Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Denis McLoughlin Designs: Amateur Agent by Christopher Adams, alias Kenneth Hopkins (T. V. Boardman, 1964); Book Review

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

I've just two further T. V. Boardman thrillers to blog about before moving on to other matters – both of which happen to be spy novels hailing from the early 1960s; both of which were written by British authors under non de plumes; and both of which boast dust jackets designed by Denis McLoughlin which will, of course, be making their way onto the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page. Let's take a look at this one first:

Amateur Agent by Christopher Adams, published in hardback in the UK by T. V. Boardman in 1964 (British Bloodhound Mystery #467). "Christopher Adams" was an alias of Kenneth Hopkins (1914–1988), an author who published seven crime novels and mysteries under his own name from 1955 – The Girl Who Died (Macdonald) – to 1963 – Campus Corpse (Macdonald) – plus one pseudonymous spy thriller – Amateur Agent. But Hopkins was also a critic, a man of letters and a poet, as a footnote in the third volume of C. S. Lewis's Collected Letters reveals:

[Hopkins] ...was born in Bournemouth, and after leaving school at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a builder's merchant. In 1938 he set out to sell his poems from door to door. He eventually made his way to London where he came to know the anarchist and publisher Charles Lahr and his circle at Lahr's Red Lion Street bookshop. After serving in the Second World War he worked as the literary director of Everybody's, a magazine concerned with social justice. Later he lectured on English literature and taught creative writing at several North American universities. [Hopkins published a book about one of his visits to the States, A Trip to Texas, in 1962.] His autobiography, The Corruption of a Poet, was published in 1954. His championship of the cause of the Powys brothers... reached its zenith with his biographical appreciation, The Powys Brothers (1967). He was an active member of The Powys Society.

Hopkins's background as a poet can certainly be glimpsed in Amateur Agent. A lively location-hopping tale of mistaken identity, wherein Jim Stone, a British car salesman vacationing in Mexico, gets mixed up in a plot to transport military plans to Cuba, the novel comes across as a more violent version of North by Northwest, but some of the descriptive passages are quite striking, especially those set around Teotihuacan. Indeed, Hopkins paints vivid pictures of all of the novel's various locales, and mixes smart-alec banter with jarring scenes of torture and bloodletting, all of which serve to keep one on one's toes throughout. It's a shame the book, like all of Hopkins's novels, has fallen out of print; the Boardman edition was its only outing and it's consequently become quite scarce (AbeBooks lists just three copies at present, one of those lacking a dust jacket).

Still, at least we all get to gaze upon Denis McLoughlin's evocative wrapper for Amateur Agent – which has taken its rightful place in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design gallery – and as a result of this 'ere post there's now a little more information about both the novel and its author available online. And I'll be providing a similar service with the next post too, as we head back to 1961 for a Cold War espionage tale by a novelist who was obsessed with nuclear annihilation...


  1. A few years before this book was published, Hopkins taught English for a semester or two at The University of Texas at Austin. My roommate was in his class, and I met him and talked to him a couple of times. Seemed like quite a nice fellow.

  2. Aha, I was going to mention that he taught at the University of Texas, Bill, but I couldn't verify the info I found online. Thank you for that! If you or your former roommate can recall anything else about Hopkins, do let me know.

  3. Sad to say, my roomie passed away earlier this year. He'd have been tickled to see this review. Both of us read one of Hopkins's books that semester, but after all these years, I can't recall the title. I'm pretty sure this would have been in 1960, but it could've been in '61. I remember that Hopkins wore a somewhat shabby black suit both times that I met him, and that my roomie called him "Hoppy," though only to me, I'm sure.

  4. And by the way, thanks very much for this memory. I hadn't thought about this in many years.

  5. Don't mention it, Bill. Glad this post could jog some happy memories. And thank you for the additional background on "Hoppy"!

