Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Great Spy Race (Philip McAlpine #2)

The Great Spy Race, by Adam Diment
June, 1969  Bantam Books
(Original UK publication, 1968)

Seven years ago I read The Dolly, Dolly Spy spy, the first of four novels about “bird-chasing, hash-loving” young British spy Philip McAlpine. I pretty much forgot all about the series after that, given that I didn’t much enjoy the book. But then I came across this second one, which I’d picked up along with the others back then, and figured I’d give the series another go. And I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed The Great Spy Race a lot more.

First of all, a big thanks to Aaron Jeethan, who posted a comment the other year on my review of The Dolly, Dolly Spy, linking to a 2015 Esquire UK article in which reporter John Michael O’Sullivan fruitlessly tried to track down the still-reclusive Adam Diment. The article, which is highly recommended, gives what little insight exists about the guy, who appears to have dropped out of sight in the early ‘70s, at least so far as the publishing world goes. It also gives the impression that the majority of his “hip” persona was created by his manager; even this American paperback edition goes to great lengths to compare Diment to his narrating protagonist, McAlpine, so I’m sure the gimmick was even more forcibly employed in England.

I enjoyed this installment more, but be advised it still suffers from the same problems as the first one, or at least what I consider problems. Mainly, the narrator-protagonist, Philip McAlpine, who comes off like a dick. The novel is infused with his cynical bitching about this or that; he has a massive chip on his shoulder, only equaled by his massive sense of entitlement. Nothing’s good enough for him, everything sucks. This, coupled with his first-person narration, gives the novel more of a hardboiled pulp vibe than the “mod spy” angle the publishers so desperately want to imply. Indeed, there’s nothing remotely “psychedelic” about McAlpine, other than occasional mentions of his mod clothing (colored satin capes, etc) or the occasional joint he smokes.

Special sidenote – anyone who wants to read a ‘60s “psychedelic spy” novel that does tap into the acid era zeitgeist and doesn’t feature a cynical protagonist should read, as soon as possible, The Psychedelic Spy, which is everything – everything! – the Adam Diment novels are supposed to be. (It’s even written in third-person!) If only there had been four books about that character.

Anyway, it’s a year or so after the previous book, and McAlpine just has three weeks left in his contract with Rupert Quine, “gargoyle”-like man behind “6,” the secret department McAlpine was roped into working for last time around. Quine is basically the M to McAlpine’s Bond, though this is an even grumpier M, one who is given to wearing all the latest fashions (up to and including an “LSD hallucinatory tie”). After a lot of scene setting – in which McAlpine’s “flat” is broken into by a dude McAlpine punches in the throat and escapes from – we get down to business: Quine wants to send our hero out on a “simple courier job.”

Meanwhile McAlpine has hooked up with sexy but “thick” Josephine, meeting her at a hip Chelsea party; we get a lot of talk courtesy McAlpine about how big-butted, thick girls are “nice to lie down on,” and also the sex scene is a bit more risque than those in the previous book. (Speaking of which, we’re informed that McAlpine’s girlfriend from last time, Veronica, is off chasing greener pastures or somesuch.) The Chelsea party by the way seems to exist so Diment can show off his “hip” cred, with mentions of The Who and The Stones, the chapter even titlted “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” 

McAlpine’s convoluted job has him getting money from Quine, to pay a “little, gay Gaul” in a mod clothing store for some ancient stamps, which the Gaul informs McAlpine are to be sold to a dude in Mali. This is a fictional island “on the Indian ocean” which is home to Club Oceana, a luxury resort for the mega-wealthy. Supposedly there is a Quine contact there who has some info he will sell in exchange for those stamps and twenty thousand pounds. Even Mali withers beneath McAlpine’s jaded, cynical eye, though we do learn you can buy “marijuana cigarettes” from vending machines, packaged and wrapped in “psychedelic” paper.

The resident spy turns out to be the owner of Club Oceanic, an old, clearly rich former spy named Peters who is very much in the Fleming mold. He is given to florid speeches and expensive tastes, and even retains a memorable henchman: Petite, a towering, very old butler who is superhumanly fast with a gun. This talent is shown off for McAlpine’s benefit in a sequence that could’ve come straight out of the classic Bond films. But don’t be fooled – McAlpine is no Bond. He’s more along the lines of the protagonists who starred in the more spoofy spy-fy series of the ‘60s: “There’s hardly a man alive more a coward than me,” he casually informs us.

But it turns out to be a typical Quine setup; McAlpine’s real job here is to deliver the twenty thousand pounds, which is Peters’s entry fee for “the Great Spy Race,” which he explains is “a competition to exercise the oldest virtues of our art: to wit, extortion, blackmail, and seduction Especially seduction.” Agents from organizations around the world (save for Red China) will compete for the grand prize: a list of every Red Chinese spy currently operating in the Far East. Daniel Honneybun, a portly Ministry employee who was the guy who broke into McAlpine’s apartment early in the book, shows up with a bandaged throat (and a grudge against our hero) to bring word from Quine: if McAlpine doesn’t take part in (and win) the Race, Quine will either have McAlpine killed or something worse.

