Monthly Archives: November 2015

Mr Palfrey of Westminster

We’ve just had a very enjoyable few weeks watching the spy drama “Mr Palfrey of Westminster” starring Alec McCowen – a classic ITV television series from the 1980s. “Mr Palfrey” is probably one of the most cerebral, intelligent spy series ever made.

Mr Palfrey (Alec McCowen) is at first glance a typical Westminster civil servant, well-suited and gentlemanly – the kind of man you see in droves if you wander up Whitehall during office hours. But Mr Palfrey isn’t some political pen-pusher. He’s the country’s best spy-catcher. The security services turn to Mr Palfrey when they want a traitor unmasked or a defector’s motives questioned.

Mr Palfrey is a polite, perceptive individual who uses his air of amiability and ability to fence verbally and expose the spies working for the other side. And when I say the other side I mean the Russians and the KGB, for this series aired during the last full decade of the Cold War. Intelligently, the Russians and those who work for them are not portrayed as villains – as in lesser dramas – but agents who, in their way, might be very similar to Mr Palfrey and his associates.

If you want shoot-outs or car chases this is not the spy drama for you. Mr Palfrey achieves his victories through verbal entrapment. Though like all spymasters he has a “Heavy” to do the physical work on the ground, Blair, played by Clive Wood. He does much of the tailing of suspects, breaks in to flats and offices to plant bugs, and is used to provide an element of menace when needed. Not that it usually is in the rational and intellectual world of Mr Palfrey.

You don’t need the fast action and you certainly don’t miss it here. The individual stories are so tightly scripted that they are gripping from start to finish.

Like all good spymasters Mr Palfrey has a boss, referred to simply as Controller, played with great skill and humour by the wonderful Caroline Blakiston. She resembles, in her bossy attitude and occasional silliness, Margaret Thatcher, and, given the time the series was produced, I suspect the likeness was deliberate. Though amusingly enough you occasionally see the Controller on the telephone to the Prime Minister and it is clearly intended that it is Thatcher she’s talking to, as she becomes increasingly exasperated by the Prime Minister’s political demands.

Rounding off the team is Mr Palfrey’s secretary Caroline (Briony McRoberts) who is, delightfully, the kind of secretary any civil servant might have and who happens to have come into the world of espionage almost by accident. A very clever performance. Most episodes have some terrific actors brought in to do battle with Mr Palfrey, including John Shrapnel, Leslie Phillips, Martin Jarvis and Clive Francis.

Mr Palfrey first came to our screens in 1983 in a Storyboard pilot entitled “Traitor”. This developed with some minor changes into two series of ten one-hour episodes broadcast in 1984/5. There was a kind of reprise for the character of Blair in 1989, with Clive Wood, in a sequel play called “A Question of Commitment”.

Alec McCowen’s portrayal of Mr Palfrey is brilliantly understated and totally believable. His technique for catching spies is rather like watching a grand-master play chess, the moves of the opponent are anticipated, brought into the trap, countered and checkmated. And McCowen makes Mr Palfrey just the kind of spy-master you’d want to confess to. A master-class in fine acting.

This really is a television series to seek out and, thankfully, all the episodes and the pilot and sequel are available on DVD. Not a typical spy series, clever and witty, plays that hold your attention by the minute. Well worth seeking out and a great pity that further series weren’t made.



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Our Christmas Mystery

If you enjoy curling up by the fireside with a seasonal mystery, you might like to try our Inspector Abbs novella A Christmas Malice. Set in 1873 during a Victorian country Christmas in Norfolk, our introspective sleuth has a dark puzzle to be solved. As is traditional at this time of year, there will be hope and a happy ending of a sort.Christmas-Malice-Kindle-Cover Reduced

Several readers have asked if the setting is based on a real Norfolk village. Aylmer is completely fictional though the descriptions of the railway line across the empty Fens, an ancient flint church and carrstone cottages fit the real area of beautiful West Norfolk. The towns of King’s Lynn and Hunstanton featured are described as befits their fascinating history.

