The Great Spy Race by Adam Diment (1968)

It felt good to be alive – take a memo McAlpine – make sure you stay that way. (p.78)
The main attraction of being a layabout is watching the rest of the world rushed off its aching feet. (p.83)

This is Diment’s second novel featuring Philip McAlpine – a kind of lazy, dirty, dope-smoking twenty-something nephew to James Bond – who is back and reluctantly embroiled in another wildly improbable, comedy spy caper.

Only quotes can convey how incredibly up-to-date and achingly 1968 Diment is: the clothes, the slang, the mini-skirts, the birds, the Stones, Dylan, the cars, the groovy boutiques and dope-ridden parties.

London has always been crap

The miserable drizzle gathered itself into a frenzy of proper rain as I trudged up the short, concrete crazy-paving path to the little, jerry-built semi-detached. Why for God’s sake, I thought, hadn’t I worn a hat? Answer – I haven’t got a hat. (p.7)

Outside, the polar wind denied the sunny impression I had got through my office window. March in London with the mutant plane trees trying to push green buds through a coating of soot into the carbon monoxide. (p.14)

It was pissing with rain in London and we stood together, gazing at our meteorological heritage. (p.75)

Only bits of London are swinging, very small bits – nobody could delude themselves into thinking Barnet is swinging. (p.132)

Lots of English writers accurately describe how horrible, grey, rainy, bleak and shabby London is, but Diment doesn’t let it depress him. The subject is grim but the language is always alive and amused.

The sun was setting over the roof tops beyond Hammersmith and the windows of the juvenile skyscrapers along Euston Road were ablaze with reflected glory. A few black clouds were piling themselves up north of the city, which would probably mean rain later but it was, so far, a lovely spring evening. Even the other cretins blocking the roads with their rotting piles of low-carbon steel couldn’t spoil my mood. (p.28)


In both his novels virtually every character we meet – and certainly all our hero’s lovers – turn out to be secret agents, comically disillusioning our man. The ubiquity of spies in his fiction presumably is a kind of satire on the ubiquity of spies in films and fiction during the great Spy Boom of the mid to late 60s.

This espionage racket is spreading like mould, I thought. Soon I won’t have a friend left who’s not in the racket. Only last year I had been shocked out of my life when I discovered Lord Kilmarry, friend and titled ponce of this parish, worked for the same department as me. Now here was Timothy, cold-eyed as anything out of Le Carré, offering to flog me Kosygin’s telephone number or something. (p.18)

More smuggling – if they caught me at customs they’d think they had another Philby. (p.94)

‘Exactly what are you doing here and what do you do for a living?’ On occasions like this, according to the Stationary Office Manual for Spies, you are supposed to mutter that you work for the War Office, the Ministry of Defence or the frigging Atomic Energy Commission and your actual labours are of a classified nature. This is the polite, retiring British way of saying I’m a spy or counterspy so kindly mind your own sodding business or you’ll be pestered day and night by retired security men checking you for clearance, non-membership of the communist party, debt and perversion. But ever since spying got to be a fashionable job – like photography or interior decorating, this formula is guaranteed to whet your questioner’s interest even further. (p.117)

The plot

There’s a plot? Oh yes. Well, McAlpine is asked by his boss to fly to the tropical hideout of a retired superspy – Peters, ‘the last of the great spies’ – who lives with a fearsome assassin/butler and a half-naked dolly bird. He thinks it’s just a courier job, delivering money.

But once out on the terrace of Peters’ fabulous modern pad overlooking the bay etc, the wicked old man reveals he has set up a ‘spy race’ ie he has posted instructions to every espionage agency in the world to take part in his espionage Olympics. Upon paying a £20,000 deposit each of the contestants will receive a series of clues which will lead him (or her) to the ultimate prize: an entire breakdown of Red Chinese agents in the Far East (p.66). And McAlpine has just unknowingly handed over his deposit. He’s in the race!

It’s a great idea for a madcap chase movie in the spirit of the Beatles’ Help (1965) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) or even Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), and there’s enough tense confrontations, shootouts, flying, speedboating and car chases to gladden any boys’ heart.

The clues are addresses or numbers or locations, contained in bank vaults or known only to beautiful women who have to be seduced or which have to be blackmailed out of a gay boutique owner, which the spy (ie McAlpine) then has to interpret correctly.

But I’m not reading it for the story, I’m reading it for its attitude and devil-may-care style and the vivid depiction of London 1968, recognisably the London I got to know in the late 1970s – not the gentlemen’s clubs of Greene and le Carré or indeed Philby, but the dirty pubs and noisy bars and cheap boutiques and dodgy bistros and tiny flats and loud parties where swinging young people drink and smoke and posture.