  6. I knew Ken Hopkins quite well. First I was a student in his creative writing class, master's level, at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale Illinois in 1968. I was only a sophomore and my student adviser required me to write to Hopkins in England to get his permission to be in his graduate level class. There were only 5 students and we met with him only once. After that, we met one on one with him as he reviewed our individual writing. We each had to declare that we were writing a book length manuscript in the three month class and we had to state what it was to be about. I did well in his class and he invited me to England which I regret I didn't do since I was later drafted and served in Vietnam. But in the years 69 through 71, I was a campus paper writer and did several indepth interviews with Ken. I got to know him well. He could be professorial with a tinge of arrogance at times but he had a big heart and it was all an act. I had the deepest respect for him and because of him I have made a living writing for the past 40 years. I had lost touch with him and therefore was not around to know he died in 1988. He lived outside Norwich, England at the time and he never got over his wife Elizabeth's dead a year or two before. He had a keen sense of humor and I've missed the many chats we had all those years ago about writing and life. At the time, I was short on both departments. Glad you have an interest going in Ken Hopkins here. He had a son and I've longed wondered what happened to him. best Larry H

  7. Hi, glad to see people still interested in Kenneth Hopkins. I knew him well when he a creative writing master's level course at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Illinois.
    Ken smoked a pipe and he bought the cheapest pipe tobacco that one could get in America. It was called Granger and he always bought a very large tin. it was some of the foulest smelling tobacco I had ever encountered. Just a memory to share of the man. he had a great sense of humor and didn't mind poking fun at himself, though he could be rather high handed in reviewing students work. I learned a lot from him about writing and have made a career out of it all these years. Back in 68 when I first took his course, I opted to write a detective novel because it was a form he was well familiar with. My novel didn't turn out to be very good but it was a first try. he always met in his office one on one with students. My time was 1 p.m., every Tuesday and for that hour we smoke pipes while he pretty much shredded the chapter I had written the week before. it was my first taste of a talented but brutal editor of my writing and it served me very well for many years as I worked for many hard ass editors. I miss the old gent even after all these years and I can still hear his fairly high pitched voice telling me I had a lot to learn about writing. He was the best kind of writing teacher. He said often that he could not teach me how to write. He could only show the way, the rest was up to me. You were so right ken. RIP

  8. I can assure you, no one called Kenneth Hopkins by the name Hoppy to his face. While he was a friendly sort, he had an arrogance to him regarding his status when he taught a creative writing class at Southern Illinois University in 1968 when I was a student in his class. I remember he did have dressing habits which seemed odd to me at the time. He often wore an old long sleeve sweater which had holes around the cuffs from long use. Other times he wore a tweed jacket and tie. He was just over 50 years old back then and told me something I have always remembered. He said, "Fifty is very old for a writer" and since I became a writer, when I turned 50, I thought of old Ken and wondered why he believed that. I didn't feel old and looking back neither did he when he was 50. I think he thought it was something a professor should say. Ken was pretty self conscious about his role as a professor. He hadn't gone to school and there was something in him that marveled that anyone would have him teach a course at a university. But he assumed a professorial stance and maybe a bit too much to be convincing. What he was clear, he was a journeyman writer and any student who had the opportunity to study with him was very lucky indeed. Larry H

  9. One final thought about Kenneth Hopkins. His philosophy of writing was very pragmatic. Though he was a poet and a serious author of books on English poetry and poets, he insisted that his role in life was to write whatever anyone, a publisher, wanted written. That is why his range of topics is very diverse, from mystery books, to biographies of poets, to sonnets from the Elizabethan period. He told me, "I am a professional man of letters and that means I write whatever is wanted". Ken never did make much money as a writer and he explained this to me by simply saying, "My wants have always been small. I didn't care for having a lot of possesions. He cherished his wife Elizabeth and their son. He was very found of the southern United States, having taught in Texas. Even in his last decade when he lived in Southrepps, Norwich, England, he had a confederate stars and bars flag flying from the radio antenna of his car. He didn't understand what that symbol came to mean in the politically correct era. I am sure his neighbors in the small village near Norwich wondered about that flag at times. He was a compelling person and I cherish my having known him and learned at least a bit about writing from him. best Larry H

    1. Thank you for the additional info about Kenneth Hopkins, Larry. Very much appreciated.