In the way of any large British county, there are several Norfolks. The saltmarshes, the Broads and the Brecks, to name just three areas are very different from one another. Our story is set on the edge of another, the Norfolk Fens or Fenland. Norfolk is famed for its spectacular wide skies where a fairly flat landscape allows the traveller to see long vistas for miles in every direction. We use fairly advisedly because Norfolk isn’t as pancake flat as is often said. Much of the landscape has gentle undulations and many a fetching slope topped with an old copse or church tower.

On the western edge of the county the Fens (a local word meaning marshland) reach into Norfolk, though their greater part lies in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and the lost county of Huntingdonshire. Flat, few trees, remote and haunting. An empty landscape of long, straight rivers and dykes. Historically a land of windmills, pumping houses, wildfowling and eels. A place of refuge for monks and rebels, the most famous being Hereward the Wake. Cromwell too was a Fenlander. Artificially drained by Dutchmen in the 17th century, the Fens are the lowest-lying land in England and have some of the most fertile soil.

Border places are intriguing, having a face in two directions. A Christmas Malice is set in a village with the Fens starting at its back and a more pastoral landscape on the other side towards the North Sea, then known as the German Ocean. Our Inspector Josiah Abbs is a Norfolk man, living in Devon when the story begins. He comes to spend Christmas with his widowed sister Hetty. Although they grew up on an estate where their father was head gardener, this lonely part of the county is unknown to him. Abbs has only a few days to resolve the mystery, preferably without ruining his sister’s Christmas.

It was an interesting challenge to write a novella-length story (33,000 words) where our detective is alone, without the help of his sergeant or the resources of his county force. Fortunately he does find an ally.
Inspector Abbs and Sergeant Reeve formed an unlikely partnership in our novel A Seaside Mourning, set in Devon in 1873. We hope they’ll return next year – we’ve been sidetracked by writing a detective novel set sixty years later.

It’s available now on most ebook readers and in paperback if you are looking for a stocking-filler.

Just click on the link below:


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Emanuel Litvinoff’s A Death Out of Season

It must be over thirty years since I first read Emanuel Litvinoff’s exceptional novel “A Death Out of Season” – the first book of his Faces of Terror Trilogy. I remember being overwhelmed by the quality of the writing at the time. Not just a fine thriller but a literary novel of the first order. It’s vivid portrayal of Whitechapel in 1910/11 and its deeply-drawn characters have stayed in my mind ever since.

When I first read the book I had never been to Whitechapel. The novel inspired my own explorations in the 1990s, and, although the area has changed a great deal since the time Litvinoff was writing about, you can still get echoes of the Whitechapel he portrays by exploring its streets and alleys, and meeting the people there.

Emanuel Litvinoff was born in 1915 of immigrant parents. He grew up in the Jewish community of the East End leaving school at the age of fourteen, working in professions such as tailoring and carpentry, interspersed – as so many lives were in the 1930s – with periods of unemployment. He was mostly self-educated. He served in the British army during World War Two, reaching the rank of Major. He also served in West Africa and the Middle East. He was one of the best war poets of that conflict. Throughout his life he was a great champion of human rights and a far-sighted commentator on politics of humanity.

Since his death in 2011 his work has been curiously neglected. As far as I can see many of his books are out of print – a scandal! – though the Penguin editions of a few decades ago are readily available from second-hand book dealers. Apart from his own works he was a ghost writer to Louis Golding, which is an interesting tale in itself. There were two early and autobiographical novels “The Lost Europeans” set in post-war Berlin, and “The Man Next Door” which deals with anti-Semitism in suburban England. Litvinoff also wrote “Journey Through a Small Planet” one of the finest autobiographies of the twentieth-century.

But now I want to look at his 1973 novel “A Death Out of Season”. It is set mostly in Whitechapel during the winter of 1910/11 and deals with the background to the Houndsditch killings and the famous Siege of Sidney Street, when Latvian anarchists were besieged and finally killed by police officers and eventually the army after holding out for many hours.