‘Lend me your camera, man. I’m about to picture the biggest scene this century.’ I looped it off his neck and squeezed between two posturing lads, all bulging balls and manly deodorants, who blocked my way to the door. (p.86)

A dedicated follower of fashion

What people are wearing is very important to the narrator and one of the many markers or indicators situating the text historically and culturally.

‘By the way,’ he crooned, as I stood with my hands on the door button, ‘I just love your suit. But I don’t think the pink flowers on the tie quite go with your dolly little shirt.’ (p.25)

I dressed in bright green, high collared, military style suit with the regulation long-collared shirt and fertilised hot-house tie. Philip is wearing bright colours this spring. I clapped twenty quid into my American-style money clasp and ran the electric mower briskly over my virile stubble. (p.29)

He was hardly a man in the shadows. He wore a shirt covered in Arabic scrawl raised in gold thread on a green background. His hard lemon yellow trousers reminded me of ballet and feetwise he wore knee length, purple suede. (p.85)

Great party, man

And how refreshing, how funny, to have a party described, not a dinner part of the Le Carré or Deighton ilk, but a messy, noisy, dirty bash full of drunk randy young people.

The party was in a large studio flat over a boutique doing a strong line in old Wehrmacht uniforms. A tiny modelling girl, with long blonde hair and eyes like a bushbaby’s, led me into the room. Dark as the Western Front but not quiet, the cigarette fumes clotted the air like clouds of mustard gas while the very latest Stones’ LP gave a realistic sound track to the trench-warfare atmosphere. (p.30)


McAlpine is leerily lecherous about almost every woman he meets. What makes it so 1960s is the way every woman he meets seems to be just as lecherous back, generally wearing the smallest of mini-skirts, no bras or pants, see-though dresses, topless sunbathing etc. It was the 1960s. Everyone experienced this as a tremendous liberation, apparently. And the lechery is not hateful, but is always heading in the direction of carefree consensual sex. The other thriller writers I’ve been reading rarely even mention sex or, like Graham Greene, only mention explicit details to convey more incisively their corroding despair and guilt.

Diment is a reminder sex can actually be fun.

‘We asked Josephine, seen here in a compromising position with gay man about swinging London, Philip McAlpine, whether she enjoyed the “New Morality”,’ I said slipping slowly into her plump, warm clingingness and she burst out laughing in happy passion. I like my sex to be fun – you can have old Lawrence’s deadly earnest copulations. She had a neat little trick of digging her heels into the base of your spine. Our activities ended successfully and added to the scar-tissue around my verebrae. (p.38)

Miss Sergeant looked much the same as she always did without clothes. I patted her generous behind and shuffled the clinging little thing over to the bed. Plump thighs flashing and little tits bouncing as she hit the springs… Rubbing against her flesh was like taking a bath in a vat of peaches. (p.98)

Mrs O took off her shades and looked at me, like a farmer appraising an untried bull, with her brown, slightly slant eyes. It sent a small tremor right down to my testes. Supercharger in, lads, I thought rather faintly. (p.109)

So many ‘serious writers’ come a cropper trying to describe sex which has led to the establishment of the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. Diment flirts with disaster but, I think, avoids it because he is happy and funny.

‘Mmm, you smell gorgeous. Masculine.’ She ran one hand through my hair and her nails produced a visible tremor right down my jellified spine. This girl was every carnal dream incarnate and still, I guessed, too young to vote. I took off my jacket which felt heavy as a suit of armour and dropped it on the floor. She rolled me out of my clothes like a stripper removing her nylons and led me over to the bed, gently, by my very aroused and totally uncontrollable member. ‘Unzip me,’ she said and turned round. Her hair, black and falling to the swell of her behind, covered a zipper which ran clear from the neck of her dress to the hem. I pulled it open and she stepped out of the dress and turned to me. There hung around her an aura (almost) a halo, of langorous sexuality. We rolled over on the bed kissing and feeling. (p.124)

I quote at length becuase this is the dominant note of the book, not the guns or cars or planes (which are also feelingly described). I suppose for some readers the relentless lechery might get a bit trying, and the book gives a strong sense of the attitude of male entitlement which the contemporary Woman’s Liberation movement was reacting against. 1968 was, apparently, the year when the term ‘sexism’ was first used and the first major protest was staged outside the annual Miss World competition.

