Tag Archives: espionage

Codename Kyril

Codename Kyril is a British television spy series first broadcast in 1989 and based on the novel A Man Named Kyril by John Trenhaile. I have to admit, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether the television series is close to the book.

Kyril

We recently acquired this on DVD. For some reason I missed it on its 1989 transmission. But beware: the TV series was edited down for a TV film after the original transmission, and a great deal cut out. So if you get the DVD, make sure it’s the full version – 209 minutes.

Codename Kyril was probably the last great addition to the canon of Cold War spy dramas, and has the feel of a John Le Carre, though with more action sequences. This is a real edge of the seat programme, so take the phone off the hook and don’t answer the door. It was scripted by John Hopkins, who also co-scripted the TV version of Le Carre’s Smiley’s People.

It has some wonderful actors, notably Edward Woodward, Peter Vaughan, Ian Charleson, Denholm Elliot, Richard E. Grant and Joss Ackland – all perfectly cast and thoroughly believable in their roles.

Unlike a lot of Cold War spy dramas, you get to know who the traitors are early on. But this doesn’t take anything away from the tension. Indeed, it increases the suspense as you wonder when they’ll be found out.

Marshall Stanov, head of the KGB – a mesmerising performance by the late and great Peter Vaughan, discovers that there’s a traitor in the Moscow Centre leaking secrets to MI6. He despatches KGB agent Ivan Bucharensky (Ian Charleson) to London as a supposed defector with the codename Kyril. Stanov fakes a diary, purportedly by Bucharensky, which might suggest who the traitor is. The idea being to lure out the traitor.

The head of MI6 (Joss Ackland) orders his best agent Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) to capture Kyril and prevent the KGB from getting him back, lest he betrays the British mole in Moscow Centre.

In reality, of course, Kyril knows nothing, but his supposed knowledge makes him a target for both sides in this exciting war of nerves. Kyril is hunted both by MI6 and the KGB and his evasion methods and the use of tradecraft makes for gripping viewing.

And is the KGB the only organisation with a traitor in its ranks, or have the Russians penetrated MI6 as well?

Rather like in the best of Le Carre, the Great Game is played out like a game of chess, one move forwards and then another backwards.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because this is a programme you really do need to see for yourself.

The production values are excellent, the script literate and the direction by Ian Sharp stunning.

I’m thrilled the Cold War is over (I think!), but how we miss those Cold War spy dramas.

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The IPCRESS File – Film review

One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).The Ipcress File [DVD]

Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.

Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.

Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.

Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.

The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.

The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.

The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.

Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.

Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.

Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.

Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.

The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.

One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.

Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.

Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.

Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.

What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.

The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.

I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.

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My Latest Book Is Out!

William Quest is back! Deadly Quest (A William Quest Victorian Thriller Book 2) by [Bainbridge, John]

My new novel, DEADLY QUEST, the second in the William Quest series, is now available for pre-order on Kindle at a special offer price.

Publication day is Friday September 30th. The paperback version will be out at the same time. The price will increase that weekend so please do order today for the bargain price.

And if you haven’t read the first novel, The Shadow of William Quest, it’s available both as a Kindle e-Book and in paperback.

Please share this post with your friends, whether they enjoy historical fiction, crime fiction or just have a love of adventure stories…

Regards, John

Here’s more about DEADLY QUEST, with a few readers’ comments on William Quest:

“A reign of terror sweeps through the Victorian underworld as a menacing figure seeks to impose his will on the criminals of London.

On the abandoned wharves of the docklands and in the dangerous gaslit alleys of Whitechapel, hardened villains are being murdered, dealers in stolen goods and brothel keepers threatened.

The cobbles of the old city are running with blood, as pistol shots bark out death to any who resist.

Who can fight back to protect the poor and the oppressed? The detectives of Scotland Yard are baffled as the death toll mounts. There is, of course, William Quest – Victorian avenger. A man brought up to know both sides of the law.

But Quest faces dangers of his own.

