The Bang Bang Birds by Adam Diment (1968)

‘McAlpine,’ he grunted, ‘ why do you wear such godawful clothes. You look like a pacifist faggot beatnik hippie.’ (p.42)

The Bang Bang Birds – Great title, a really brilliant title.

The setting

This is Adam Diment’s third novel about his twenty-something hash-happy, dolly bird-hunting ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, and finds our layabout spook lounging in the high rise offices of ‘Hun Sec 3’  in New York, seconded to a US Intelligence department run by 5 foot of crackling Marine energy, General Eastfeller. It’s told in the first person so we get the full frontal flavour of McAlpine’s scandalously sexist, insubordinate, stroppy attitudes.

Eventually, near the church, I found the club where they said they would be waiting for me. It was called, very appropriately but with little creative thinking, Stoned…I walked down the narrow stairs, painted day-glo orange and decorated by crude paintings of Pop cult figures. Through the baffle door and the sound hit me like ten road-drills… The club was not very large, maybe forty feet long by thirty wide, but it made the black hole of Calcutta look like a rest room…Great banks of smoke hovered over the floor like smog, writhing in the beams of light, and the smell of foreign tobacco, incense, and sweat nearly covered the sweet penetrations of hash… The girl at the desk wore a dress which looked as though giant, ravenous moths had been at it. A nipple poked coyly through one of the holes and I found myself preoccupied as to whether she was wearing panties… (p.126)

That gives you a good sense of the setting, the attitude and the style of the book – and note, not a word about spying anywhere in sight. As with the previous two novels, The Bang Bang Birds gets off to a slow start while it establishes McAlpine’s dossy lifestyle and prolonged love-ins with his rich, dim sexpot girlfriend, and this is where his writing really comes alive, in describing the swinging world of 1968. Quite often the whole spying malarkey feels like it’s tacked on to a potentially much more interesting memoir of the ‘scene’.

The plot

McAlpine is blackmailed and bullied (once again) into another undercover mission: this time he is to adopt the cover of Yankee playboy Lexington Sullivan in order to join a set of exclusive international clubs, the Aviary organisation, an elite version of the Playboy clubs, well stocked with booze, stunning bunnies and other ‘leisure facilities’. Why? Because a number of US politicians and scientists had been intoxicated, seduced and persuaded to spill the beans about all kinds of security and military and scientific secrets.

McAlpine’s mission: to infiltrate the clubs, work his way to the top, locate the microfilm or whatever all these secrets are stored on – and steal it back.

The setting then moves to Stockholm, because that is where the head of the Aviary clubs is currently based. Cue luxurious descriptions of the club, its hallucinatory décor, the compliant courtesans and their astonishing costumes, the raddled old Establishment politicians, generals and bishops seen flirting with them, and the pale, powerful pander, Henri Larceaux, Comte de Vitconne, who runs the whole thing. (There are a couple of pages giving us Larceaux’s backstory and rise from small-time pimping to his current empire, complete with some violent descriptions, reminiscent of the Nazi’s disturbingly hateful backstory in The Dolly Dolly Spy.)

You won’t be surprised to learn that McAlpine secures the microfilm – not without lots of sex with his girlfriend or convenient courtesans, not without a few shootouts, and not – of course – without being stitched up by his camp boss, Rupert ‘the swine’ Quine.

There is an amazing description of a really massive orgy which McAlpine makes all the more surreal by spiking the drinks with acid. It’s when everyone is completely incapacitated that he breaks into Vitconne’s safe and steals the microfilm. He makes his escape via the rooftop helicopter (of course), lands on a lake near a swinging party of stoned hippies and promptly steals one of their motorbikes to get away.

The great spy boom

These books are really to be considered in the company of 1960s TV series like The Man From UNCLE (1964-68), the crude spoof Get Smart (1965-70) or comedy spy movies like Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967), or the four Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin (1966-69) and featuring (apparently) girls with names like Lovey Craves It. Diment slips into line with these far-out parodies of the whole spy genre, their preposterously rugged heroes and the brainless dolly birds who fall into their arms like sweeties.

