Wednesday, September 23, 2015

William Haggard's Yesterday's Enemy

William Haggard (1907-1993) is relatively obscure today, but in his day was regarded as a master of the spy story, and often compared with the best of the field in the 1950s and 1960s. Julian Symons, in his classic study of the mystery Bloody Murder, actually considers Haggard alongside figures like Ian Fleming and John le Carré.

Such an appraisal seems to me overgenerous. Haggard lacks the knack for action, atmosphere and travelogue Fleming displayed at his best, and Fleming's sense of fantasy as well. At the same time, he falls far short of le Carré's realism, humanity and facility with complex intrigues. Rather what seems to me most distinctive about Haggard's writing is his highly idiosyncratic outlook, expressed through his longtime protagonist, Colonel Charles Russell of the imaginary Security Executive.

Where the last is concerned, take Haggard's politics. His contempt for the left is unremarkable in itself, but it does take him in a surprising direction. While some Western leftists saw in the course Soviet history took the disappointment of their hopes for human liberation, and went so far as to characterize it as "Red Fascism"; and conservative anti-Communists frequently used such a characterization as part of their arsenal of arguments against the Soviet bloc, Communist parties, Marxism and the rest (and especially their attempts to present the Soviet Union as equivalent to Nazi Germany); he takes the Soviets for the "hard, hard Right"--and admires them for it. Indeed, Russell wonders at one point if he doesn't now "think of orthodox disciplined communism as the saviour of a decadent Europe" from the real "disease of a degenerate nation . . . something called egalitarian socialism. Which hardline communism destroyed at sight."

This view is central to the plot of the novel from which I took that quotation, Yesterday's Enemy. There Russell, now in his sixties and retired, is approached by a Soviet spymaster (known simply as the "Colonel-General") with whom he has a long acquaintance for assistance with a problem--the possibility that somebody is trying to make it appear as if West Germany is building nuclear weapons. Should the deception succeed, the hawks in the Soviet high command would resort to force to stop the program, with World War III the result. Accordingly, the Colonel-General wants Russell to help him show that the "German Bomb" is actually a con. While initially skeptical about the enterprise, Russell takes on the job, which eventually brings him to Switzerland, where he ends up working with Helen Monteath (a Soviet agent that Russell himself had actually recruited for them) and Molina (a former dictator of Argentina who has fled with his loot in the face of a CIA-backed revolution) to investigate the plot. This falls far, far short of reinventing the familiar formula--but it certainly does give it a different twist.

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