Readers will be drawn to the light and airy feel of these late 60s spy novels. Both are at times laugh out loud funny and that initially reminded me of Martin Waddell’s Otley, but this is not spoof. The world that Sangster leads us into is dark, duplicitous and deadly; his characters are grandmasters at the double and triple cross. The British and American secret services are every bit as corrupt, twisted and cruel as the Chinese or the Russian ‘enemy’. These tales of espionage are complex, they pose questions about the moral vacuity of the Cold War engagement, the dance macabre in the name of patriotism and cause. Don’t get me wrong, this is not le Carré, it’s much more fun than that but the deeper themes won’t escape you either. This is very pointedly not James Bond though, the anti-hero, John Smith, is overweight, running to seed, he has bad teeth, he’s a bit of a coward truth be told, he smells and he’s perpetually broke. Money is the main the reason he gets into trouble, which he does spectacularly. Sangster’s clever plots are delivered with style; taut, lean prose, snappy dialogue, and a subtle use of setting bolsters the mood of the story. While these novel are about John Smith versus the world, the other major characters Max, his nemesis, Mary, his lover, and Gunther, his old friend and mentor, are all well drawn. The pièce de résistance, however, in both novels is the denouement, truly poetic and satisfying. I don’t think I should say more than The Spy Killer is deliberately signposted and it adds tension to the story, Foreign Exchange is unexpected and near perfect. Reading The Spy Killer will leave you wanting more, fortunately, unlike readers in the 60s we don’t have to wait a year for the second story it’s already here.
This review of The Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange is the first of three to feature Jimmy Sangster novels, culminating in the release of a previously unpublished fourth book in the Jimmy Reed crime series, Fireball, in February next year. Excitingly the manuscript was uncovered by Brash Books in Sangster’s papers at de Montfort university. For now let’s focus on:
The Spy Killer, originally published in 1967 as Private I, in which the reference to I and not eye may be significant, I think maybe Sangster was poking fun at himself a little here (it was filmed in 1969 along with Foreign Exchange both directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Robert Horton, Jill St. John and Sebastian Cabot).
John Smith is about to be put away for the rest of his life, not in prison, which he might actually deserve, but in a high security psychiatric hospital. Three respected doctors have no doubt that he is right where he should be, in a locked room wearing a straitjacket. What they don’t know is that Bruno, the nurse who works the night shift, is actually one of Max’s people, the stuff he injects Smith with accounts for his erratic and uncoordinated behaviour during his evaluations. Max could just eliminate Smith but it would attract too much attention. As he’s the unforgiving type, knowing that Smith is lucid enough to appreciate his situation amuses Max. Smith doesn’t have a plan yet but when he does it will involve cutting Bruno’s throat with a blunt penknife. Smith got into this mess because he tangled with Max after being away from the service for five years . . .
4 a.m. on a wet miserable Monday morning, Smith finally clocks off, he’s been following a client’s ‘extremely’ unfaithful wife for the weekend. At the office he type up his notes:
“They had to be made to sound lurid in the legal sense rather than the erotic.”
The office, off Old Compton Street, came with an inefficient secretary, Miss Roberts, and a co-tenant, a failing theatrical agent named Stubbs. Miss Roberts has left a note, a Mrs. Dunning will call at 11p.m., she doesn’t get that a.m. and p.m. thing. Mrs Dunning is Smith’s ex-wife Danielle, they haven’t seen each other for five years since the divorce. She can’t help taunting him about his appearance, he has a go back but in truth she looks great and her clothes smell of money. Danielle wants to hire Smith because her husband is cheating on her, with another man, Peter Alworthy, a ‘fashion’ photographer/dirty picture purveyor. Smith can hardly resists the temptation to gloat. Danielle hands over £150 in cash and she’s got her man. Ten minutes later Smith is having a slap up meal and a few drinks to celebrate being able to pay the rent. His cuckolded client calls:
‘“Will this be sufficient to get a divorce?’ he asked.
I felt like saying that it was sufficient to get his wife deported if he wanted, but I didn’t.’
Smith turns his attention to Dunning he trails him to the house Danielle said belongs to Alworthy. He leaves the two men time to get reacquainted, then after making a date with Mary he knocks on the door. Alworthy invites him in, he isn’t expecting that, then he sees Dunning, his throat has been slashed. By the time Smith realises this is a set up Alworthy has scarpered and the police have turned up. Smith is firmly in the frame. That’s when Max rolls up to save the day but there’s a price…
Is Max is still holding a grudge because Smith resigned five years ago? Why was Dunning murdered? And, what’s so important about Dunning’s notebook, Max seems to want it badly? There’s only one way for Smith to get out and that’s to get deeper in . . .
Foreign Exchange, originally published in 1968, sees Smith still grubbing around in the private lives of other people and not enjoying it much:
‘Sometime back I read an article which said that London was the most swinging city in the world. I don’t think the man who wrote that article had ever been to London or, if he had, he hasn’t been to my part of it.’
Smith is contemplating grey life in the grey city when co-renter Harvey Stubbs confesses he has a little problem. One of his clients is trying to blackmail him, he swears he never slept with the girl, who now says she’s fifteen and pregnant. Smith thinks it’s a classic scam, although he knows Stubbs is low life enough to have slept with the girl. The girl, Anne, has a different slant on things. Smith goes to see Anne perform in an East End pub, after:
“ ‘How did you like my act?’ she said in the car.
‘It’s a good act.’
‘But I can’t sing.’
‘Joan Sutherland can,’ I said. ‘But she’d die in there.’
‘I Know it,’ she said. ‘So, what’s so good about my act?’
He should stay clear of Anne but there’s no fool like as old fool. Then Smith gets an invitation to meet Max at his earliest convenience (meaning I own you, get here now!)
Soviet spy Gregori Antonov is all over the press, ten years of havoc before he was caught, he’s going to gaol, it looks like a mess from the outside. Max says it’s all codswallop, the service caught Antonov years ago, he’s been turned, feeding duff to the Russians ever since. So why arrest him? They want him back in Russia as a hero so that he can get closer to Kremlin secrets. The only problem is in order to get the Russians to repatriate Antonov they have to have a high profile Brit in gaol over there to exchange. Max wants Smith to fake an operation in Russia and get caught, four months work for £10,000. Smith should say no, but he’s is just broke enough to agree. The operation behind the iron curtain starts like smoothly but then…
You can’t help but feel for Smith, he’s a screw up waiting to happen. The Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange are two cracking blackly comic spy stories that will have you gripped. They are devilishly wicked, loaded with irony and satirical bite, a cynical view of a jaundiced world.
Jimmy Sangster was a screenwriter and director at Hammer House of Horror, including Curse of Frankenstein and Lust for a Vampire, he also did a lot of TV work, including Banacek, Cannon and Wonder Woman. Sangster died in 2011.
Paul Burke 5*
The Spy Killer by Jimmy Sangster
Brash Books 9781941298404 pbk May 2019
Foreign Exchange by Jimmy Sangster
Brash Books 9781941298541 pbk May 2019