(Editor’s note: This is the 115th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Jim Napier, a crime-fiction reviewer for Quebec’s Sherbrooke Record. His articles can be found in Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, and January Magazine, as well as on his own Web site, Deadly Diversions.)
There’s an old curse that goes “May you live in interesting times,” and it seems that for the better part of the past 100 years, we have. It wasn’t long after the dust settled at the end of World War II that nations faced a new conflict, tailor-made for the nuclear age: the face-off between the Western democracies (chiefly the United States) and what was then the Soviet Union, in a long-running confrontation that came to be known as the Cold War. Fueled by anti-Communist hysteria largely created by Joseph McCarthy’s 1954 U.S. Senate hearings, tensions between the two countries rose, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Suddenly, people around the whole globe held their breath, while they waited to learn whether the Cold War was suddenly going to turn very hot indeed.
Not coincidentally, it was at almost exactly that instant that novelists capitalizing on Soviet-Western tensions began to really make their mark. Author Ian Fleming, coming from a background in British Intelligence, had kicked off what was to become an iconic spy-thriller series with Casino Royale in 1953; but it was not until the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy revealed that a Bond book was among his favorite reads, that North Americans took notice. It wasn’t long before the Bond yarns, translated to the big screen, became box-office hits.
The Fleming novels owed much to their protagonist, larger-than-life James Bond. Bond was a superhero for the postwar era: impossibly handsome, suave, armed with lethal wristwatches and exotic cars featuring armor plating, missiles, and ejection-seats, and--complementing all that ordnance--a license to kill. But although Bond was utterly committed to completing his daunting assignments, he was also morally detached from them: he was simply doing his job, albeit very well. Bond’s exploits over the decades would carry him from his home base in London all the way to outer space, and being on Our Side in a deeply polarized world, Western readers could be certain that he--and thus we--would ultimately prevail.
Bond’s antithesis emerged a decade later in a more understated novel by an obscure author named David Cornwell, who would become better known as John le Carré. No superheroes, his protagonists tended to be rather drab, often bespectacled desk-jockeys who inhabited the quiet corridors of Britain’s MI5, enduring the drudgery of British intelligence work while doing their bit to save the world from the evils of Communism. Drawing on his own experience working with both MI5 and MI6, Le Carré burst onto the scene in 1963 with his epochal third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The central figure in that narrative is Alec Leamas, the world-weary head of station in West Berlin. Leamas came to personify this new breed of protagonist: not Superhero but Everyman, quietly laboring to do his job while confronting the shifting moralities of a complex and duplicitous world. Le Carré’s nuanced take on the intelligence realm features shifting forms, shadows and ambiguities--unlike the stark, black-and-white world of 007--and readers cannot be certain of the outcome of a Le Carré tale until its final page.
Firmly in Le Carré’s tradition of workaday spooks who labor quietly and out of the limelight, British author Anthony Price emerged on the scene in 1970 with his debut novel, The Labyrinth Makers. That tale revolves around Dr. David Audley, a Middle East historian and rather diffident intelligence analyst, who is tasked with looking into the recovery of a Royal Air Force Dakota transport, recently retrieved from a lake in Lincolnshire, where it had crashed during the waning days of WWII. Why are the Russians interested in it? Does their curiosity have anything to do with the mysterious cargo the plane was carrying? And not the least significant question: Why was Audley tapped to look into this case? Was he given the job in hopes that he would fail, preserving secrets that his superiors would rather not have revealed? Audley must navigate the Byzantine rivalries that exist within the intelligence community as he tracks down the surviving members of the Dakota’s flight crew, matches wits with a mysterious Russian, and tries to fathom the motives of Faith Steerforth, the daughter of the dead pilot and a beguiling young woman who has unaccountably taken a fancy to the rather bookish middle-aged analyst. Before this tale is over, Audley and Faith will find themselves the target of a team of assassins who isolate the pair at a remote farmhouse and confronting one of the darkest secrets of the Soviet government, which, if exposed, would threaten its very being. Is the cerebral sleuth up to the challenge?
The Labyrinth Makers has been called an old-fashioned novel, and that’s undoubtedly true. Like his creator, Audley is very much a gentleman of the Old School, and if the romance is muted, the sex can only be described as virtually non-existent. The violence in these pages is equally restrained, certainly by present-day standards. But shrouded characters and a devilish plot easily hold readers firmly in their grasp as they make their way among the various clues and red herrings toward an exciting climax with an unexpected twist.
Some critics have faulted Price for not producing more excitement in his novels. Their criticism seems to me to miss the mark: like Le Carré, this author’s aim is to produce exquisitely layered puzzles, in which the characterization is subtle, and the reader is challenged to match wits with the writer. A book such as Smiley's People can hardly be called exciting in terms of action; but it is nonetheless spellbinding on account of its layered and understated characters, and its subtle clues. The same may be said of The Labyrinth Makers: chock-full of ambiguous characters and replete with tantalizing red herrings and plausible theories, it more than holds its own with the best of spy fiction and deservedly earned for its author the Crime Writers’ Association’s 1971 Silver Dagger Award, presaging the Gold Dagger he was to win in 1974 for Other Paths to Glory. Indeed, Other Paths was subsequently shortlisted for the 2005 Dagger of Daggers Award, honoring “the best crime novel of the last 50 years.” Price went on to pen a total of 19 novels in the David Audley/Colonel Jack Butler series, some of the best spy fiction ever produced.
Not wholly forgotten, The Labyrinth Makers has gone through several editions since its first appearance, most recently in 2010 under the Phoenix imprint from UK publisher Orion. A superb work, it will appeal to a new generation of readers in search of a challenging, well-crafted, and engrossing spy thriller set in an iconic era of international intrigue.