Thursday 14 November 2013

Ian Mackintosh, The Sandbaggers (TV Series and Novelisation, 1978), and the Writer's '60s Spy and Crime Thriller Novels

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 15/11/12.

Ian Mackintosh – or MacKintosh, depending on who you believe – is a name which excites a fair bit of interest in certain spy-obsessed circles, due in large part to his being the creator and writer of (most of) The Sandbaggers:

a cult television series which ran on ITV from 1978 to 1980, starring Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, the head of a small team of troubleshooters – the eponymous "Sandbaggers" – within Britain's Special Intelligence Service – this being the Mackintosh-penned novelisation of a couple of episodes thereof, published in paperback by Corgi in 1978. I've only ever seen the odd clip of The Sandbaggers (a state of affairs I intend to rectify) and don't remember it being on telly when I was a kid (unlike another British TV spy series, Callan, which I wrote about the other week and do dimly recall) but I have been aware of it for a while due to Greg Rucka pointing to it as the chief inspiration for his fine espionage comic book (and novel) series Queen & Country in an essay in the first issue in 2001. And Rucka's not alone in his admiration either: earlier this year The Guardian ran a positive review of the three-season DVD box set of The Sandbaggers (written, incidentally, by an old mucker of mine from Mixmag days, Toby Manning) and there's an active dedicated fan site.

For espionage enthusiasts, a big part of the appeal of The Sandbaggers lies in the fascination with Ian Mackintosh's life. A career naval officer who was awarded an MBE upon his retirement in 1976, he created the hugely successful BBC drama Warship in 1973, embarking on a new career as a television writer and producer in its wake. And then in July 1979, halfway into the writing of the third season of The Sandbaggers (Mackintosh wrote all thirteen episodes of the preceding two seasons), the light aircraft Mackintosh was flying in with his girlfriend, Susan Insole, and his friend, Graham Barber – who was piloting the airplane – vanished over the Gulf of Alaska after sending out a distress signal. No survivors or wreckage were ever found, and this, along with Barber reportedly having failed to file a flight plan and the plane making an unscheduled stop at a disused World War II airfield, has led to much speculation about what actually happened, not least in Robert G. Folsom's biography The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh (Potomac Books, 2012).

Further fanning the flames of intrigue, fans of The Sandbaggers have long wondered whether Mackintosh was himself a spy, such was the apparent authenticity of the series. And reading Mackintosh's The Sandbaggers novelisation, the picture he paints of SIS does seem plausible: a grey, worn-out world of late nights, endless paperwork and office politics, and with the fug of cigarette smoke hanging heavy in the air, punctuated by all-too-rare and usually grubby missions where the odds of making it back alive are fifty-fifty. Small wonder, then, that Greg Rucka drew on the series so heavily for Queen & Country, right down to the overworked, irritable head of department – Burnside in The Sandbaggers, Paul Crocker in Queen & Country – and the M.O. of having two Sandbaggers – Minders in Rucka's comic book – on standby and referring to them as Sandbagger One and Two (or Minder One and Two).

Irrespective of its origins – not having seen the TV series I can't comment on how accurate an adaptation it is – The Sandbaggers novelisation is an effectively downbeat and latterly – during a climactic assault on a mountainous Cyprus stronghold by Sandbagger One (Willie Caine) and a female double-agent – nail-biting little spy thriller. (Randall Masteller at Spy Guys and Gals reckons so too, though he thinks less highly of the subsequent loose spin-off novel The Sandbaggers: Think of a Number, written by Donald Lancaster – an alias of Australian mystery novelist William Marshall – and published by Corgi in 1980.) It's also quite uncommon these days: it's been out of print for decades and there are a scant few copies available online. But even more scarce, and little-remarked upon – this Mystery*File review being (heretofore) practically the only online commentary – are the handful of novels Ian Mackintosh penned in the late-1960s before he embarked on his TV career – and it's these that kindled my particular interest in the writer.

