As promised my reviews of these late sixties spy adventures that owe a little bit to the counter-culture of the era for their entertainment...
The Dolly Dolly Spy
“Adam Diment is twenty three,” declares the blurb on the back of my Pan paperback edition of his debut novel The Dolly Dolly Spy, “and his hero, Philip McAlpine, is based on himself. That is to say he’s tall, good looking, with a taste for fast cars, planes, girls and pot…”
As introductions go, it’s more hip than most sixties spy fodder, but the publicist seems to be selling Adam Diment rather than the book, which is something of a shame because the contents inside this nicely dressed 189 pages are rather good indeed – not Fleming good, mind, but good all the same.
McAlpine is a reluctant undercover operative. An ex-security agent for an electrical firm selling dodgy household appliances, he swaps debt collecting for spy catching under duress of a prison sentence. He’s being paid handsomely for the privilege and gets to use his flying skills in a covert role as a pilot with International Charter Inc. He’s effectively working for another dodgy business as this one ferries illegal goods and people across the globe at the behest of private individuals, crime syndicates, governments, dictators, political organisations, well, anyone with money basically. McAlpine accepts this with peculiar cheerfulness. He doesn’t seem to have much conscience about him and probably gets that from his secret service employer, a despicable, camp, establishment toff who goes under the name of Quine and is described as though he’s some frenzied midget infiltrating Snow White’s dwarfish dreams.
International Charter too is populated with an equally unlikeable bunch of ex-Nazis and strong arm dullards all obsessed with the mighty dollar; there’s hardly a shred of decency to anyone in this tale. Even McAlpine’s sweet squeeze, Veronica Lom, hides an unwelcome secret.
Half the book sets in motion first the workings of Quine’s department and then of International Charter; the second half has McAlpine transporting an SS Colonel and war criminal, Heydritch Detmann, from Egypt to the Alla Strait. For International Charter this is a synch, but McAlpine has to appease Quine’s bidding and Dept 6 (NC/NAC) creates a subtle diversion taking Detmann out of American hands and into theirs. The action picks up solidly at this point and McAlpine’s wry observations become more urgent. The tale runs fast to its furious climax on a deserted Greek isle.
If I have any criticism, it is that the hero is singularly unruffled by everything that happens to him. He casts disparaging comments left and right in attempts to defuse potentially awkward situations. Sometimes though, he comes across as merely being crude or rude. This doesn’t bother him one iota and I assume would not also have perturbed his chronicler, but defusing tension with humour doesn’t always succeed as a literary motif. As a writer Diment needs to learn more about sustaining intrigue and tension, for his hero never really reacts as if he’s in danger. Maybe that’s part of his cool, anti-establishment 1960’s appeal. It doesn’t quite work for me; I’m obviously still not ‘with it’ enough.
Even if it reeks of sixties-isms, the dialogue generally succeeds and the characters are, mostly, believable. I particularly liked Veronica, who has a turn of phrase as scanty and delicious as her outfits. Of the bad guys the nostalgic Nolander, who fronts International Charter, represents the ‘acceptable face’ for fascism, a man who dislikes what he’s caught up in and seems weary of the [then] modern world. Shooting down spitfires was far easier and more fun. Detmann meanwhile is the Nazi’s monstrous face: “A man who stank of death… as though he had just stumbled off some grotesque evolutionary production line.” Both portraits are impressionable. Likewise the authoritarian Rupert Quine, surely the true villain of the piece, is as ruthless and hard hearted as a Cold War Ops Head ought to be: “If they shot every friend he had before his eyes he’d be back to his enquiries a minute later.”
Towards the end of his torrid adventure, McAlpine turns a shade bitter as personal and private betrayals start to haunt him and his past begins to look less like one of his own making: he’s been groomed for the secret service for years. As our hero realises Quine has no qualms utilizing his latest asset to the full, he begins to sympathise with the cruelty of Detmann’s caged situation: “I feel a certain kinship… sold like an auction lot.”
The Dolly Dolly Spy could do with a little more of that sort of observation, a little more action too and a tad little less funky procrastinating, but generally it reads very well. Recommended.