Litvinoff’s book is a consummate spy-thriller dealing with the background to the two above events. It plunges the reader into a world of spies, Russian revolutionists, East End anarchist clubs and doubtful cafes where refugees fleeing Tsarist oppression congregate.

He fictionalises some of the characters who gained notoriety during the famous siege, such as Fritz Svaar and Peter the Painter. The latter character has been the subject of much debate by students of the Sidney Street Siege. Peter the Painter may not actually have existed at all, though he could possibly have been the Comrade Peters who played a role in the Russian Revolution.

More of that another time. If you want a good history of these events do seek out Donald Rumbelow’s excellent account “The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street” (revised edition 1988).

In the novel Litvinoff portrays him as Peter Piatkov, alias Stern. At the beginning of the novel Piatkov is a lieutenant of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police and is sent to London to incite an incident which the Tsarist regime hope might result in the revolutionists who have sought shelter in England being expelled. But is Piatkov playing a double or even a treble game? I won’t spoil this read by telling you.

This is very much Peter’s book. It tells how he falls in love with a Russian countess turned revolutionary Lydia Alexandrova, and their relationship, full of sexual tension, but thwarted by events, is very well-drawn. The kind of affair that might grow when people with secrets are trapped together.

Litvinoff does very well what I would describe as the claustrophobia of terror. The difficulties of the wanted man and woman who have to seek shelter in insalubrious slum dwellings, who have to seek recruits at revolutionary gatherings that might be full of spies and traitors, who develop almost a paranoia about being followed as they walk the crowded streets of the East End.

In the hands of a lesser writer this might almost have turned into a fairly average thriller. But Litvinoff is much better than that. He is a literary master who can create characters with such depth that you can empathise with them even if you don’t agree with their motives. In modern parlance we would describe many of the people portrayed in “A Death Out of Season” as terrorists. But Litvinoff’s humanity never lets us write off his characters in such a simplistic way. He forces you to care, to understand how people get caught up in the sweep of history – for good or bad.

The novel culminates in the Siege of Sidney Street. Litvinoff shows that he can do action as well as he does depth of character. Showing the Siege from both sides, we see only humans, not caricatures. This desperate last fight in a struggle that will go on without them, gives us an understanding that a poorer writer might never be able to bring forward. The Siege is thrillingly depicted. But we are never allowed to forget that the men being destroyed are human beings, whether or not we agree with their motivations.

So if you want to read a thriller that also happens to be a considerable literary novel do try “A Death Out of Season” and its two sequels – which I hope to review very soon – “Blood on the Snow” and “The Face of Terror”.

Emanuel Litvinoff was too good at writer to consign to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops. Let’s see him back in print!

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Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed”

It’s now forty years since Jack Higgins published his bestselling war thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” and a good ten years since I last read it. Time for a re-read and a very satisfying read it was.

Now if you’ve only ever seen the very inferior film version put it out of your mind and find the book. And when I say find the book I really do mean find the extended version published in more recent years, rather than an early edition or the film tie-in edition. You can usually tell the one you want by the fact that it has an author’s preface by Higgins.

The more recent editions give the text as Jack Higgins actually wrote it. Higgins had published a number of thrillers under various names before this breakthrough novel. When he presented the idea of “The Eagle is Landed” his publisher commented that it was the “worst idea he’d ever heard of.”

But Higgins persisted. The first edition was butchered during editing, with whole scenes and characters cut. This is why I suggest buying a later edition where Higgins has restored the book somewhere nearer to his original intentions.

Not for the first time, a publisher has been proved wrong. “The Eagle Has Landed” proved to be an immediate bestseller, first in America and then everywhere else. By the mid nineties, when my copy was published, Higgins could remark – no doubt with some glee – that his book had sold 26 million copies and been translated into 55 languages.

The plot is relatively simple. Following the rescue of Mussolini from Italy by Otto Skorzeny, Hitler demands to know why his secret service, the Abwehr, can’t bring him Churchill out of England? The head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, instructs his operative Max Radl to produce a feasibility study. As Radl progresses he finds that the task could actually be accomplished.

