are some good action sequences, in particular when Maxim decamps to Ireland and tangles with a Soviet agent (whom he later meets for a drink), but it's the scenes depicting the inner workings of Whitehall and the shady world of espionage and counter-espionage that are the most compelling, and which don't come across as dated as you might think: the British Civil Service is much as it ever was, and while the USSR may be gone the Great Game goes on even today. The climax of the book involves a flashback to World War II and a suitably shocking skeleton in a closet, as the contents of the wayward letter are finally revealed.

As for Harry, he's like a blunt instrument, ruffling feathers and raising eyebrows wherever he goes, much to the amusement of Agnes and the exasperation of George. And with Maxim's card now marked by the KGB (or Greyfriars, as George calls them), it's a safe bet he'll be butting heads with his shadowy Soviet nemesis again in subsequent books in the series.

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