Wednesday 8 June 2011

The Labyrinth Makers by Anthony Price: A Review (Gollancz / Doubleday, 1970 / 1971)

After yesterday's overlong and highly tedious essay on the trials and tribulations of collecting the various editions of British author Anthony Price's series of Cold War espionage novels, for the rest of the week my Price appreciation will consist of reviews of some of those novels – a turn of events I'm sure will come as a great relief to all concerned. I'll be looking at each of the first three books in turn, beginning with this:

The Labyrinth Makers was Anthony Price's debut novel, first published in hardback in 1970 by Victor Gollanz in the UK and in 1971 by Doubleday in the US, which is the edition you can see above (dustjacket design by William Naegels). Appropriately, it was also the first book of Price's I bought: I saw this copy on eBay and took a punt on it; the main text in the listing identified it as a paperback, but there was a short note at the end to the effect that it was, in fact, a hardback, and the accompanying picture seemed to confirm that it might well be the American first edition. So I put down a bid, and won it for a quid – not bad for a book that's in fairly short supply – thus initiating the Price collecting frenzy I blogged about yesterday.

While The Labyrinth Makers is the book that set me off on my Anthony Price kick, I'm not entirely certain from which quarter his name first arose and piqued my curiosity. I suspect it might have been from Jeremy Duns, but in any case, over the last six months or so my interest in the more intelligent end of twentieth century spy fiction has both deepened and broadened, and once you start delving into that side of the genre, it's really only a matter of time before you encounter Price. The Labyrinth Makers bears all the hallmarks of what would become Price's oeuvre: a complex plot, rife with hidden agendas; long stretches of dialogue, as the protagonists discuss, conjecture and problem-solve their way towards the ultimate truth; and an abiding preoccupation with history and archaeology.

That last subject comes increasingly to the fore in his debut, which concerns the rediscovery of a missing Dakota aircraft, presumed lost at sea shortly after the end of the Second World War, but now found at the bottom of a recently drained lake. Insular, aloof Middle East analyst Dr. David Audley, who usually toils behind the scenes, is drafted to the front lines by intelligence chief Sir Frederick Clinton and charged with investigating the mystery of why the plane's pilot, John Steerforth, seemingly purposely crashed the Dakota, killing himself into the bargain – and why the Russians are inordinately interested in its missing cargo. Working alongside Audley are fellow intelligence operatives Major Jack Butler and Squadron Leader Hugh Roskill, and before too long all three are mixed up in a tale of subterfuge, misinformation and the search for Trojan treasure.

I mentioned in my introductory post to Price's novels that, although all are written in the third person, each one is related from the viewpoint of a different character. It's Audley who hogs the limelight in The Labyrinth Makers, and it's he who will become the lynchpin of the series, and he makes for a fascinating companion. Highly intelligent, detached, occasionally arrogant – and yet fully aware of that propensity for pomposity – Audley is very much a backroom operative, which is why he's so perplexed to find himself propelled into the field, and in an arena outside his usual area of expertise, the Middle East. There are a couple of wonderfully telling lines of dialogue from Audley after he, Roskill and Butler have been briefed by Sir Frederick and Joint Intelligence Committee man Stocker, when Fred asks Audley if he has any further questions:

"I have—yes. But not about Steerforth. First, if it is decided that I must attend his funeral—I must assume it is his funeral—I must be allowed to have my breakfast first. I cannot go to a funeral on an empty stomach."

And quite right too. Audley, it transpires, is rather set in his ways; he lives alone in a house in the South Downs (incidentally also my neck of the woods, and a location which will take on a more prominent role in the next novel, The Alamut Ambush) with only his housekeeper, Mrs. Clark, for company, though there is mention of a recent girlfriend (deemed unsuitable by Mrs. Clark). But this rural idyll is shattered when Steerforth's daughter, Faith, arrives uninvited, and soon, despite his misgivings and frequent irritation, Audley finds himself enlisting her in his investigations.

Audley isn't completely socially inept: he does have friends, or rather friendly professional acquaintances – a personal network of contacts that proves invaluable in this and later novels, among them Israeli intelligence man Jake Shapiro. Indeed, it's these very contacts that help to answer the question of why Audley has been chosen to spearhead an operation outside his traditional Middle East field. But the central mystery of what exactly Steerforth's cargo was, and why the Russians are so interested, isn't answered until the arrival of shadowy Soviet factotum and archaeological expert Nikolai Panin, and a deadly final showdown on an abandoned airfield at Newton Chester.

