Big raps on the cover: “Thriller writing at its most intelligent and subtle,” and this being book 21 in the ‘Crime Masterworks’ series of ‘the greatest crime fiction ever written’. Perhaps in the climate it came out in 1970 it was a refreshing change from constant gunfights and suspense, but I can’t say ‘intelligent’ is the first word that comes to mind with this book – nor ‘subtle’. Competent, perhaps, and we’re given more insight into the insecurities Audley keeps from his admiring colleagues, but there’s still a lot more praise heaped onto the Doctor than warranted from his actions. Granted, Price does take us along to all the interviews rather than just want us to take his word for it that Audley managed to garner important information, but I still resent it when we’re just told, for example, that he can see through the subtleties of any document to a mine of information invisible to other mortals.
While the professionalism of setting up a workable plot, creating the intelligence world that Audley moves in, setting scenes and pacing events is undeniable, none of this ever soared for me: it’s all good background, but where’s the hook? It’s not in wit of the dialogue or descriptions. It’s not in the gripping narration of events. It’s nice, I suppose, to not be insulted, but is that enough?
But lets wait a minute there. There is a running insult that takes me from grudging acknowledgment that this able story simply wasn’t for me, to open criticism: Faith Steerforth/Jones. Some of this is simply the carping of someone from a different generation whose own prejudices and assumptions are bumping against those of a few decades ago: Price’s presentation of Faith is an interesting study in how an established forty year old male is dealing with some of the changing values of the sixties towards women and sex – what he would have seen as enlightened egalitarianism is at times delightfully (or uncomfortably) condescending. However the whole romantic subplot is juvenile and ridiculous. Juvenile and ridiculous doesn’t have to be bad – if the author is aware of it and just having some fun along with us – but it’s inexcusable when we’re gunning for ‘intelligent and subtle’. OK, Price is trying to write popular fiction, not a thesis, so he’s hardly to be censured for wanting to include an attractive modern girl as a love interest. But, really, he needs to do better than a teen fantasy. Just maybe, and it’s a pretty big maybe, the step-daughter may have gone to the investigator’s house in hopes of finding more out about her dead father. But then we’re supposed to swallow that it’s perfectly natural, almost unavoidable, that she’ll innocently stay the night (also at this point neither is particularly attracted to the other – it’s just supposed to be a convenience thing). Riiiight. I’ve just driven out to a total stranger’s house, it’s a bit late, nothing else for it – I’d better sleep here. But if this tosh wasn’t contrived and silly enough it gets better/worse. Robbers come a night or two later (of course she’s staying on to help out with the high level international investigations – no stretching of credulity there as she’s handed reams of confidential information and taken along to vital assignations!) and, OK, they are forced to hide out in the secret room … and it’s a bit cold … and they’re a bit afraid … nothing else for it really: they better have sex. No, not even just share a blanket, and maybe a cuddle – it’s straight to intercourse. Oh, and Mills and Boon intercourse. Get the post-coital conversation:
‘It can’t happen often like that, can it?’ she said slowly without looking at him. ‘It can’t be so good?’
‘I don’t know. Never before for me.’
‘Nor for me.’
Give me a break.
Price is welcome to his daydreams of somehow finding himself alone with girls who seem to have unavoidably misplaced all their clothes, but he really shouldn’t be weaving them into a purportedly ‘intelligent and subtle’ novel. Later he tries to reconcile this prurient fantasy with layered, respectable characters by getting them engaged (again a concession to contemporary values that he, also, was questioning but hadn’t ditched), but this is just more stupidity: call me an old romantic if you like, but the sort of people that decide to marry after a few days’ acquaintance are not also going to be the sort of shrewd, self-aware, substantial characters Faith and Audley are being sold to us as.
There has to be a better way of getting a girl in the story – this is awful. And then having no-one in the secret service bat an eyelid as she tags along on something that’s been given top priority by the government. Ugh.
We couldn’t have her actually working for the service as a peer of Audley – his enlightenment hasn’t stretched THAT far. Maybe a secretary…
So: without Faith Steerforth/Jones – competent but bland.
With Faith S/J – stupid (in an annoying way).
Maybe a Silver Dagger award was understandable back when this was written. But in hindsight to put this in a list of best ever? Give. Me. A. Break.