British author John Gardner (1926-2007) enjoyed a literary career that flourished with a number of spy and espionage thrillers. The prolific author was chosen by Ian Fleming's estate to author 14 'James Bond' novels, successfully maintaining Fleming's approach and tone. While the James Bond empire kept Gardner gainfully employed throughout the 80s and 90s, his first foray into the spy genre was an eight-book series starring lovable, but intentionally incompetent British spy 'Boysie Oakes'. The debut, “The Liquidator”, was published in 1964, but my first taste is the sixth series installment, “Traitor's Exit”, originally published in 1970.
From what I gather, “Traitor's Exit” is unlike any other book in the series. In fact, Boysie Oakes isn't even the main character. Instead, the story is told in the first person by Rex Upsdale. Rex is a low-caliber author barely surviving off of royalties produced by his own spy series, “Gascoigne”. His bills are a Mount Everest of bad debt, and he's still holding out for anyone in Hollywood to actually adapt his series to film instead of signing worthless movie option contracts. Let's say that Rex isn't turning away any knocks on the door. Thankfully, after authoring a controversial magazine article about an authentic British spy named Kit Styles, Rex receives two visitors.
Kit Styles was the golden boy of British spies. Unfortunately, he defected to Russia during the Cold War, spilling numerous state secrets and propelling Russian momentum. The DI-5 (England's version of the CIA) have offered Rex the deal of a lifetime. They offer to pay off all of the author's debt, a check for $10K and the promise to never ask for favors again. But, what could possibly warrant this sort of cash? They want Rex to fly to Russia and interview Styles for a magazine article. Easy, peasy...who's got the checkbook?
Gardner's clever writing is a satirical look at the spy genre both from the stance as an author and reader. Rex describes his “Gascoigne” series as an exploitation on the spy boom, stating that anyone who could write got on the bandwagon. He even boasts that he wrote the second book in the series standing on his head. I think this is Gardner's unique insight into the era's publishing industry.
Once trouble arrives, which introduces Boysie Oakes into the plot, Rex often has a fantasy novel running through his mind as a form of mental escape. It's a unique writing style by having the reader not only engaged in “Traitor's Exit”, but also the swanky private-eye story that's running through Rex's thoughts (which is an obvious ode to Raymond Chandler). Gardner is also very conscious of his peers, with having two characters in the book namedrop 'Modesty Blaise', 'Matt Helm' and 'Callan'. Often Rex asks (screams) for these fictional characters to assist him in the most dire situations. Gardner is clearly having a blast with the story and characters. His presentation and dark humor is reminiscent of Jimmy Sangster, who penned two spy novels called 'Touchfeather'. It's these types of books that Gardner views as tongue in cheek.
Overall, this was just a fantastic, very funny novel with plenty of action-adventure to please the serious diehards. “Traitor's Exit” will be the perfect entrance into John Gardner's stellar work. This one is a must.
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