It would be difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed the first two books in the 'John Gail' series of British espionage paperbacks by Stephen Frances, so I was beside myself with excitement to begin book three. The paperback was originally released in the U.K. as “The Sad and Tender Flesh” and then in America by Award Books (home of Nick Carter: Killmaster) as “The Ambassador’s Plot.”
The setup for the series is pretty simple: John Gail was an unremarkable everyman who answered a mysterious job posting and found himself working as an operative for a non-governmental spy agency funded by a cabal of benevolent millionaires. Gail is an imperfect and amateur spy who makes a lot of mistakes. The first two books were sexy thrillers peppered with scenes of shocking torture and violence bringing about awful outcomes for the women with whom Gail developed romantic relationships. The dreadful things that happen to women in these books cannot be understated, and they significantly raise the stakes for our hero in these international adventures.
“The Ambassador’s Plot” was released in 1970 - five years after the first installment in the series - and we find Gail in Paris recovering from the events of Book 2 (This is a series best read in order). His controller comes to visit with an unusual assignment: embarrass and discredit a British ambassador to France who has gone rogue and is taking independent actions that could spark a bloody Arab war. The plan is for Gail to photograph the ambassador having sex with a teenage girl in hopes of blackmailing him into resigning his governmental position before the ambitious ambassador can mount a political rise that might produce the next Hitler.
The catch is that Gail is responsible for the care and feeding of plucky 15 year-old Lilly, the teenage temptress recruited for the seduction job. The interaction between Gail and Lilly combined with the horror John feels for orchestrating a sex sting involving a teen is pure gold. Their partnership on this assignment eventually catapults them into a “couple on the run” plot peppered with extreme violence throughout the 160 page paperback.
It wouldn’t be a “John Gail Spy Chiller” if it didn’t have at least one brutal, stomach-churning torture scene, and this novel has a handful. While these scenes are all in service of the plot, you’ll still need a strong constitution to get through the most gory of them. Consider yourself warned.
When he was writing bawdy hard-boiled crime novels as Hank Janson, Stephen Frances sold upwards of 10 million copies. The John Gail books were substantially less commercially successful, but it really is a stellar series that holds up nearly 50 years later with no diminishing returns in this third installment. Highly recommended.