Friday 4 March 2011

The Spy's Bedside Book, Edited by Graham & Hugh Greene (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957)

Let's draw a line under week one of Spy Fiction Fortnight with a little book I was prompted to track down after seeing it mentioned in this PDF article by Jeremy Duns on Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming (which is well worth a read when you get the chance). In the article, Duns identifies chapters five and six of Fleming's Bond novel Thunderball (1961) – where we're introduced to Blofeld for the first time – as being directly inspired by an 1894 novel by George Griffith called The Outlaws of the Air. Thing is, by the time Fleming came to write Thunderball, Outlaws of the Air had fallen into obscurity, and it's unlikely Fleming would have had a copy. So how could he have drawn from it? Because he would have had a copy of this book, in which the opening scene from Outlaws of the Air is extracted:

The Spy's Bedside Book was published in the UK in hardback in 1957 by Rupert Hart-Davis, with a jacket designed by A. S. Douthwaite (based on the board game L'Attaque – the front cover, anyway; the back consists of subterfuge-related novelty ads). Edited by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh (who's perhaps better known for being Director-General of the BBC during the 1960s), it's a collection of short snippets from all manner of espionage texts, from novels to stories to true life accounts, sorted into themed chapters. So alongside the aforementioned Mr. Fleming – who makes three appearances under, respectively, Delights of the Profession (an excerpt from From Russia, with Love titled "Foreign Travel"), Professional Prerequisites (Casino Royale, titled "Blanc de Blanc Brut, 1943") and Tricks of the Trade (Moonraker, "Vodka with Pepper") – you also get more factual snippets from the likes of T. E. Lawrence, Robert Baden-Powell and, indeed, Fleming's brother, Peter.

In the Introduction, Graham Greene wonders how many readers "would be able to detect truth from fiction in this anthology if the editors had not printed the names of the contributors... Could the reader really tell which was fiction, between Mr Dennis Wheatley's spy trapped in a bathroom at the Ritz, and Colonel Lawrence's misadventure in Arabia? Of the two I find Mr Wheatley's style a shade more convincing..." Attacking the line between truth and fiction from a different angle, in the Epilogue Hugh Greene relates an episode about enquiring in a secondhand bookshop if they had any spy stories and being asked in return, "What foreign government do you represent?" Turns out the shop had had an order from a foreign government for any book that so much as mentioned a spy, fact or fiction, which resulted in up to fifty large parcels being posted. "I hope," Greene retorted, "that they are enjoying the books in Moscow." "It wasn't the Russians," replied the shop assistant. "It was the Germans."

"No doubt," offers Hugh Greene in closing, "such parcels in the future will always include at least one copy of The Spy's Bedside Book." Well, if one story circling the internet is to be believed, that's precisely what did happen. According to this blurb for the Folio Society edition of the anthology and this Evening Standard story, 100 copies of The Spy's Bedside Book were bought by East German Intelligence. (Unrelated to this, a copy was also later found in Cuban spies Kendall and Gwen Myers's Washington apartment.) I can't speak to the veracity of that tale, but it's striking that in his anecdote, Hugh Greene's nameless shop assistant also fingers the Germans. And there's something else in this edition of the book which, to my mind, casts doubt on the story. Just after the Epilogue, we find this amusing page:

A spoof tear-out order form for foreign powers wishing to buy copies in bulk. Note the parenthetical "Postage free on any order over 100": did the Stasi use the order form, d'you think? (Thus saving themselves the cost of shipping.)

My copy of the book (a first printing/impression, I'll have you know) also has an inscription on the front endpaper which made me smile. You often find inscriptions and dedications in secondhand books – there's a great blog devoted to them – and sometimes they can tell you something about previous owners. This one, I feel, gives a little insight into the motivation behind the dedication:

From Ronald to Joan? Not to sound sexist or anything, but surely that should be the other way round? A clear case there, I reckon, of someone giving the gift of a book simply so they can read it themselves.

