1966. Alexander Eberlin is a small, faceless civil servant, aged thirty-six, who permits himself one luxury - to dress like a dandy. His superiors instruct him to hunt down and destroy a Russian assassin named Krasnevin, believed to be responsible for a number of British agents' deaths. Eberlin is terrified - and with good reason. He IS Krasnevin. He has one slim hope - the photo his bosses have on file is not of him, but of his Russian superior Pavel. In West Berlin, Eberlin warns Pavel, who is later murdered by persons unknown. Panicking, Eberlin tries to defect. Hampering his efforts is Caroline Ann Heatherington, a dizzy debuttante he met at a party in London. Can he trust her? And what of Prentiss, a vacuous girl-chasing type? Does he know more than he's letting on?
This was Marlowe's debut novel. Though complex, it also manages to be witty and absorbing, very much in the style of early LeCarre. Though a terrible snob, Eberlin gains sympathy mainly because of the extraordinary predicament he's in. Even James Bond never had to eliminate himself. The character's loathing of the British is unmistakable; he can go to an orgy yet remain fully attired throughout. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote from the man himself. Here's one: 'In the Land Of The Blind, the one eyed-man is in a circus'. Once the action moves to Berlin, the double and triple crosses pile up and the story becomes a tad repetitive but stay with it - a startling climax is coming. Unusually for a book written in 1966, the dreaded 'F' word puts in a few appearances. This is now number three in the list of my top ten all-time favourite spy novels. An interesting period piece yes, but to think of it only in those terms is to do it a grave injustice.
I can't agree that this is a five-star thriller, but it is an intriguing period piece. Written and set in 1965, the swinging sixties seem like ancient history. Funniest perhaps is the dialogue of the heroine, Caroline, a prototype Sloane, who says things like, 'Mummy's got this thing about Dido - you know, the jolly old queen of Carthage'; 'how super'; 'I'd hate to think you were shacked up with some rotten old fraulein...' The anti-hero gets drunk at one stage on a bottle of Emva Cream sherry. Female characters are seen as dim, feeble and more or less tarty, following in the wake of the men. The book is partly set in Berlin, at the height of the cold war and with the Wall featuring prominently. The story is well told, of Eberlin, a hit-man and double agent who is given his own name as his next target. Mistaken identity is a feature of the plot. For a book about the British secret service, the writing style is peculiarly American, referring to apparently British cars with American terms - hood, trunk etc. The toilet is the 'john'. I have the Kindle version and it is littered with typos.