Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: The Power House, by William Haggard

London: Cassell, 1966, pp. 186.

As I have remarked here before, William Haggard's novels rarely get mentioned today--but when reference is made to Haggard, and certainly to a specific Haggard book, The Power House (1966) is likely to be it. Its story of a plot to overthrow a Labor PM named Harry, as it happens, is seen by many as echoing actual intrigues of the period--the reported plots against Harold Wilson by the political right during the late 1960s and 1970s described by, among others, journalist David Leigh in The Wilson Plot (1988).

Still, the story's interest goes well beyond any resemblance it may or may not bear to these events (which strikes me as slight at best). At the start of Haggard's novel far left Labor MP Victor Demuth plans to defect to the Soviet Union. Labor Prime Minister Harry Fletcher is understandably anxious to squelch the attempt with as little fuss as possible, and seeks help from his friend casino owner Jimmy Mott. As it happens, one of Mott's croupiers, Bob Snake, happens to be a relation of Colonel Russell of the Special Executive, and engaged to Demuth's daughter's Gina.

Defections are, of course, standard Cold War fare. Still, as might be expected by those who have previously read Haggard the East-West antagonism is a slight, remote thing next to the domestic ambitions and hostilities and treacheries--in which there is more than a little ordinary crime involved, and some wildly irrational personal enmity too. The PM's anxiety about Demuth has less to do with his slipping away with defense secrets and such than the embarrassment to Fletcher and the party, which has an election coming up very soon. As it happens, the Soviets, uninterested in the man, toss him back (on the advice of Colonel Russell's Soviet counterpart and later, friend, the Colonel-General), after which Russell finds it a simple enough matter to have Demuth locked up in a nursing home, away from nosy reporters.1 Nonetheless, that particular can of worms is almost immediately opened up again--by "the Squire," a rich, crippled Tory who has a seething hatred the PM while his own casino interest makes Mott a rival. He sees in the defection a tool with which he can bring Fletcher down (while also eliminating the competition for gamblers' business presented by his buddy Mott).2 Naturally Russell, and young Snake, wind up in the middle, with his near-legendary status as head of the Executive, and his mastery of bureaucratic politics, much more than a knack for gunplay or anything else of the sort, his principal instrument for dealing with the crisis.

As might be expected by those familiar with other entries in the series, what follows is a good deal of intrigue, entailing a certain amount of violence, in which Russell's involvement is rather slight. What is less expected is the extent to which all this gets personal for the usually urbane, aloof, ironic Russell, his likes and dislikes, his loyalty to some and lack of loyalty to others figuring in the story. Indeed, by way of Snake The Power House offers a good deal more than other books about Russell's personal past--as one might guess about a novel in which he comes to the rescue of a family member, especially one so unlikely-seeming as Bob Snake (an aunt of his ran away with "a bog-Irishman . . . worse than marrying a black man," with Snake the issue of the relationship).

The plot mechanics this time around seemed rather more engaging than they were in Slow Burner, while the relative novelty of the ways in which Russell gets caught up in the events made it all rather a brisk read, irrespective of its vague relation to historical events.

1. It seems worth remarking that this genial relationship came along years before M and James Bond became friendly with General Gogol in the Bond films.
2. To the Squire Fletcher is a "traitor, destroying a natural order in the name of some half-baked progress . . . subtopia, the television and the bingo hall." Interestingly the sentiment is not all that different from what we see in Fleming's novels--or for that matter, Kingsley Amis' pastiche Colonel Sun, which opens with Bond driving through television aerialled subtopia, and expressing similar distaste for it and its residents.

My Posts on William Haggard
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)

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