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Philip McAlpine by Adam Diment


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#1 chrisno1

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Posted 19 March 2017 - 12:29 AM

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

(1967)

 

“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.

 

 



#2 chrisno1

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Posted 21 March 2017 - 12:27 PM

The Great Spy Race
(1968)

 

The Great Spy Race is not as immediately accessible as Adam Diment’s initial stab at the thriller genre. It opens with his hero, Philip McAlpine, making a false passport for himself [you know, just in case]. Of course he subsequently gets to use it in the context of this rather odd adventure which involves a lot of pointless toing-and-froing between London, France and Mali, a luxury resort in the Indian Ocean. To say the last location confused me would be an understatement: it sounds as if Diment is describing Malé in the Maldives, but he’s spelt it wrong and made it read too much like a Caribbean enclave. Someone in the editing department really needed topping for that oversight.

 

Confusion aside, the novel starts at a leisurely pace with McAlpine bemoaning his lot in life, tied to his desk in 6 (NC/NAC) and at the behest of Rupert Quine. Salvation and money – it’s always money for McAlpine; he’s the least politically or conscientiously motivated spy of the sixties – comes in the form of a peculiar continent spanning competition between espionage organisations, entry by invite only from the wealthy, loathsome, sloth-like Peters – first name unknown – an ex-master spy with a grudge to grind.

 

Said invite is obtained via a spot of rough stuff in McAlpine’s apartment, a shopping expedition to Joyboy’s, a funky clothes shopped staffed by a gay KGB double, and a groovy drug fuelled party off the King’s Road, where McAlpine seduces a with-it little number called Josephine Sergeant, all bouncy tits, padded thigh, swinging ass, big hair and round eyes. 

 

The Great Spy Race has a prize: Peters has obtained a microfilm full of space-age scientific data the Americans don’t want to lose and everyone else wants to have. Hence the CIA have a competitor, as do the Russians – the afore mentioned homosexual shopkeeper – the IRA and the Japanese; even 6’s rivals 5 have entered the fray. Danger is provided by an aged butler and crack marksman, Petite (who is not), and romance by the ditsy Josy. Suspense hardly comes into it until the final chapter when an island wide pursuit by foot, car and plane is devised to test McAlpine to his limits.

 

While the mocking tone is very sixties to the modern ear, it over reaches several times and descends into bland stereotype, creating a sort of literary time capsule of slang terms and comic episodes. This does not always read well. I particularly disliked Joyboy’s and its camp sales assistant and even more a distasteful moment where McAlpine blackmails a homosexual back cashier. On the plus side I liked Diment’s use of the Chelsea Potter pub – still there and still much like it – and the scenes in the south of France have an authentic flavour to them. The nymphomaniac hostess Melanie makes a good sensual foil, far more intriguing than Josephine, who is as see-through as her dresses, and an element of black humour is leant by Samura, whose Far Eastern methods conflict with everyone.

 

It isn’t quite enough though and while The Great Spy Race isn’t all that bad it doesn’t quite draw you in like The Dolly Dolly Spy. Peters isn’t really a super-villain in the Bond mould or even the Heydritch Detmann mould, he’s just out to prove a point and isn’t defeated or confronted physically by our hero;  he’s rather anodyne in that regard, quite sophisticated and classy as baddies go, although his mental state is always in question.

 

However hats must go off to Diment for the half-blind Petite: “the etched in psychosis of the long-time killer with a hatred of the world.” McAlpine with his singularly fatalistic view and orgiastic vision of life seems to already be heading in the same direction as Petite.

 

Good; with reservations.

 



#3 chrisno1

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Posted 27 March 2017 - 04:56 PM

The Bang Bang Birds

1968

 

As if to emphasise its drug induced denouement, the cover of my copy of The Bang Bang Birds has a psychedelic explosion daubed in white, blue and red and emblazoned with the naked comic-book rumps of three girls, each brandishing a machine pistol. To say this did not fill me with expectation would be an understatement.

 

Adam Diment’s third adventure to star the swinging spy Philip McAlpine is less of an espionage thriller and more of a sexy romp. While it doesn’t stoop to the literary low brow of the Virginia Boxx series [she of The Girl from H.A.R.D. – all camp Carry On daring do with a titter and a nudge towards free love and sex] the obsession with the machinations of The Aviary Club – a thinly veiled swipe at the Playboy bunny-girl phenomenon – is somewhat more unsettling.

 

Basically Diment is describing a high class and very expensive prostitution ring and he makes it all sound damn sophisticated, very exclusive and a jolly good wheeze for everyone involved, clients and ‘birds’ alike; so good the hero even considers getting his American girlfriend Marianne to enrol. Worryingly, to justify his point, McAlpine insists on describing her quite openly and with no remorse as a ‘slut’. Now you can have your female characters as bland a stereotype as you want but this sort of misogynistic claptrap really dates a novel. And horribly dates it too.

