Us and Them

Robert Taubman

  • The Secret Servant by Gavin Lyall
    Hodder, 224 pp, £5.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 340 25385 1
  • The Flowers of the Forest by Joseph Hone
    Secker, 365 pp, £5.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 436 20087 2
  • A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie by Robert Barnard
    Collins, 203 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 00 216190 7
  • Enter the Lion: A Posthumus Memoir of Mycroft Holmes by Michael Hodel and Sean Wright
    Dent, 237 pp, £4.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 460 04483 4
  • Dorothy I. Sayers: Nine Literary Studies by Trevor Hall
    Duckworth, 132 pp, £12.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1455 X
  • Milk Dime by Barry Fantoni
    Hodder, 192 pp, £5.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 340 25350 9

‘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.’

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