Sinister watchers are dogging his footsteps through the fog, as Quest becomes the prey in a deadly manhunt, threatened by a vicious enemy, fighting for his life in a thrilling climax in the most dangerous rookery in Victorian London.

Dead Quest or Deadly Quest?”

An historical crime story by the author of The Shadow of William Quest, A Seaside Mourning and Wolfshead.”

What readers are saying about William Quest…

A page turner of a mystery from the start… I couldn’t put this one down for long as I was caught up in the twists and turns of this richly constructed tale.

Great author, fantastic book. Such a unique story and very well told.

A new hero for these times has entered literature, and is destined to capture the attention of all those yearning for a better chapter within the human saga – it is William Quest.

Great read! Couldn’t put it down.

Superb plotting, believable characters, and a very effective writing style

…a real feel for history and storytelling.

Here’s the Link to Order:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deadly-Quest-William-Victorian-Thriller-ebook/dp/B01LYGNCNQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1473791400&sr=1-1&keywords=Deadly+Quest

 

 

 

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John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps

Last year marked the centenary of the first book publication of John Buchan’s classic thriller. I blogged on the book itself on March 19th 2015 in celebration. But I want to recommend to you a quite excellent book about the background and genesis of The Thirty Nine Steps, which I’ve really enjoyed reading.

The title is John Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps – An Exploration by John Burnett and Kate Mackay, published by National Museums Scotland.

If you enjoy reading Buchan as much as I do, you’ll love this book. The authors begin with a brief biography of Buchan himself, before examining the thriller in considerable detail, looking at the book’s origins, describing the events within chapter by chapter – there are spoilers here, so I would recommend that you read the thriller first if it’s new to you.

If you’ve ever thought of writing your own thriller you’ll find this book quite inspirational; it takes you on a journey across the Galloway and Borders landscape through which Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay escapes his enemies, look at the characters of the various Scots he meets on the way, takes an in-depth look at the way disguise is used in the novel, and investigates pre-Great War espionage and its links with the chase thriller.

There are a number of nods in the direction of other Buchan thrillers as well, so the devotee of his work will find much of value here.

John Buchan is only now getting the reputation he deserves as an important writer of Scottish fiction. It is good to see the appearance of books like this which examine his work with such readable scholarship.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1905267878/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1905267878&linkCode=as2&tag=johnbainbridg-21

 

 

 

 

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John Buchan’s “Greenmantle”

John Buchan’s classic thriller “Greenmantle” – first published a hundred years ago this October – is the second of his novels to feature the character Richard Hannay, whom Buchan introduced in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (see blogs passim).

The plot covers an attempt by the Germans, for their own strategic advantage in World War One, to persuade the Turks to participate in a Jihad against the Allies. This makes it singularly relevant for modern times, when the word Jihad is constantly banded about. (Jihad is usually interpreted as meaning the summoning of a holy war; it actually means working for Islam in all sorts of ways).

The book starts with Hannay, recovering from wounds received on the Western Front, being summoned to see spymaster Sir Walter Bullivant (from “The Thirty-Nine Steps”), who gives him a slip of paper with three very slender clues, and then despatches him to discover their meaning.

Hannay, disguised as a South African of Dutch origins, makes a perilous crossing of Germany, partly in the company of the Boer Peter Pienaar, and the American John Blenkiron. In my view these German-set passages are the most interesting in the book. While the chief villain, von Stumm, is portrayed by Buchan as something like the baddie of anti-German propaganda of the time, the rest of the Germans are represented with considerable sympathy. Which is quite surprising for a British writer in 1916.

Hannay, in his disguise, is introduced to the Kaiser, whom Buchan portrays with surprising understanding, showing him as much a victim of events as anyone else caught up in the Great War. He also gives us a German engineer called Gaudian, whom Hannay likes very much (he reappears in the later Hannay adventure “The Three Hostages”).  Even von Stumm is shown as a balanced figure – you can see where he is coming from.