Au courant

1968 is a long time ago and the book is made poignant because the narrator is very aware of the speed and fragility of fashion, of the hurtling 1960s, the ephemerality of the moment. He makes a point of noting what’s in the newspapers and on the radio:

One of the local radio stations gave me the news. Another big drive had started in Vietnam. De Gaulle was being even more stroppy than usual about US troops in his Europe. The British pound was still weakening on the currency markets. Tomorrow would be hot and dry. (p.39)

Behind the texts is the strange story of Diment’s complete disappearance in 1971, vanishing from the scene after cresting the heady waves of fashionability. The books, in their Austin Powers preposterousness, don’t in the slightest hint at any of this, but their psychedelic braggadochio is shadowed by this later fate…

Let’s play

In this, his third novel, Diment is confident to play a little with the conventions.

  • On a superficial level, almost all the chapter titles are bad puns which include the word spy eg Spygetti, Spynless, Trespying, Spyniccer, Aspydystra lolz
  • The book is divided into three parts and each one starts with a one page anecdote, from which the ironical author then draws a moral. The first two are detailed accounts of screw-ups during World War II, so I thought they might have a subtle bearing on the plot, but the third one was an inconsequential anecdote about a journalist and a hippy and it turns out none of them had any relevance.
  • The opening chapter mentions no names and the omniscient third-person narrator describes a spy being ambushed and beaten up in a doorway, and conveys empathy for his plight. Only in chapter 7, page 129, do we see the same incident, this time reported by the first-person narrator, McAlpine who, it turns out, is the one doing the beating up. Aha. Playing with multiple points of view and teaser text.

In one of the last and bizarrest scenes, McAlpine is recaptured by the baddie and forced to face the self-same Russian agent he beat up, in an amphitheatre for the viewing pleasure of the jaded Aviary club members. For a second time we enter his mind and see the world from his point of view, as the short fight erupts and, once again, McAlpine gets the better of him, this time permanently.

In the last few scenes a new bitter tone emerges. McAlpine escapes (yet again), to rendezvous with his hated boss, Quine, before they are chased by a car of baddies who start shooting at them and McAlpine extemporises with a hastily made molotov cocktail which successfully explodes on the pursuing car and forces it off the road and into a fatal explosion. But not before McAlpine has seen the driver is a rather useless American agent he met in New York, and whose wife had hosted a nice dinner party for him.

Suddenly he feels world-weary and embittered. For what turns out to have been a shabby double cross, McAlpine has murdered two men. All the wind goes out of  his sails and the novel ends on a surprisingly sour downbeat.

Fun, not fine, writing

Whatever his other shortcomings, the boy can write. Erratically and slapdash, but often memorably. A vivid paragraph in The Great Spy Race described the setting sun reflected off the high rise buildings of London, and somewhere else he described the buds on the trees emerging into the weak London sunshine and diesel atmosphere. This time he’s in New York.

It had stopped raining and the clouds were forming a traffic block shifting out over the Atlantic. The sun slanted down between the buildings turning the whole long street into a zebra crossing of light and shadow. (p.35)

Quite a few of his sentences feel a mite clumsy and don’t unfurl or resolve as you expect, though that’s part of his wonky stoner charm. You get the sense he knocked them out and never reread them. But there is a consistent stream of verbal felicities and pleasures, small spangles illuminating the mind.

The Swedes tend to fits of gloom as a nation followed by bursts of unbridled drinking and debauchery. Maybe it is all those thousands of square miles of silent pine forests, the brooding quiet of unnamed, brackish lakes, or just the depressing thought of having the Arctic Circle in your country. (p.77)

‘Brackish’

The porter in the hall had summoned a maid who took me to the flat. She was one of those spry, wafer-thin Swedish ladies around fifty. (p.78)

‘Spry’

Similes

… are the currants in the Christmas pudding of prose, little bursts of flavour:

  • His voice, when he spoke, was flat as a jaywalking hedgehog and had the same prickly quality. (86)
  • He produced another of his laughs like a bulldozer going through a plate glass window. (125)

Related links

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

Bantam Books edition of The Bang Bang Birds

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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