Think Inc. by Adam Diment (1971)

I squeezed the trigger and there was a derisive click as the firing pin fell on nothing. The fucking gun wasn’t even loaded. (p.29)

And so we bid a sad farewell to the stoned and sex-mad ‘spy’, Philip McAlpine, in this, the fourth and final novel by young Adam Diment, all public school and swinging London, who knocked out four fun short novels before disappearing from the scene and writing no more. This is his swan song, his farewell to writing, and it is surprisingly downbeat.

There are still plenty of throwaway lines (‘Ostia is the Southend of Rome.’ p.8) but the book feels significantly more controlled and coherent than its predecessors, less larky. It is the best plotted and written of the four, the most psychologically persuasive, and significantly darker and more bitter.

Dirty old London

Though set in 1968 (it is explicitly stated that the Jewish character, David, goes home to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 1948) the book was published in 1971 and it definitely feels like the long party which was the 1960s is over.

‘What’s London like now?’
‘Coming down off its high. The scene is shifting but nobody is sure where to.’ (p.43)

There is less London than before, no parties in bohemian flats or in dingy clubs off the King’s Road. In fact, when he does return briefly to London the text is packed with critical comments: how ugly it is; how the traffic is appalling; the unfriendliness of taxi drivers and people on buses, the quiet racism, the casual exploitation – ‘I was home and I hated it.’ (p.153)

At a loose end the night before a ‘job’ which has drawn him back to the capital, McAlpine picks up a prostitute in the luxury hotel he’s staying at and surprises himself – and the reader – by the depth of pity and compassion he feels for her. He buys her an expensive dinner and gets to know about her and her pitiful attempts to break into ‘modelling’ and suddenly realises he doesn’t want to sleep with her, at exactly the same time that the girl says she does want to sleep with him, but not be paid, because he’s actually treated her like a human being.

This is the first of the novels to have believable, and creditable, human emotions in it.

Plot

Having burned his bridges with British Intelligence after a job handling a defector goes badly wrong (defector gets shot, government money is lost) McAlpine hightails it to to Jamaica to lie low. When he finally and reluctantly returns to Blighty for an interview at a grouse shoot (!) with his hated boss Quine, the latter says a number of agencies and individuals are after his blood: fly you fool. So McAlpine packs a fake passport and flies to Rome.

Hardly has he settled into a routine of hanging round the beach at Ostia worrying where his next lira is coming from, than he is picked up by some armed goons and taken to see a gentle giant named Faustus, who runs a nice criminal syndicate, jokingly titled Think Inc. As in all the other novels, McAlpine is blackmailed into joining them; if he says no, Faustus will simply alert the British authorities and then a rat’s nest of baddies will come gunning for him.

So he is involved in three scams or ‘capers’, as Modesty Blaise would call them:

  • The faked kidnap On a light note, Think Inc. ‘kidnap’ a young gorgeous movie star, Solange Dore. In fact, she wants to be kidnapped and had contacted one of the gang to suggest it, because she wants to get out of her contract with a crappy Rome film studio. Solange flirts with the crew, creating dissension in the ranks, until giant Faustus drags her to his cabin for a good spanking; after which she behaves herself, and a few days later, after the ransom is paid, she is dropped at an isolated beach with a story of having been kept doped all the time, so she can’t identify her kidnappers.
  • Gun smuggling and catastophe The team are using a fine pleasure cruiser, and have set up base on a tiny Greek island where Faustus once did something heroic for the locals. The second scam is smuggling guns and here, in the middle of this short novel, things go wrong and the tone dramatically changes. The captain of the boat delivering the guns recognises the number two in Think Inc. against whom he obviously has a grudge, immediately pulls a gun and starts firing. Our boys fire back at which the crew of the other boat open up with a devastating M60 machine gun. Half of Think Inc. are killed in minutes. The badly wounded Faustus tells whimpering-with-fear McAlpine where to find a machine gun and grenades in the hold, so McA takes them, swims over to the enemy boat – which is still relatively close – and use the grenades and machine gun to kill everyone on board, before blowing it up. He swims back, then coaxes Think Inc.’s battered boat back to the Greek islands where the locals patch the survivors up.
  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part one McAlpine undergoes training to fly a 707 in a repressive Middle Eastern country. We have barely caught up with him before he is kidnapped, awaking in a concrete cellar where he is beaten to get him to reveal the details of the caper. He makes the baddies think he’s hurt worse than he is, then decks one, clouts the other and runs to the car outside. Here there is a short vicious fight with the main baddie, McAlpine using the car aerial to whip him round the face, then beating him to the ground before making his getaway, driving straight to the airport, and using his fake passport and a spare set of clothes to catch the next flight out.

Diment’s spy novels have always felt like an uneasy marriage between the convincing pothead, dolly bird-shagging narrator (based rather closely, one suspects, on the author) and a lot of rather implausible spy palavah tacked on to justify their existence. Most of the shooting has been like an episode of The Man from UNCLE where bullets ricochet around and only faceless baddies fall unlamented. Only at the very end of The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds was there the real killing of characters we’d got to know – which gave both books peculiarly sour endings – but even these were quickly forgotten compared to the generally light-hearted, dope smoking, sunbathing and girl-ogling antics which dominated the texts.