There are passages where Hannay is ill and given shelter by a German family, and a chapter where he works in great harmony with the German captain of a barge travelling down the Danube. Hannay learns from his experiences that the horror of the war is that it often pits decent people against each other.

Given the anti-German propaganda of the time, this is all the more remarkable. Buchan has too often been labelled as a racist and anti-Semite (usually by people who’ve never read him). He is neither. His humanity shines through his work. If his characters sometimes use expressions that sound uneasy on the modern politically-correct ear, it is because that is the way people spoke at the time. And the views of a writer’s characters do not represent what the writer might believe anyway.

In this book we are introduced to Sandy Arbuthnot (based mostly on Buchan’s university friend Aubrey Herbert.) Sandy is a master of disguise, a man who has lived rough in many parts of the east, and can pass himself off as a native in many countries. The character might sound far-fetched, but the real-life Aubrey Herbert did all of that and more. Peter Pienaar is a hunter from the African veldt, a simple man of great courage. Blenkiron abandons the American neutrality of the time to work for the Allies. Buchan was very fond of Americans and this character is a tribute to many friends.

The other villain of the piece is the German agent Hilda von Einem, who has an obviously sexual obsession for Sandy Arbuthnot, even as he is thwarting her plans to inspire Jihad.

Eventually the four heroes of the book find themselves in Constantinople, a city portrayed in a very claustrophobic and threatening way. Here they discover the secret of Greenmantle, before journeying to the front line in the war, at Erzurum, where the Germans, Austrians and Turks are fighting off a Russian advance. Buchan shows sympathy for the Turks, despite the fact that they are Hannay’s enemies. Sandy is shown to have a considerable empathy with the Turkish people.

The novel ends with our heroes surrounded and fighting against massive odds. I won’t say more because I think you should read “Greenmantle” for yourself. But I think it interesting that Buchan, against the fashion of British thrillers of the time, is not afraid to make Hannay and the others scared.

John Buchan was a great writer in so many ways. He is particularly good at describing landscapes, taking the reader right in there with his characters. You really feel you have undertaken Hannay’s journey across Europe to Turkey.

A century on, “Greenmantle” is still an exciting read. More than that, it is prophetic, given the circumstances of the modern world.

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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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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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The Riddle of the Sands

Erskine Childers’ novel “The Riddle of the Sands – A Record of Secret Service” has never been out of print since it was first published in 1903. It has influenced a great many thriller writers since, a god-parent, if not quite the father, of the modern thriller novel.

It is very much a creation of its time – Edwardian England, when the British Establishment was becoming increasingly concerned about the way Germany – still a relatively new nation – was equipping itself for war. It was also a period when new techniques of espionage were being defined, though, thankfully, before anything approaching modern technology had taken over.

Anyone who has undertaken any sort of covert observational work would attest to the accuracy of the pace of the spying and the scale of the operation. There are no master-villains, just ordinary Germans, something like Carruthers and Davies themselves, carrying out their own strategy at a time of increasing international paranoia and the race to an inevitable war. There is a baddie, though I won’t spoil the story if you haven’t read it by going into any more details. All I will say is that he is both a towering and tragic individual, torn by conflicting loyalties, not really a villain at all in the traditional sense. There’s a girl too, though fortunately the romantic elements of the novel are understated.

This is very much a feet-on-the-ground spy story, perhaps I should say sea-boots for this is one of the great novels about sailing.

The plot line is relatively simple, and I won’t give too much away. The story is told by Carruthers – a name to conjure with, a kind of byword for an Establishment figure in the century or more since – who is invited to join his old friend Arthur Davies who is sailing his yacht amidst the Friesian Islands, off the German coast in the North Sea or, as it was popularly known at the time, the German Ocean.

Carruthers takes up the invitation expecting his friend to have a comfortable yacht in the luxurious sense, complete with servants. Instead the Dulcibella is barely big enough to cope with the two of them. Carruthers works for the British government – the Foreign Office – but is on leave. A lot of the book is taken up with the details of this sailing voyage (the book comes complete with maps and charts – if you had a yacht of your own you could follow their adventures and route with little difficulty.)