UPDATE 9/3/11: Jeremy Duns has just made available to me a fascinating piece of contemporaneous paraphernalia, so I thought I'd add it to the post. It's an advert for The Spy's Bedside Book taken from the Guardian – dated 29 November, 1957 – and featuring a blurb by none other than Ian Fleming. It also sports a rather good cartoon of Graham and Hugh Greene depicted as mac-wearing spooks. And here it is:

Splendid stuff. Thanks, Jeremy! Anyway, Spy Fiction Fortnight will of course continue next week (the clue's kind of in the title), when we'll have some more from Graham Greene, a smidgen of Mark Gatiss, a soupcon of Ross Thomas, and more besides. See you then.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Lewes Book Bargain: Colonel Sun by Robert Markham (Kingsley Amis); Triad/Panther Paperback, Beverley le Barrow Cover; Review

Inveterate collector that I am, it's not unknown for me to buy different editions of books I already own in other editions when I chance upon them, and such is the case with this Spy Fiction Fortnight find/Lewes Book Bargain (which, I almost forgot, I'm posting on World Book Day, although I'm uncertain what that's all about; what can I say – every day is book day for me):

This 'ere is the 1977 UK Triad/Panther paperback edition of Robert Markham's Colonel Sun, which was the first James Bond novel to be written by someone other than Ian Fleming after Fleming's death in 1964. Penned by Bond fan Kingsley Amis under a pseudonym that was intended by Fleming's literary estate to be a kind of hand-me-down moniker for any authors who wished to pick up the Bond baton – but was, in the end, only ever used for this book – it was originally published in 1968 by Jonathan Cape – which is the other edition I already own. But when I saw this '77 first print paperback on the shelf at the Lewes branch of Oxfam recently, for, as you can see by the price sticker on the back, 99p, I couldn't resist it.

Colonel Sun went through three UK paperback publishers following its 1968 hardback debut: there was a Pan edition in 1970 (some say 1968, but I'm unsure about that); this Panther paperback in '77; and finally a Coronet edition in 1991. All of those went through multiple printings under different covers (two covers in the case of Coronet, I think), but the novel is currently out of print. Which is a shame because, although in Bond fan circles I know it's not terribly well-regarded, I actually thought it was a decent read.

It's not up there with, say, Casino Royale (1953), or From Russia, with Love (1957), but it's probably the equal of Diamonds Are Forever (1956), which I slightly struggled with due to its rather too relaxed American travelogue plot (one too many chicken dinners for Bond there, I felt). Colonel Sun suffers from a similar problem once Bond decamps to the Greek islands on the trail of the nefarious eponymous Chinese colonel, where it becomes slightly directionless. But Amis's characterization of 007 is solid, the novel gets off to a cracking start with the kidnapping of M and a couple of affecting deaths, and there's an obligatory but effective torture sequence towards the end, a bit of business of which Fleming would surely have approved.

I covered the Panther editions of the Bond novels, with their golden gun Beverley le Barrow covers, extensively in this post and this post, and reiterated what I've learned about Beverley himself in this post last week. But now I have this copy of Colonel Sun in hand, I can confirm a couple of other details from the photo session credits on the inside front cover. The dress the lovely legs-akimbo lady is wearing is by Jean Varon (misspelled as "Varron" in the cover credit), which means it was probably created by Youthquake designer John Bates. The model's hair, meanwhile, was styled by Schumi, so that's likely Chelsea hairdresser Gregor Schumi. So now you know, and now I can add the back cover to that Bond Triad/Panther cover gallery I linked to earlier.

Right then. What have we got to round off the first week of Spy Fiction Fortnight? How about a little-seen 1957 first edition of a collection of excerpts from sundry espionage stories, compiled by Graham Greene and his brother, Hugh...?

Wednesday 2 March 2011

The Most Dangerous Game by Gavin Lyall: A Review (Hodder & Stoughton)

For this latest Spy Fiction Fortnight post, I thought I'd share some thoughts on a novel I actually read ages ago in a battered Pan paperback edition, but never got round to posting much on it. However, recently I was struck by one of those queer collecting impulses that suddenly overtake me – quite unbidden – and nabbed myself a 1964 Hodder first edition of the book, with a dustjacket designed by "Studio Stead" – a.k.a. Biggles illustrator Leslie Stead (partial non-Biggles cover bibliography here). And seeing as there's an espionage element to the story, now's as good a time as any to write about it.

