Journeyman author Jack Laflin wrote four books in the Gregory Hiller spy series - plus a prequel explaining how a Soviet spy named Piotr Grigorivich Ilyushin eventually became the American CIA’s greatest asset. I had trouble getting into Book #2 (“The Spy in the White Gloves”), but I didn’t want to give up on this unique character so I’m continuing into Book #3: “The Spy Who Didn’t” from 1966.
The opening page brings the reader up to speed on Hiller’s background as a Soviet defector who is now living as a freelance writer between CIA special assignments. However, this time the assignment stumbles into a vacationing Hiller in the form of a battered old man on a road who collapses in Hiller’s arms outside a mysterious Long Island, New York sanitarium. Before losing consciousness, the old man tells Hiller that the nation of Israel needs to be notified, and “Von Eckhardt has to be stopped!”
Hiller is quickly confronted by the escapee’s pursuers and we get to meet our pulpy cast of cartoonish villains lead by Doctor Rolf Von Eckhardt, who we immediately know is a real villain because he wears a monocle. He’s also the operator of the private sanitarium, Shady Knoll, from which the old man escaped. By page 17, Hiller is captured by the bad guys, including a human giant named Man Mountain McGill, and taken to the sanitarium. The context clues for Hiller and the reader are enough to make everyone come to the logical conclusion that Von Eckhardt is an escaped Nazi officer doing very bad things inside the sanitarium walls.
Laflin writes “The Spy Who Didn’t” in the over-the-top pulp fiction style of The Shadow, The Spider, or Doc Savage. It’s a lot of fun as long as you aren’t expecting a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum spy story (in fairness, the paperback’s cover should have been a clue.) The torture scenes inside Shady Knoll were particularly brutal, and the secrets of what else is happening inside the creepy place are revealed mostly through monologues from the villain oversharing with our restrained hero.
Eventually, the action moves from beyond the sanitarium walls and into Mexico. Heller’s mission is one that’s been done in dozens of times in other, better novels, but that’s not the point. “The Spy Who Didn’t” is a violent and propulsive bit of pulp fiction that exists for the joy of the ride. Laflin is a good storyteller even when he is trading in genre tropes for his CIA hero. Mostly, this is a book I can recommend without reservations because it was a hell of a lot of fun. I probably won’t remember the plot details in a year, but I’ll certainly recall the good time I had in this vicarious adventure.
The Gregory Hiller Series:
0: The Spy Who Loved America (1964)
1: A Silent Kind of War (1965)
2: The Spy with the White Gloves (1965)
3: The Spy Who Didn’t (1966)
4: The Reluctant Spy (1966)
Buy a copy of this book HERE