I recently acquired a few of the nine novels written by James Leasor featuring the country doctor - turned spy Jason Love.
The covers are excellent. The books aren't bad either.
PASSPORT TO OBLIVION (1964)
James Leasor created Dr Jason Love, the Cord car loving, country living, medical practitioner in 1964, just as Fleming’s Bond was vanishing and a host of imitators were invading the literary and cinematic worlds. While Jason Love hasn’t aged particularly well, it’s fair to say this is probably due to the lack of a successful film franchise - no secret agent from the sixties can better Bond in that regard, excepting perhaps the television outings of The Man from UNCLE. A film was made of PASSPORT TO OBLIVION, starring David Niven, and retitled ‘WHERE THE SPIES ARE’. I haven’t seen it. Having read the novel, I can understand why it was an attractive option for a film studio: exotic locations, exotic women, a Cold War plot, terrorism, assassination, fast glamorous cars, cocktails; you name it, Leasor has crammed it into the format. He also has a nice turn in wit and the dead pan delivery of the prose never falters throughout the narrative.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is the reactions of the main protagonist. Jason Love is not a spy. He’s a GP, with a solid genial background, thrust into espionage by the desperate Deputy Head of MI6, an establishment figure called MacGillivray, a man more concerned with fighting off his superiors, maintaining his profile and setting up a retirement nest egg than the life or death of his special agents - Dr Love included. Jason Love is settled into the bachelor lifestyle, anticipating a holiday in France, when he is seconded into the Secret Service essentially to do no more than make contact with an agent, here called simply K (for Kuwait), who has vanished in Tehran. Curious and a little bored, Love accepts the assignment and finds himself embroiled in a Soviet plot to launch a Communist takeover of Arab states, seizing the oil assets and ruining the UK economy, making it also ripe for revolution. There is some strange stuff about exploding H-bombs and Flights of Peace which seemed irrelevant, but overall the story stacks up remarkably well, even if it is a trifle complicated. The novel doesn’t really need to be so clever, there are plenty of twists in the tale already, but I sense Leasor was attempting to give his adventure an international sweep, and he definitely does that.
I was reminded that Faulks’ Devil May Care was set in sixties Iran and while Leasor’s hero occupies much the same space, I found Jason Love’s adventure much more interesting and realistic: the easy bribery, the lazy atmosphere (even the ceiling fans are on siesta), the dodgy filthy bazaars, the grand monuments ancient and modern and an old world now populated by a nest of spies and an angry proletariat. These angles are hardly touched on by Faulks and while Leasor doesn’t dwell on them either, he offers enough to make you believe Iran really is this hot bed of political intrigue, a place where East and West collide and play out their conflicts in the hotels and avenues and ruins of tourist Persia. It does date the book. Times have changed for secret agents too and you couldn’t write of it now as Iran no longer has a pro-western regime.
However, even accepting the period-piece nature of the story, it has enough tension and action to keep a reader interested. The novel opens brilliantly, with K confronting his future killers in a hotel lobby, and ironically reflecting on ‘the built in survival mechanism of the professional spy.’ He, of course, dies, while the non-professional Jason Love remains alive, although he constantly questions his ability to do so. There is one sequence where, mistaking an ally for an enemy, he brutally dispatches him with a broken nose and proceeds to analyze the result: ‘all had gone so smoothly [and] gave him a curious, rather pleasant, feeling of power and superiority.’ Time and again, Leasor allows his lead character to think through his actions and tell the audience his conclusions, which sometimes amount to very little, and this aids the fleshing out of a rather mundane hero. Love likes cars and holidays, is practical and methodical, and has a high degree of self-control; other than that, he’s rather unexceptional, which I expect was the idea. Thrown into exceptional circumstances his ability to remain aloof allows clarity, both for the reader and eventually for him. It’s a clever dramatic idea and if it occasionally breaks down, that’s probably because the pace is picking up too fast for Leasor to control it or he’d risk dampening the suspense.
The central villain is a French-Russian, Andres Simmias, a powerful man who engages in similar thoughts to MacGillivray, while also being a sexual sadist. The latter angle is hardly explored; in fact, while Leasor initially paints his antagonist’s portrait in fascinating detail, as the novel progresses Simmias is less interesting. For instance the hook that binds him to his willing mistress, Simone, and hence both K and Love, isn’t exploited at all and that’s disappointing having made such an initial fuss of it. Equally the novel’s climax is a bit of a letdown, resembling Bond’s protracted flight and escape from Goldfinger’s private jet. Here, unlike Fleming, Leasor’s hero uses an ingenious secret gadget to foil the bad guys; he’s also reliant on other people making the correct assumptions about his plight, and unlike the early sections of the novel, he is very static.
However, I can’t let the final chapter completely ruin my enjoyment of PASSPORT TO OBLIVION. It whips by with a fast easy style that features guns and girls, gadgets and glamour. It has a much more cinematic view of the spy world than Fleming, but the naivety of its central character ensures the broad strokes don’t overshadow the detail. Jason Love is a man who is scared of dying, over cautious and a little serious, despite his throwaway quips. He feels very real, even inside the unreality of his situation.
This is a very thorough tale. I’d recommend it.
Edited by chrisno1, 07 March 2014 - 10:28 PM.