The Most Dangerous Game was British thriller writer Gavin Lyall's second novel, following 1961's The Wrong Side of the Sky. Like its predecessor – and indeed like many of Lyall's novels during this stretch of his career – it's a first-person actioner starring a hardluck, hardbitten pilot, in this case Bill Cary, a Second World War veteran who ekes out a living flying survey missions for mineral companies around Finland. Hired by a mysterious – and moneyed – American hunter, Frederick Wells Homer, to take Homer in search of bears, Cary soon gets mixed up in a murky plot involving gold sovereigns, the Finish secret police, and eventually the British Secret Service, culminating in a dangerous mission over the border into Russian airspace.

Whereas The Wrong Side of the Sky was essentially an island-hopping treasure hunt, The Most Dangerous Game is rather more nuanced. With its pilot hero, gold sovereigns and assorted crims, it starts off as if it's going to follow the same blueprint as Lyall's debut – except in a chillier clime – but it soon becomes clear there's more going on here than simple smuggling. Pretty much everyone Cary meets has an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda, in particular Arthur Judd, an Englishman supposedly in the area for a spot of fishing and to research cheap timber. But Judd is just one among many multinational oddballs Carey comes across, including a caravanning Frenchman, a couple of cranky Germans, Homer's femme fatale sister, and Homer himself, who's perhaps the oddest of the lot, a mild, secretive sort who's quite possibly completely off his rocker.

With all these strange characters swirling around, it's no surprise that The Most Dangerous Game is full of Lyall's trademark snarky, lively dialogue. 'Go away. I'm busy dying,' a hungover Cary tells Lapland's biggest criminal early on in the book; and then later, in a conversation with a Finnish copper, Cary reveals that he got jumped by a couple of thugs the other night. The policeman asks:

'Did you report it to the police?'
'Why not?'
'Well . . . I won.'

P. G. Wodehouse reckoned The Most Dangerous Game was "even better than The Wrong Side of the Sky," adding: "It is one of the best thrillers I have ever read." I'm not sure I'd quite go along with that; at the time it may have been true, but of course Lyall himself went on to write a number of equally well-regarded thrillers. It is a terrific read though – a former Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force, Lyall is always good on the intricacies of aviation, and there are some excellent seat-of-your-pants flying (and crashing) sequences in the novel – and certainly up there with the best of the 1960s. It's just a shame that, like many of Lyall's books, it's slipped quietly out of print.

So then. What shall we have next in Spy Fiction Fortnight? Hmm... Well, no focus on espionage fiction would really be complete without a guest appearance by that towering presence in the field, James Bond. And it just so happens that I have a recent Lewes Book Bargain that fits the bill – although in this instance, it's a Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming but rather by Kingsley Amis, in an edition featuring a cover by our old friend, Beverley le Barrow...

Tuesday 1 March 2011

A First Edition of The Private Sector by Joseph Hone (Hamish Hamilton, 1971), and a Letter from an Editor

Following on from yesterday's review of Jeremy Duns's Free Agent, today's Spy Fiction Fortnight post is on a book I was prompted to track down as a result of a comment left by Jeremy on this Michael Barber essay about Dennis Wheatley. Nothing to do with Wheatley, I should point out; rather it was a British spy fiction author Jeremy mentioned who I'd not come across before:

The Private Sector by Joseph Hone was published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton in the UK in 1971. Hone's debut novel, it's an espionage thriller set during the run-up to the Six Day War, which is a period of history I know a little bit about, having read Jeremy Bowen's propulsive account of it (itself written like a high-octane thriller). Switching from first to third person, The Private Sector was the first of four novels to feature MI6 agent Peter Marlow, and was followed by The Sixth Directorate (1975), The Flowers of the Forest (1980) and The Valley of the Fox (1982). And if you'd like to read more about Marlow, the novels, and indeed Hone, then rather than waffle on in an ill-informed manner myself, I'd prefer to direct you to Jeremy Duns's thorough blog post on a writer he calls "The forgotten master of British spy fiction", which I can heartily recommend.

