Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (1970)

One of the most dazzling, mind-boggling and genuinely gripping novels I’ve ever read.

The story is set in the future, after the customary nuclear war which happens in so many futurestories. The twist on this one is that, after the radiation died down, the world’s powers agreed under something referred to as ‘the Covenant’ to put Sweden in charge, handing over all nuclear devices to a country big enough to manage them and keep the peace, but small enough not to have any global ambitions of her own.

Thus liberated from war, humanity – again, as in so many of these optimistic futurestories from the 1950s and 60s – has focused its efforts on space exploration using the handy new ‘ion drive’ which has been discovered, along with something called ‘Bussard engines’, helped along by elaborate ‘scoopfield webs’ to create ‘magnetohydrodynamic fields’.

Reaction mass entered the fire chamber. Thermonuclear generators energised the furious electric arcs that stripped those atoms down to ions; the magnetic fields that separated positive and negative particles; the forces that focused them into beams; the pulses that lashed them to ever higher velocities as they sped down the rings of the thrust tubes, until they emerged scarcely less fast than light itself.

The idea is that the webs are extended ‘nets’ a kilometre or so wide, which drag in all the hydrogen atoms which exist in low density in space, charging and channeling them towards the ‘drive’ which strips them to ions and thrusts them fiercely out the back of the ship – hence driving it forward.

Several voyages of exploration have already been undertaken to the nearest star systems in space ships which use these drives to travel near the speed of light, and fast-moving ‘probes’ have been sent to all the nearest star systems.

One of these probes reached the star system Centauri and now, acting on its information, a large spaceship, the Leonora Christine, is taking off on a journey to see if the third planet orbiting round Centauri really is habitable, as the probe suggests, and could be settled by ‘man’.

Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that as any object approaches the speed of light, its experience of time slows down. The plan is for the Leonora Christine to accelerate for a couple of years towards near light speed, travel at that speed for a year, then slow down for a couple of years.

Five years there, whereupon they will either a) stay if the planet is habitable b) return, if it is not. Due to this time dilation effect those on the expedition will only age twelve years or so, while 43 or more years will pass back on earth (p.49).

(Time dilation is a key feature of Joe Haldeman’s novel, The Forever War, in which the protagonist keeps returning from tours of duty off-world to discover major changes in terrestrial society have taken place in his absence: it is, therefore, a form of one-way time travel.)

The Leonora Christine carries no fewer than fifty passengers, a cross-section of scientists, engineers, biologists and so on. Unlike any other spaceship I’ve read of it is large enough to house a gym, a theatre, a canteen and a swimming pool!

Two strands

Tau Zero is made up of two very different types of discourse. It is (apparently) a classic of ‘hard’ sci fi because not three pages go by without Anderson explaining in daunting technical detail the process workings of the ion drive, or the scoopnets, explaining the ratio of hydrogen atoms in space, or how the theory of relativity works, and so on. Not only are there sizeable chunks of uncompromising scientific information every few pages, but understanding them is key to the plot and narrative.

Starlike burned the hydrogen fusion, aft of the Bussard module that focused the electromagnetism which contained it. A titanic gas-laser effect aimed photons themselves in a beam whose reaction pushed the ship forward – and which would have vaporised any solid body it struck. The process was not 100 percent efficient. But most of the stray energy went to ionise the hydrogen which escaped nuclear combustion. These protons and electrons, together with the fusion products, were also hurled backward by the force fields, a gale of plasma adding its own increment of momentum. (p.40)

But at the same time, or regularly interspersed with the tech passages, are the passages describing the ‘human interest’ side of the journey, which is full of clichés and stereotypes, a kind of Peyton Place in space. To be more specific, the book was first published in instalments in 1967 and it has a very 1960s mindset. Anderson projects idealistic 1960s talk about ‘free love’ into a future in which adults have no moral qualms about ‘sleeping around’.

Before they leave, the novel opens with a pair of characters in a garden in Stockholm walking and having dinner and then the woman, Ingrid Lindgren, proposes to the man, Charles Reymont, that they become a couple. During all the adventures that follow, there is a continual exchanging of partners among the 25 men and 25 women on board, with little passages set aside for flirtations and guytalk about the girls or womentalk about the boys.

When a partnership ends one of the couple moves out, the other moves in with a room-mate of the same sex for a period, or immediately moves in with their new partner. It’s like wife-swapping in space. In a key moment of the plot, the ship’s resident astronomer, a short ugly anti-social and smelly man, becomes so depressed that he can no longer function. At which point Ingrid tactfully gets rid of the concerned captain and officers and… sleeps with him. So sex is deployed ‘tactically’ as a form of therapy.


He admired the sight of her. Unclad, she could never be called boyish. The curves of her breasts and flank were subtler than ordinary, but they were integral with the rest of her – not stuccoed on, as with too many women – and when she moved, they flowed. So did the light along her skin which had the hue of the hills around San Francisco Bay in their summer, and the light in her hair, which had the smell of every summer day that ever was on earth. (p.62)


From a feminist perspective, it is striking how the 25 women aboard the ship are a) all scientists and experts in their fields b) are not passive sex objects, but very active in deciding who they want to partner with and why. One of the two strong characters in the narrative is a woman, Ingred Lindgren.


  • Captain Lars Telander
  • Ingrid Lindgren, steely disciplined first officer
  • Charles Reymont, takes over command when the ship hits crisis
  • Boris Fedoroff, Chief Engineer
  • Norbert Williams, American chemist
  • Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, Planetologist
  • Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist
  • Jane Sadler, Canadian bio-technician
  • Machinist Johann Freiwald
  • Astronomer Elof Nilsson
  • Navigation Officer, Auguste Boudreau
  • Biosystems Chief Pereira
  • Margarita Jimenes
  • Iwamoto Tetsuo
  • Hussein Sadek
  • Yeshu ben-Zvi
  • Mohandas Chidambaran
  • Phra Takh
  • Kato M’Botu

Thus the ship’s progress proceeds smoothly, while the crew discuss decorating the canteen and common rooms, paint murals and have numerous affairs. Five years is a long time to pass in a confined ship. And meanwhile the effects of travelling ever closer to light speed create unusual effects and, to be honest, I was wondering what all the fuss was about this book.

When Leonora Christine attained a substantial fraction of light speed, its optical effects became clear to the unaided sight. Her velocity and that of the rays from a star added vectorially; the result was aberration. Except for whatever lay dead aft or ahead, the apparent position changed. Constellations grew lopsided, grew grotesque, and melted, as their members crawled across the dark. More and more, the stars thinned out behind the ship and crowded before her. (p.45)


Anderson gives us a couple of pages introducing the tau equation. This defines the ‘interdependence of space, time, matter, and energy’, If v is the velocity of the spaceship, and c the velocity of light, then tau equals the square root of 1 minus v² divided by c². In other words the closer the ship’s velocity, v, gets to the speed of light, c (186,00 miles per second), then v² divided by c² gets closer and closer to 1; therefore 1 minus something which is getting closer to 1 gets closer and closer to 0; and the square root of that number similarly approaches closer and closer to zero.

Or to put it another way, the closer tau gets to zero the faster the ship is flying, the greater its mass, and the slower the people inside it experience time, relative to the rest of the ‘static’ universe.

The plot kicks in

So the narrative trundles amiably along for the first 60 or so pages, interspersing passages of dauntingly technical exposition with the petty jealousies, love affairs and squabbles of the human characters, until…

The ship passes through an unanticipated gas cloud, just solid enough to possibly destroy her, at the very least do damage – due to the enormous speed she’s now flying at which effects her mass.

Captain Telander listens to his experts feverishly calculating what impact will mean but ultimately they have to batten down the hatches, make themselves secure and hope for the best, impact happening on page 75 of this 190-page long book.

In the event the ship survives but the technicians quickly discover that impact has knocked out the decelerating engines. Now, much worse, the technicians explain to the captain and the lead officers, First Officer Lindgren and the man responsible for crew discipline, Reymont, the terrible catch-22 they’re stuck in.

In order to investigate what’s happened to the decellerator engines, the technicians would have to go to the rear of the ship and investigate manually. Unfortunately, they would be vaporised in nano-seconds by the super-powerful ion drive if they got anywhere near it. Therefore, no-one can investigate what’s wrong with the decelerator engine until the accelerator engine is turned off.

But here’s the catch: the ship is travelling so close to the speed of light that, if they turned the accelerator engines off, the crew would all be killed in moments. Why? Because the ship is constantly being bombarded by hydrogen atoms found in small amounts throughout space. At the moment the accelerator engines and scoopfield webs are directing these atoms away from the ship and down into the ion drive. The ion drive protects the ship. The moment it is turned off, these hydrogen atoms will suddenly be bombarding the ship’s hull and, because of the speed it is going at, the effect will be to split the hydrogen atoms releasing gamma rays. The gamma rays will penetrate the hull and fry all the humans inside in moments.

Thus they cannot stop. They are doomed to continue accelerating forever or until they all die.

It is at this point that the way Anderson has introduced us to quite a few named characters, and shown them bickering, explaining abstruse theory, getting drunk and getting laid begins to show its benefits. Because the rest of the novel consists of a series of revelations about the logical implications of their plight and, if these were just explained in tech speak they would be pretty flat and dull: the drama, the grip of the novel derives from the way the matrix of characters he’s developed respond to each new revelation: getting drunk, feeling suicidal, determined to tough it out, relationships fall apart, new relationships are formed. In and of themselves these human interest passages are hardly Tolstoy, but they are vital for the novel’s success because they dramatise each new twist in the story and, as the characters discuss the implications, the time spent reading their dialogue and thoughts helps the reader, also, to process and assimilate the story’s mind-blowing logic.

A series of unfortunate incidents

Basically what happens is there is a series of four or five further revelations which confirm the astronauts in their plight, but expand it beyond their, or our, wildest imaginings.

At first the captain and engineer come up with a plan of sorts. They know, or suspect, that between galaxies the density of hydrogen atoms in the ether falls off. If they can motor beyond our galaxy they can find a place where the hydrogen density of space is so minute that they can afford to turn off the ion drive and repair the decelerator.

This is discussed in detail, with dialogue working through both the technical aspects and also the emotional consequences. Many of the crew had anticipated returning to earth to be reunited with at least some members of their family. Now that has gone for good. As has the original plan of exploring an earth-style planet.

And so we are given some mind-blowing descriptions of the ship deliberately accelerating in order to pass right through the galaxy and beyond. But unfortunately, the scientists then discover that the space between galaxies is not thin enough to protect them. Also there is another catch-22. In order to travel out of the galaxy they have had to increase speed. But now they are flying everso close to the speed of light, the risk posed by turning off the ion drive and exposing themselves to the stray hydrogen atoms in space has become greater. The faster they go in order to find space thin enough to stop in, the thinner that space has to become.

