Friday, 12 August 2016
To read the author bios on the covers of the trilogy of spy novels Manning O'Brine (1919–1974) published from 1969–1974 is to get a glimpse of a quite remarkable life. The dust jacket flap of the first edition of Mills (Herbert Jenkins, 1969) states: "During the War he served in France with the Resistance, then in North Africa as a secret agent. In 1943 he was parachuted into Montenegro to join the partisans and finished the War with the Garibaldi partisans in Italy. After the War he fought for Israel in the Arab Wars, managed an opera company, and wrote several thrillers. Still a believer in authentic background, he recently smuggled himself in and out of Albania to get material for Crambo."
The author bio on the first edition of Crambo (Michael Joseph, 1970) notes that O'Brine was an opera director, a film producer and a writer for film and television "with more than a hundred scripts to his credit". The third book, No Earth for Foxes (Barrie & Jenkins, 1974), adds to his CV a stint as a scenic designer and reveals that he "turned to writing when he decided he could write better than the 'bloody scripts that appeared on his drawing board'". It also gives additional details of his wartime exploits – that "he was with Special Services and parachuted into France on a number of occasions", was "Caught and tortured by the Gestapo... escaped on the way to Belsen", and finally reached Gibraltar.
His was, by any measure – and if those jacket flap bios are to be believed – an extraordinary life, aspects of which he channelled into Mills, Crambo and No Earth for Foxes. O'Brine had published novels before these three – he wrote a string of spy thrillers in the 1950s starring ex-Secret Service agent Mike O'Kelly – but his later espionage novels were clearly closer to his heart. (In the bio on the jacket flap of Crambo he describes his earlier novels as "desperately bad".)
Mills is the best of the three, a cat-and-mouse thriller in which the eponymous British agent decides to retire but then becomes quarry for agents from the Russian and America secret services – as well as his own – all of whom believe he is carrying the formula for a new form of LSD. But Crambo and No Earth for Foxes are almost as good, the former an account of the titular agent's extraction of a Soviet State Security man and his family (although there's more to it than that), the latter a tale of a faked defection (although again...). Characters cross over from one novel to another – Mills and his fellow agents Crambo and Pavane appear to greater or lesser degrees in each story – and there are manhunts (the one in Crambo through the coastal swamps of Albania is particularly good; O'Brine's research paid off there) and double-crosses aplenty.
What's really extraordinary about the books, though – especially Mills and No Earth for Foxes – are the frequent flashbacks to World War II, and how those shape the narrative. These brief interludes sketch in the wartime backgrounds of some of the protagonists – Mills', but also the Nazis he fought in the war and hunted down and killed afterwards for their war crimes. There are gut-wrenching glimpses of the atrocities carried out by German SS troops. Clearly informed by O'Brine's own wartime experiences, these passage burn with a righteous fury and give the novels their character of unfinished business being dealt with. Take this passage from Mills:
The old and infirm had been locked indoors and flamethrowers put to their houses. Babies had been tossed, screaming, into cement-mixers. Women had been cut down by machine-guns as they fled to the chestnut groves.
Or this one from No Earth for Foxes:
He smashed her teeth with the barrel of the machine-pistol and thrust it into her mouth. He fired a burst of 9m bullets that exploded her skull. As she fell backwards, he blew down the barrel of the pistol, lay the weapon on the wall.
And those aren't even the worst of it. O'Brine's hatred of Nazis and, yes, Germans, is channelled through Mills, who in No Earth for Foxes refers to Germans "as dog-turds, fouling the footpath of mankind, filth to be swept away every so often". But it's also made explicit in the Author's Foreword at the start of that book. Noting that the wartime horrors he details in the novel – the horrendous SS 'rastrellamento' (which O'Brine translates as "a scoring, a raking over, a cleansing") in Italy in 1944 – are based in fact, he writes:
Today, all too few really care, one way or the other. It is so much blood under the bridge, forgive and forget, Germans and Austrians are a new generation now. Indeed they are, fathered and mothered by the Hitler Jugend and Bund-Deutsche-Madel of 1945, men and women whose memories are of defeat, of being uprooted from a domain they cherished, and still cherish, as a divine right... a viscid bile that seeks by way of reunification to rise again.
Fools and politicians (all too often one and the same) can believe that the seed of such malignancy withered and died in the flames of a Berlin bunker. Facts, alas, prove otherwise.
A bleak summation of the German character, for sure. But then, given that in an afterword to the novel, O'Brine writes of having seen in Italy in 1944 "a well choked with the bodies of babies and tiny children, most of them drowned or suffocated under the weight of those above", perhaps understandable.