Duns is right in that Hone is largely forgotten these days; many of his books are out of print, although Faber do have all four Marlow novels available as print-on-demand titles. Typically, however, I plumped for a first edition of The Private Sector, copies of which are kind of thin on the ground – AbeBooks only has seven listed. But I didn't buy the copy you can see above for its Bernard Higton-designed dustjacket, fine though it is (and a former designer at the publisher I work at though he may have been, as I detailed in this Ross Thomas post); nor for its condition – you may have noticed that the jacket has a piece or two missing from it, so it's not exactly pristine. I bought this particular copy – from, I think, Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road – because it came with an intriguing piece of publishing paraphernalia enclosed.

If you spend a fair amount of time scouring the internet for first editions, you often come across signed copies of books, and sometimes inscribed ones, with personal messages from the author to a reader or a friend (witness this inscribed edition of Joe Gores's Dead Skip). But this particular book came with an entire letter from the author – although, as I later discovered, the letter isn't about the book:

Seen above is a letter by Joseph Hone, dated 31 January, 1971, written on Hamilton-headed notepaper. Now, when I read the letter, I assumed it was Hone writing about The Private Sector to either his editor or publisher at Hamish Hamilton – a "Vernon". It was penned some months prior to the publication of the novel, and talks of an accompanying "blurb", which Hone himself had composed for "publicity advance information" (no sign of the blurb, unfortunately). But the book Hone mentions is called "Tiger". That threw me a bit, but I figured it was probably a code name or working title for the novel, and carried on with this post under that assumption (the post you're reading right now is reworked from that earlier version).

The letter goes on to detail Hone's travel plans, and then turns to a mixture of queries about where Vernon was wounded during the war; reminiscences about "24 hours at the Folly"; a note to self to "put a limit of 10 pints of the rough stuff" (ten pints?! Good Lord); and a request to give the manuscript of the book to Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson – at the time an editor at Hamilton, now a literary agent and author – "so as he can get underway with offering it to the lush pastures of the Sundays" (i.e. serialization in newspapers).

It was all fascinating stuff, and not the sort of communication you'd ordinarily be exposed to – which was why I hoped Mr. Hone didn't mind my posting the letter (Jeremy Duns thought not, and remarked in passing that Hone was an editor himself – William Boyd's). Because it struck me – still does – that the insight it offers into the day-to-day business of publishing is something to treasure. These days, and rather lamentably, it's so much more unlikely that a piece of paraphernalia such as this will end up in a book somewhere, for one simple reason: email. I can't imagine many authors send handwritten letters to their editors or publishers anymore; it's more likely they'll draft an email instead. Stieg Larsson's emails to his publisher and editor wound up in a supplementary volume in the recent Millennium Trilogy Box Set, but that was a choice by said publisher after Larsson's death, not a happy accident.

The letter closes with a suggestion to publish "Tiger" in August or September, and then a final P.S.: "God knows when you'll get this – perhaps not before I get back." That made me wonder if the missive ever reached its final destination, and I signed off the original version of this post marvelling at the fact that here it was, forty years later, giving us all a peek behind the scenes at the publication plans for Hone's debut novel.

Except, it doesn't. Shortly after I posted the first version of this essay, Jeremy Duns popped up in the comments, shedding new light on the letter (you can still see his comment below). Jeremy pointed out that not only was Hone an editor himself, he was an editor at Hamish Hamilton. And one of the writers he worked with was the poet Vernon Scannell, who had an autobiography published through Hamilton in 1971, titled... The Tiger and the Rose. So in fact the letter was written by Hone to Scannell in Hone's capacity as Scannell's editor, and the blurb Hone refers to is for Scannell's book, not his own. All of which explains the reference to "Tiger", the query about Scannell's wartime activities, and, indeed, the Hamilton-headed notepaper.

Phew. Well at least we got to the bottom of it in the end. Anyway, next up in Spy Fiction Fortnight: a review of Gavin Lyall's excellent The Most Dangerous Game...