In Think Inc., by contrast, it is as if Diment is making a conscious effort to mimic the mainstream thrillers of, say, Alistair MacLean, with their focus on the knuckle-crunching reality of physical violence. The shootout between the boats is very detailed and gory. Him taking a beating in the concrete cellar, then the way he hits and whips his gaolers to escape, is similarly visceral.

  • Hijacking a Boeing 707 carrying a cargo of gold – part two McAlpine escapes the gang who’d kidnapped him and, as with the other books, the text races, hurtles full pace to the final scene which is McAlpine playing the part of a replacement second pilot on a 707 (hence the training). There’s a detailed account of how he and his faked credentials take in the real crew, how they go aboard, do all the checks, and fly to Rome. Land, refuel, eat dinner etc before taking off for the Middle East – and it is on this leg that he slips a mickey finn into the crew’s coffees. They all pass out and McAlpine is free to reroute the plane to an abandoned RAF airstrip in the empty desert of Muscat. In a nailbiting sequence he just about manages to land the monster of a plan on his own, on a poor quality strip. He undoes the door as Faustus and the remainder of Think Inc. drive over in a lorry to unload the gold but – at this moment of triumph, a powerful machine gun opens up, ripping holes in the side of the plane, in Faustus and the ground team. Presumably it is the same set of crims who kidnapped him during his training, though in the panic he doesn’t wait to find out, but ducks and weaves back to the cockpit, starts the still warm engines, wheels the plane around and takes off…

Sex and love and escape

In the previous novels McAlpine spends a lot of effort eyeing up every woman he meets, and sleeping with as many as he could get his hands on, in an atmosphere of unlimited randiness set against the miniskirts and hash haze of the Summer of Love.

This final novel is distinctly different and, although it still has enough casual sexist remarks to give any feminist apoplexy, Diment goes out of his way to have his hero actually fall in love with a woman he respects for the first time in his life. His inamorata is Charity, the only woman in Faustus’s gang, and black (itself very interesting) but the point is that the narrator shows a new sensitivity and depth in his feelings for her.

She smiled softly as she undid the towel round my waist with long cool fingers and ran her nails across my stomach. I shivered and hooked my fingers into the neck of her shift. She raised her arms and wriggled slightly as I pulled it off. Her breasts were hard and small as two apples with pointed, dark chocolate nipples. Her skin was very soft and taut and had a slight, sub-cutaneous luminosity. As though there were lights just under the surface. We kissed for a long time as I stared into the wells of her gentle brown eyes and we lay in a slowly shuddering tangle of touching limbs. She closed her thighs and squeezed, trapping me and I jerked like a startled horse. (p.44)

Well, I like it. Not the fact that it’s pornographic – but that it has a scattering of unexpected phrases and sweet insights.

Half way through the novel there is an unprecedented event: McAlpine spends a couple of pages (pp.85-86) thinking about his life and, specifically, wondering whether he has ever loved someone and whether he ever will. These thoughts are closely tied in to reflections on his career as a murderer: including the men on the boat, he has murdered some 10 people, even though he’s never been in a war and is still not 26 (p.103). He’s sick of it.

The love interest in the previous novels had existed solely to provide the hero with sex, and the girls’ main plot function was to turn out to have been agents all along, sleeping with him only to keep an eye on him – ie providing a not-very-convincing burst of fashionable cynicism or disillusion at the end of the story.

Here the feeling is completely different. McAlpine is given numerous moments of introspection in which he realises he is sick of the life of murder and crime, and wants out. After the trauma of the shipboard massacre, when he is finally safely back on the Greek island, he falls into Chastity’s arms and weeps and weeps. When he awakes he realises he is genuinely in love for the first time in his life.

Already he had had the novel experience of – when Solange offered herself to him – turning her down, more worried about its impact on his relationship with Chastity than the offer of quick sex. Changed. In a previous novel, when a girlfriend had revealed she was pregnant, all he could think was ‘Dozy cow! Why didn’t she take her pill?’ just like the thoughtless philanderer Alfie in the film of the same name.

But now, when Chastity reveals that she is pregnant, McAlpine is genuinely overjoyed and kisses her and kisses her stomach. They have both been involved in abortions and, Diment laments, his generation has been brought up to expect instant gratification, there is rarely time to form a bond with a lover of the opposite sex before the sex has become familiar and boring and you’re on to the next partner.

Now he wants to escape all of that: he realises he hates cold, ugly, polluted London with its rude racist population; he wants to give up a life of spying, crime and killing and go live somewhere peaceful with his love; and he wants to give up the shallow promiscuity that dominated the earlier novels and commit himself to marrying Chastity and becoming a husband and father. It is genuinely touching when McAlpine says he wants the baby to be a little girl because he’s always liked them.

Which makes it all the more heart-rending when, in the final scene, on the final page, as the ambushers open up with the heavy machine gun, scything down Faustus and the others beside the plane, and Chastity leaps screaming with fear, reaching up to McAlpine to pull her inside the plane, at the last moment she is hit by a volley of large-calibre bullets and is already bleeding heavily and unconscious when McAlpine drags her inside, then has to duck back to the cockpit and make an emergency take-off.

The novel – and McAlpine’s fictional existence – ends on a very bitter note as, once in the air, he sets the plane on autopilot, heaves himself up out of the pilot’s seat, and steels himself to go back into the cabin to confront the fact that the woman who taught him how to love, and who represented all his hopes of escape and a new life, is probably bleeding to death and might already be dead.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

Pan paperback edition of Think Inc.

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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