Friday, October 30, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Dolly Dolly Spy,” by Adam Diment

(Editor’s note: This is the 69th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s must-read choice comes from the pseudonymous British journalist-turned-author Tom Cain. Cain has so far produced three well-received thrillers: The Accident Man [2007], No Survivors [2008, published in the UK as The Survivor], and this year’s Assassin. His original and controversial, three-part short story, “Bloodsport,” appeared in The Rap Sheet in August.)

Four years ago, or so, when I was really struggling with the first 30,000 words of what would become The Accident Man (and I do mean struggling: it took two years to come up with anything even vaguely suitable to show to publishers), my long-suffering agent, Julian Alexander, suggested I should read some books by a British writer called Adam Diment. They’d been written back in the mid- to late-1960s and they featured a posh, dope-smoking, babe-shagging, terminally fashionable young spy called Philip McAlpine. Julian thought I’d enjoy them and maybe get some inspiration, too. I said I’d check them out.

That was easier said than done. After he published his first book, The Dolly Dolly Spy, in 1967, Diment was very briefly very hot. The London Sunday Times told its readers that “Adam Diment is 23; his hero, Philip McAlpine, is based on himself. That is to say he’s tall, good-looking, with a taste for fast cars, planes, girls, and pot.”

The following year, like the Beatles, Diment hit the hippy trail to India where he studied at an ashram. By 1971 he was living in Rome. After that: nothing. But I am getting ahead of myself ...

Desperate for something, anything to get me out of my unproductive rut, I trawled the Internet for Diment’s books. And the first thing I discovered was that he gave great title. The Dolly Dolly Spy was followed by The Bang Bang Birds (1968), The Great Spy Race (1968), and Think Inc. (1971). Something about those names took me right back to the London of my childhood, and the covers were more outrageous and evocative still. The Dolly Dolly Spy’s jacket is, like Philip McAlpine himself, a neat combination of James Bond (blood, bullet holes, and a blonde in a bikini) and the counterculture (a block of hash resin, a razor blade, and two smoked joints). But the cover of The Bang Bang Birds (shown at left) is entirely original. It features a chorus-line of machine-gun-toting girls, naked except for knee-length boots, drawn as a psychedelic cartoon.

This was real time-capsule stuff, a perfect evocation of the look and attitudes of its era, and I loved it. Within a week I’d bought hardback first editions of all four of Diment’s books. When they arrived, I discovered to my delight that the writing matched the packaging. Diment is the lost boy-genius of British thriller writing.

The first thing that’s great is the attitude. Diment was educated at Lansing, a private boarding school in West Sussex, right on the south coast of England, where he must have been an almost exact contemporary of the lyricist Sir Tim Rice. So, like the Old Etonian Ian Fleming, he writes in a slick, slangy style that never quite disguises the classical education--Diment would have studied Latin from the ages of 8 to 15--that lies behind it. And, like Fleming, Diment is cloaked with that confidence, tipping over into arrogance that marks the English public schoolboy.

He writes in the first-person and his character of McAlpine is not afraid to say precisely, caustically, and often very wittily what he thinks of anything or anyone he encounters. But right from the start of The Dolly Dolly Spy--written, remember, by a 23-year-old first-timer--there are passages that suggest Diment had the makings of a seriously good novelist. Here McAlpine is, for example, describing his on-and-off girlfriend Veronica Lom:
Her experience, which includes a large number of love affairs, modelling jobs, minor television appearances, two abortions and a wide range of kinky and interesting episodes, hangs around her like a halo. There, you would say on seeing her, is a girl who has seen life. Paddington pot parties, a hundred odd secretarial jobs like her present one--which end because her boss starts to twitch his fingers a bit--a film part which curled up and died on the cutting room floor. Following the flotsam of the jet set across Europe: Paris, Cannes, St Tropez, Venice, Sardinia, Baden Baden, Paris, Rome and back to Paris. The modern, cuffed airport waiting rooms. Dull flights, indigestible high altitude food and the grimy bodies of travel.
That paragraph is 124 words long. And it tells me precisely who this girl is. McAlpine’s MI6 boss, Rupert Quine, is an even finer character. He’s snide, vicious, utterly camp, and quite willing to resort to blackmail to make McAlpine do what he wants. When McAlpine first meets him, the diminutive, gnomic Quine is wearing a light green suit: “the impression he gave was of a dandified mouling stoat.” Quine looks McAlpine up and down and says, “Well, it’s nice to see you after reading so much. Your picky doesn’t do you justice, luv.” Then he produces some drugs, found in McAlpine’s flat, and explains that if McAlpine doesn’t accept the assignment he is about to be offered, he will be sent to jail for drug-dealing. Along the way, he calls McAlpine, “lovey,” “sweetie,” and “honeychile.”

Rupert Quine is really not at all like M.

And that, for me is the really fascinating thing about Diment’s work. His stories are thoroughly Bond-esque: his first assignment is to go undercover as a pilot in an airborne smuggling operation run by former members of the Waffen-SS. But everything else about him reminds one why Ian Fleming’s death in 1964 was--from the point of view of his literary reputation and Bond’s survival as a global icon--so astonishingly well timed.

Bond is a man of the ’50s, whose attitudes can be traced back to Fleming’s days as a fashionable young man in pre-World War II, 1930s London. Had he kept writing into the mid-’60s, Fleming would have been utterly overtaken: Agent 007 would have been clueless in the world of the Beatles and the Stones, miniskirts, Flower Power and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Adam Diment, however, was utterly in his element and his four books are to Bond what Sgt. Pepper was to The Sound of Music: a signal of something clearly rooted in the past that is, at the same time, utterly new.

Or to put it another way, Diment’s man McAlpine is Austin Powers, but for real ... and played by a cool, handsome, upper-class Englishman, not some irritating little tit from Ontario.

READ MORE:Adam Diment,” by Steve Holland (Bear Alley).

1 comment:

Jeremy Duns said...

Fantastic stuff, Tom. I also have a soft spot for Diment, and even mentioned him in my Rap Sheet interview earlier in the year. :) I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say he's the lost genius of the genre - my candidates would be Joseph Hone or Adam Hall - but he was certainly a cracking thriller-writer who has been largely forgotten. I think the 'Austin Powers' stuff now distracts from just how good a lot of his writing was: he had taut plots and some great sardonic prose. By the way, if you don't know the I think you might also enjoy Peter Townend's books, which are in a slightly similar vein, and also very well-written and great fun, about a British photographer called Phillip Quest, who gets into trouble in beautiful places.