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.
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.
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.
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.)