Tuesday, July 4, 2017



 I thought I told you when you joined the British Secret Service that Britain has no Secret Service...This quote is one of the many succinct points I’ve gotten a kick out of in this late career WW1 espionage tale, Spy’s Honour, from Gavin Lyall. 

Originally making his mark as a High Adventure writer—with such great actioneers as Midnight Plus One, Venus With Pistol, The Wrong Side of the Sky, and Shooting Script—Lyall branched off in mid-career into Len Deighton/LeCarré territory. I was totally hooked on Lyall's early novels, but was disappointed when he changed genre directions. 

Lyall’s early books had a reputation for their believable aviation backgrounds and the driving first person narration of his everyman heroes. With the substitution of planes for horses, Lyall’s easy flowing prose was similar to Dick Francis’. His heroes were capable, but of questionable morality. They travelled through exotic or hostile locations in beaten-up aircraft, always trying to stay ahead of the law or the lawless.

These thrillers established him at the top of the second tier of British thriller writers, behind Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, and Hammond Innes. This was heady company as the British thriller writers of the time were the best in the world (still are as far as I’m concerned) and his books rubbed shoulders and sales with those of Colin Forbes, Victor Canning, John Gardner, the aforementioned Dick Francis, and many others.

However, after the last of these first person thrillers, Judas Country (1975), Lyall slipped into a five year funk of writer’s block. Hoping a different approach would break through his ennui, Lyall began writing the third person narratives of his Major Maxim series. Starting with The Secret Servant (1980), fans of Len Deighton and John LeCarré accepted Lyall as the new and popular voice of anti-Bond espionage fiction.

But there was a price for this new success. Gone were the fast paced plots and the sound of a plane’s choking coughs as its engine died somewhere above hostile territory. Gone were the clear through-lines rarely found in modern thrillers. Gone was the verve and tension which, as a former RAF pilot, Lyall brought to his descriptions of flying. But the biggest cost was the disappearance of his capable heroes who could get out of any jam as long as they had a spanner handy.

Major Harry Maxim was a British special forces officer working on secret assignments for the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street. In theory, this sounded exciting, and the Maxim books were hitting the bestseller lists. However, I found them to be quicksand snoozers, and I dropped Lyall from my personal must read list of authors. I already struggled with LeCarré and Deighton’s miserable world view and bureaucratic maneuverings—none of which could match the suspense of Brit-TVs The Sandbaggers—and I didn’t need to add any more doorstop reading. 

After publishing four novels detailing the machinations of Major Maxim, world events threw Lyall a curve—the Berlin Wall came crashing down, bringing an end to the Cold War so many espionage writers relied on to keep their plots topical. Depressed and drinking heavily (as so many writers of his generation did), Lyall fell into another deep funk of writers block.

The third act of Lyall’s writing career came five years later in 1993. Supposedly retired, Lyall began writing a novel about the beginnings of the British Secret Service prior to World War I. The historical ground here was stripped down to basics. The world of espionage was only beginning to understand the dirty dealing, treacherous, unethical demands soon to be placed upon it as years progressed. 

For the first time in years, Lyall’s original thriller writer instincts began to kick in. Back was Lyall’s sense of adventure along with his morally ambiguous, yet identifiable characters. Disgraced British officer, Matthew Ranklin, reduced to being a mercenary in the Greek army finds himself unwillingly blackmailed into the employ of a budding British intelligence unit—the existence of which is denied at every level of government.  

Inexperience, naïve, and armed only with a two shot derringer taped below his left knee, Ranklin’s first assignment is to capture or kill an Irish anarchist who is chasing an Admiralty gold shipment worth twenty thousand pounds. Along the way, circumstances compel Ranklin to join forces with the spirited and devious Irish Nationalist, Conall O'Gilroy. This is a partnership of convenience at first, but it quickly becomes something deeper. 

The first novel in the new quartet, Spy’s Honor, is a loosely connected collection of four stories. Each details the bonding of Ranklin and O’Gilroy as they take on not only the enemies of the empire, but also the enemies within the bureaucracy of the British government. In their second outing, Flight From Honour, Rankin and O’Gilroy encounter American ‘enchantress' Corinna Finn, who steps in to save them when the duo run afoul of a French Royalist. The pair quickly becomes a trio and the team is complete.

Two more adventures followed, All Honourable Men and Honourable Intentions, rounding out the quartet. While Lyall’s publisher dropped the ball in promoting these novels on the appropriate scale to turn them into bestsellers, they contain a level of readability much closer to Lyall’s original thrillers than the stodgy (if bestselling) espionage novels of the second act of his career. Lyall passed away in 2003, four years after the publication of the last book in this series.

When Spy’s Honour was recently recommended to me, I remembered fondly my delight with Lyall’s early books. As I was in the mood for a change of pace, I decided to give it a try. The WWI setting was unusual, and going back to the roots of the British Secret Service gave the narrative a true Sandbaggers appeal. The odd partnership of the main characters, even as a trio, reminded me of two of my favorite spies, Calder and Behrens, created for a series of short stories by Michael Gilbert (collected as Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens and Game Without Rules).

I wasn’t halfway through Spy’s Honour when I hit up Amazon to download the three other books in what is known as the Honour Quartet. While these books have been available for a number of years, they are new to me, and it’s a joy to be reading new books from one of my favorite authors again.
In a post about Gavin Lyall on the terrific Existential Ennui blog, I found the below two page letter from Gavin Lyall to author Rowland Ryder about the publishing business to present a unique insight into the writing business.


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