The plot soon takes wing: Radl finds that Churchill will be visiting a lonely village in Norfolk for a quiet weekend. Furthermore, the Abwehr has a spy in the village, a seemingly respectable mature lady called Joanna Grey. He sends in a skilled IRA gunman, Liam Devlin, to assist her ahead of the kidnap attempt. To carry out the mission he finds a disgraced paratrooper Colonel Kurt Steiner and his men to parachute into Norfolk and then…

I’ll leave it there, for this is so good a thriller that you need to read it for yourself.

Now if all of this sounds like common thriller material you couldn’t be more wrong. By the time he wrote “The Eagle Has Landed”, Higgins had learned a great deal about his craft. This is not just a thriller but a terrific novel full stop, written by a writer at the height of his powers. It always irritates me that, certainly on this side of the Pond, we have an awful snobbery about genre fiction. Thrillers and their like are somehow considered to be inferior to many other kinds of novel. And that’s a pity for some of the finest writing is in that genre.

“The Eagle Has Landed” becomes superior to the many similar war thrillers because of the tremendous characterisation. For a start it was written at a time when war thrillers abounded in Britain, where the Germans were portrayed – usually – almost as cartoon villains.

Higgins has said that he wanted to write about good men fighting for rotten causes. We see the horrors of the Nazi regime here, but we are also shown how people get caught up – for good or bad – by the march of history.

Max Radl, is a disillusioned war hero, slowly dying of wounds sustained on the Russian front. Kurt Steiner had been disgraced for rescuing a Jew from the Warsaw Ghetto. Joanna Grey, the Abwehr’s enemy agent in Norfolk, is being torn apart by her love for England and her hatred of the English, because of her experiences in the Boer War. Liam Devlin is a member of the IRA who’s become tired of some of the methods used to achieve a united Ireland.

Devlin is the star turn of the novel. (Higgins uses the character again at different ages in other books). He is by the English definition an Irish terrorist, though a very questioning terrorist. He is a poet who starts the book lecturing in English literature at the University of Berlin. He remains loyal to his cause throughout, but deeply suspicious of everyone else’s. This character is portrayed with such depth, integrity and understanding that any writer of literature would be glad to own him. Devlin stays in your mind a long time after you close the pages.

“The Eagle Has Landed” has one of the best openings of any thriller, with Higgins himself, as a character, visiting Norfolk in the 1970s; gradually uncovering the truth about what happened there in 1943. This beginning is a wonderful example of just how an opening chapter should be, each sentence drawing the reader further and further in. You’ll learn more from studying it than you would from a hundred text books or writing courses.

While the idea of Nazis arriving undercover in an English village is not new – it was first contemplated in an exciting film called “Went The Day Well” made during the war – Higgins was the first to portray the situation fairly from all sides. And to include an IRA gunman as a hero, well an anti-hero I suppose, in a thriller written at the height of the Troubles of the 1970s was a particularly brave move. Higgins moved the thriller genre on by providing a greater depth of understanding. Thriller writers have benefitted ever since.

The film version might pass an hour or two on a wet afternoon, but it shows none of the subtlety of Higgins’ writing. Whole sections of the book are lost and one major character is not there. Michael Caine’s Steiner looks as though he’s wandered in from some other film, Jean Marsh’s Joanna Grey is good but far too young. Larry Hagman’s American Rangers Colonel is a bit like JR Ewing doing his war service. Only Donald Sutherland as Liam Devlin comes close to the literary original. (Incidentally, Caine was originally supposed to play Devlin, but apparently thought that portraying an IRA soldier might be a bad career move. The late Richard Harris had a go as well, before the director decided on Sutherland). The direction of the film is unimaginative and some of the dialogue is occasionally risible.

“The Eagle Has Landed” deserves a more intelligent remake, perhaps as a mini-series where some of the depth of Higgins’s original could be explored.

But if you enjoy thrillers – certainly if you’re thinking of writing one – do read or re-read “The Eagle Has Landed.” Jack Higgins is a master of the craft.


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