McAlpine mostly slobbers over the sight of Mallia, Peters’s ravishingly-hot (and topless) fifteen year-old “child concubine,” who sits obediently on her master’s lap while Peters regales McAlpine with stories, taking the occasional moment to dab expensive champagne between the girl’s bare breasts. I don’t think you could swing a scene like this in the present day, but then such are the wonders of vintage pulp. McAlpine takes a few days off to bask in the “Malikin” sun and smoke some of those “manufactured reefers” (he also bumps into an old “friendlet” I assume returning from the previous book, but I couldn’t recall her), before heading back to London to begin the Race.

Anyone hoping for a peek of Swinging London will be disappointed. As in the first book, McAlpine is more focused on just mentioning the things that annoy him, rather than bringing to life the mod fashions, the swinging “birds,” and whatnot. This is I think the main thing that annoys me about this series; I read all the industry blurbs and expect this wide-eyed look at that long-ago world, but instead I get a dude who sounds like your average gumshoe, slouching through a world that both irritates and bores him. It’s like something a burned-out old contract writer would’ve turned in, instead of a “hash-loving” twenty-four year old.

McAlpine has another run-in with the “gay Gaul,” who turns out to be named Pierre Roussin, a Commie French agent taking part in the Race and given to wearing outlandish fashions (ie knee-high purple suede boots). But our hero isn’t much for Bond-esque action; even the literary Bond, who is mostly prone to kicking guys in the shins and running away, is more gung-ho. Instead McAlpine steals a camera and takes blackmail photos of a male bank employee having sex with Roussin; McAlpine threatens to send the bank board the photos if the employee doesn’t tell him the contents of the bank deposit box both he and Roussin (and the other Race participants) were after. It’s a note from Peters, informing the reader that the next step of the Race will occur in Nice.

Here McAlpine drafts Josephine in a plan to co-seduce Mr. and Mrs. Omega, the latter of whom is Peters’s latest step in the game – a notorious slut of incredible beauty (her exotic look courtesy a mixture of “African” and “Indo-Chinese” blood). While Mr. Omega is an old French general, Mrs. Omega is “upper-strata sexy” and when McAlpine first glimpses her she’s dressed in “modish chain mail.” Here he runs into an Irish agent and a “Jap” agent (who speaks with a “Harvard accent”), but manages to mostly see his plan through. McAlpine beds Mrs. Omega shortly after Samura, the Japanese agent, fails to satisfy her; again Diment delivers a somewhat risque sequence, but nothing outrageous. McAlpine tells Mrs. Omega she is “the greatest lay” of his life.

But to tell the truth, the “Great Spy Race” is kind of underwhelming. After the briefest of stopovers in Geneva, McAlpine ends up back off the coast of Mali; he gets there by booking passage on an International Charter flight, in a nice callback to the previous book – turns out his former employers hold no grudges over McAlpine having betrayed them last time. Diment finally delivers at least a little action as McAlpine must dodge machine gun fire from a pillbox to enter the building that holds the prize – which doesn’t turn out to be a list of spies at all, but plans, stolen from NASA, for hyperspeed engines.

As if tossing the entire “spy race” idea, Peters next has McAlpine run for his escape from Mali, an old Nazi plane waiting for him; he will be chased by eight fellow secret agents. This part is just downright dumb – Peters has left a handy table filled with guns and McAlpine grabs a “Schmeisser” (another callback to the previous book) and runs for his life, shooting no one. No one, that is, save for Petite, Peters’s quick-draw servant, who shows up at the plane for “the last test.” McAlpine guns him down accidentally and then feels like “crying” as he stands over Petite’s corpse. Mind you, this is McAlpine’s first and only kill in the book. And the dumbass manages to lose the hypserpeed plans in the plane, which ends up catching on fire after getting him to safety.

The funny thing about these McAlpine novels is that Diment was hyped as the hip, countercultural Ian Fleming, but in reality, Diment’s books are almost exactly like those by Fleming himself – dry, more grounded in realism than in outlandish thrills, and very, very British. Save for a single mention of McAlpine smoking a joint, or listening to rock music (at a party – and we get the impression that, surprise surprise, McAlpine doesn’t even like it), none of the material here would’ve been out of place in a Bond novel. (And even the literary Bond wouldn’t cry after killing someone who just tried to kill him!)

In this regard I’d say the New York Times blurb quoted on the cover is accurate – Diment truly was “Fleming’s successor.” And Diment, for a 24 year-old, is even more obsessed with WWII than actual war veteran Ian Fleming was; The Great Spy Race is filled with references to the war; at least every other page mentions Nazis or war surplus or what have you.

I’m still not sold on the series – I much prefer other swinging sixties spies, in particular Nick Carter: KillmasterMark Hood, and Joaquin Hawks.


Johny Malone said...

Everything must be an editorial hoax. This handsome Diment boy put a face to a secret writer.

Unknown said...

No hoax, he was the real deal (though I do know you're probably kidding).

