‘Sometimes this town remembers its past,’ says Agnes in The Secret Servant, pausing in the gun-play to quote Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’. This thriller is about contemporary nuclear strategies and the elimination of agents and double agents. Agnes is an agent herself (from ‘Box 500’, which seems to mean MI5), and the hero is no sooner posted to 10 Downing Street than a grenade comes through the front door. The material is that of any hard-core thriller, and very unsympathetic it is, cold-hearted in its violence and cynical about loyalty or affection. Most modern thrillers not only use this material but show a disturbing attachment to it. Gavin Lyall’s talent is for distancing his material. There are homely domestic details: ‘On the way, he stopped at a tiny village grocer’s and bought himself a rough picnic: cheese triangles, potted meat, biscuits and a couple of tins of beer.’ One remembers the bag of ginger biscuits Hannay bought from a baker’s van in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But mainly it’s a sense of the past that gives this story an extra dimension and makes the Wordsworth quotation sit comfortably in place. It’s true that the main reference back is to more violence, a long-range desert patrol in North Africa in 1943, which Lyall brings to life as vividly as Popski once did in Private Army. Lyall has a feeling for battles long ago and knows his World War Two, which he has used in this way before. He could be said to be repeating himself. Certainly he seems to do so in another episode, the visit to a dying colonel playing with toy soldiers in a chateau in the Midi – pretty close, this, to the scene of the man with the gun collection and a secret to sell in Montreux in Midnight Plus One. I very much liked this repetition, as a sign of a writer who has settled into his vein. The vein is more that of the classic adventure yarn than of the brutal modern thriller, though he brings these two things together. It’s not only that a packet of biscuits suggests John Buchan’s Hannay. The older tradition is acknowledged to the point of parody when the Prime Minister’s private secretary is given a family set of rooms in Albany where, ‘coming in off the chilly stone staircase, Maxim and Agnes had walked through a time gate, back seventy-five years to the days when the Empire was built of solid dark mahogany and pictures of dead animals.’
A Secret Service chief disappears in Joseph Hone’s The Flowers of the Forest and ambiguous allegiances are disentangled in a quest across Europe, as well as back in time to the Cambridge of Philby – actually, to a stop on the Oxford to Cambridge line, on the assumption that Oxford, too, had its interest for the NKVD. This novel has an epigraph from an early John Buchan tale, and it provokes comparisons. There’s less of the disengaged amateur about Joseph Hone’s Intelligence men, more of the hard-faced modern professional; and the narrative, though fast and smooth, is cluttered with unloving detail (there was no one like Buchan for both a fast pace and the loving detail, the feeling for season and weather). There’s been a loss of simplicity since all loyalties became suspect and intelligence agencies proliferated. In the old days, there was only ‘us’, symbolised in Buchan by Macgillivray at the Yard, who still had time to keep up his Greek. Post-Nato Europe looks as nasty in Joseph Hone as in Gavin Lyall, and all the more so because it’s set against that other world. His opening scenes are in a Perthshire country house and the Cotswolds, and if this is Buchan terrain other names are not far away. One Secret Service person (before disappearing) retires to the country to take up bee-keeping, and only one other such person did that – Sherlock Holmes. Another such person, who left the Service – ‘D16 as they call it now’ – after ‘the fracas with the KGB in Cheltenham’, gets restive in his Cotswold retreat. ‘I had felt like Mole all that day,’ he says, innocently referring to The Wind in the Willows.
