|Hodder & Stoughton 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...
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.
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.