Sunday, December 18, 2016

Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard

Boston: Little, Brown, 1965, pp. 192.

Until recently I had read only one novel by William Haggard, mainly because it was conveniently available at the time--Yesterday's Enemy (discussed here).

In hindsight, that book--a relatively late entry into his long-running Colonel Russell series--seems less characteristic than I took it for. The book had Russell out in the world on his own, away from the milieu of British officialdom that looms so large in his other books.

Recently, however, I picked up the first book in the series, Slow Burner, particularly with an eye--again--to the status he once enjoyed as a master of the form, on a level with writers like le Carre or Fleming. Reading it I found Haggard's writing on the whole plain and straightforward (much more so than le Carre, or even Fleming), but not artless. He has an admirable economy with words, and his writing an appealing crispness and polish, especially evident in his use of evocative sentence fragments. ("Afternoon tea on magnificent silver and not enough to eat" (72), he wrote, in a suggestion of the extremely shabby gentility of a family of Irish aristocrats.)

I would add, too, that his interest in character is considerable. Like le Carre Haggard has a deep interest in this particular milieu--the grown-up public schoolboy-senior civil servant-class of which Haggard was a part; indeed, as le Carre has said was the case with himself, this can seem his primary interest, and his writing about espionage just his way of approaching it. The ambitions and anxieties of the people living in this world, their affections and enmities, their jealousies and prejudices, are the stuff of the book to a very great degree--though unlike le Carre Haggard is not terribly critical of his subject. Indeed, while his characters were clearly not of our time, they did not seem nearly so much out of theirs as they do in le Carre's books. There is insecurity about the country's position, and about their class's place within the country--the novel actually opens with senior government scientist William Nichol feeling inhibited about being seen smoking a cigar in the back of the government car in which he is being driven in the current age of austerity and egalitarianism--but one does not get the sense that the country's imperial stature and its traditional ruling class are finished, the way one does reading about Smiley and his people.

The book reflects this in its handling of its two principal plot threads--one, the playing out of the complex of personal antagonisms within the Establishment that eventually leads to attempted murder (particularly that centering on Sir Jeremy Bates and Nichol); and the other, a more conventional spy tale of identifying and stopping a traitorous scientist selling out Queen and Country. The former gets the greater attention, and frankly holds more interest, while the latter is rather slow-moving, and slight on thriller mechanics, the more so because the central character, Colonel Charles Russell, is chief of a counterintelligence service (the imaginary Special Executive) rather than an agent, and one who for the most part acts like a service chief, giving orders and dealing with other officials, rather than playing spy games out in the field in spite of his position. Surveillance is much more often talked about than portrayed; while the one piece of black bag work shown rather than just discussed is essentially played for laughs--and like many an old comedy, concludes with wedding bells.

On the whole the result is uneven, but engaging--if more for its idiosyncracies, the stronger of its characterizations, and its quality of being a time capsule from '50s Britain (a matter meriting its own post, here) than the actual spy story within it, whether taken from the standpoint of le Carre-like drama, or Fleming-like thrills.

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)
Filming John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè
My Posts on James Bond

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