The astronomers now come to the conclusion that space is still to full of hydrogen atoms in the sectors which contain clusters of galaxies. They decide to increase the ship’s velocity even more in order not just to leave our galaxy, but to get clear of our entire family of galaxies. This they calculate, will take another year or so at present velocities.

Thus it is that the book moves forward by presenting a new problem, the scientists suggest a solution which involves travelling faster and further, the crew is told and slowly gets used to the idea, as do we, via various conversations and attitudes and emotional responses. But when that goal is attained, it turns out there is another problem, and so the tension and the narrative drive of the book is relentlessly ratcheted up.

And of course, the further they travel and the closer to light speed, the more the tau effect predicts that time slows down for them, or, to put it another way, time speeds up for the rest of the universe. Early on in the post-disaster section, the crew assemble to celebrate the fact that a hundred years have passed back on earth: everyone they knew is dead. It is a sombre assembly with heavy drinking, casual sex, melancholy thoughts.

But by the time we get to the bit where they have flown clear of the galaxy only to be disappointed to find that inter-galactic space is too full of hydrogen for them to stop, by this stage they realise that thousands of years have passed back on earth.

By the time they fly free of the entire cluster of galaxies, they know that tens of thousands of years have passed. And eventually, as their tau approaches closer and closer to zero, they realise that millions of years have passed (one million is passed n page 136).

For when they do eventually fly beyond our entire family of galaxies they encounter another problem which is discovering that empty space is now too dispersed to allow them to decelerate. Even if they turn off the ion drive and fix the decelerating engine, there isn’t enough matter in truly empty space for the engine to latch on to and use as fuel to slow them (p.147).

Thus they decide to continue onwards, letting their acceleration, and mass, increase until they find a part of space with just the right conditions.

The accessible mass of the whole galactic clan that was her goal proved inadequate to brake her velocity. Therefore she did not try. Instead, she used what she swallowed to drive forward all the faster. She traversed the domain of this second clan – with no attempt at manual control, simply spearing through a number of its member galaxies – in two days. On the far side, again into hollow space, she fell free. The stretch to the next attainable clan was on the order of another hundred million light-years. She made the passage in about a week. (p.151)

On they fly at incomprehensible speed, while various human interest stories unfurl between the ship’s crew, until they (and the reader) reach the blasé condition of feeling the ship’s hull rattle and hum for a few moments and a character will say, ‘There goes another galaxy’.

Now if this was a J.G. Ballard novel, they’d all have gone mad and started eating each other by now. Anderson’s take on human psychology is much more bland and optimistic. Some of the crew get a bit depressed, but nothing some casual sex, or a project to redecorate the canteen can’t fix.

The main ‘human’ part of the narrative describes the way the ship’s ‘constable’, Charles Reymont who we met back on the opening pages, takes effective control from the captain. Initially this is basic psychology, Charles realising it will help discipline best if the captain becomes an aloof figure beyond criticism or reproach while he, Charles, imposes discipline, structure and purpose – allotting the crew tasks and missions to perform to maintain their morale, and letting them hate or resent him for it if they will. But over time the captain really does lose the ability to decide anything and Charles becomes the ship’s dictator. This is complicated by the fact that he discovers the woman who had suggested they become a couple, Ingrid, in someone else’s bed though she swears she was only doing it for therapeutic purposes. They split up and Charles pairs off with the Chinese planetologist, Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, leading to a number of sexy descriptions of her naked body. But Ingrid continues to hold a torch for him and he for her. That’s the spine of the ‘human interest’ part of the novel.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed and indeed, in the last 40 pages or so a character lets slips that it must be over a billion years since they left earth.

it’s at this stage that the book becomes truly visionary. For, after some delay and conferring with colleagues, the astronomer comes to the captain and Reymont and Lindgren to announce that… the universe itself is changing. The galaxies they are flying through no longer contain fit young stars. Increasingly what they’re seeing through their astronomical instruments (not the naked eye) is that the galaxies are made of low intensity red dwarfs.

The universe is running down.

So many billion years have passed – one character estimates one hundred billion years (p.170) that they have travelled far into ‘the future’ and are witnessing the end of the universe. The stars are going out and the actual space of the universe is contracting.

Anderson’s vision is based on the theory that the universe began in a big bang, has and will expand for billions of years but will eventually reach a stage where the initial blast of energy from the bang is so dispersed that it is countered by the cumulative gravity of all the matter in the universe – which will stop it expanding and make it slowly and then with ever-increasing speed, hurtle towards a ‘Big Crunch’ when all the matter in the universe returns to the primal singularity.

Face with this haunting, terrifying fact, the scientists again make calculations and act on a hunch. They guess that the singularity won’t actually become a minute particle but will be shrouded in ‘en enormous hydrogen envelope’ (p.175), the simplest chemical, and calculate that the ship will be flying so fast that it will survive the Big Crunch and live on to witness the creation of the next universe.

‘The outer part of that envelope may not be too hot or radiant or dense for us. Space will be small enough, though, that we can circle around and around the monobloc as a kind of satellite. When it blows up and space starts to expand again, we’ll spiral out ourselves.’ (Reymont, p.175)

And this is what happens. Anderson gives a mind bogging description of the ship reaching such an infinitesimal value of tau that it flies right through the Big Crunch and out into the new universe which explodes outwards (pp.181-3).

Indeed it is travelling so fast, and time outside is moving so fast, that they can chose how many billions of years into the history of the new universe they want to stop (p.184). A quick calculation suggests that it took about 10 billion years for a plenty like earth to come into being and establish the conditions for life to evolve, and so they calculate their deceleration to take place that far into the future of this new universe.


And this is what they do, and the last few pages cut to Reymont and Ingrid, the lovers we met in the opening pages falling dreamily in love, now lying under a tree on a planet which has an earth-like atmosphere but blue vegetation, three moons and all sorts of weird fauna and flora, as they plan their lives together (pp.188-190)

We left plausibility behind a long time ago. Instead the book turns into an absolutely gripping rollercoaster of a ride, one of the most genuinely mind-blowing and gripping stories I’ve ever read. What a trip!


the foregoing summary may give the impression the story is told in language as clear as an instruction manual, but this would be wrong.

Putting the plot to one side, one of the most striking features of Tau Zero is its prose style – an odd and ungainly variant of standard English which makes you pause on every page.

Leonora Christine was nearing the third year of her journey, or the tenth year as the stars counted time, when grief came upon her. (p.63)

Anderson was born in America (in 1926) but his mother took him as a boy to live in Denmark where she’d originally come from, until the outbreak of war forced them to return. For this or the general fact of growing up in an immigrant Scandinavian family, Anderson’s English is oddly stilted and phrased. It often sounds like it’s been translated from a Norse saga.

She gave him cheerful greeting as he entered. (p.52)

They would live out their lives, and belike their children and grandchildren too (p.53)

He stood moveless (p.58)

Nor would he have stopped to dress, had he been abed. (p.64)

Telander must perforce smile a bit as he went out the door. (p.69)

Fedoroff spoke. His words fell contemptuous. (p.80)

He clapped the navigator’s back in friendly wise. (p.159)

She rested elbow on head, forehead on hand. (p.161)

Every pages has sentences containing odd kinks away from natural English. As a small example it’s typified by the way Anderson refers throughout the story not to the ship’s ‘crew’, but to its folk. Another consistent quirk is the way people don’t experience emotions or psychological states, these, in the form of abstract nouns, come over them.

Soberness had come upon her. (p.100)

Dismay sprang forth on Williams. (p.105)

Anger still upbore the biologist. (p.106)

Dismay shivered in her. (p.116)

Hardness fell from him. (p.125)

Weight grabbed at Reymont. (.167)

Sometimes he achieves a kind of incongruous poetry by accident.

Footsteps thudded in the mumble of energies. (p.70)

Ingrid Lindgren regarded him for a time that shivered. (p.71)

The ship jeered at him in her tone of distant lightnings. (p.84)

Sometimes it makes the already challenging technical explanations just that little bit more impenetrable.

Then again, maybe this slightly alien English helps to create a sense of mild dislocation which is not inappropriate for a science fiction story, especially one which takes us right to the edge of the universe and then beyond!

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1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero, while the daughter of a Japanese ganster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

I, Lucifer by Peter O’Donnell (1967)

There was no hint of doubt on the faces of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin. They were absorbed and speculative. Tarrant knew he could not have called them off the scent now anyway. The caper was real, no matter how baffling its operation, and they were fascinated by it. (p.102)

Having read some short, punchy spy novels recently makes me realise how these Modesty Blaise novels, by contrast, are rather leisurely in style and pacing – this one is 286 pages long. The time is spent in a slow build-up to the eventual plot or ‘caper’, dwelling at length on scenes which establish character rather than forwarding the story. This explains why, although it is of course a novelisation of a comic strip, I feel I’ve got to know and like the characters, especially the old world courtesy of Modesty’s ‘control’ at British Intelligence, the elderly, fatherly and eminently polite Sir Gerald Tarrant.


As with Sabre-Tooth, the novel opens by pitching us straight into the enemy camp. We are introduced to the bizarre menagerie of Dr Bowker the discredited psychiatrist, wizened old Seff the marionette-maker, his creepy wife Regina, Mr Wish the ex-Mafia killer, and Lucifer.


‘Lucifer’ is a young man with remarkable psychic skills: he can predict when people are going to die. Seff has latched onto this and turned it into a scam: they give Lucifer the profiles of a number of VIPs and he selects those he knows will die of natural causes. Then they add in half a dozen figures Lucifer hasn’t predicted; these are the targets for extortion. They write to both groups, warning them that they will die if they don’t pay the money demanded (around £60,000), and include in the letter the list of everyone who’s been threatened.

Invariably, most don’t pay, but keep an eye on everyone mentioned in the letter and are terrified to see a large number of them dying in the three months or so after receiving the letter. The survivors quickly cough up. Thus, over the previous year or so, an increasing number of high-profile government targets, in the UK and abroad, have been paying large sums to Seff and his colleagues.

It was the psychiatrist Dr Bowker who first identified ‘Lucifer’ as a man with very special and genuine psychic powers, but why the name? Because, after suffering a catastrophic breakdown brought on by a failed love affair, ‘Lucifer’ developed the psychotic delusion that he is in fact the Prince of Darkness and those around him are his slaves and that periodically he descends into Hades to glory in his Kingdom.
The narrative gives us sporadic descriptions of these terrifying delusions seen from Lucifer’s point of view, as he flies over the Lake of Fire watching the Damned in their torments, another example of O’Donnell’s highly enjoyable and vivid way with words.

Seff, Bowker and Regina and Mr Wish all encourage ‘Lucifer’ in his delusions because his paranormal power of ‘precognition’ – ie his money-making talent – seems to be somehow linked to them, although even Bowker can’t explain why.

