By Jim Napier
An obscene number of today’s crime-fiction readers will not be familiar with the works of Derek Marlowe. And that’s a shame, for he was one of the bright lights of espionage fiction during the peak of the Cold War. He died in 1996, but between 1965 and 1982 Marlowe turned out a small number of impressive novels, beginning with 1966’s A Dandy in Aspic, which he wrote in just four weeks. His roommate at the time, the playwright Tom Stoppard, was convinced that it would be a flop; after all, John le Carré had himself debuted just a few years earlier with the first of what would be many definitive works on the spycraft trade, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But when Stoppard heard the premise of Marlowe’s book, he was forced to admit it was brilliant: a double agent working for both the Russians and the British is assigned to kill his other self! American rights and film rights followed swiftly, and Marlowe was suddenly a global success. The novel is deservedly a classic, but, to quote Stoppard, “to be out of print is not a value judgment in itself, more like a hazard of the writing life.” It took this book’s reissue in 2015 by his son, Ben Marlowe, to bring A Dandy in Aspic to the attention of the current generation of readers.
The tale introduces us to Alexander Eberlin, an unprepossessing, Oxford-educated man in his mid-30s who spends much of his leisure time in his rooms, reading or contemplating the view from his rear window, or taking uneventful walks through Hyde Park, then dining alone in his flat.
Eberlin’s postgraduate education in Medieval Warfare has not proved especially useful in his career with British Intelligence, but leaving a cocktail party one evening he meets two Russians who address him as Comrade Krasnevin, and direct him to a nearby car containing their superior, a man named Pavel. Having just finished an assignment to kill a man, Eberlin indicates that he is disenchanted with his work for the British. Trained at the Soviet Military College near Kiev, where he was also given his present identity as Alexander Eberlin, he asks to return to the USSR. Pavel demurs, arguing that Eberlin is more useful in Britain, and his request is denied.
The following morning, Eberlin is summoned to a conference during which an offensive mandarin named Brogue informs him that a most senior British agent, Emmannuel Gatiss, is expected back from Istanbul, Turkey. Eberlin fears that Gatiss will be able to unmask him. Despondent, he returns home and considers his prospects. It is not a pretty picture. He says, “I added up my friends the other day. It was a difficult task but finally, after much drastic deliberation, I narrowed the number down to none.”
(Left) The original, 1966 U.S. cover of Marlowe's A Dandy in Aspic.
And then the other shoe drops: Eberlin is ordered to attend a high-level meeting in the English countryside, at which he learns that his next assignment is to execute a Russian assassin that the members of British Intelligence have had their eyes on for some time. They don’t know much about him—what he looks like, or where to find him; in fact, the only lead they have is the man’s name: Krasnevin.
Eberlin, it seems, is being ordered to kill himself.
Among readers aware of the intrigues of Anthony Blunt and his jaded Cambridge conspirators in the 1950s and ’60s, Eberlin’s crise will doubtless strike a familiar chord. But it’s not merely the ripped-from-the-headlines aspect that gives Marlowe’s tale its appeal. The delicious irony of his plot is grounded in fine, dark writing that explores the tension between the inexorable machinations of British Intelligence and the all-too-human cog who has been ordered to carry out an assignment he cannot possibly accomplish. The outcome reveals a splendidly cunning resolution to Eberlin’s dilemma.
However, Marlowe does not rest his tale on plot alone, as fine as it is. One need only sample his incisive writing at random to appreciate its enduring appeal:
The sexual undulations of Lady Hetherington were, in fact, well known in her section of London society, as well as on a small, but impishly pert Greek island in the Adriatic. She had, it seems, lost her virginity at an early age and had been offering herself as a reward for its recapture ever since.Derek Marlowe died in California in 1996, of complications following a liver transplant. Although he left behind a limited number of works, they remain jewels in the British literary crown, his droll wit setting him apart from most of his peers. A Dandy in Aspic is a literate, originally told tale, that in 50 years has not lost its power to entertain.
* * *Jim Napier is the creator of the award-winning Web site Deadly Diversions, which features more than 500 reviews and interviews with leading crime-fiction writers. His own first crime novel, Legacy, is scheduled to appear in the spring of 2017. It will be the first in a series of contemporary Britain-based police procedurals.