The Bang Bang Birds
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.