In that introductory post I outlined how Price's novels are characterised by long stretches of dialogue, often with entire chapters consisting of a single conversation, and that's as true of The Labyrinth Makers as any of the books in the series. But these conversations don't merely shed light on the plot, as Audley and co. discuss the available evidence and reason and intuit their way towards the answers; they grant insight into character, too, especially in the back-and-forth between Faith and Audley. As the novel progresses Audley gradually warms towards this uninvited guest, and through that softening of his standoffish nature, we warm towards Audley. He may be maddeningly obtuse and secretive – the gruff, no-nonsense Major Butler in particular finds him infuriating – but his developing feelings for Faith are genuinely touching. And there's certainly no doubting his devotion to the cause: for Audley, defence of the realm is all, something which will become increasingly apparent as the series continues.

If I had to level a criticism at The Labyrinth Makers, it would be that Price withholds a little too much information in order to keep the answers just out of reach, at least of the reader. Naturally, being a clever stick, Audley will usually be one step ahead of us, but there are times when Price's deliberate misdirection becomes ever-so-slightly visible – the minutest glimpse of the Wizard's machinery behind the curtain, as it were. But when the story is so satisfying, and the characters so engaging, that's forgivable; The Labyrinth Makers is still one of the best espionage novels I've read, and a fine debut. But the next book in the series, The Alamut Ambush, is even better – and that one will be of particular interest to any fellow Lewesians or South Downs denizens reading...

(For another perspective on The Labyrinth Makers, head over to The Rap Sheet and read Jim Napier's excellent recent review.) 

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


  1. Fascinating - and far from prolix, honest! - introductions to a writer in danger of being forgotten.
    I read Price decades ago (borrowed from father), and recall wondering why on earth his books weren't turned into telly series (complex plots, strong characterisation, that dialogue ...); but at the same time answering the question by wondering if the characters might not be regarded as old-fashioned.
    Now, of course, WWII settings should prove much more palatable. Although what I remember as awful sexism and general non-PCery might have to be toned-down a tad! Who knows?

  2. Thanks for another interesting post on spy fiction. I don't think it will have been me who recommended Anthony Price to you, because I'm not all that familiar with his work. I think I've read two of them, and they struck me as only quite good - so I might have to go back and revisit them now! From memory the plots are quite tricky and internal, and perhaps I just wasn't concentrating enough, or in the right mood for them. I think I'm right in saying that because he was the Oxford Mail's crime fiction critic he knew a lot of writers - and his reviews are excerpted on the covers of a hell of a lot of thrillers in the 70s and 80s. So I knew his name before I read his books. He's one of several British spy novelists from this period who were in the le Carre-Deighton vein but have been largely forgotten: I associate him in my mind with Ted Allbeury, Gavin Lyall (especially the Maxim series) and of course, the amazing Joseph Hone. :)

  3. Prolix! I can never remember that bloody word. My vocabulary is atrocious. Thanks for the comment, Minnie. Having read the first three novels in the series, I'd say they're not particularly sexist, although the women do tend towards the jolly hockeysticks. I'm not finding them old fashioned either: Price's characters are believably human, something that never goes out of fashion. But then, I'm steeped in fiction from this period, so I might not be the most clear-sighted judge. I should have that promised review of The Alamut Ambush up tomorrow; be interested to hear your thoughts on that one.

    Oh, and the first three books WERE made into a TV series: Chessgame. I mentioned it in the previous post. So you were right: they were perfect for telly. Sadly, it's not on DVD, at least not in the UK. I'd love to see it.

    Jeremy, I wasn't sure if it was you or not who got me fixated on Price, but if it wasn't, then I guess I must've stumbled upon him elsewhere. The plots are indeed tricky, and I found myself having to re-read passages once or twice to get the gist. But it's worth it for those great long stretches of wonderful dialogue.

    Ted Allbeury – that's another name I'm only vaguely aware of. Worth further investigation?

  4. Allbeury's good stuff, yes - The Lantern Network and The Other Side of Silence are perhaps his best known. Desmond Bagley was an admirer of his, and he was good friends with Len Deighton, I believe. Alan Williams could also be added to that list.

  5. If you enjoy Price then try Haggard's Colonel Russell series - published over, I should think 20 years or so, possibly starting a little earlier than Price

  6. A good ten years earlier looks like. Thanks for the tip, Richard; I believe I'll give Haggard a look.

  7. And I meant to add Berkely Mather too. He wrote several spy stories with interlocking characters - Idwal Rees being the main character - set in India and the Himalayas, as well as a second world war series involving a banking dynasty in Hong Kong, and a few one-off historical novels.
    He's hardly ever heard of these days....