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: Killmaster, Mark Hood, and Joaquin Hawks.