… and drugs

The protagonist enjoys getting stoned, no melodrama, no big fuss, no Victorian moralising about drugs. He rolls ’em, he smokes ’em.

I flicked a joint out of the pack, the first and only manufactured packet of reefers I’ve ever seen – all little pink flowers and hearts, very psychedelic. ‘Got a light?’ … She came back with a gold Zippo lighter and I turned on. It was very good stuff that. In no time at all I was orbit high with my skin feeling lovely as I could sense every inch of it under the warm sun. (p.73)

… and Len Deighton

Taking a leaf from Len Deighton’s Ipress thrillers, the novel opens with a photocopy of what purports to be a ‘top secret file’ on McAlpine. Also each part (there are three) and each chapter, has an epigraph, as in Deighton’s novels – the difference is that, whereas Deighton’s were erudite allusions to the plot (for example the use of crossword clues in the chapter headings of Horse Under Water), Diment’s have the same irreverent attitude as his sparky young narrator. Eg:

Play up, play up and play the game.

Love is better the second time around


The text is well lubricated with a steady flow of cheeky, spur-of-the-moment comparisons:

  • The stars were like calculating lights on a huge cosmic computer. (88)
  • The American… was standing on the pavement looking bewildered and angry and talking to a dark-haired bird who balanced the extreme scantiness of her skirt with silver bells on her wrists. Every time she made a gesture she tinkled like a Himalayan monastery. (92)
  • I bounced out of Nice in my hired 2CV, Michelins crying on the curves and the engine buzzing like a chainsaw to keep the tinty tin can moving at forty miles an hour. (97)
  • She has a way of walking, that girl, like two soft ball bearings bouncing on a foam trampoline. (115)
  • Outside the sun hit me like a stadium full of electric fires. (127)
  • ‘Thanks man.’ I walked out across the apron to where the DC8 stood, like a great golden pterodactyl in the setting sun. (134)
  • [The pilot landed beautifully], cutting back the engines at the last moment and bringing her down like a casual mallard showing off for Peter Scott. (135)
  • In half an hour it would be broad daylight and if they had infra-red sights I was already staked out like a toad on a dissecting board. (136)
  • ‘Nearly there, nearly there,’ I said, skipping rapidly and moving like Chichester in a typhoon.’ (138)
  • My breathing steadied down as I went over the crest and my legs, like melting crème caramel on the beach, felt fine… I dropped the suede jacket and went on across the little plateau – I was going through clothes like the raviest of Mods. (148)
  • I slammed her into second which made the gearbox cogs emit a sound like breaking bottles. (151)
  • I went cold as fish fingers and bent over the quadrant of levers… Sweat stood out on my forehead like frosting round a lager glass. (159)
  • Sitting placidly in the cage, gun ready to hand, was my old enemy Miss Pringe. My heart dropped like a brick off the Post Office Tower. (169)

Great fun, but you can tell it won’t last. Diment’s novels make Modesty Blaise look like War and Peace. The only real character in them is the solipsistic narrator, sex mad and stoned – a very persuasive creation, this, but absolutely everything else about it, all the other characters, let alone the improbable plots, are as flaky as old paint. It’s a shame but you can see why Diment’s four novels have just about vanished without trace.

Related links

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

1968 Pan paperback edition of The Great Spy Race

Adam Diment’s novels

  • The Dolly Dolly Spy (1967) Introducing Philip McAlpine, dope-smoking, randy and reluctant secret agent who is blackmailed into going undercover with a dodgy international charter air firm, then kidnapping a dangerous ex-Nazi.
  • The Great Spy Race (1968) A retired masterspy organises an international spy competition, where agents from every country’s Intelligence agencies have to follow a trail of clues across Europe and out to the Indian Ocean to win a complete breakdown of Red China’s spy network, with our man McAlpine reluctantly out in front all the way.
  • The Bang Bang Birds (1968) Our man is bullied (once again) into undertaking a mission in Sweden, to infiltrate an elite club-cum-brothel and retrieve top secret information which is being seduced out of its powerful clientele. Cue an acid-fueled orgy, a duel in a speedboat, a helicopter getaway, a high-speed car chase, lots of sex, and some rather sober and bitter killings.
  • Think, Inc (1971) Stoner spy Philip McAlpine is back in his last adventure, blackmailed into joining the ranks of an international crime syndicate based in Rome and working on three crime capers which turn out disastrously. In a new departure for the series, McAlpine falls in love, with a black Londoner named Chastity and dreams of escaping, from filthy horrible London, from his former life of promiscuity, and from his career as a spy and hit man – dreams which are horribly crushed in the novel’s final pages.
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