It is, in other words, a straightforward criminal scam – extortion, or demanding money with menaces – but with a bizarre and way-out twist, well suited to a psychedelic episode of The Avengers or… a Modesty Blaise novel.

Saving Vaubois

Into this strange scenario come Modesty and Willie, at first asked to help by Sir Gerald Tarrant, their contact in British Intelligence, who fills them in on the story of the threatening letters and the mysterious deaths. Then they become directly involved in saving the life of their friend, head of France’s Deuxième Bureau, René Vaubois, after he receives one of the gang’s letters. Because, it turns out, Lucifer isn’t always correct: about twenty percent of the people Lucifer predicts will die, don’t, and so Seff has to send in assassins to kill them anyway, to keep up the fear on the others. This is what happens to Vaubois and we see Modesty and Willie save him from these assassins twice in one action-packed night.

Steve Collier

There is a whole sub-plot which consists of Modesty sleeping with a guy named Steve Collier, who claims to be a metallurgist. He witnesses her and Willie sorting out the assassins and asks Modesty, not unreasonably, ‘Who the hell are you?’ But now that the ‘caper’ is in full swing, she is a woman on a mission – they have one last night of passion before she bids him adieu and disappears from his life… (Is it empowering that it is a woman taking the lead in initiating and ending affairs to suit herself?)


After saving Vaubois’s life, M and W use their former underworld contacts to track down the gang to the house they’re renting in Denmark, and Modesty goes in to investigate… but as she walks in, pretending to be the landlord’s agent, who should walk into the hallway at just the wrong moment? Steve Collier! Turns out he’s not a metallurgist at all, he is expert in precognition! Bowker and Seff had begun to worry that Lucifer’s powers are failing so they had invited world-famous psychologist Dr Collier as an expert in the field to fly out to their house and interview and assess Lucifer.

Collier blurts out ‘Modesty!’, blowing her cover in front of the gang. She manages to take out Mr Wish but then has a gripping unarmed fight with Lucifer who beats her because he effortlessly predicts what her next move will be and anticipates it.

Cyanide shackles

Modesty and Collier are removed at gunpoint to a yacht, then by charter plane, then another plane to a remote island on the Philippines. Here Seff demonstrates what a callous baddie he is by getting Bowker to make incisions in their shoulders and inserting tiny radio-controlled cyanide capsules, which he can detonate from a hand-held device if either of them steps out of line. Creepy Regina has a spare. No way out!

It is here – while an anxious Willie and Sir Gerald are trying to track her down – that Modesty has to come up with a plan of escape. Part of which involves her seducing … Lucifer, which she successfully does, thus achieving a sort of security in the house of crooks (and giving rise to some odd scenes and droll dialogue – ‘Don’t wait for me, Lucifer, I just want to fix my hair.’)

John Dall

Meanwhile, Sir G reports that the latest recipient of a Lucifer Letter is none other than John Dall, the brash American multi-millionaire we met in the last adventure, Sabre-Tooth. They let him in on the whole caper, and inform him that the baddies have got Modesty. He agrees to help out with his own private battleship and army!

It’s Willie who does the clever stuff, deducing the gang’s location from the nature of the sea-borne pick-ups and the latest drop zone specified in the letters. He has spent a long time trying to figure out the peculiar method by which the buoys containing the ransoms are collected and now comes to the far-out conclusion that they are collected by a pair of trained dolphins with a belt stretched between them; the dolphins swim up to the floating buoy, the belt tugs it free of its moorings, and then the dolphins return to the dolphin pen and their trainer towing the treasure behind them. And so John Dall’s rescue ship anchors off the tiny Philippines island where we know the baddies are based.

In commando kit with blacked-up face, Willie sails ashore in a small dinghy to evade the radar. He sneaks up to the house, finds Modesty’s room, breaks in, removes the cycanide from her shoulder and patches her up. But then she insists on staying so she can help Steve and even Lucifer who, after all, is a seriously sick young man.

Willie and she argue about it and Modesty wins and Willie claimbs back out the window and sneaks off to cover. Unfortunately, as he slips his bag over a mound, it sets off an old Japanese mine which blows him up, concussing him, and he wakes up a prisoner in the house, tied up and surrounded by the villainous local pirates Seff has hired to guard them.

Clifftop duel

Seff concocts the sadistic idea of making Modesty and Willie fight a duel – if she refuses he’ll detonate the cyanide or just have them both shot. So the scene shifts to a dramatic cliff-top location where they choose their weapons, Modesty a revolver, Willie his knives. As Seff counts the seconds out, they draw and Modesty shoots Willie in the guts. Blood spurts from his guts and his last words are a curse on her as he plummets to the rocks below and then is washed out to sea by the tide…

… Whereupon he starts swimming for the dinghy he’s stashed a few miles along the shore. It was all a set up between him and Modesty, using their trusted secret signals, and Willie – Mr Knife – deliberately cut himself as he threw his knife wide, so that blood spurted from the cut as if from a bullet wound.

From the dinghy Willie sends a radio signal to Dall’s American forces waiting offshore to come in at dawn. And then Willie sets off back to the house to rescue Modesty and Steve, breaking in, giving Modesty time to remove Steve’s cyanide device and dope Lucifer, and all four of them retreat to the rooftop of this old colonial mansion, and commence the long shootout with the gang and also the 30 or so pirates they’ve recruited, which constitutes the climax of the story.

After hours of shooting have deteriorated into a standoff, Seff and Mr Wish decide to set the whole house on fire, which makes the rooftop no longer defendable. So our heroes toss gas grenades over the parapets and leg it down a rope ladder.

Seff has already killed Bowker in familiar mad psycho fashion. As the fire gets going he sends Regina down to the dolphin pen to (rather horribly) kill their nice native trainer. But in doing so, she tangles her foot in some rope and, at the sound of the shots, the terrified dolphins swim off across their pen and drag the screaming Regina into the water after them where she drowns.

Confident that Modesty and Willie are being burned to a crisp on the roof top, Seff and Mr Wish arrive at the dolphin pen looking for Regina only for there to be a quick draw of guns between Modesty and Mr Wish and – well, guess who wins — at which point the dazed and confused Lucifer emerges from the shadows, strides over to wizened old Seff, picks him up and dashes him to pieces on the rocks below.

The surviving pirates are making their way to their ships in a panic, and it is not long before Dall’s Americans arrive. Willie and Steve join them by the dolphin pen and the last scene in the novel is Willie struggling to undo the belt tying the two dolphins, before liberating them to swim free out to the ocean. Caper over.


Half way between camp and kitsch and silly and intriguing, pulp thrillers often feature some grotesque angle and this one sports several humdingers:

  • Lucifer the whole concept of a young man whose mental breakdown is so drastic that he thinks he’s the Devil
  • ESP the once-fashionable notion of clairvoyance and ‘advanced precognition’
  • the dolphins turns out the money the blackmailees cough up has to be packed into buoys. These are to be found in crates at warehouses where the blackmailees are told to collect them. Then they are instructed to fill them with the loot (diamonds, gold) before sailing to specified locations and dropping them overboard. To be, as Willie the clever engineer works out, collected by a pair of trained dolphins, named Belial and Pluto!


O’Donnell always describes the furnishings and fixtures of the many rooms the characters find themselves in and is also very precise about what they’re wearing.

Modesty Blaise lay on her back, a hand shielding her eyes. She wore a pale blue silk summer dress, sleeveless, and flat shoes. A blue suede handbag stood beside her. (p.81)

The bald man in the white coat was talking with quiet enthusiasm to an audience of two, a dark and very striking girl in a wine-coloured cashmere dress with three-quarter-length sleeves, and a big fair man with a cockney accent. (p.102)

She wore a cream linen suit with camel shoes and handbag. Her only jewellery was a pair of deep amethyst drop earrings. (p.133)

Modesty lay on a towelling-covered mattress of foam rubber, a beachbag beside her. She wore a black one-piece swimsuit. Her hair was loose and clipped back at the nape of the neck. Willie dropped down beside her. He wore tailored slacks and an expensive shirt with a cravat at the throat. (p.145)

She wore dark slacks and a cream tunic with a round collar. The tunic was loose and fell to a few inches below her hips. Beneath it, belted higher than usual, she wore the Colt .32. (p.146)

In the darkness, John Dall and Willie Garvin stood by the rail. Dall wore a navy blue shirt and wrinkled slacks, with a peaked cap pushed back on his head. Willie Garvin was in black. (p.192)

The easy confidence with which O’Donnell describes the clothes and with which the two good-looking lead characters wear them, reinforces the swinging London vibe, beautiful people wearing beautifully-made, stylishly casual clothes – Jean Shrimpton and Terence Stamp.

Related links

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

US paperback cover of I, Lucifer

Modesty Blaise novels

  • Modesty Blaise (1965) Introducing Modesty and sidekick Willie Garvin, as they protect government diamonds from a fiendish international criminal, Gabriel.
  • Sabre-Tooth (1966) Modesty and Willie get involved with a small army of hardened mercenaries who are planning to overthrow the government of Kuwait.
  • I, Lucifer (1967) An eccentric bunch of crooks have got hold of a mentally ill young man who thinks he is the Devil but has the useful knack of being able to predict natural deaths: they are using this to blackmail VIPs, until Modesty and Willie intervene.

The Dolly Dolly Spy by Adam Diment (1967)

‘I think the sexy spy’s going out of vogue, don’t you, Bill, darling?’
Brentridge laughed a bit.
‘Yes, worse luck. It’s all computers these days.’ (p.167)

Adam Diment

The mysterious Adam Diment was 23-years-old when this, his first novel, was published. It shot him to fame, he appeared in all the right Sunday supplements, and contracts were drawn up to make it into a movie starring David Hemmings… which didn’t quite come off. Diment knocked out three more larky, swinging London spy novels then disappeared without trace in 1971, never to be seen again.

Potted plot

It’s narrated in the first person by Philip McAlpine, a lazy, bolshy, sex-mad, pot-smoking special agent. He worked in security for a big firm for a while, and the novel opens as he is cordially blackmailed by a camp high-up at MI6 – Rupert Quine (to rhyme with ‘swine’) – to work for them. If Phil refuses – they’ll tell the cops about his dope habit and the lump of hash they found in his flat and he’ll get five years in the Scrubs.

OK, he agrees. The plan is he’ll make himself available for recruitment by Charter International (CI), a charter plane company that does mostly legitimate business but intersperses it with flying wanted criminals, dodgy politicians and ‘hot’ merchandise around the Mediterranean. MacAlpine is well placed since he already has a pilot’s license.

McAlpine duly applies for a job, passes an entertaining interview, is shipped off with other recruits for intensive training flying a variety of planes in the American South-West, then returns to work full time for Charter International. The deal is he’ll be handsomely paid by CI and do whatever is asked of him, but also be on a retainer from British Intelligence and tasked with taking short holidays at various places round Europe where he’ll be contacted by agents and offload everything he’s done and heard about.