This is not a page-turning thriller in the modern sense. There is as much about their voyaging as there is about espionage, those gripping scenes being scattered throughout the book. But this does give the yarn an air of reality. And you do keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happens as the two young men are drawn into a German plot to invade England.

This is espionage as it really was, and perhaps still is. The book is presented with an introduction and epilogue by Childers, suggesting that Carruthers has related the account almost as a kind of report to him – a literary device, admittedly, but it is worth remembering that Childers worked at Westminster for much of his career, and also in Intelligence. Writing for him was very much a side-line. “The Riddle of the Sands” is his only novel.

It was published to great success, soon achieving both a popularity and also a great fear in the public mind; waking up the political establishment and the people of Britain to the possibility of a war with Germany. It’s said that, before the novel was published, the east coast of England was little prepared for defence and all the great naval bases were elsewhere. The British had always assumed that the traditional enemy would always be France. Few novels and thrillers have led to a rethink of defensive strategy – “The Riddle of the Sands” is probably the only one to make a significant tactical difference.

There is an element of verifiable truth in the novel. Childers had undertaken a similar voyage to his two heroes just a few years earlier. The details of the islands, the movements of the tides, the hazards of the sea fogs are taken from life, and conjured up on the pages. Childers is very good at evoking a sense of place, in much the way his admirer John Buchan did a few years later. You can smell the salt water and the mud of the islands even as you read. The sights and sounds of the journey are brought to life by the skill of the author.

Interestingly the plot inspired two Royal Navy officers, both amateur yachtsmen, to undertake a similar voyage in 1910, where they genuinely did spy on German naval defences.

Erskine Childers’ book is not just a thriller but a considerable work of literature. It might not race along like a Robert Ludlum, but it really does give a flavour of spying at the time.

Erskine Childers’ end was tragic. He sympathised with the cause of Irish Nationalism, joining the Nationalists when the Free State was established. In the Civil War that followed the schism between the Nationalists and the proponents of the Free State, he was arrested and executed by firing squad. Today we might call it judicial murder. A tragic end for a brave and far-seeing individual.

“The Riddle of the Sands” has been filmed, in a British version with Simon MacCorkindale, Michael York, Alan Badel and Jenny Agutter – a beautifully photographed film, made on location, which really captures the essence of what Childers wrote. There is, interestingly enough, a German version, though I’ve never managed to see it.

But even well over a century after its publication “The Riddle of the Sands” is well worth seeking out. And unlike some of the thrillers published today, I think it’s safe to say that this is very much how Edwardian espionage must really have been. Childers’ novel not only inspired a generation of spy novelists but almost certainly a whole generation of real-life spies.

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The Writing Legacy of Robin Hood

When it comes to writing about crime you can’t go much further back than Robin Hood.
Put on a detective story level you could argue that Robin is the master criminal of Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the representative of the law dedicated to hunting him down.

Only that isn’t how we usually think of Robin Hood, because traditionally he’s a rebel engaged in fighting against an unjust society, with all the odds against him.
Robin is an outlaw.

Literally, in English historical and legal terms, someone outside the law. A man denied the law’s protection, who can be hunted and slain like a wolf by anyone at all for a reward, hence the description “wolfshead” attached to medieval outlaws.

In the terms of crime and mystery stories, he’s much more on a par with characters like Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar, the Saint, who sees off very nasty villains, despite being on the wrong side of the law himself. All the time being hunted by the long-suffering Inspector Claude Eustace Teal.

In fact, there is quite a tradition of such characters, such as Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond (though Drummond’s a bit politically dubious), Bruce Graeme’s Blackshirt, John Creasey’s Baron and some of the characters in the novels of John Buchan, whose Richard Hannay in The Thirty-nine Steps (see blogs passim) is hunted across the wilds of the countryside by villains and the law together as he tries to do the right thing. In Buchan’s Midwinter we have an outlaw network operating on the side of right, not very different from Robin and his merry (or these days usually not so merry) men.

