Thursday 16 April 2015

The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982): Book Review

NB: Included in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

From 1961–1975, British writer Gavin Lyall published seven first-person thrillers. Those that I've read – The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), The Most Dangerous Game (1963), Blame the Dead (1972) – are stylishly written, gripping affairs, and I like them a lot. Even better though, for my money, are the four third-person spy thrillers Lyall published in the 1980s: the Harry Maxim series. I took a look at the first of those, The Secret Servant (Hodder, 1980), all the way back in 2010; five years on, I think it's long past time I turned to the second one.

Published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1982 – under a dust jacket designed by Melvyn Gill, based on an original concept by Gavin Lyall himself (who had form with the design of the wrappers of his novels: he painted the jacket artwork for his debut, the aforementioned The Wrong Side of the Sky) – The Conduct of Major Maxim was originally titled A Slightly Private War, something I revealed last week in this post on my collection of uncorrected proofs of the Harry Maxim novels. It's an apt alternative title, as the plot sees Maxim, 10 Downing Street's ex-SAS troubleshooter, going ever-so-slightly rogue in order to help out a younger SAS man, one Corporal Blagg, who's on the run following a fatal balls-up during a mission in Germany.

As in The Secret Servant, Maxim is once again alternately aided and frustrated by the Prime Minister's private secretary, George Harbinger, and by Agnes Algar of MI5; and also as in The Secret Servant, Lyall laces the narrative of The Conduct of Major Maxim with plausible-seeming snippets of 'info' about the workings of British state security – for instance that military personnel do SAS tours rather than being on permanent secondment to the service; that the nickname for the SAS is "Sass"; and that MI5 and MI6 derive their names from their original location: "Long ago, the legend said, the security (or spy-catching) service and the espionage (or spy-hiring) service had been born next door to each other in rooms 5 and 6 of the corridor where Military Intelligence first nested in Whitehall."

All this is delivered in Lyall's elegantly unfussy and quietly ironic prose – which isn't to say the narrative lacks thrills, either of the violent kind – notably a climactic gun battle in the port of Goole – or of the internecine political variety, as the long-suffering Harbinger, hobbled by an ailing PM, tries to keep the peace between his errant troubleshooter and the warring factions of MI5 and 6.