Thursday 23 January 2014

The History of Spies, Spying and Spy Fiction: John Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and Michael Gilbert in Eric Ambler's To Catch a Spy (Bodley Head, 1964)

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Like Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies (Max Reindhart, 1967), the second short spy story anthology I'm reviewing this week also boasts a Calder and Behrens story by Michael Gilbert, an Ashenden story by W. Somerset Maugham and a story by Eric Ambler. In this instance, however, the anthology was also compiled by Ambler, who provides a much more thorough introduction than Hitchcock's genially superficial one for Sinister Spies, as well as introductions to each individual tale.

To Catch a Spy was published by The Bodley Head in 1964 under a terrific typographical dust jacket designed by Michael Harvey (which I've added to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page). I bought this copy a year or two ago for £7.50 – not a bad price for a first edition, the only real defects being some light wear on the wrapper and foxing on the page edges. I must admit that as with Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies it was the wrapper that initially attracted me, and I was only prompted to read the book more recently when, in the wake of returning to Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens spy stories, I took a closer look at Sinister Spies and found myself unexpectedly moved by the Maugham story therein: "The Traitor", taken from Maugham's 1928 collection of linked stories Ashenden, or, The British Agent. Realising that there was another Ashenden tale in To Catch a Spy, I headed directly for it.

That "Giulia Lazzari" is every bit as remarkable as "The Traitor" will, I'm sure, come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Maugham's original book. I don't number myself among them – not yet; I'll be rectifying that soon – but the elegance and clarity of the prose is plain for all to see, and the story is at least as affecting as that of "The Traitor", perhaps more so.

We learn a little more about cultured World War I master spy Ashenden in "Giulia Lazzari" than in "The Traitor": that he is a popular and successful novelist and playwright, a useful cover for his covert career working for Britain's secret service; that he runs a network of spies in Germany, paying their wages and forwarding on to R., his British Intelligence boss, whatever information they obtain. R. himself also features more prominently: there's a long scene set in a Parisian hotel where R. briefs Ashenden on his latest mission, during which R.'s imperialist, colonialist, even racist views become clear – views which are hard to stomach not only for the modern reader but seemingly for Ashenden as well.

Of course, whatever admiration Ashenden might have for his intended target – anti-British rule agitator Chandra Lal, an Indian who has allied himself with Germany – is of no consequence; as he tells R.: "He's declared war and he must take his chance." To that end Ashenden attempts to lure Chandra to the French side of Lake Geneva – and thus his doom – using Chandra's Italian lover, dancer and occasional prostitute Giulia Lazzari, as bait. How he does so is a vivid illustration of the heartless nature of the spymaster, who must ride roughshod over the emotions and feelings of those caught in his firing line in order to achieve his aims. As the story unfolds you remind yourself that there is a point to this cruelty, that a war is raging across Europe; but even so, one wonders whether the ends really justify the means.

In his introduction to "Giulia Lazzari", Eric Ambler notes that though the most popular Ashenden stories are probably "The Hairless Mexican", "The Traitor" and "Mr Harrington's Washing", "Giulia Lazzari" " the episode that I most enjoy re-reading. The preliminary scenes with R. are a perennial delight, and Madame Lazzari is so vividly presented that you can almost see the pores of her skin. It is an ugly story, but a highly satisfying one." In his introduction to To Catch a Spy as a whole, Ambler readily admits that his own early books were strongly influenced by Ashenden – "the first fictional work on the subject [espionage] by a writer of stature with first-hand knowledge of what he is writing about" – and "that there has been no body of work in the field of the same quality written since Ashenden" – high praise indeed from such an aficionado, not to mention the author of such notable spy novels himself as Epitaph for a Spy, The Mask of Dimitrios, Passage of Arms and others.

Ambler's To Catch a Spy introduction is fascinating for the way it details not merely the history of espionage writing but the history of espionage itself. He notes: "There seems to have been no period in recorded history when secret agents have not played a part... in political and military affairs. And yet, it is impossible to find any spy story of note written before the twentieth century." (As a reason for this he points to "the Dreyfus case (1894–99)... not so much on its having created a new public appetite or whetted an unfamiliar curiosity, as on the fact that it re-opened a discussion which had been firmly closed for nearly a hundred years.") Drawing a line from Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903) – "the first spy novel" – to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907) – "the first attempt by a major novelist to deal realistically with the secret war, with the sub-world of conspiracy, sabotage, double-dealing and betrayal" – to William Le Quex and E. Phillips Oppenheim, Ambler arrives at John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915) and the other authors he has selected for his anthology.

And what a selection: Buchan, Somerset Maugham, Compton Mackenzie, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Michael Gilbert and Ambler himself – that's one hell of a dinner party guest-list – all represented by some of their best work. Buchan's "The Loathly Opposite" is a fine tale of two cryptographers on opposing sides in World War I, while Ian Fleming steps up with "From a View to a Kill" (Taken from For Your Eyes Only, 1960), in which James Bond untangles a deadly plot to intercept British Secret Service communiques in France. Ambler makes note of Fleming/Bond's "shrewd and constructive... account of the difficulties of deciding what to drink in a Paris cafe" (Bond settles on "an Americano—bitter Campari, Cinzano, a large slice of lemon peel, and soda"), but adds: "Critics rarely remark on how well written the James Bond stories are. I suppose that with a man as civilized and amusing as Mr Fleming, good writing is taken for granted."