All goes well, Phil gets permission from CI to fly out his equally sex-mad girlfriend Veronica (‘Ronica) and they spend many rest days and nights getting stoned and making love – until one particular mission which triggers the novel’s climax and conclusion. CI ask him to fly a senior ex-Nazi from Egypt to Alla Surait. (Interestingly, Egypt is here described as a hotbed of ex-Nazis who are helping with various anti-Israeli military plans: this is precisely the premise of The Odessa File, published some six years later; maybe it was true.)

However, the MI6 man, Rupert Quine, emerges spookily out of the undergrowth while Phil is enjoying a little party time with Veronica at a villa in Majorca, and orders him to double-cross CI and fly this Nazi – Detmann – not to Alla Surait but to a British base in Cyprus. Detmann knows all about Egypt’s atomic research and other nasty goings-on, and MI6 want that knowledge. (There are a couple of vivid flashbacks to Detmann’s grisly career in the SS during the war, murdering women and children, which go a long way to denting the happy-go-lucky stoner tone of the novel up to this point.)

Back at Phil’s Charter International base on the (fictional) island of Dathos, someone sneaks into his apartment at night and takes a pot shot at him before he rips the assassin apart with the handy Schmeisser machine pistol he keeps by his bed. ‘Ronica is distraught. The CI authorities are impressed he has such homicidal enemies – and that he handled himself so well. But who was the assassin?

Later, just as he is about to set off for the airfield to carry out the double-cross mission, Phil is surprised to be waylaid by one of the American CI pilots who says he’ll fly the trip and offers Phil $1,600 cash down to make the switch. By this time our hero has realised that a) the Americans want Detmann b) someone told the Americans Phil was a traitor, hence the CIA attack on his life c) the leak probably came from his own boss in London, ‘the bastard’.

Angry, Phil knocks the Yank pilot out with a scotch bottle, ties him up, flies off to the rendezvous in the desert with Detmann – a scary vision in full SS Nazi regalia – and plies him and his henchmen with beer and schnapps heavily laced with sleeping pills. Then he flies to a tiny Greek island only he knows about, lands and unloads the unconscious Krauts, handcuffing them to the walls of a peasant hut.

Phil takes off again and flies to a neutral airfield where he bribes the flight control to let him grab some sleep. From which he is brutally woken by two enthusiastic British soldiers hitting him. Who he foils and locks up, flying on to the British airfield at Cyprus. He had planned to extract money out of Quine to let him know where Detmann is but Quine refuses to pay, vehemently denies he leaked Phil’s identity to the Yanks and tells him, to his horror, that the buxom dollybird Veronica he’s been sleeping with for the past two years is – guess what – also an MI6 agent, and has been spying on Phil and reporting to Quine.

He does something you rarely see tough secret agents do – our hero has a good cry – in fact he has two – at this betrayal of his finer feelings.

‘Miss Lom [Veronica] has worked for the Department for two years,’ he intoned like a kindly ghoul…
She nodded, hair swaying briefly across her face, a black curtain across a quiet night….
I nodded and stared and stared at the floor. Then slowly and inexorably I began to cry. People should cry sometimes – when life becomes too complicated. It gives you a fresh start and a new, flat emotional angle. And this, for me, had been too much. Or maybe it was just exhaustion and the drug-props I had used collapsing…. I stopped after a time and blew my nose. When you get this peace you can face anything – say anything because for a few moments you see the total futility of life – yours in particular. (p.152)

McAlpine turns on his heel and walks out on Quine and ‘Ronica, promising to deliver the Nazis. He flies back to the island where all does not go according to plan, leading to a shootout and an explosive finale – and then to the surprisingly upbeat ending at yet another swanky London dinner party.

The swinging 60s

It is 1966 and London is swinging.

I flicked my cigarette out of the open window and watched it bounce, in a parabola of sparks, from the roof of an adjacent mini. (p.179)

McAlpine is James Bond’s dissolute younger brother. Or maybe nephew. He plays tracks by the Stones and Dylan. He smokes dope at every opportunity, rolling big joints and sharing them with ‘Ronica or houseguests at the various villas he dosses at, lovingly detailing the affects of the first rush, then the spaced-out perspective it gives on everything.

‘You’ll have to roll one yourself, ‘Ronica, I just can’t make the effort.’ She kissed me and began to make a couple of joints. To my time-distorted senses she seemed to be moving with extreme deliberation. I leaned forward slightly and began, gently, to massage her right breast. The texture of her blouse and the firm compactness of flesh underneath took on novel sensations in my current state. I was still swinging on the up curve. (p.32)

He constantly eyes up and evaluates all the talent he sees. Beside sleeping with sexy ‘Ronica he appears to have quite a few other dolly birds available.

One [of Quine’s two secretaries] is an orange-haired, grimy-toothed bird called Avril, who has been with the Department as long as me… To be fair to the old cow, she has an excellent figure, especially if you dig your women well-developed of dug, and when I backed her into an empty office one dull day last July, proved to have solid talents in other directions. (p.14)

He is camp and bitchy when required, calls everyone ‘luv’ and is prepared to be reasonable unless they start shooting. ‘Roll me another joint, will you, luv. Have you got any Scotch?’ The MI6 man Quine is surprisingly camp and he and Phil riff arch sentences, all luv and dahling and sweetie:

‘Philip McAlpine,’ he made it sound like a statement from a deity. ‘Do sit down, luv.’ His hair was going, but his light green suit, with turnup cuffs, was a real wow. The impression he gave was of a dandified moulting stoat. (p.18)

I don’t think I believed any of the ‘hard’ plot but I was captivated by the persona, the posh stoned layabout and his reckless improvident voice, for whom nothing is serious for very long. The voice of one of the lads, a laugher, a joker, a midnight smoker, from 50 years ago, as bright, cool and antiquated as a Jimi Hendrix album cover.

The cab crawled round Hyde Park Corner and tottered off towards Victoria. After shuttling through the quiet streets where even the diesel fumes smell expensive, along the dolly mews with their tubs full of dwarf trees and shining brass coachlamps, our driver eventually found the street and stopped outside, predictably, number 13. Painted virgin white with an old ship’s bell hanging outside the nail-studded, plain varnished, teak front door. One up to Rupert for the bell. God knows where he got it but the engraved ship’s name was Titanic. Funnee. (p.181)

At a brisk 180-pages-long this book was bloody good fun and I’m looking forward to reading the other three.

Nervously knowing

Simon’s Rule of Self-Consciousness: the cheesier the spy novel, the more nervously aware it is of its own clichés:

Brentridge reached the door, flung it open and leapt inside – he had his gun out in the prescribed secret agent fashion. A grenade in the other hand and a stiletto in his teeth would have completed the picture. (p.169)

The view from 1966

Quine was right. This country is, for the time being, a whore. Our Empire has gone and our people remain lazy. We are clever, original, class-ridden and small. The sooner we can get back to being another small country and forget our now useless role of world arbitrator the better. Nobody has listened to our advice for years; it is just accepting this fact which is painful. Meanwhile we export fashion and trend to the rest of them, like a good little whore should. I had been the ponce scurrying round for Britannia among the rumbling power blocks who now run the world. (p.189)

Related links

1968 Pan paperback cover of The Dolly Dolly Spy

1968 Pan paperback cover of The Dolly Dolly Spy

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.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

Levin was a professional writer who produced half a dozen novels, nine plays – including the fifth longest-running play on Broadway (Deathtrap) – as well as ten or so film scripts and adaptations, in a career which lasted from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

It is a real achievement for a writer to create one archetype of imaginative power, one avatar, one story or figure which is a permanent addition to the cultural store. One obvious measure of their success is the number of times they’re reworked into movies by the fiercely competitive and money-driven film industry.

On this criterion – movie success – Levin’s novels score high: Rosemary’s Baby (1 classic movie and several spin-offs), The Stepford Wives (2 movies and several spin-offs), The Boys From Brazil (1 movie), A Kiss Before Dying (2 movie versions), Sliver (1), with his hit play Deathtrap also made into a 1982 movie starring Michael Caine. This is success, big success, in the popular realm.

Of all of them Rosemary’s Baby, his second novel, is probably best known and most influential, often credited with begetting the contemporary horror story. The Devil isn’t depicted as a character in historical fiction, in Biblical epic or in some foreign land – He is here, now, in a Manhattan apartment block, among people like you or me.

According to his Wikipedia article, Levin later regretted how RB opened the way for a wave of horror stories and movies – namely, The Exorcist (novel 1971, movie 1973) and The Omen (movie 1976) – which gave a new realism and cultural presence to Satanism and which, he speculates, provided ammunition for the rise of US evangelists and the Christian Right. Maybe.

Short plot summary

A group of satanists in New York select a fertile young bride and arrange for her to be drugged and raped by the Devil, and then groomed and cared for while she brings the baby to term. The text is artfully constructed so that it starts in the humdrum world of tenancy agreements and bad plumbing and only slowly, through hints and glimpses, allows you to realise the true nature of what’s going on.

Before the movie came out, the novel had already sold two and a half million copies and, after the terrifying film (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring John Cassavetes as the creepy husband and Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary, sales soared to over 5 million.

So what accounted for it success? How does it work?

Rosemary’s Baby

1. Commonplace setting

A young married couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are looking for an apartment in New York so he can pursue his budding career as an actor and she can fulfil her dream of being a successful actor’s wife. Aged just 24, Rosemary has left her Catholic family back in Omaha to come to the big bad city and marry a non-Catholic, and oh how she longs for a baby.

Apparently by chance, they get the opportunity to rent an apartment in an old Gothic building, the Bramford, where an old lady has (conveniently) passed away. Again by chance, they get chatting to the old couple across the hall – Minnie and Roman Castevet – and, to Rosemary’s surprise, her husband becomes firm friends with them, until he is regularly popping round for chats with the old man who knew a lot of the old Broadway greats.

So far so innocent. Levin’s technique is to intersperse the text with odd moments, inexplicable events, ominous anecdotes – slowly at first. Rosemary meets the young woman, Terry, who the Castavets have taken in, in the laundry room in the dingy basement. She shows Rosemary an odd necklace the Castavets have given her, containing a foul-smelling substance. Days later the Woodhouses are walking home to find the sidewalk cordoned off where Terry has leapt to her death. A few days later, after the customary commiserations, Rosemary finds Minnie Castevet forcing the same necklace on her as a gift…

The apartment walls are thin, allowing Guy and Rosemary to overhear the old couple next door in their bedroom. Initially they hear comic old person nags – ‘Roman, will ya bring my cocoa!’ But in a repeated device, Levin shows us Rosemary’s thoughts as she falls asleep and dreams, mixing up genuine dream elements (meeting the Kennedys) with things heard through the wall – Roman and Minnie arguing about using such a useless young girl (the suicide), they must find a fresh, fit young woman for… what?

