NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.
If A Slaying in September, the 1967 debut novel by naval officer turned writer Ian Mackintosh – who would go on to create cult TV spy show The Sandbaggers (among other celebrated television endeavours) – was bad – and it really was quite dreadful – his second novel was perhaps even worse.
Count Not the Cost was published in the same year as A Slaying in September, again by Robert Hale in hardback, sporting a beautiful dust jacket, designed by Barbara Walton – and now residing in my Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery – which belied the literary horrors lurking within. Like A Slaying in September and the rest of the five crime and spy thrillers Mackintosh published in the late-1960s before he broke into TV writing with BBC drama Warship, this was to be the novel's only printing; and like its brethren it's now so scarce that at the time of writing not a single copy can be found for sale online. Mine is an ex-library copy (an ex-City of London Police Library copy, to be precise), which I acquired from book dealer par excellence Jamie Sturgeon last year; it was the first Ian Mackintosh novel I read, and its sublime awfulness inspired me in part – the other part being the collector's urge to own that which is rare – to purchase three of the remaining four early Mackintosh novels from Jamie (the only one I'm missing is the third one, A Drug Called Power, 1968).
You may be wondering why on earth I'd purchase a handful of secondhand books – a couple of them ex-library for God's sake – which I was almost certain would be bloody terrible; but as the excerpts in my review of A Slaying in September hopefully demonstrated, this is a different order of bloody terrible we're dealing with here. I hesitate to trot out the hackneyed phrase 'so bad they're good', but when it comes to Mackintosh's early novels, there's a lot of truth in that. Whether they were written in jest or, more disturbingly, in earnest, there's a compulsive quality to these books – the two that I've read anyway (and having flicked through the other two, I've seen nothing to dissuade me from my belief that they're just as crap); they induce in the reader – at least this reader – an irresistible urge to keep turning the pages even though you know it's only going to get worse.
Count Not the Cost is no different. The antihero of the piece this time is Rod Holt, a grey-eyed "gunman", as his friend Commander Hammond of Scotland Yard puts it, "an outlaw and an outcast", a "San Francisco guttersnipe... officially a trouble-shooter for the Olinett Diamond Company" who "does free-lance investigations" – and as such, aside from the American heritage, being a bit older and being possessed of an inclination to wearing black rather than grey, cut from the same cloth as the hero of A Slaying in September, Tim Blackgrove. If anything, however, Rod is even more emotionally crippled than Tim. Where Blackgrove fell for a shop assistant (whilst buying fags) and spent a third of that novel mooning around after her – with some success, it must be said, albeit with a sting in the tail – Holt has devoted his entire existence to the safety and wellbeing of a woman – Jean Lamont – who absolutely loathes him.
To that end he elects to assist her current beau, dashing but ineffectual Frenchman Luc Lenoir, in his struggle against a bunch of French fanatics who believe that Lenoir and a friend of his late father's, Gaspard Rousseau – whom Lenoir hopes to bring to England from Hong Kong – are members of the OAS and thus enemies of France. Or something; to be honest the narrative is so garbled I kind of lost track of why the hell anyone was doing anything. In any case, after a dust-up or two with the French fanatics on British soil, Holt jets to Hong Kong, hooks up with beautiful but deadly smuggler Laura Paine and sets about devising a plan to bring Rousseau back to Blighty. Or possibly just kill him. I dunno; could be either. Or both.
Somewhere in all this there's the makings of a really good spy thriller. Unfortunately this isn't it. But the undercooked plot is only part of the problem; more of an issue is Holt and his devotion to Jean Lamont, which in some ways is akin to a monk's vow of chastity (although Holt does get to shag Laura Paine). And here we find commonality with the dominant theme of A Slaying in September – that of the seemingly hard-bitten hero who is in reality a lovelorn, self-doubting, self-loathing wreck. Rotten metaphors – and there are some choice ones here, as in A Slaying in September – and sloppy plotting aside, Mackintosh's prose is at its most turgid when he's dealing with Holt's broken heart, attaining an overwrought, hysterical tone and tenor more befitting of a romance novel (or rather how I imagine romance novels to be; I can't say I remember ever reading one) or a 1970s girls' comic (I'm on rather firmer ground here because I read a lot of those as a kid – don't ask).
I speculated in the previous post that Mackintosh's novels of this period might actually be parody, but on reflection, and with a couple of them under my belt, I'm starting to wonder whether they were his way of working through the pain of either rejection or an unrequited love. He was only in his mid-twenties, possibly even younger, when he wrote these books (whilst at sea and stationed at a remote naval base in Scotland), so any teenage yearnings he might have had wouldn't have been that distant a memory – or perhaps not distant at all but a more recent crushing of his feelings. Pure conjecture of course, but there's a rawness – as well as, inevitably, a rubbishness – to the passages where Rod Holt rages at Jean Lamont and her rejection of him (for reasons to do with the death of Holt's one-time CIA partner, also Jean's husband), not least the early one where Holt is introduced:
'Five years,' muttered the man in grey. Five long years. And now she was back. He had not seen her, but he knew – as he knew of every movement she had made in those endless, hate-filled years. He hated her still and loved her still and, against his better judgement, he had returned to the House of Memories.
His eyes went to the lonely, rusting sentinel that was the pole of the bus-stop. It was also the headstone of his grave. And how he loathed the thought of all those queues of stupid, fat-faced and vacant-looking women with their laden bags and big backsides, trampling across his tomb. He wanted to wait for them, to descend on them, to smack their baskets into their chattering faces and to wipe away their smug smiles. He wanted them on their pudgy, work-worn, peasant knees, to worship at his burial-ground.
And, by God, it was his burial-ground! Because of the childish sentimentality of his past, this little patch of hard-standing was stained with the blood of wounds of a thousand battles of his own emotions and somewhere within, his life was entombed and linked forever to this damned bungalow and to the girl whom he could not forget.
All at once, a huge hammer hit his heart, crushing it, driving from it the very breath of existence and leaving only a mangled mechanism that sobbed on in dry gasps and pulsed painfully in defiance of his wish to run. A terrible wave of agony hurtled upwards from his soul to crash against his reeling brain and threaten his very sanity.
Then again, maybe it is parody. I suspect I'm rather overthinking it. But that's the thing: these frightful novels hold a mysterious power. I defy anyone not to read the above excerpt and be gripped by an overwhelming urge to read on, although I guess for me it might also be the scarcity of the books as much as the overblown, overripe prose within. Whatever: there's no denying I've been dwelling on them quite a lot of late, turning them over and over in my head. I mean, look at the length of these bloody blog posts for one thing. Thankfully for all concerned there's just one last post to come, a double-bill affair in which I'll be taking a briefer look at the two remaining Ian Mackintosh books in my possession: The Man from Destiny (1969) and The Brave Cannot Yield (1970).