on 8 September 2015
First spy thriller starring Major Harry Maxim (HM) as troubleshooter acting from inside Number 10 Downing Street. Why was he picked? He does not know. A soldier with a perfect service record abroad and unconnected to either Britain’s MI 5 or 6, he is given a tiny room upstairs, soon joined by the PM’s cat seeking rest from the bustle below. There, two sets of bureaucrats--separated by a single door and circulating for half an hour informally for tea each afternoon--daily vie for attention, control and prominence. One team is devoted to the Headmaster (the PM), the other, bigger lot serves the Cabinet, which meets weekly at Number 10.
Why the call for Harry and the urgency? Because of a suicide by someone linked to a letter written shortly after Cambridge Professor John White Tyler was appointed head of a top level committee reviewing GB defence policy. Early on, the professor wrote a bestselling book about his WW II days in e.g. North Africa, inspiring HM to become a soldier. What follows is a thoroughly satisfying spy thriller with lots of Whitehall intrigue between the services, a foray into Ireland, a flashback to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during WW II, and a compelling ending.
This is a quintessentially British Cold War thriller, quality-wise fully on par with John Le Carré’s best in the 1970s and -80s. GL’s plot is exciting, brilliant even. His characters are excellent too, esp. Agnes, MI 5’s liaison to the PM’s office and her interactions in fake Cockney with George Harbinger, the PM’s in-house defence advisor. Lesser characters are well portrayed too. Dialogues and language use often cynically mimic British upper middle class values. Great read and value for money, this work has aged well or not at all. Highly recommended.
on 23 April 2016
Almost perfect, clever plot, realistic characterisation, good snappy writing; I nearly knocked off one of the stars because it's a bit slow at the start, with perhaps a bit much to-ing and fro-ing between officials - but you need to understand this background to appreciate all the nuances, so I put the star back on again.
In my humble opinion Gavin Lyall outclasses all others in the thriller genre, though he hasn't had nearly as much publicity as (e.g.) Le Carre or Frederick Forsyth. Since there will be no more from his pen, I'm just going to have to read them for the second and (many) third time. Unlike many another thriller, Lyall's are rewarding to re-read, you always get details that you missed the first time.
The book: Major Harry Maxim is attached to 10, Downing Street as a security liaison, but nobody seems quite sure what he is supposed to *do*... until a grenade attack on number ten, and a famous military strategist who needs protection, give him plenty to do. Ramification after ramification, plus bureaucratic layers and departmental squabbling, don't make life any easier; defectors, incriminating letters, car bombings and personal attacks seem to proliferate. Maybe army life was a lot easier than life as a security liaison for number Ten - at least you knew who your enemies were...
The writer: Lyall served in the RAF in the early 1950s, and his first strand of thrillers is usually about pilots; his two other 'strands' are on the number Ten SAS adviser Major Maxim; and the 'Honourable' series of four is about the fledgling British spy service at the start pf the 20th century.
This is the first in the major Maxim series, and was first published in 1980.
My opinion: Lyall is good, and is finding a new direction here. The thriller is still there, but new and interesting layers are inserted: politics and departmental disagreements, while the growing old, the humour and the cynicisms are still very much here, too. I like Major Maxim, and I think he is still finding his stride here - four-and-a-half stars.