2. Precision and economy

The writing is crisp and precise. The use of dialogue is particularly telling, making quick cool leaps, just the telling phrase or snappy gag which gives you a flavour of the young couple’s irreverent humour.

Only as much detail and description and dialogue is given in each scene as is required to move the story along. All superfluous matter is cut. This makes the opening stretches a little colourless, as the mundane atmosphere is created by describing genuinely inconsequential things, quite a lot of Rosemary’s plans to redecorate the flat and what she’s cooking for Guy etc.

However, after about 50 pages and the reader starts to suspect something is wrong, the slow drip-drip of suspicion and coincidence begins to give every little incident a sinister dimension. And following chapter 8, the Sex-With-The-Devil scene, when we realise something is very very wrong, then every event, every remark from the husband, every look, every knock at the door or ring of the neighbour’s bell, becomes part of a closing trap, creating a genuine sense of claustrophobic fear.

3. The key

Rosemary has a friend named Hutch, an older man, a long-time New Yorker. He acts as a chorus, implicitly commenting on the action and providing the key to the dénouement.

Early on he outlines to Guy and Rosemary the Bramfield’s bad reputation: a history of suicides, murders, and association with one Adrian Marcato, who was accused of Devil worship and lynched in the lobby of the building. Later Hutch offers Rosemary use of his cottage in the country when she is feeling disoriented after the Sex-With-The-Devil chapter, barely accepting the cover story that her husband and she were both drunk and he took her violently while she was unconscious.

Guy learns that Rosemary has planned to meet Hutch when she is well on into her pregnancy, suffering constant pain, losing weight and looking awful. He tips off the Castavets and, when Hutch doesn’t keep his appointment, Rosemary is distraught to learn he has suffered a stroke and is in a coma.

At the very end of his life he regains consciousness long enough to get his nurse to promise to hand Rosemary a package. It is a book about witchcraft which is the key to opening her understanding about the conspiracy. Structurally, Hutch is vital to the plot, revealing the backstory, exposing secrets and unlocking understanding and meaning for both Rosemary and the reader.

4. American prose

After reading scores of English novels from the 1950s, 60s and 70s it is an enormous relief to read some American prose. It is free. It is unconstrained. It is unburdened by the wretched class system ie the grovelling belief of English writers that to be classy they must write stiff Augustan prose – the guests with whom we arrived, whilst I opened the window – all the markers of ghastly good taste.

Levin’s prose is simple and unadorned and just gets on with it. At a party:

Mike wig-wagged over heads and mouthed Congratulations. She smiled and mouthed Thanks. (p.141)

No fussing about style and elaborate periphrasis. The language is always inflected towards Rosemary’s point of view and (initially at least) fresh, happy, simple tone of voice.

She went to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses; not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighbourhood but simply because on that snappy brightblue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders. (p.71)

When Levin wants us to hear her thoughts, he just puts them in italics.

Rosemary hung up and then lifted  the receiver again, but kep a hidden finger on the hook. She held the receiver to her ear as if listening, so that no-one should come along and ask her to give up the phone. The baby kicked and twisted in her. She was sweating. Quickly, please, Dr Hill. Call me. Rescue me. (p.189)

And to convey Rosemary coming round from a drugged sleep after she had given birth, he uses not Joycean stream of consciousness or a wordy attempt at a lush description. Keep it simple, really simple.


The ceiling.

And pain between her legs.

And Guy. Sitting beside the bed, watching her with an anxious, uncertain smile.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she said back. (p.205)

If it works, do it.

5. Faust and feminism

What emerges is that Guy has sold his soul and made a bargain with the Devil. The Castavets have offered him success in his career if he gives the Satanists his wife’s womb. The day after his long chat with Roman the actor who was Guy’s rival to get a plum new theatre role inexplicably goes blind and the role is offered to Guy. Further ‘accidents’ smooth his path to parts in high-profile TV ads and then a Hollywood studio comes calling. Earthly success beckons.

Two thoughts immediately arise:

  • Faust The novel is a version of the Faust myth, but with a spin; instead of his own soul, Guy has sold his wife’s womb. What’s interesting is what’s missing from this version of the myth – the theology. There is remarkably little theological paraphernalia, no priests or angels, no weighty discussions of God and right and wrong and the afterlife; let alone the more superficial layer of horror effects, like things going bump in the night. It is all kept within the world of a happy young couple and their eccentric neighbours. The Faust myth always ends with Justice being done, the protagonist realising the full implications of his deed, before being dragged down to hell screaming. None of that here. Guy remains a two-dimensional character, ready to sell his wife to the devil to get a good part in a play. –There is quite a lot of satire here on contemporary American values.
  • Feminism Lots of feminist tropes meet here, the one that strikes me being the way a man has sold his wife’s body for his gain. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural functions of the female body. It’s nowhere mentioned, but it’s just one of the issues which naturally arises from a novel dedicated to one woman’s pregnancy.

6. Pregnancy

Is there a human condition more fraught with meanings and anxieties and mystery and concern than that of a pregnant woman? The mechanism of existence, the way we all came into the world, the fragile slender means of our survival. The novel is cleverly contrived, expertly paced, written as if half way to a screenplay and works as a gripping read. But its theme also taps into archetypal fears –

  • taking the reader inside the mind of a panic-stricken woman who thinks she has been possessed by a demon and is carrying an alien body inside herself
  • tapping every reasonable person’s concern for the frailty and vulnerability of the pregnant woman ie the story has an added layer of terror because its main figure is a universal symbol of helplessness

The tale of the exploitation and hunting down of a particularly frail, vulnerable, naive pregnant woman brings into sweaty focus a world of conscious and unconscious anxieties which all contribute to its tense finale.

7. The Jewish view

Levin was a Jewish man. Rosemary is a (lapsed) Catholic woman. There are a number of ways you could take issue with his depiction of her gender and religion. For the purposes of the fiction I was persuaded by both – though she didn’t seem to carry the full burden of Catholic guilt experienced by many of the women I’ve known who’ve abandoned their faith. More interesting, I think, is the possibility that the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke about the stupidity and vulgarity of Christians. I don’t think it is, but at moments, especially towards the end, it certainly could be.

The final pages tread a very fine line between horror and the ridiculous – the Satanists crowd round the cradle with the little baby Satan in it, chanting ‘Hail Adrian! Hail Adrian!’ You could burst out laughing. This and some other details of the Satanism border on the risible; what holds the book together and gives it its hurtling, breathless tension in the final chapters is the immediacy of the portrayal of a vulnerable pregnant woman driven to a state of complete panic.

I didn’t necessarily buy the horror. But I was completely convinced by the terror.

The movie

Roman Polanski’s taut and terrifying film of the novel, made in 1968, and starring Mia Farrow, was shot in the Dakota Building in New York using a cast of venerable American character actors, and it is these – Sidney Blackmer and the terrific Ruth Gordon as the Castevets, Maurice Evans as Hutch, Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein, Elisha Cook – as much as Cassavetes and Farrow, who root the outrageous story in an all-too-believable everyday reality.

Having just watched it, I’m struck by how very faithful the script (written by Polanski) is to the novel. Or how readily adaptable the novel was into a screenplay. The post-birth scene quoted above is shot exactly as per the novel, starting with the white ceiling and panning down to reveal Guy looking anxious and he and Rosemary both saying a blank ‘Hi’. The movie confirms your sense of the slick efficiency of the book.

Related links

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary's Baby

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary’s Baby

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife who is desperate to have a baby to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then try to keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the conspiracy.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean (1967)

From the cable-car station on the lower slopes they had an excellent if distant view of the fire. ‘Are you responsible for this?’ she asked.
‘It was a mistake,’ Smith explained.
‘Yeah. His hand slipped,’ Schaffer added.
‘You two should audition for a turn on vaudeville,’ Heidi said dryly. (p.100)

This is cracking schoolboy entertainment, MacLean at the top of his game, delivering a cleverly-thought-out, thrill-a-minute page-turner, complete with a wise-cracking double act of tough guy heroes.

The plot

It’s 1944. US General Carnaby was flying to a rendezvous with the Russians and other Allies in Crete when his Mosquito airplane was shot down in Bavaria. Bad news, because the General carries in his head the most detailed plans for Operation Overlord, aka D-Day, of any man alive. He’s almost certainly been taken to the nearby Gestapo Headquarters at the notorious Schloss Adler, the Castle of the Eagle, an impregnable fortress where he’ll be tortured into telling what he knows and wrecking the D-Day operation. That’s why British Army Intelligence have assembled, within 24 hours, a team of six men with in-depth experience of working behind enemy lines, to rescue him.

Leading the team is Major John Smith, ‘the best agent in Europe’ (p.49), supported by a laconic American OSS officer, Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, and the novel opens with a gripping scene as their lumbering Lancaster bomber flies through an impenetrable blizzard in order to parachute the six onto a remote plateau on the side of the Weissspitze mountain. From here they will trek down into the valley of the Eagle Castle, penetrate it, and rescue Carnaby.

From the start things go wrong, with Sergeant Harrod, the radio operator, found dead tangled in his parachute. Bad luck. Except Smith finds an excuse to go back to his body later, and confirms his hunch: Harrod’s neck was broken by a blunt instrument. And in the zero visibility of the blizzard, on the cliff-side, someone tries to pull away the rope Smith needs to get down the mountain. One of the men is a traitor!

And who is the young woman the flight instructor went to the back of the plane to fetch out of hiding once the six commandos had jumped, and who followed them out? After they’ve landed in the snow, discovered Harrod is dead, and got themselves half-way down the mountain, Smith makes an excuse to leave the others, during a rest period, and sneaks back to meet her.

She is Mary Ellison. Turns out she is also an intelligence agent and they have worked together in Italy. Now he gives her instructions: she has a new German identity. She is going to pretend to be the distant cousin of Heidi, from the bierkellar in the village, who frequently cleans and serves up in the castle. The buxom Heidi, trusty barmaid in the Zum Wilden Hirsch pub, turns out to be our longest-established spy in Bavaria. There are always staff shortages inside the castle, so she’ll get Mary a job there. Once inside, Mary will provide help for Smith and Schaffer to carry out their mission. Rendezvous at the Wilden Hirsch; Heidi will be expecting you.

In the pub

Once down in the village, the soldiers strip off their snow smocks to reveal German uniforms. They dump their stuff in the locked-up railway station then stroll confidently through the village among the hordes of other Alpenkorps, to a cluster of pubs, lovely and warm amid the Alpine snow. Smith selects the Wild Deer and they go into the raucous, smoke-filled boozy bierkellar, confidently order drinks and mingle with the throng. While she serves him, Smith is able to tell Heidi the barmaid that Mary has arrived and will join her soon: the plan is on.

