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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.

 






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