'Formulaic' is a word oft applied to genre fiction, and in many cases rightly so: think of contemporary crime fiction, with its interminable parade of interchangeable detective-inspectors and mutilated female corpses. But though formulaic may be a derogatory term, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with developing or adhering to a formula. Some of the best and most influential crime and spy series ever published – Richard Stark's Parker novels and Ian Fleming's Bond ones spring to (my) mind – were written to formulas, and yet individual books within those series still stand as distinctive works of fiction in their own right. The key is to mix things up a bit – to, as Mike Love of the Beach Boys memorably put it, "fuck with the formula" (Love was actually advising Brian Wilson against doing that, but Wilson ignored him, with spectacular results) – and this is what Anthony Price does with his David Audley series of spy novels.
Since I first encountered the series in 2011 I've read seven of Price's nineteen Audley thrillers – most recently War Game, published by Victor Gollancz in 1976 – and though the elements – the formula – that comprise the novels have become familiar – a preoccupation with the past and, often, archaeology, one which feeds into a (then) present day mystery concerning state security; a reliance on dialogue rather than description as a means of unravelling that mystery – Price always finds a way to fuck with that formula.
His chief method of doing so is by changing the principal viewpoint character, beginning with the clever and prickly Audley himself in The Labyrinth Makers (1970), then moving through a variety of other operatives of the Research and Development Section of British Intelligence – plus the odd stray Italian and American – as the novels progress, and arriving, Magic Faraway Tree-style, back at Audley as of War Game. This is an older and more seasoned Audley, however – in Price's stories time marches on at roughly the same pace as the books were originally published, so a good six or seven years have elapsed since the events of The Labyrinth Makers – one who gazes upon subordinates Paul Mitchell and Frances Fitzgibbon and, despite being respectively irritated and beguiled by them, sees a pair of stars destined to rise further in the Intelligence firmament than he ever has or will.
But it's still Audley who for the most part makes the intellectual running here, doing his damndest to work out how leftie firebrand Charlie Ratcliffe has managed to unearth £2 million in 17th century gold – with which he intends to fund his radical workers' newspaper – and have his brother bumped off during a Civil War reenactment into the bargain, thus securing the fortune for himself. As before in the series, there's more – or perhaps less – going on than meets the eye, and so even though Price's own politics show through on occasion – the moral matter of whether a government minister should really be turning an apparatus of state to the undoing of a left-wing irritant is never fully addressed – there is a genuine threat to national security at play, one which must be countered. The identity of that threat may not come as a huge surprise, but the rug-pulling reveal of its method demonstrates there's plenty of fun to be had with Price's formula yet.