But in the midst of the pub scene, when things are just starting to make sense, the Gestapo suddenly enter, enforcing silence on the drunken crowd of German soldiers, and demand to know who the foreign spies are. Surprisingly, Smith stands up and indicates himself and his colleagues. Thus the five Brits are bundled into two cars and driven off. Looks bad for our heroes. But Smith manages to hijack the car he and Schaffer are in, seizes their guns then turfs the Germans out into the snow, and then runs the car off a cliff into the nearby lake, before doubling back to the castle with Schaffer.

This incident, crucially, means they are separated from the other three guys who parachuted in with them, and who have been taken into German custody.

Up by cable car

Just what is the plan, anyway? First Smith and Schaffer will, at great peril, smuggle themselves into the Schloss by climbing onto the roof of one of the cable cars that go swinging up towards the castle as part of the Luftseilbahn or aerial cableway. Just as it pulls into the top station, they both leap onto the sloping roof overhanging the station entrance, providing a literal cliffhanger moment as Smith’s knife lodges in the wooden roof but Schaffer’s breaks and he begins to slip down towards the edge, towards the 300 foot fall to the rocks below. Cut to a close-up of Smith’s hand reaching out and grabbing Schaffer’s. He pulls him up and they manage to scrabble up onto the flat part of the roof! ‘I owe you one, buddy.’

Mary, having made it up to the castle and passed the various security checks, has been shown to her quarters which – handily – overlook this very roof. She pays out a rope attached to her bed, not unlike Rapunzel in the fairy tale letting down the rope for our heroes to swarm up it and – they are inside!

In the Gold Hall

They make their way to the grand ‘Gold Hall’ where they find Carnaby being questioned by senior Nazis – Colonel Kramer, Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service, and Reichsmarschall Julius Rosemeyer, Wehrmacht Chief of Staff – watched by the three commandos who parachuted in with them. Aha. Just as Smith suspected, all three of them are traitors.

Smith and Schaffer are just in time to witness the corny, stock WWII scene where the Germans regret that, since Carnaby will only give his name, rank and serial number, the enemy officers are forced to use ‘harsher measures’ ie a sexy female Nazi approaches with a tray of hypodermic syringes – the serious interrogation is about to begin.

It’s at this point that Smith steps forward – not to shoot, but to first incapacitate Schaffer (Thump! ‘Sorry, lootenant’), then calmly put his gun down and perform a massive double bluff. Since he is fluent in German (of course) and a terrific actor (naturally) he manages to persuade the assembled German officers that he, Smith, is one of their own most senior agents, and that the three double agents who are sitting quaffing brandy with them, they in fact are the real British agents. They obviously protest but Smith brings to bear an array of proof, including a midnight phone call to one of the Gauleiters of southern Germany, who cheerfully tells them that, ‘Yes, Smith is one of ours’ (since Smith has assiduously been posing as a German double agent for this man for two years).

The crux comes when Smith persuades the officers that the only way to know for sure whether the Doubtful Three are British or German agents, is to get them to write down the names and details of all the German agents and networks in Britain. Then they can compare their lists against the master one Smith brandishes in front of them. Aha. At last, the penny drops for the reader. This is the point of the entire operation – nothing to do with D-Day. It is all an elaborate double or treble bluff designed to get details of the Nazi spy networks in Blighty.

The guilty three are thus compelled to write down all these details under the watchful eye of Smith and the Deputy Chief of the German Secret Service and the Wehrmacht Chief of Staff. BUT, once they have finally finished, Smith seizes his gun again, throws another to Schaffer, and stands revealed as the real British agent. Ta da! Fooled you all. Now we have the names of all the Nazi spy networks in Britain!

BUT – Unfortunately, the senior Gestapo man in the castle, von Brauchitsch, has had his suspicions about the lovely Mary ever since accompanying her up in the cable car earlier that evening. Now he appears in the door and says in a cod Nazi accent: ‘Nobody move. Drop ze veppons,’ at which Smith instinctively turns and the Nazi shoots his gun out of his hand, breaking several fingers. From now on Smith is a wounded hero, bleeding from his hand and only barely able to pull off a whole string of heroics through superhuman courage and determination – like teenage boys everywhere would love to.

BUT – a moment later there is a soft woman’s voice: ‘Nobody move. Put down that gun, von Brauchitsch.’ It is Heidi, our longest-serving agent in southern Germany, who followed the Nazi along to the hall. Wow! How many thrills can MacLean pack into this cartoon narrative?

Smith and Schaffer tie and gag the Germans, lock the hall and gather the three traitors up, roped together (they’re going to be brought back to Blighty to stand trial). Thus begins the long sequence of their escape from the castle complete with lots of shooting and Schaffer setting off gelignite booby traps around the castle. Bang! There goes the radio room. Boom! There goes the courtyard. Crash! There goes the archive room, full of papers, and before you know it, the Nazis are running round like a ransacked ants’ nest, allowing our guys to make it back to that roof above the cable car station.

Cable car heroics

This is the famous sequence which defined both the movie and the novel and MacLean milks it for all it’s worth. Our heroes don’t just make their escape from a burning castle set on a vertiginous volcanic plug via a commandeered cable car – first of all there has to be a fight on a cable-car roof. For the three traitors they’ve been hustling through the chaotic castle and who they’ve carefully manhandled down into the (apparently empty) station, now slug Schaffer, grab his machine gun and jump into a down-bound car. Smith, realising what’s up, at the last minute leaps from the roof of the cable car housing – which slopes over the cable car entrance into the castle – down onto the slippery icy top of the car carrying the three traitors down to safety.

There follows a nail-biting sequence in which they shoot up through the roof with Smith dodging bullets. Then, as Smith slips and his legs dangle over the edge, down over the precipitous drop to the rocks below,  one of the traitors grabs hold of his legs, while the other one climbs up out a window and onto the slippery, frozen roof. And all this while Smith has only one good hand (remember the other one being injured in the Gold Hall?) What a legend!

Although you know it’s twaddle it is still terrifically exciting. You laugh but also shiver when the baddie who’s climbed up onto the car roof points his machine gun at the utterly defeated Smith, does a little baddie gloat (‘Not so clever now, eh, Smith?’) just as one of the pylons supporting the cable car looms up out of the darkness. ‘Behind you,’ says Smith, ‘Yeah, sure,’ says the baddie, then looks round and just has time to shriek before he is crushed against the massive steel pylon, his lifeless body then plummeting to into the depths below. What could be more satisfying to the teenage boy imagination?

The bus chase

More? Of course there’s more. They are nearly at the bottom station when they feel the car stop and begin to reverse. The Germans back up in the castle have obviously stormed the upper station (they had locked and barred its steel doors) and now they jump into the snowdrift. But not before Schaffer has thrown some gelignite on a short fuse into their car. Boom! That was the second cable car. No way down for the Jerries on the castle.

Our guys sneak through backstreets to the big shed they’d discovered way back in the early part of the novel, before they were arrested in the pub. Inside is the big yellow postal bus with an enormous snow plough attached at the front. What a stroke of genius. This allows MacLean to have Smith smash it through the padlocked doors of the barn, then drive it like a maniac through the village – swerving to smash a whole series of parked Jerry motorbikes, before roaring out to the road across the lake – where the troops in the nearby barracks open fire, and then a Tiger tank fires several armour-piercing shells harmlessly the length of the bus.

But what about the lorries, cars and motorbikes which have been scrambled to chase our heroes? Have our guys turn a corner and rattle over the rickety old wooden bridge over the swollen river; Schaffer jumps out and attaches some of his endless supply of gelignite to the pillars. So just as he scrambles back into the bus and it pulls away, and just as the first Jerry car hits the bridge – BOOM! Up it goes.

The payoff

They had radioed for help from the castle radio before everything went up in flames. Now a Mosquito, fastest plane in the world, cruises in to land at an auxiliary airfield where Smith has parked, flashing the bus’s lights. Across the strip they run and into the plane, which doesn’t even stop, but turns and takes off. Success!

And here comes the final one in the book’s long stream of twists and double-guesses. For the man who commissioned the entire escapade back in London, has flown in with the Mosquito, Colonel Wyatt-Turner. And it is only now, in the plane roaring back through the Alps, with his exhausted companions slumped around him, that Smith reveals the biggest secret of all; Wyatt-Turner, senior figure in British Intelligence, is himself a double agent. ‘You’ll never live to tell it,’ he sneers, suddenly lifting his Sten gun to point at Smith. ‘Pilot! Change your course to land at Lisle’ (in German-occupied France). ‘Not so fast,’ smiles Smith. ‘We suspected you all along. This whole operation was planned with a view to snaring you (and the other spies and networks).’ (‘Thanks for telling me, bud,’ quips Schaffer.)

Wyatt-Turner pulls the trigger of the Sten gun pointing at Smith. Nothing happens. Smith takes the firing pin out from his own pocket. ‘Yes, we made sure you’d have that gun. I thought it best to take precautions.’ ‘I’ll be tried for treason, won’t I?’ says Wyatt-Turner. ‘And hanged?’ He opens the plane door and steps out into mid-air. And that’s it. The last twist, the last revelation in this densely plotted adventure.

Smith shuts the plane door and snuggles up next to Mary. For them the war is over, their covers are blown and so no more active service. Everyone snuggles down for a safe flight back to Blighty.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The odd thing is, it’s a comedy. MacLean’s prose style is terrible and his facetious tone often grates, but the novel comes alive whenever Smith and Schaffer are alone together to do their double act, Schaffer the morose Yank worried that Mrs Schaffer’s little boy is never going to get home, referring throughout to Smith as ‘boss’, while Smith is all understated Limey irony.

‘I thought it was horses you were scared of?’ Smith said mildly.
‘Horses, Dobermann pinchers, you name it, I’m scared of it. All it’s got to have is four feet.’ He looked gloomily at the burning station. ‘I’d have made a rotten vet.’ (p.93)

It was written in 1966-67, a time of comedy thriller double acts, of buddy movies, of two guys wisecracking their way through perilous adventures.

‘Ready when you are boss.’
‘That’s now. I have my bearings. First left, down the stairs, third left. The gold drawing-room. Where Colonel Kramer holds court. Complete with minstrels’ gallery.’
‘What’s a minstrels’ gallery?’ Schaffer enquired.
‘A gallery for minstrels.’ (p.111)

It is a cartoon, a boy’s own wartime adventure, but of its genre it’s a masterpiece.

The movie

Apparently MacLean was commissioned by his neighbour in Switzerland, Richard Burton, to write a war movie he could take his son to, and that’s what gave him the idea to write something full of thrills and spills. Fascinatingly, he worked on the screenplay and novel simultaneously, and it’s interesting to compare the two. The movie ditches some of the complexities of the book in favour of far more bangs from Schaffer’s gelignite, and far, far more German being shot. Whereas in the book Smith makes a point of going back to untie the German radio operator that they’d tied up, once the castle gets burning – in the movie scores and scores of Germans are cut down like nine-pins by Clint Eastwood’s inexhaustible Schmeisser machine gun.

