Friday 10 June 2011

Colonel Butler's Wolf by Anthony Price: A Review (Gollancz, 1972)

For this third and final review of spy novelist Anthony Price's first three books, I thought I'd try a slightly different approach and attempt to place this last novel I'm looking at in its particular era – i.e. contextualizing it in relation to events that took place and prevailing attitudes around the time it was published.

Colonel Butler's Wolf was Anthony Price's third novel to feature the operatives of the Ministry of Defence's Research and Development Section, and was published in the UK by Victor Gollancz in 1972. (That's the cover of the first edition you can see above, copies of which range from £35 to around £100 for a fine copy; mine is certainly in fine condition, and was a lucky, cheaper AbeBooks find.) Following on from Dr. David Audley and Squadron Leader Hugh Roskill's turns in the driving seat in The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush respectively, this time our lead protagonist is Major Jack Butler, and once again having events related from a different character makes for quite a distinctive reading experience.

Red of hair and dour of temperament, Butler is a different prospect again from Audley and Roskill: he's crabby where Audley is clever, irascible where Roskill is instinctive. But he's no less committed to the cause of defence of the realm – and in some ways more so: a blunt military instrument who'll do the bidding of intelligence chief Sir Frederick and JIC man Stocker unquestioningly, if confusedly. And Sir Fred and Stocker are up to their devious tricks again here: tasking Butler (in place of the injured Roskill, who's laid up in hospital following the climax of the previous novel in the series) to investigate the death of former Oxford student and junior lecturer Neil Smith, who inexplicably drove his motorbike into a pond, they promote Butler to colonel so as to substitute him for another, identically monikered colonel and infiltrate him into academia.

As to why this Neil Smith should be of such interest, it's down to David Audley – directing events from the shadows – to reveal that Smith wasn't Smith at all. It seems he was actually a man named Paul Zoshchenko, a ringer substituted by the KGB sometime between his school days and his stint at Oxford, with the intention of eventually placing him in the British intelligence services, who routinely recruit from Oxford and Cambridge. What's more, Zoschenko might not be the only ringer the KGB have embedded in academia...

Colonel Butler's Wolf draws on Price's familiar themes of history and archaeology; at one point Butler walks Hadrian's Wall in an effort to draw out Russian agents. But it's also informed by the Cold War and the threat from the USSR (much like its two predecessors), as well as by three specific events: the May 1968 Paris student riots, and, I think (although it's never stated) the Columbia University protests of 1968 and the  Kent State University shootings of 1970. Student politics loom large over the novel; it's suggested that the Russians are attempting to foment student unrest (for reasons unknown), a plan that especially offends Audley, as this exchange with Butler underlines:

"The young blighters can sit-in or sit down as much as they like. They can lie down for all we care, if that's what turns them on. Provided it's all their own idea, not something somebody else wants them to do to further some other idea."

"Somebody being the Russians."

"Russians, Martians—it doesn't matter who. But in this case the Russians, yes."

The notion of the KGB infiltrating academia may seem far-fetched, but these were very real concerns at the time. The case of Kim Philby and the Cambridge spy ring was still fresh in the memory in 1972, and there were certainly Communist elements mixed up in the Paris protest. Price combines all of that with his abiding preoccupations to arrive at a denouement at an archaeological dig, as Butler recruits a couple of friendly students and a handful of random Irish labourers to head off a student demo that's marching towards disaster.

There's a lot to like about Colonel Butler's Wolf; there are the now-familiar extended sequences of thrust-and-parry dialogue, and the plot is as murky and labyrinthine as you'd expect. But for me the highlight is Butler himself: harrumphing his way through encounters with professors and students, a fish out of water with neither Audley's intellectual capabilities nor Roskill's social skills to fall back on, he's an engaging lead, and something of an action man to boot: early in the novel he has to battle his way out of a burning prep school. And we get glimpses of the man behind the uniform as well: unexpectedly Butler is revealed as a single parent, the guardian of three young daughters left in his charge after the passing of his wife. It's a small softening of his blustery persona, and makes me eager to find out more about him in future books.

That, however, is all for now from Anthony Price... although I have just received some rather exciting news about Mr. Price, which, if it all works out, will result in something extra special here on Existential Ennui. I'll be revealing exactly what that news is shortly. And if the ever-unpredictable British postal system turns up trumps, I might even be able to squeeze in one last post over the weekend. We shall see. Failing that though, next I'll have another week of themed posts, this time on a perennial favourite of mine: suspense novelist, creator of Tom Ripley and "poet of apprehension", Patricia Highsmith. 

(NB: a two-part interview I conducted with Anthony Price can be found here and here.)

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