From 1967 to 1970 Mackintosh published five crime and spy thrillers. Each received just the one printing – by Robert Hale in hardback in the UK – and each is so scarce that there isn't a single copy of any of them currently for sale online. Their titles in order are:

A Slaying in September (Hale, 1967)
Count Not the Cost (Hale, 1967)
A Drug Called Power (Hale, 1968)
The Man from Destiny (Hale, 1969)
The Brave Cannot Yield (Hale, 1970)

I blogged about one of them, Count Not the Cost, in passing a couple of months ago, as part of this Barbara and Eileen Walton cover gallery. I acquired that ex-library copy from fabled crime fiction book dealer Jamie Sturgeon last year, and since then have taken three other Mackintosh novels off his hands (the only one I'm now missing is A Drug Called Power). What's remarkable about them – aside from their scarcity – at least the two that I've read thus far (the first two), is how extraordinarily, deliciously bad they are: overwrought, hysterical, melodramatic and laced with the kind of painfully over-extended metaphors that cause editors to wake in the wee small hours bathed in sweat. Compare The Sandbaggers novelisation, with its pared-back prose and attempts at naturalistic dialogue, with A Slaying in September or Count Not the Cost and it's almost as if they're the work of a different writer, although in Burnside's romantic obsession with Sandbagger Two – the chilly, remote but beautiful Laura Dickens – there are admittedly hints of Mackintosh's earlier writing.

Indeed, so terrible are these books that they frequently teeter over into brilliance. Certainly they're compulsively readable, and part of me wonders whether they weren't Mackintosh's idea of an extended situationist prank (largely at the expense of Robert Hale, who never managed to sell paperback rights on any of the novels). (There's an inscription by Mackintosh in one of Jamie's own copies of the novels which suggests that might not be far from the truth.) Three of them – A Slaying in September, A Drug Called Power and The Brave Cannot Yield – star private investigator-turned-scourge of the drugs underworld Tim Blackgrove, but the (anti)heroes of the other two novels – Rod Holt (Count Not the Cost) and Danny Mason (The Man from Destiny) – are so similar to Blackgrove as to be almost indistinguishable: grey-eyed, pale, haunted loners prone to excessive violence who are nonetheless (reluctant) media celebrities.

As you may have gathered, I've become ever-so-slightly obsessed by these bloody awful but strangely beguiling books; so over the next few posts I'll be taking a closer look at them, starting with Mackintosh's debut, A Slaying in September.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell Spy Novels in British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s

It's been nearly two years since I last devoted a post to William Haggard, an author fellow spy novelist Anthony Price once memorably described as "more right wing than even me!" But though I haven't written about Haggard at any length for a while – and in truth am not planning to do so now either – I have been quietly collecting cheap first editions of his Colonel Charles Russell spy series when I see them. I must have acquired another five since I posted this cover gallery in 2011, and it so happens that three of them meet the criteria for my recently established British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s gallery (in which I'd already deposited a pair of Haggard covers: The Bitter Harvest, 1971, and Yesterday's Enemy, 1975) – i.e. they're thrillers, and they were published in the '70s. And since as of Friday British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s needed just three books to bring the number of covers therein up to 110, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to blog about them, however briefly. And they are:

The Old Masters, the fifteenth instalment in the twenty-six-book Colonel Russell series, published in hardback by Cassell in 1973, jacket design by Design Practitioners. I can't recall now where I bought this copy – or indeed an increasing number of the secondhand books I've bought over the past few years and then stowed on my 'to-blog-about' shelves. I have a feeling I got it from Eastbourne's excellent Tome (where secondhand books are two pound a pop), so for the sake of expediency let's just say that is where I got it, and that I got these ones there too:

The Scorpion's Tail, the sixteenth Colonel Russell novel, published in hardback by Cassell in 1975, jacket photograph by Michael Lyster and further credited to the Zoological Society of London, and:

The Poison People, the eighteenth Colonel Russell novel, published in hardback by Cassell in 1978, dust jacket uncredited. Interesting thing about this one is, as noted by commenter 'faithful researcher' in March last year, the plot hinges on the death of a chap named Harry Maxim – which makes ones wonder if perhaps Gavin Lyall read Haggard.

I've loads more additions to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s lined up, but next I'm turning to another writer of '70s spy fiction – of the televisual variety.