The movie was made and released within a year of the book (1968) and was a box office hit, partly because of the presence of Burton at his craggy best, alongside the gorgeous young Clint Eastwood, but also helped by the spectacular Alpine scenery and the cracking score from Ron Goodwin, both on display in the opening sequence.


Where Eagles Dare published by William Collins Sons and Co Ltd in 1967. All quotes from the 1986 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses Gruelling war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone Herioc war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head A motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians fleeing Singapore endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier Secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key Government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader Counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous First officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug Agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new genetically engineered supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title, and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare Six commandos are parachuted into snowy South Germany to rescue an American General who has the plans for D-Day and is being held captive in the inaccessible Schloss Adler, the Eagle’s Castle. Except this is merely a cover for a deeper mission – and the pretext for a ripping yarn chock-full of twists, turns and nailbiting excitement.
1968 Force 10 From Navarone Three of the heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 Seawitch Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 Goodbye California Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

An Expensive Place To Die by Len Deighton (1967)

‘You are a regular secret agent,’ I said admiringly. ‘What did you do – shoot him in the ankle with the toe-cap gun, send out a signal to HQ on your tooth and play the whole thing back on your wristwatch?’ (p.93)

Deighton’s fifth novel, and a number of significant changes from the first four:

The jacket doesn’t bear the impress ‘Secret File 5’ – the first four novels were numbered Secret Files one to four.

Paraphernalia There are no factual appendices and the fancy epigraphs before each chapter or section which graced the earlier novels have vanished. However, the original hardback edition of the book did contain a dossier of fake NATO files relating to a nuclear attack on China and the likely fallout which, according to legend, was offered to Russian Intelligence and concerned US security services. This, sadly, is not available or referred to in subsequent paperback editions.

Harry Palmer? Although the story is (mostly) told in the first person by an intelligence agent, gone are all references to the WOOC(P) office in Charlotte Street and the related characters – his girlfriend Jean, canny old Alice, aloof boss Dawlish, dim Chico et al. According to the Deighton Dossier website, in the introduction to the Jubilee edition of the novel, Deighton does state that it is ‘the fifth and last in a sequence of novels that began with The Ipcress File’, but that doesn’t quite clear up the mystery of whether it’s the same unnamed narrator. In my opinion use of an unnamed spy narrator and the theme of espionage certainly do link it to the first four – and after this, there is a distinct break in Deighton’s subject matter – but it is not the same character.


And significantly toned down is the jazzy prose. Similes and special effects there still are, but much fewer and further between. Instead the prose is much tamer, much more normal average paperback prose. There is a lot more psychology in the text – in the Palmer novels the psychology is mostly implied, to be teased out from laconic snatches of conversation. The elliptical style presented just flashes – you had to piece the rest together. Here the thoughts and feelings of characters – especially of Maria, the co-star of the novel – are spelt out in full and they are, alas, run-of-the-mill. What is truth? What is love? Yawn. Chapter 30 is a dinner party at which the three French characters make long speeches about love and women.

‘When I was eighteen – ten years ago – I wanted to give the women I loved the things I wanted for myself: respect, admiration, good food, conversation, wit and even knowledge. But women despise those things. Passion is what they want, intensity of emotion. The same trite words of admiration repeated over and over again. They don’t want good food – women have poor palates – and witty conversation worries them. What’s worse it diverts attention away from them. Women want men who are masterful enough to give them confidence, but not cunning enough to outwit them. They want men with plenty of faults so that they can forgive them. They want men who have trouble with the little things in life; women excel at little things. They remember little things too; there is no occasion in their lives, from confirmation to eightieth birthday, when they can’t recall every stitch they wore.’ (p.176)

You will be pleased to learn the originator of these sentiments, the playboy Jean-Paul, is shot dead soon afterwards. There is a lot of this sort of thing. The earlier novels had snappy dialogue; this one has lots of speechifying.


Horse, Berlin and Billion flitted between London and Portugal, Berlin and Helsinki/Leningrad, respectively. This novel is set entirely in Paris and lets you know it with lots of knowing references to the Boul. Mich., inside tips about French cuisine, a sprinkling of footnotes clarifying the structure of the various French police agencies, and larky descriptions of Paris landmarks.

The great Arc de Triomphe loomed above them as they roared round the Étoile like soapsuds round the kitchen sink. (p.112)

Setting and characters

The novel is (mainly) told in the first person by a middle-aged man who lives in the Rue St Ferdinand in the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris and appears to be a special agent working for London under cover of being a journalist. He lives above a restaurant, Le Petit Légionnaire, with its little cast of patron, wife, and regular customers. One of these is a Monsieur Datt who runs a rather mysterious ‘clinic’. He is to be found in the cafe almost every day playing Paris Monopoly with the owners. The Narrator is friends with Byrd, a retired English Navy officer, now living the dream as a painter in Paris; he is making a painting using a nude model named Annie; he is friends with a handsome young French painter named Jean-Paul. One evening they go to a gallery party where the Narrator meets the Chief Inspector of Police, Claude Loiseau, and a pretty thirty-two-year-old woman named Maria Chauvet.

As mentioned, most of the text is narrated in the first person by the English agent, but some chapters are narrated in the third person and are about this Maria (her history, thoughts and feelings) or about police chief Loiseau or playboy Jean-Paul. For me, these don’t work so well: Maria is divorced and has a lover, and reflects on life and love and love and life and it’s all a bit Sunday supplement-level psychology. Here she is putting on her make-up in order to go for lunch with her ex-husband Loiseau, and mulling over how she translated for the Englishman during his interrogation (see below).

She smudged her eye-shadow, cursed softly, removed it and began again. Will the Englishman appreciate the risk you are taking? Why not tell M. Datt the truth of what the Englishman said? The Englishman is interested only in his work, as Loiseau was interested only in his work. Loiseau’s love-making was efficient, just as his working day was. How can a woman compete with a man’s work? Work is abstract and intangible, hypnotic and lustful; a woman is no match for it. She remembered the nights she had tried to fight Loiseau’s work, to win him away from the police and its interminable paperwork and its relentless demands upon their time together. She remembered the last bitter argument about it. Loiseau had kissed her passionately in a way he had never done before and they had made love and she had clung to him, crying silently in the sudden release of tension, for at that moment she knew that they would separate and divorce, and she had been right. (p.72)

It’s boring. It lacks interest or surprise. Quite possibly this is what the ex-wife of a Paris police chief would think as she puts her make-up on, but it’s dull.

The plot

The plot gets going when a courier from London tells the narrator he must make available to M. Datt a hefty file full of information about the nuclear weapon fallout. No explanation why. After the art gallery party Maria takes the Narrator to visit M. Datt’s clinic on the Avenue Foch in her swish E-type jag. Without any warning there is an extraordinary scene where the Narrator is beaten up, tied down and injected with LSD and Amytal and interrogated by Datt in the presence of Maria whose job it is to translate his answers. In his delirium he tells everything about his work and employer, but Maria doesn’t translate it all (as she mentions in her soliloquy, quoted above). The Narrator awakens in a Disney-style dungeon with Maria who simply walks him to the car and they drive back to her place. He cleans up and returns to his flat only to find it has, in the traditional style, been ransacked, and (part of) the atomic file is missing. A few days later he goes downstairs to the restaurant and joins in the Monopoly game with Datt as if nothing, or not much, had happened.

This snapped my credulity and from this point onwards I regarded the novel as escapist fantasy, an airport novel, something from a shiny plastic TV series like The Man From UNCLE.

The plot rotates in a rather cartoonish way around Datt’s ‘clinic’: he claims he does research into the psychology of sex; others say it is simply a high-class brothel with a bondage dungeon (where the Narrator regained consciousness) and where the parties feature hard drugs and kinky sex. The Narrator’s contact says this is all true but all the rooms are bugged and the call girls are paid to get the high-level diplomat clientele to talk about their work. The tapes of the conversations are then sent to the police/security services and Datt has persuaded many people he’s actually working for the SDECE (French Security).

Adding to the oddly plastic feel of the story is the way all the main characters turn out to be related.

  • Jean-Paul turns out not really to be a painter; he does goon work for Datt sometimes; it is he who burgles the Narrator’s apartment looking for the atomic file; since the Narrator has booby-trapped the file with a chemical, this results in Jean-Paul having indelibly purple hands for several days. He has also been Maria’s lover, and they were caught on video having sex, a fact which periodically worries Maria.
  • Maria turns out to be the ex-wife of Loiseau the police inspector, and there’s a lot of reminiscing about their marriage and why it failed etc (as in the quote, above). Datt has told Jean-Paul that Maria is in fact his long-lost daughter, though Maria insists her father was killed early in the War in 1940 – but then confesses to the Narrator that she is Datt’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Annie Couzens, Byrd’s model, turns out also to work at Datt’s clinic as a call girl; but the Narrator’s contact says she also is an British agent, reporting back on what she hears to a Paris control; Loiseau tells Maria that Annie was also working for the French police; and her friend tells the Narrator she made her own independent tapes of her clients, for purposes unknown.
  • Byrd is arrested by Loiseau for the Couzens murder, even though all concerned know he isn’t guilty, but he may or may not be another British agent. In the end, we find out is he is more than an agent, he is the Narrator’s ‘case officer’.


The way everyone is related to everyone else, and is spying on each other and misleading each other about everything, and the way it rotates around a brothel with a tape recorder in each room and a toy dungeon in the basement, begins to give it the feeling of a farce: a small cast of characters getting caught up in more and more complex predicaments, generally with their trousers round their ankles. I’m thinking the movie What’s New Pussycat? released in 1965 and set in Paris, or the Pink Panther movies.

Which is why, when the Narrator sees Annie Couzens, naked, running out of the ‘clinic’, bleeding from numerous stab wounds and drop dead in the street, it is described more as an inconvenience for all concerned than an outrageous murder. The murderer was a high-ranking Chinese embassy official, Kuang-t’en, and so both Datt and the Paris police and the Narrator want it hushed up, and so it is.

There is a ludicrous scene where, in order to break into Datt’s mansion/clinic Loiseau closes the Avenue Foch and has massive roadworks put in place to dig up the road and excavate down into the drains leading to the cellar which they break into and thence into the house. Instead of going in through the front door, or a window. In any event, the house is completely empty, Datt has fled. Baffling.

Atomic secrets

Sense of a kind is restored when an American contacts the Narrator, claiming to be an atomic bomb expert. He, too, has been ordered to pass secrets to Datt. The assumption seems to be that Datt is a conduit of information to Red China: now, when the US carried out its atomic tests, they hid from the world the truly destructive levels of fallout they produced, in a series of highly-doctored reports. The US knows a medium-size nuclear attack on China would kill some of its population with the blast but most would then die from long-lasting radioactive fallout. But Chinese hard-liners are using the official American reports, which give a misleadingly low estimate of fallout, to advise their government that it could survive a nuclear war, which makes the possibility that China might initiate a nuclear war more likely. And hence the need for the Narrator to somehow pass the genuine, and much more destructive, US test fallout reports to the Chinese man in Paris.