 

That’s a pity because when Diment focusses on anything other than sexual matters, he’s really rather good. The novel starts with a Russian assassin shadowing his victim and being double crossed. It’s a short chapter told in the third person. There are neat observations that make the reader sit up with due notice: “a discothèque… its fetid embrace…. A couple of bars of pop music rapidly guillotined as the door swung shut… He would have liked to have seen an analyst, but blabbing one’s troubles on a couch is not a recommended pastime for spies.” The little hints towards spy craft and the workings of Russian agents do offer an authentic ring, even if  the author has an imaginative touch; at his age I can’t believe he had much personal inside knowledge. It’s a good opening told with much clarity and no wasted words.

 

The assassin recurs throughout the story and provides most of the excitement, although he isn’t central to McAlpine’s mission which involves infiltrating the Stockholm Aviary Club disguised as the American millionaire slacker Lex Sullivan and stealing a list of blackmail targets. In fact the operation is accomplished fairly easily and wrapped up in one neat chapter as the club members get gassed with amyl nitrate and dosed with LSD while McAlpine, aided by an as good as naked Marianne, makes his move. Diment actually spends most of the novel, and a fair share of its climax [kapow!] describing beautiful women, moments of delirious coitus and the various personal histories of his protagonists.

 

The novel is nominally divided into three parts, each one prefaced by a modern fable demonstrating a moral point, e.g.: “bad training can be worse than no training at all” and my favourite “people ain’t predictable, especially about sex.” While the middle and longest section concerns the sexual moral and the shenanigans at the Aviary Club, the first and best concerns McAlpine’s training and here Diment really gets into his sardonic stride.

 

McAlpine has been outsourced to the CIA and is working for an obscure computer orientated intelligence group, Hun Sec 3. His work is dull and he fills his day spying on the rapists, muggers, joggers and lovers he can see in Central Park through his new binoculars. Excitement generally comes when he nips out for a lunchtime assignation with Marianne or when the IBM computers, cryptically named Marilyn and Brigitte, “threw electronic fits… Brigitte in true Gallic fashion once went haywire for a whole week, giving half the department ulcers.” McAlpine has swapped one dull job for another, one bubbly girlfriend for another and one swine of a boss for another.

 

The American version of Ruper Quine is called General Eastfeller, a God-fearing, hard as nails military type – “there was nothing to clutter his polished mahogany desk except three telephones” – a man not above some Quine-like blackmail. After McAlpine proves his physical prowess in a botched training exercise, he’s roped in to do Eastfeller’s dirty work and chase down the Comte de Vitconne, founder of the Aviary Club and part-time intelligence gatherer who uses his ‘birds’ to garner top secret political and industrial information from their bedfellows.

 

Vitconne is an odious creature, “one of the weirdest things you could see away from an LSD trip… freckled, dead-looking… silent as an Easter Island statue.” At the story’s end, having failed to extract anything except the weary and obvious truth from our tortured hero, he devises a single combat solution to rid himself of McAlpine’s nuisance. Here, at last, Diment cranks up the tension and provides a suitable visceral confrontation. He rather spoils it with a too simple escape and an unnecessary coda, but by this point, given all the naked copulating that’d been described, any minor moment of action would get my literary chops chewing.

 

At times I did dislike The Bang Bang Birds, cringing at the dated morality and the worse dialogue, but the thrills, intrigue and suspense, when they finally arrived, just about won me over. If you can track down a copy, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

 

 

 



#4 chrisno1

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Posted 20 April 2017 - 02:32 PM

Think Inc.
(1971)

 

Published a couple of years after the hit and miss affair of The Bang Bang Birds, Adam Diment’s Think Inc.  marks a genuine return to form for its author. Gone are the mocking tone and over indulgent scenes of sex and scandal. Gone are the sixties speak. Gone are the comic book happenings and the fey humour. In comes an adventure peppered with excitement and suspense, great characters, intelligent dialogue, adult relationships, fortune, misfortune and fistfuls of action. Even the cover design is more mature.

 

Think Inc is an illicit organisation comprised of a loose group of master criminals, led by the authoritarian Faustus, who extort, thieve and smuggle for a price, usually to their own benefit as well as others. Philip McAlpine falls into their hands because the British Secret Service at 6 (NC/NAC) believe he’s dead – they killed him, in his Ferrari; or so they thought.