Obviously there’s a powerful fantasy still at work here, a hangover from an earlier part of the century. These writers aren’t rejecting their ancestors; there’s no anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom calls it, but a benignant sort of Oedipal relationship. If they’re among the best, though not the most representative, of current thriller writers, it’s partly for having something, if only a fantasy, to oppose to the generally dehumanising trends. The fantasy, of course, concerns something quite dead, in which Us and Them were clearer categories than they are now, and privilege had a less empty look. The fascination remains. It accounts for the turning of some writers, or more often their characters, into cult objects. Sherlock Holmes has been the object of a scholarship cult for a long time, and must be the most thoroughly investigated fictional character of his age. What was practised as a diversion by Andrew Lang and Ronald Knox has turned into a full-scale critical apparatus. It’s a mock apparatus, and not really engaged with criticism; and yet not just a joke, since it does elucidate something – those aspects of another way of life that for us have now become fantasy. The apparatus, of course, helps to sustain the fantasy, as well as helping to explain it. If detective stories, including now those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, become cult objects sooner than thrillers, no doubt it’s because of the fun of using detection on detectives. But there are other conditions: there must be characters who appear in book after book, providing both scope for scholarship and the endearing illusion of stability. And there’ll also be stability in the setting, in social rituals and accepted points of view, and in a good accumulation of significant trivia and cultural objects. Joseph Hone rightly makes a clue out of a 1932 membership card of the Oxford and Cambridge Model Railway Society. All this is more important than the mere fact of crime – if not for the plot of a detective story, certainly for its fantasy-life.
I have only admiration for A Talent to Deceive, which gives a full account of Agatha Christie’s work, making even plot-summaries a joy to read. If Robert Barnard sometimes seems more astute than his subject, he’s delightfully appreciative of her strategies, of the right and proper use of character stereotypes, and of Mayhem Parva, her own special English village fantasy with its definitions of the middle class under pressure. While not caring for some of her attitudes, he seems right to respect ‘the typically Christiean lack of compassion’. Uncondescending and highly perceptive, it’s the first book for a long time that I’ve wanted to put beside Richard Usborne’s Clubland Heroes. The Nine Literary Studies of Dorothy Sayers are, in fact, less literary than biographical and bibliographical. They detect mysteries about things like publication date or the pseudonymous works of her husband. There are a lot of little mysteries about Dorothy Sayers, but bigger ones like why she gave up detective stories and dramatised the life of Christ are not attempted here. This is a book for the specialists of the Dorothy L. Sayers Historical and Literary Society. Others may note that Trevor Hall isn’t quite reliable off his own subject: a poem by T. S. Eliot that he says ‘was not reprinted elsewhere so far as I am aware’ was indeed reprinted, and not only in the Collected Poems.
If John Buchan, in spite of his influence, hasn’t given rise to clubs and newsletters, it’s possibly not just because the detective story wasn’t his line. His Hannay and Leithen are far more interesting than Wimsey or Miss Marple, and less stereotyped than Holmes, but they aren’t so conveniently ageless and unaging: in the stories themselves they grow old or die, which is a disqualification for a place in the iconology of a cult. Not was Buchan consciously archaising, as may well seem the case with Christie or Sayers. It was his role at the time to bring the adventure story right up to date. He is altogether a more interesting case; more subtle on the Us-Them relationship; more important as an influence on the fantasy, but also more detached from it.
Parody is another kind of tribute to the past. People have been worrying about what will happen when Conan Doyle goes out of copyright this year, but it seems as if every sort of parody or indignity has already been committed. Enter the Lion is a pseudo-Holmes story, seeking to attach itself to the canon with knowledgable footnotes but lacking the essential dramatic flair. It is set in 1875 (though no one has edited out such expressions as ‘as of now’ and ‘not to worry’), which puts it into a pre-Baker Street and pre-Watson era. Mycroft Holmes narrates, but a genius can’t make as good a narrator as somebody fairly dim, and this reversal of a key strategy of the stories is disastrous. Mycroft falls in love – another bad idea. There’s much period atmosphere, as opposed to detail or feeling, and appearances by both Gladstone and Disraeli. It hardly does credit to its subject, but in its bizarre way demonstrates the persistence of a cult.
In Mike Dime one can see a new cult coming into existence. This is a really good imitation of Raymond Chandler; it doesn’t fall short; what it does, however, is show up the inadequacies of the original. Chandler may be miles away from Miss Marple and her cottage, and he made claims to a kind of realism and moral toughness in his work. But a parody shows up clearly that what you get in Chandler is only another fantasy: one to do with money, dream girls, cars and power, with the further attraction of the lone adversative voice of a private eye despising it all. It still looks seductive, though now also very false, especially the note of moral toughness. But it will doubtless go on casting a spell, with the power of fantasy to outlast most things.