Thus the Narrator secures false papers and drives out to Datt’s country house. Here he finds Datt, Jean-Paul, the housekeeper etc and the Chinese official who, by this stage, it has emerged is in fact an eminent nuclear scientist. After wordy exchanges with Datt, who goes to great lengths to explain why his brothel was actually carrying out ‘therapy’ on his high-ranking clientele, the Narrator establishes that the Chinese, Kuang-t’ien, is there.

He phones Maria and tells her to drive out Hudson, the American nuclear expert. While the two scientists go into conclave, there is a dinner party at which everyone talks at great length about human nature and love and women, which just reads very oddly and out of date now. Luckily Jean-Paul becomes a bit hysterical and insults his host and employer, Datt, so severely, that Datt has him dragged out of the room and shot dead.

At which point the Narrator persuades the Chinese and American they must come with him and escape across the border to Belgium using the fake papers he’s providing. This they do safely, and are collected by Belgians working for British Intelligence in the eerie setting of an empty road in the middle of the First World battlefield of Ypres.

Time and TV, frozen food and transistor radios had healed the wounds and filled the places that once seemed unfillable. (p.193)


In Ostend the Narrator awaits his ‘case officer’, who turns out to be none other than posh, retired Navy painter, Byrd. The Narrator is disgusted at having been tricked. Byrd’s arrest by Loiseau was a ploy to allow him to ‘disappear’ to plan what to do with Kuang. And it turns out he did organise the death of Annie Couzens. Turns out she was spilling the beans about being a British agent: the plan was to ‘eliminate’ her and frame Kuang for being an ‘oriental Jack the Ripper’ – but that didn’t come off, old boy.

As the plot nears its climax it gets pretty complicated: Datt has tasked Maria with driving an old ambulance full of the files and porn films which constitute his ‘research’ to the dock at Ostend. There she meets the Narrator and Kuang and announces she is Kuang’s case officer. This is obviously nonsense which they ignore, and a rowboat of Chinese arrives to take them out to a ship three miles offshore outside territorial waters. Here they meet Datt who had made his own way to safety. (In the hotel Kuang had told a vivid story of how he met Datt in Vietnam and how the latter was converted to the communist cause.)

The Narrator had cannily persuaded Kuang and the girl that they must get into the rowboat immediately and abandon all Datt’s files, because the cops were hot on their tail. This is a ruse; he knows that once out on the boat he will be able to persuade Datt to go back ashore; Kuang won’t stop them – he has the nuclear secrets he wants – and Datt won’t abandon the 800 dossiers which constitute his life work. So they take a boat back ashore to find Loiseau waiting to arrest him, backed up by a squad of Belgian paratroops assigned to him.

Is this anything to do with justice? Non. Simply that the Narrator wants the return of the tape of the confession he made under the influence of the drugs right back at the start of the story, and he had promised he would deliver Datt to Loiseau in exchange.

It has been quite a challenge keeping up with the scale of the double crosses and backstabbing which everyone has engaged in in this novel. By the end, it was quite hard to care.

Related links

Paperback cover of An Expensive Place To Die

Paperback cover of An Expensive Place To Die

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.


In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Landslide by Desmond Bagley (1967)

A return to the first person narrative Bagley used in his debut novel, The Golden Keel and, as so often when thriller writers do the first person, he is channeling Chandler.

The little fat guy who appeared to be the factotum around the depot looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and tittered. ‘You must be a stranger around here.’
‘Seeing I just got off the bus it may be possible,’ I conceded. I wanted to get information, not to give it.
He grunted and the twinkle disappeared. ‘It’s on King Street; you can’t miss it unless you’re blind, he said curtly. He was another of those cracker-barrel characters who think they’ve got a franchise on wisecracks – small towns are full of them. To hell with him! I was in no mood for making friends. (Ch 1)

Yep, he’s a street-wise tough guy alright. Mind you, here it’s appropriate; he and everyone else in the novel talks with a deliberate North American slanginess as it is set in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. It’s a very conscious choice of tone and idiolect and over the course of the book it succeeds in building up the no-nonense, tough guy persona of the narrator, hard-up mining geologist Bob Boyd who arrives in the small town of Farrell, where he signs up to work for the big family in the area, the Mattersons, to survey land they plan to flood by building a new dam to generate power for their various businesses. Where the prose was a little prissy in Hurricane, here it is rugged and manly: eg Hurricane refers to people swearing or uttering profanities; here almost every male character says ‘bastard’ on every page.

Heavily researched

Bagley’s books contain large chunks of researched information. He worked in a room completely lined with reference books and it shows. No aspect of the plot goes by without hefty chunks of factual back-up, from pages of info to throwaway factoids.

Eg I was struck by a detail in Hurricane, when the British consul and the air stewardess are fleeing for their lives through a banana plantation, that the old man still has time to examine the roots of the plants and announce that, as they weren’t properly bedded in, they would be liable to Panama Disease. Uh-huh. Here, the old newspaperman offers Boyd a drink and Bagley has to insert half a page explaining the difference between cheap blended Scotch and true single malt whiskey. He comes across a grizzly bear and informs us of the habits and behaviour of Ursus arctos, along with the best way to manage him.

The background to the plot is the construction of a new dam in the forest of British Columbia. Unsurprisingly, Bagley has done his research into Canada’s Forestry laws.

British Columbia is very conservation-minded where its ;umber resources are concerned. Out of every dollar earned in the province fifty cents comes ultimately from the logging industry and the Government wants that happy state of affairs to continue.So the Forestry Service polices the woodlands and controls the cutting… The idea is that the amount of lumber cut, in cubic feet, should not exceed the natural annual growth. Now, when you start talking in cubic footage of lumber in British Columbia you sound like an astronomer calculating the distance in miles to a pretty far star. The forest lands cover 220,000 square miles, say, four times the size of England, and the annual growth is estimated at two and a half billion cubic feet. So the annual cutting rate is limited to a little over two billion cubic feet and the result is an increasing, instead of a wasting, asset. (Ch V, 1)

Bucket philosophy

A central theme of the plot is that the hero has amnesia, no memory of anything till he wakes up in a hospital bed aged 23 covered in burns after a bad car crash. In the early chapters he is treated by a psychologist and the author shares with us some bucket philosophy.

Everyone comes up against this problem sometime in their lives; he asks himself the fundamentally awkward question: ‘Who am I?’ There are many related questions, too, such as, ‘Why am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?‘ To the uncaring the questioning comes too late, perhaps only on the death-bed. To the thinking man this self-questioning comes sooner and has to be resolved in the agony of personal mental sweat. (Ch II)

Presented here as new and challenging ideas, this would amuse my son and his mates doing their Religion & Philosophy GCSE with its naïveté. But then again, this isn’t a philosophy text book. The pages about identity are there because the main character lost his memory in a car crash, and the themes of identity and the question whether you want to find out who you were before amnesia, drive the plot. They are only sketched in as much as the info about Canadian forestry law or the geology of ‘quick clay’, that’s to say enough to fuel the plot, and no more. This isn’t a book about amnesia, it’s a book about thrills and spills.


It’s 1967, Boyd is a man’s man and he knows how to treat women.

I had left Clare early on the morning following our encounter and was surprised to find her reserved and somewhat distant. True, she cooked a good man-sized breakfast, but that was something a good housewife would do for her worst enemy by reflex action. I thought that perhaps she was regretting her fraternisation with the enemy – after all, I was working for Matterson – or maybe she was miffed because I hadn’t made a pass at her. You never know with women. (Ch III, 3)

I began to think that to get rid of her was going to be quite a job; there’s nothing you can do with an uninsultable woman short of tossing her out on her can, and that’s not my style. (VI, 1)

Daily Mail complaints

Like MacLean, Bagley was old enough to live through the 1960s but not to like it. There is refrain of ‘world going to the dogs’ comments:

Any murderer can get his name in the newspapers, but if a decent man wishes to announce to the world that he’s lived happily with his wife for twenty-five or fifty years, he has to pay for it, by God!

She was tall and thin with the emaciated thinness which seems to be fashionable, God knows why. (V, 2)

Presumably he knows his Daily Mail-type audience, and these Angry-of-Tunbridge-Wells comments cement his bond with his middle-aged male readership. To the modern reader they make the narrator seem unnaturally old and out of touch. But much more importantly, make him look not savvy, ignorant of the world he’s operating in, a fatal flaw for this kind of hero in this kind of tale, who needs to appear worldly-wise, knowledgeable and in control.

The plot

Turns out Bob was badly burned and lost his memory in a car crash which conveniently killed off the Trinavant dynasty who had helped found the town, and that all their assets went to their partner Bull Matterson. Suspicious, eh? Having survived the crash, been repaired physically by plastic surgeons and mentally by the psychologist with the patter about self-examination, Bob returns to the scene of the crime, the small town where it all happened, and sets about provoking Matterson’s head-strong son and his thuggish sidekick, while contacting (and falling in love with) the only surviving Trinavant, the attractive Clare.

Boyd needles them again and again so I’m not surprised that when his revelations about his own background make the old man collapse of a heart attack, the sadistic son, Howard, is able to persuade all the loggers that Boyd hit the old man, and so organises the exciting manhunt through the Canadian forest which makes up the final 50 pages of the book. Here Boyd/Bagley come into their own with scads of boys own adventure tips and advice about surviving in the wilderness with a posse of angry lumberjacks at your heels and the traps he sets for them, the ways he outfoxes and escapes them, are highly entertaining.

All of which leads up the dramatic finale which is rather given away by the title of the book. In the last few pages Boyd gets old man Matterson to confess it was his son who set up the car crash to kill the Trinavants, rescues Clare from the dungeon in which she’s been held prisoner, gets the sheriff to believe him and to capture his enemy, Howard, and gets his prediction about the unsafety of the dam dramatically vindicated. Completely cleared, he looks set to inherit the Trinavant millions and walks off into the sunset with his best girl.

Although Bagley isn’t exactly a stylist, and although long stretches are what we could call ‘Bagley Factual’ in intention, and although the plot is a combination of Dallas-style machination with a dollop of 1970s disaster movie thrown in, Bagley has made a concerted effort to create a voice and style for his tough, reckless, aggressive hero, and over the long run it works. The swearing, the ‘bastards’, the ‘I didn’t give a damns’, the ‘one move and I’ll plug yous’, do create a distinctive (if often rather ludicrous) voice, a comic-book hero appropriate for the TV-movie story.

Of the three I’ve read so far this is the one I enjoyed most and would recommend other people to read.

Related links

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

Cover of the 1973 Fontana paperback edition of Landslide by Desmond Bagley

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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