Thursday 21 November 2013

The Sandbaggers Writer Ian Mackintosh's Second Novel, Count Not the Cost (Robert Hale, 1967); Book Review

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.

The bitch!

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.

The bitch!

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).

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Sandbaggers Creator Ian Mackintosh's Debut Novel, A Slaying in September (Robert Hale, 1967); Book Review

A dozen years before his presumed death in a plane accident; a decade before he created celebrated cult TV spy series The Sandbaggers (1978–1980); five years before he broke into television with the hugely successful BBC drama series Warship (1973-1977), Ian Mackintosh made his debut as a novelist.

He'd turned to writing, according to his brother Lawrie, in the early years of his naval career (he served in the Royal Navy from 1958 until his retirement in 1976, whereupon he was awarded an MBE) "to relieve the boredom, first at sea and later when posted to [a] remote Naval base in Scotland". The results were five crime and spy thrillers published in quick succession over a four-year period: A Slaying in September (1967), Count Not the Cost (1967), A Drug Called Power (1968), The Man from Destiny (1969) and The Brave Cannot Yield (1970). Each received just the one printing, in hardback, by Robert Hale; there were no paperback editions, and with Hale's print runs at the time being notoriously conservative – see also the Elmore Leonard books they published around this period – in the years since all five have become so unbelievably scarce that there is, at time of writing, not a single solitary copy of any of them available on the web. Consequently, online commentary on them is scant, largely comprising this Mystery*File post and my own post on the novels and Mackintosh's later work on The Sandbaggers from last week.

It's fair to say, then, that they represent something of a blind spot in Mackintosh's otherwise thoroughly raked-over oeuvre and life (aside from The Sandbaggers site, which boasts a good selection of articles and clippings on Mackintosh, there's a 2012 biography on him, The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh); but thanks to book dealer to the stars Jamie Sturgeon I've managed to secure four of those five novels, among them Mackintosh's debut, A Slaying in September, published in hardback in 1967 with a dust jacket designed by Colin Andrews.

Written, like the other four books from this period – and like Mackintosh's later The Sandbaggers novelisation (Corgi, 1978) – in the third person, the novel introduces grey-eyed, black-clad loner and, as the press have apparently dubbed him, "Hired Gun of Big Business"/"High Society's Trouble Shooter" Tim Blackgrove, although the villagers who live near the shop Blackgrove buys his fags from, and which he's frequented ever since, a year ago, "on the run, the police behind him and his quarry in front... he had – with typical Blackgrove unconcern – taken time off to buy cigarettes [a]nd... found himself looking across the counter into the most appealing face he had ever seen", refer to him "simply as 'the detective from London who goes to the shop'".

So far, so bizarre – and we're still only on page two. For the unwary reader – those perhaps only familiar with Mackintosh's work on The Sandbaggers or Warship or even Wilde Alliance, or his novelisations of those TV shows – and of course having first surmounted the not inconsiderable challenge of actually laying hands on a copy of any of his five early novels exposure to his writing, at least in its late-1960s incarnation, is an unsettling, unbalancing experience (I should mention that this was the second Mackintosh novel I'd read). As you turn the pages, initial misgivings give way to profound doubts and then slack-jawed disbelief, until, in the case of A Slaying in September, you reach the end of the first chapter, where Blackgrove, having bantered playfully with Julie, the doomed daughter of his occasional employer Julian Cambridges (or as Blackgrove labels her in his head, "Silly bitch!"), is described thus:

He was near to being contented. But then, he was deaf to the relentless rumblings of the tumbrils on the deadly road of his own destiny.

Alliterative, melodramatic metaphors such as this litter the text like twisted twigs bobbing atop a murky winter lido. But they're merely a symptom of the malaise which infects the novel – the fever sweat signifying the underlying illness, if you will (a disease which is evidently contagious). Because the bald fact of the matter is that A Slaying in September is really, really bad – hilariously, audaciously so – not just in terms of the tortured metaphors, or the cardboard cut-out characters, or the by turns hysterical and portentous dialogue – all of which abounds in abundance – but in the rubbish plotting too.

All of these elements come together in a kind of awful extended crescendo in the long middle stretch of the book. Having decamped to Antwerp on the trail of the drug dealer who murdered Julie Cambridges – and upon arrival, in a vengeful fury, torturing and killing a couple of drug addict underlings and dumping them in the same country ditch – Blackgrove practically forgets all about his self-appointed mission of retribution and spends over a third of the novel doing little other than moping about after the comely wench from the village shop, who's inexplicably turned up in the Belgian city. (There is an eventual explanation for this, one which forms the twist in the tale, but it truly beggars belief.) Seemingly the muse has transported Mackintosh to a higher plane of terrible prose here, because he pummels us with one putridly overripe passage after another:

...He felt awed. For so many months, he had been longing for a meeting with a girl who had the youth and vitality and the eyes and smile of that little shop-assistant; someone who would be a soulmate and who would understand him in all his moods and with all his weaknesses, who would be a shelter from his insecurity and a loving envoy from a Heaven where he would never again walk alone and where, through her, he would truly find himself...

...Fool! It might still be a dream! He sneered at his sentimentality. But he knew simultaneously, in the register of his own soul, that this girl's smile could, at will, send a flame through him, a fire that licked dangerously at the stockade of indifference which locked his heart and made him the man he was...

...Would not his life remain true to the pattern he had chosen for it: a tortuous testimony of canker and havoc, of truculence and fury, bringing disaster to himself and all those who touched upon it?...

I could go on. And I think I will:

...He had always believed that to 'feel one's heart soften' was a phrase used solely in women's magazines, but he could now feel his own iron soul liquefy in the glory of her smile and he knew that the rigid hold which he kept on the reins of his life was relaxing with dangerous celerity...

...But Alex's words were bricks of gold for the castle of hope he was building in his heart and he was warmed to the remotest and coldest regions of his soul...

...He had been damming up his floods of loneliness with a wall of self-delusion, telling himself that, inevitably, an angel would call for him, an angel who would be his very own, to guide him along the secret escape-route from the deadly quicksand that was his life. But his angel had come – and gone again. She had overflown his quagmire of hopelessness...

Thing is, in the word selection and the irresistible surge of the sentence structure, it's evident from these excerpts that Mackintosh could write. It's just that what he chose to write at this formative stage of his career were barking, overblown, intermittently violent potboilers.

Part of me wonders whether he wasn't bashing this stuff out with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek – if he was perhaps parodying the spy novels and crime fiction and even romance novels which were prevalent at the time. There's a line in A Slaying in September, one which seems to me to be especially arch and knowing, which suggests that he knew exactly what he was up to: "If he wanted to, he could ask himself how many more times he would see some soul take that last ferry-ride across the Jordan, but euphemisms did not help." The only problem with that theory is Mackintosh wrote five of these buggers (three of them starring Tim bloody Blackgrove), which to my mind is wearing the joke really thin.

I guess you could chalk it up to youthful inexperience (Mackintosh must have only been in his mid-twenties when he penned A Slaying in September), to a writer taking his first faltering literary steps – first novel nerves, as it were; except that Mackintosh's second book, Count Not the Cost, published in the same year as A Slaying in September, is, if anything, even worse...