And going back to the comics of my childhood, wasn’t this the position of many of the superheroes? I recall that the early Batman worked somewhere between the forces of Right and certain legal niceties in American comic books. And my British boy’s comics were full of heroes who fought villainy from questionable sides of the law.

A great deal of crime literature, high, middle and low brow, depicts people determining their own view on what is right and then carrying through acts of justice regardless of the irritating letters of the law. Even Sherlock Holmes makes the occasional decision to let some offender go.

In real life vigilantes are unacceptable, but between the safe covers of a book, they make for some great reading.

These influences must have soaked into my psyche because they inspired me to create the Victorian vigilante William Quest in my thriller The Shadow of William Quest (I am at the moment writing the sequel). Quest operates outside the law for what he perceives to be the cause of justice. Whether he is right or wrong is up to the reader. Like Robin Hood he has a gang of fellow participants, all members of a rather sinister society dedicated to promoting their own interpretation of what is right. Even if it means breaking the real law to do it.

I suspect many of us have been tempted in such ways when we’ve come across some present day cruelty or injustice. The fleeting thought sweeping through our minds, then just as readily dismissed when we consider the consequences.

And so I come to my new book Loxley – The Chronicles of Robin Hood, which is published this week.

Having been brought up on the stories of England’s original outlaw, I couldn’t resist writing my own version of his deeds. From childhood I’ve loved the many retellings, adored the films and television programmes, even roamed around the remnants of Sherwood Forest. From my first memories I’ve loved the adventures of that outlaw.

So this was the book I always had to write. In fact, in my mind, I’ve been writing it for more years than I care to remember. But, having re-read the original ballads last year, I actually found a few months to sit down and write this first book which, while complete in itself, will be the first of a four-part series. I’ve gone back to the original roots of the legend, but not in some slavish retelling, but more my thoughts on a Robin Hood living in a real medieval landscape, where the men and women are not so merry and where there is some understanding of just what motivates the baddies.

In a world where the weak seem to be back-footed, their opinions ignored, the tales of Robin Hood seem peculiarly relevant and the idea that Right should always defeat unjust Might more important than ever.

All of my novels so far have been historical, though I haven’t before gone back so far in time.

I’d love to know what you think of it?

Loxley is out now in paperback and on most eBook readers. Just click on the link for more information:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Loxley-Chronicles-Robin-John-Bainbridge-ebook/dp/B00WMJXRUC/ref=sr_1_17?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1430061339&sr=1-17&keywords=Robin+Hood

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About Balmoral Kill

The autumn of 1937 – A desperate race against time to find a deadly killer…

In 1936 the British royal family were rocked by their greatest scandal as Edward VIII gave up the throne in order to marry an American divorcee.

Many ordinary people regretted the loss of their popular king. In the dark corridors of power, not everyone was sorry…

A year later the Abdication Crisis seems forgotten and all eyes are on the Coronation that summer. In August the new King George VI will retreat to Balmoral, his remote holiday home in the Highlands of Scotland.

As the shadow of war falls across Europe, a sinister conspiracy lies deep within the British establishment.

A man lies dead in a woodland glade. An unfortunate accident or has the first shot been fired in a secret war?

Sean Miller is recalled home to take on his deadliest challenge – but where do his loyalties really lie?

In a frantic chase, from the slums and sinister alleys of London to the lonely glens of the Scottish Highlands, Miller must hunt and bring down his most dangerous opponent.
His mission – to foil the final shot that will plunge Europe into the abyss of a new Dark Age.

Now in paperback and on Kindle.

Just click on the link below for more details or to order. Thank you.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Balmoral-Kill-Sean-Miller-Adventure-ebook/dp/B00Q8I7LGO/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1422807472&sr=1-1&keywords=balmoral+kill

 

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