 

McAlpine’s number is finally up. After a botched mission, Rupert Quine, his boss, gives him his final orders: “Get out, Philip, and stay out… Don’t push your luck. You don’t have much left.” And indeed he does not. The scene where he learns his own masters’ want permanently rid of him is particularly chillingly effective and epitomises much of the book: he witnesses it on the local news service in his suite at Claridges. It is simple, short and deadly effective, just like the car bomb.

 

The novel starts brilliantly too with a quick little foray in Ostia, Italy, where McAlpine has taken refuge. He’s subject to a kidnapping and fears Quine’s omens are ringing true: “I felt empty, sick and the first waves of fear were creeping like the tide across my mind.” This series of scenes enacts similar territory we’ve read and witnessed before in Fleming’s or EoN’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. There’s a vicious fight outside Faustus’ residence which ultimately draws McAlpine into the Capo’s world, one of high living, decadence, high stakes and loyalty.

 

Faustus is a fine chief heavy, not quite a villain, but not a heroic figure either, although McAlpine admires his imposing frame, remarking, “how incredibly ugly her was and how attractive it made him” and respects him immediately for his hands are calloused and honest “as Hemingway would have said.” The big Italian has a sidekick, Chastity, a beautiful Jamaican, who is the financial expert, the head chef and chief weed-roller. She’s also a dab hand between McAlpine’s sheets. Their relationship starts frostily but oozes sensuality and their eventual homely pairing feels like a catharsis of sorts for the permanently fractured hero.

 

From these opening chapters Diment develops his premise swiftly and effectively. McAlpine, as he often does, chases the cash on offer and joins Faustus’ Think Inc., first on a money laundering scheme, then a kidnap and lastly a mid-air bullion raid. The international cast of characters are well defined and I enjoyed their interplay as they execute and celebrate their achievements. Committee without bloodshed, Think Inc. appear a rather cerebral bunch of villains, but there is always menace, greed and secrets lurking beneath their cheerful exteriors. Perhaps only Chastity remains honest from core to skin, her interest mainly being stocks and shares, spliffs and sex. 

 

After the eventful theft of a suitcase full of counterfeit cash in Rome, the group high-tails it to Beirut where they plot the aforementioned bullion robbery, which is when McAlpine’s flying skills can be put to use. Before that however a minor kidnapping occurs, at the request of its supposed victim, a broody French movie star called Solange Dore, out to extort two hundred grand from the executives producing her latest film, one for which they stubbornly refuse to pay her more than scale.

 

This little interlude might be a misstep for the author, yet Diment handles the midsection so skilfully you hardly notice. Solange becomes a temptation for all the men, yet Faustus handles her with consummate ease and strengthens the bonds between his band of brothers in doing so. That McAlpine rejects her advances demonstrates his growing maturity as a character and solidifies his relationship with Chastity.

 

Holed up near the Aegean isle of Zenetha, Think Inc. hunt for sunken Greek treasure and Diment engages in some fun local descriptions which are half-way Zorba the Greek and part-way Guns of Navarone. The slightly dreamy, hedonistic idyll is shattered when a gun battle erupts with a ship full of arms dealers. This taut, tight few pages had me gripped, chiefly because at this point it is so unexpected: “I pressed the trigger, catapulted him upright in a horrible loose cartwheel… the shrill, mechanical chatter chanting death… whoever was up there had been mixed up with the fittings and pasted all round the wheelhouse.” McAlpine is suitably shocked.

 

There’s still more excitement to be had as the bullion raid goes horribly wrong and McAlpine ultimately realises he’s alone in the world wherever he turns and whoever he meets; that he’s really no better than one of the criminals he’s associating with. Faustus’ summation has rung true: “You have robbed, blackmailed, smuggled. You have entered countries on forged documents, transported wanted war criminals, habitually used violence to further your aims and murdered people… I admit they were performed with the doubtful blessing of your country, which turns a Nelsonian eye to this distasteful behaviour… It was not through any patriotism you performed them… Spies are government criminals.”

 

Perhaps my sole gripe about this excellent pulsatingly rapid read is the climax which, as was the fashion in the late sixties / early seventies, seems to happen all too fast and has open ended last lines. While it’s refreshing to believe Diment intended more McAlpine books [there weren’t; he took early retirement at twenty-eight] the denouement of Think Inc. misses a trick in that, surely, Rupert Quine ought to be in on the final gambit. Perhaps that’s a little too obvious a twist, but for once this is the sort of full-circle plotting I’d appreciate. As the novel currently concludes, McAlpine is as Faustus declared him to be: “one of the criminal classes.” That, for a hero, feels like rather a sour epitaph.

 

But let’s forget that grouch. Think Inc. is a brilliant novel, detailed, packing a big punch where it matters, pacey, sexy and very, very exciting. A thrill to read from start to finish. Excellent, Mr. Diment; now I wish you’d given us more.

 

 






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