Tuesday 6 December 2011

Review: Slow Burner (Colonel Charles Russell Series #1) by William Haggard (Cassell, 1958)

For this second of three posts on British writer William Haggard's series of spy novels starring Colonel Charles Russell, head of the branch of Intelligence known as the Security Executive – introductory post and bibliography here – we turn to Russell's debut outing – not to mention Haggard's debut novel.

First published in 1958, Slow Burner introduces Colonel Russell; his assistant at the Executive, Major Mortimer; Sir Jeremy Bates, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry; and Dr. William Nichol, eminent scientist and friend of Charles Russell. Nichol is the Administrator General of Nuclear Development, and one of the boffins behind the discovery of the secretive nuclear fission process known as Slow Burner. Thus far Slow Burner is only being tested in a number of factories across the land, but the process has the potential to put Britain way ahead in the nuclear energy race. However, epsilon rays – the signature emission of the Slow Burner process – have been detected emanating from the incongruous environs of Number Twenty-Seven, Chatsworth Road, Dipley, and so Russell and Mortimer must get to the bottom of why – and how – a quantity of the highly dangerous Slow Burner has come to reside in a semi-detached suburban house in Surrey.

As I mentioned in yesterday's introduction, Haggard's novels are characterized by a very British stiff-upper-lipped sense of decorum. As with Anthony Price's later David Audley spy thrillers, many passages in Slow Burner consist of the protagonists turning over the available evidence and discussing ways forward, but unlike Price's books, the dialogue is frequently punctuated by deferential asides, such as this early encounter between Russell and Mortimer: 

Russell smiled disarmingly. 'Major Mortimer,' he said, 'I have known you for a good many years. You haven't by any chance been lunching unwisely? You are not, perhaps, pulling my leg? If you are it is forgotten. But I must know.'

Mortimer, now, was really shocked. 'Good gracious no.' He hesitated uncomfortably. 'I don't think I have the reputation of being an impertinent man. If I may say so,' he added doggedly.

'You may. You do not. And I apologize.'

Haggard's – and therefore his characters' – preoccupation with the right and proper way of doing things is disarmingly charming, and extends to how Russell and Mortimer go about investigating the problem of the epsilon emissions. The resident of Number Twenty-Seven, Chatsworth Road is one Mrs. Tarbat, "A lady of easy virtue," as Mortimer puts it. To which Russell responds, "You mean a tart?" only to be corrected by Mortimer that Mrs. Tarbat is not a "tart", merely a "kept woman". This distinction may be slight, but to Russell it makes all the difference as to how she is handled – i.e., delicately.

Mrs. Tarbat, it transpires, entertains three different male suitors, one of whom may well be responsible for the epsilon rays, so Russell and Mortimer elect to bring in a disavowable third party to investigate: Charlie Percival-Smith, a subordinate of Mortimer's during the war. But when Percival-Smith is discovered by Mrs. Tarbat having broken into her house, he gets rather more than he bargained for...

All of this is wryly amusing, but there's a darker undercurrent to the novel, hinging on the unbalanced Sir Jeremy. His actions very nearly bring disaster on the whole enterprise, and speak to Haggard's willingness to entertain the deficiencies of the Establishment figures he depicts. Russell in particular is far from flawless; he spends much of the novel perplexed, trying to work out what on earth is going on. Evidently there are foreign powers at work, but to what end? The solution to the conundrum perhaps isn't a huge surprise, but as ever it's the journey to the answer which provides the interest, especially the Whitehall politicking that, out of necessity, Russell must negotiate. Haggard said of his books that they were, "basically political novels with more action than in the straight novel", and appropriately Slow Burner ends with a spot of welcome action: a mad dash to prevent a nuclear accident outside Oxford.

Colonel Russell would go on to feature in a further twenty-four novels, and in my third and final Haggard/Russell post, I'll be showcasing some of the British first editions of those novels I've managed to find over the past few months...

1 comment:

  1. Hi. Just writing to say that I enjoyed reading the review, and particularly its attentiveness to the element of old-fashioned decorum in the characters' interaction (even while involved in indecorous things).

    There aren't many reviews of Haggard's work online, one reason why I recently wrote up my own discussion of Slow Burner (as it happens, also three different little posts) at my blog, Rartiania.