Joe, I know what you mean about wanting more far-out swinging psychedelia in these kinds of books, but at the same time - for me - that's what makes Diment so good: he's closer to the source. I have no direct experience of the time as such, as I was coming up 3 during the summer of love with parent approaching 50 who were not likely to be switched on: however, after punk alerted me to rock'n'roll, I started to buy cut-outs and deletions and acquired a love of that Notting Hill counter-culture rock typified by Hawkwind, the Pink Faires, etc, that also infused Moorcock's writing (of which I was also enamoured in my early teens). I still have that, and have read many (too many) books about it, and watched documentaries about the time (some of which were made then) - it was grotty, with bedsits and squats and ekeing a living from the dole, selling dope, and the odd gig... and no glamour at all. Diment reflects this in some of the scenes in parties in London, which makes me think he had proper experience, as opposed to the pipe-smoking, tweed -wearing spy writers who tried to tap into it (Leasor, Mayo, etc).

In style, I agree with you that he has a lot in common with Fleming, and is a classic British spy fiction writer. It's the juxtapose between the two that makes him so good, in my view. I wrote about him (and Desmond Skirrow, Joyce Porter and Jimmy Sangster) for Paperback Fanatic a couple of years (?) back, so won't repeat myself.

Thinking about it, I got my copy of The Dolly Dolly Spy thirty years ago (at an Xmas church fete) - so it was only twenty years old when I bought it: where did the decades go??

Joe Kenney said...

Sorry for the pathetic delay in response guys, but thanks for the comments! And Drew thanks for the background on your intro to the Diment books. Maybe the next two will be more up my alley. The cover of Bantam edition of The Bang Bang Birds is at least pretty damn nice. And please give more info on Leasor and Mayo, neither of whom I know much about -- which particular novels of theirs tried to tap into the '60s movement? Leasor in particular interests me, as he was approached by Gildrose to take over the Bond novels after Fleming died, but turned down the offer.

Unknown said...

Interesting thing about Gildrose is that they never approached Mayo, as he was a chum of Fleming from their days as intelligence officers - if I recall correctly, Fleming was very encouraging to Mayo when he started to write. I would have made him a natural choice, especially as their styles are pretty close. As it happens, I prefer Mayo when he's doing the foreign travelogues. He's better at atmosphere and background than Fleming, though Fleming is sharper on character and lifestyle.

Mayo's 'Let Sleeping Girls Lie', with its twin dolly birds and party scenes, is very much the one where he tried to get that Hollywood swinging party vibe going. I think any of the Jason Love books from Leasor skirt around that, but to be fair to both of them they were using trappings rather than bandwagon jumping. Leasor is more of a seasoned pro than Mayo, who strikes me as a hobbyist writer (one of those book a year men who write evenings and weekends while running the civil service).Before his fiction years, Leasor was a ghost and co-writer on non-fiction books, which would have encouraged Gildrose, I suspect, as he was adept at working to a brief. So how they got arch-drunk and sometimes good lit writer (when he could be arsed) Amis on board, despite him being a Bond fan, seems bizarre in retrospect.

Desmond Skirrow - who would have been in his thirties, and caught between the two generations, was closer to using that kind of background - all three of his novels use that to some extent, though shot through with a sardonic and satirical tone. I confess, I love those three John Brock books, as his is some of the best writing from that genre, period. Sangster's books skirt around it, too.

Joyce Porter's spy novels are worth looking for as she has a naturally cynical and satiric eye that serves her well on the swinging younger generation (her spy anti-hero Eddie Brown feels very much outside looking in, and jealous). I also suspect - and I am going on a limb here - that as Porter was a lesbian at a time when it still had to be kept quiet in general society, she was au fait with what it was like to have to live outside the mainstream in some ways, and be in an alternative lifestyle (albeit by default). As an aside, male homosexuality was outlawed here until 1967, but female homosexuality was never included in the original legislation, apparently because Queen Victoria thought women 'wouldn't do things like that'. Well, quite...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for that rundown! I've never given either Mayo or Leasor much thought, but your comment had me checking out Mayo's Charles Hood books. I think I will for sure be reading Hammerhead soon. You are correct, just judging from the plot descriptions the Mayo novels sound very much in the Fleming mold, even down to the outrageous villains, so it's curious Gildrose didn't approach him. Though it sounds like they were a bit tight-assed back in the day; an author/Fleming researcher named Jeremy Duns has a book out titled "Duns On Bond" which contains all his research on the lost Bond continuation novel "Per Fine Ounce," which was written by another friend of Fleming's, Geoffrey Jenkins. This one was plotted out with Fleming's actual approval and after his death, Jenkins had a contract with Gildrose and turned in the book. But according to Duns's research, Gildrose rejected it as not being up to snuff -- and the Gildrose rep states that Gildrose was more touchy about what was publishable back then, so maybe they did also approach Mayo, or didn't judge his books as being very good, who knows. Otherwise nothing much is known about Per Fine Ounce, other than some of it was set in Africa; it appears to have vanished off the face of the earth. I know one of the modern continuation novels, Solo, takes Bond to Africa, but I haven't read much good about it -- actually haven't read much good about any of the new continuation novels.

Felicity Walker said...

The Chitty, Chitty Bang