Ashenden aside, Ambler reserves special praise for Compton Mackenzie's long-out-of-print The Three Couriers (1929), from which he extracts "The First Courier". Personally I couldn't get on with it; perhaps I simply wasn't in the mood for Mackenzie's brand of, as Ambler puts it "light-hearted... absurdity and farce". Much more to my liking was Graham Greene's succinct "I Spy", which I'd read once before in Greene and his brother Hugh's The Spy's Bedside Book (1957) but which was well worth revisiting – as indeed was Michael Gilbert's excellent "On Slay Down", which I originally read in the Calder and Behrens collection Game Without Rules.

From his own fiction Ambler picks an episode from The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), declaring that "I have never written any short spy stories". I'm afraid I only skimmed over this, for the simple reason that I have every intention of reading the full novel at some point, probably in the edition I'll be blogging about next – another anthology, this time of Ambler's own work, again boasting an Ambler introduction.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Michael Gilbert's Calder and Behrens and W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden in Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies (Max Reindhart, 1967)

Anyone who's taken a gander at the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery should recognise this dust jacket:

Or at least the front of it; I added it to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design in the gallery's very early days, in the second batch of book covers, I believe. Designed by Jim Russell, it wraps the British first edition of the short story collection Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies, published by Max Reindhart in 1967. I bought this copy in Colin Page Antiquarian Books in Brighton (I think) a few years ago, took a picture of the cover for Beautiful British Book Jacket Design, and then didn't really look at the book again properly until late last year, when I noticed that the Michael Gilbert short story within, "The Uninvited", starring Gilbert's quietly lethal middle-aged secret agents Daniel Calder and Samuel Behrens, didn't appear to be in either of the two Calder and Behrens collections – Game Without Rules (1967) and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (1982). Accordingly I got quite excited, thinking I'd found a "lost" Calder and Behrens tale (and emailed fellow enthusiast Book Glutton to that effect)... until I realised that it was merely one of the stories in Game Without Rules, "A Price of Abyssinia", under another title.

Except not quite: having compared the two – which is the kind of stupendously dreary thing I do when left to my own devices – I've found that there are differences between them, or at least between "The Uninvited" and the version of "A Price of Abyssinia" in my copy of Game Without Rules, which is the British first edition, published in 1968, the year after the US Harper and Row edition of Game Without Rules, and indeed the year after Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies. Evidently someone – either Gilbert or his editor – did some minor rewriting of the story, presumably for (the British edition of) Game Without Rules, although I guess it's conceivable the rewriting was done for "The Uninvited" and "A Price of Abyssinia" is presented as it originally appeared (in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine most likely). In any case: largely it's things like serial commas – used much more sparingly in British publications than American ones – which have been altered, but there are more noticeable changes too. Take the opening paragraph or so. Here's how it appears in Alfred Hitchcock's Sinister Spies:

Mr Calder was silent, solitary and generous with everything, from a basket of cherries or mushrooms, to efficient first aid to a child who had tumbled. The children liked him. But their admiration was reserved for his dog.

The great, solemn, sagacious Rasselas was a deerhound. He had been born in the sunlight.

Now here's how it appears in Game Without Rules (the emphasis is mine):

Mr Calder was silent, solitary and generous with everything, from a basket of cherries or mushrooms to efficient first aid to a child who had tumbled. The children liked him. But their admiration was reserved for his deerhound.

Rasselas had been born in the sunlight.

To pick another example, here's a description of Colonel Weinleben, Calder and Behrens' opponent in the story, from Sinister Spies:

He was greatly inferior to the dog, both in birth and breeding.

And the same description in Game Without Rules:

He was the illegitimate son of a cobbler from Mainz and greatly inferior to the dog, both in birth and breeding.

I suppose it's a matter of personal taste as to which you prefer – my preference is for the Game Without Rules version – but it does shed light on how stories can change from publication to publication. However, I do have an additional point which I'm edging towards here, which is that as a result of noticing these differences I was minded to take a closer look at Sinister Spies and read some of the other stories within (each of which is accompanied by a Jim Russell illustration). There's a perfunctory introduction by Hitchcock, a very good Eric Ambler story – more on him anon – and a handful of other stories that are worth a look, but the one that proved a real revelation for me was "The Traitor" by W. Somerset Maugham.

This, I discovered, is one of the loosely linked stories which make up the book Ashenden, or, The British Agent (Heinemann, 1928), which together detail the World War I exploits of Ashenden, novelist turned spy, based on Maugham's own experiences. Not that much of that can be gleaned from "The Traitor": there's no introduction to the story in Sinister Spies, and Ashenden's parallel career as a man of letters isn't mentioned. Regardless, even read in isolation "The Traitor" stands as one of the best pieces of spy fiction I've ever come across – almost languorous in pace and yet packing an emotional punch that's uncommon in the field of espionage writing (John le Carré's Karla Trilogy comes to mind as a useful comparison).

Sent to Lucerne in Switzerland by his boss at British Intelligence, R., in order to convince Grantley Caypor, an Englishman who's been spying for the Germans, to return to Britain, Ashenden spends much of the story seemingly making very little headway in his mission, becoming mildly friendly with Caypor but otherwise idling the days away, taking pleasant naps and latterly fretting over his lack of progress. Unregistered by Ashenden, however, R. has already laid the foundations for Caypor's extraction, and Caypor's fate, even given his betrayal – and though that fate is only guessed at by Ashenden and Caypor's German wife – is vividly brought home in all its awful finality.

It's a beautifully judged, wonderfully written tale, and it left me eager to read further Ashenden stories – which, luckily for me, was as simple a matter as plucking another book from my shelves. Because I own another, slightly earlier anthology of short spy stories which also contains a (different) Ashenden tale – an anthology compiled by the aforementioned Eric Ambler.