On to the second of two posts on Guernsey-based author Christopher Nicole's pseudonymous series of espionage novels starring a state-sanctioned assassin, written under the nom de plume "Andrew York" (one of many Nicole aliases). And having posted a brief introduction to Nicole and a glorious gallery of first edition fillies, today I turn my attention to the first instalment in the nine-book series: The Eliminator.
Originally published in hardback in the UK by Hutchinson in 1966, The Eliminator introduces Jonas Wilde, Great Britain's state executioner. When we first meet Wilde he's on assignment in Barbados, in disguise as tourist Charles Vane, his target a wealthy businessman. Wilde is rarely given reasons for the killings he carries out; he merely takes it on trust that the individuals he assassinates (more than twenty over the course of his career) are deserving of elimination. So when, having completed his Barbados assignation, Wilde is directed by his boss, Antony Canning, to fix his sights on a scientist named Stalitz, Wilde's only reservation is that the killing has to take place in the UK.
Wilde, you see, usually operates overseas, facilitated by what's known as The Route – essentially a cover story, whereby Wilde takes a yachting holiday in the English Channel two or three times a year, stopping in at the small island of Guernsey, which he uses as a back door in and out of Britain, assisted by a small cadre of former state assassins. But Wilde is beginning to question his role as The Eliminator; his last few missions have left him uneasy, and this latest one is equally troubling. And when, having inveigled himself into the west country mansion where Stalitz is staying, the mission goes disastrously awry, Wilde discovers that everything he's been led to believe is wrong...
The Eliminator is literally a book of two halves: the first half, titled "The Assassin", details Wilde's life, his associates, how The Route works, and two of his missions; the second half, titled "The Avenger", then yanks the rug out from under Wilde's feet in spectacular fashion, sending him on a hunt for the man who has betrayed both him and his country. Both parts have their merits – the sequence in part one where Wilde gains the trust of Rhoda Gooderich, the housekeeper at the country estate, is especially delicious – but it's in part two that the tension really escalates, climaxing with a neat, unexpected twist.
Wilde is a fascinating creation: urbane, sophisticated, ruthless, but also oddly vulnerable. His role as executioner would, you might think, require emotional detachment on his part, but perversely Wilde has to work himself up into a righteous rage in order to complete his deadly assignments. Nicole/York is strong on location as well as characterization: I've been to Guernsey myself a few times, and of course Nicole lives there, so his depiction of Saint Peter Port and the surrounding area is spot on. (I also got a jolt of recognition when, in an aside, it's revealed that Wilde's Charles Vane alias has an equally fictional sister in Beckenham – the suburban town where I grew up.)
But the abiding impression one is left with is how elegantly written The Eliminator is – which is why it's so surprising that the Jonas Wilde series has slipped into semi-obscurity. It's something that John at Pretty Sinister Books remarked upon in his recent review, and hopefully something that will be addressed now that Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint is reviving the series. Certainly The Eliminator is a cut above the more run-of-the-mill James Bond-inspired sixties spy boom dross – I couldn't help thinking whilst reading it that, like the Bond novels, it would have made an excellent film – and I'll definitely be returning to Wilde's world before too long.
(UPDATE 1: As John from Pretty Sinister Books has now pointed out in the comments below, the book was made into a film – read his post on it here.)
(UPDATE 2: Mike Ripley has since drawn my attention to this article on the website of Ostara Publishing, Top Notch Thrillers' parent publisher – the article originally appeared in Crime Time – outlining the strange set of coincidences surrounding the reissuing of The Eliminator, not least of which being that Christopher Nicole's yacht, Rose of Arden – the real-life equivalent of Jonas Wilde's yacht, Regina A – wound up in the ownership of Ostara's founder, Andrew Cocks, and consequently can be seen on the cover of the Top Notch Thrillers edition!)
(UPDATE 3: I've since conducted an interview with Christopher Nicole, which explores the Jonas Wilde books and Nicole's wider literary career.)
And speaking of Bond-inspired espionage, I'll be staying with the 1960s spy fiction for my next run of posts – except the star of this next series actually predates 007. Ahead of that, though: those Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy competition winners revealed...