Monday 28 February 2011

Spy Fiction Fortnight: Free Agent by Jeremy Duns – a Review (Simon & Schuster)

Let's begin Spy Fiction Fortnight with a review of a novel set largely in the late-1960s – which, considering a fair percentage of the books I blog about hail from that same period (or thereabouts), probably won't come as too much of a surprise. Except, in this instance, the book in question was only written a few years ago...

Jeremy Duns's Free Agent was first published in hardback in the UK by Simon & Schuster in 2009, with a stylish, angular, kinetic (hints of vintage Soviet posters there) dustjacket illustration by Tavis Coburn. It's the first person account of Paul Dark, a British secret agent who, one Sunday evening in March 1969, is summoned by the Chief of the security service to his country house to discuss some disturbing news. A cultural attache at the Soviet Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria has announced his intention to defect... and furthermore, he's also promising to reveal information about a British agent who is, in fact, a double-agent, and has been spying for the Russians since 1945.

So far, so familiar, especially if you're au fait with writers like Geoffrey Household, John le Carré, Len Deighton and Gavin Lyall. Indeed, the first chapter of Duns's novel is so akin to reading an espionage thriller from that postwar golden age that it's like slipping on a much-loved, battered, too-big sweatshirt – or, perhaps more accurately, a well-worn smoking jacket (and cravat, obv). There's much talk of "traitor country" and "high stakes" and, inevitably – and purposely – "the Cambridge gang", i.e. Philby, Burgess, Blunt et al. I found myself settling in for a no-doubt enjoyable but ultimately comfortable read.

And then right at the end of that first chapter Duns yanks the rug out from under your feet, upending a table in the process and sending whiskey carafe, crystal tumblers and cut glass ash tray crashing to the floor. All of a sudden up is down, black is white, and there's no way of predicting where the story's going to go. I shan't ruin the surprise for you, but from here on out, Dark enters a twisting labyrinth of deceit, double-crosses and danger, as he makes his way to Nigeria to track down both the Soviet attache and a Rusian nurse with a wartime connection to the Chief, as well as to Dark, to Dark's MIA father and to Dark's colleague and rival in the Secret Service, head of Africa Section Henry Pritchard. And snaking through it all is a possible plot to assassinate British Prime Minister Harold Wilson...

As a contemporary take on the classic espionage thriller, there's a harder edge to Free Agent than you'd perhaps find in a story from that '60s period, at least in the characterization of our lead. Because if you thought James Bond was a bit of a cold bastard (however unfair that belief), wait till you get a load of Paul Dark. Dark is, at root, a total shit. His sense of self-preservation far outweighs anything he feels for friends, lovers or allies. The body count he's directly responsible for is relatively low, but as a result of some of his actions the corpses really start piling up. The analogy isn't terribly accurate, but essentially, if you prefer your Parkers or Ripleys to your Jacks Ryan or Reacher, then Paul Dark is the man for you. Needless to say, I absolutely loved him.

Duns cleverly weaves historical events into the narrative, including the Nigerian civil war and consequent visit to the country of Harold Wilson. In an Author's Note at the back of the book Duns points out that while there's no record of an attempt on Wilson's life, there were numerous plots and conspiracies against him. (Duns also mentions Cambridge traitor Kim Philby's autobiography My Silent War, which is a book I'd very much like to read myself.) This positioning of the tale in a real past lends it an urgency and a velocity that a totally fictionalised historical setting might not possess; the sequences where Dark gets mixed up in the Nigerian war are particularly vivid, shining a light on a dark and little-known period of history that Duns identifies as "a superpower conflict by proxy".

Free Agent is the first in a trilogy of Paul Dark novels; I've got a copy of the second one, 2010's Free Country, winging its way to me, while the final volume, Free World, is currently scheduled for February next year. I for one am in for the long haul. And the next post in Spy Fiction Fortnight also has a link to Mr. Duns, in that it's on a book I was inspired to track down as a result of a comment he made on a post earlier in the year. But more than that, it comes with a handwritten letter by the author of said novel, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the relationship between writer and editor...

NB: Click here for an exclusive interview with Jeremy Duns.