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British author Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) was a successful screenwriter and director, contributing to Hammer Films' classics like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and Lust for a Vampire (1970). His passion for screenwriting was paralleled by his literary work. Capitalizing on the success of fellow Brit Ian Fleming's James Bond empire, Sangster created the lady spy novel Touchfeather and the sequel Touchfeather Too in 1968 and 1970. Enjoying the espionage genre, the author wrote two novels featuring former British spy John Smith, Private I (1967) and sequel Foreign Exchange (1968). New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg has resurrected both novels for his Brash Books imprint, renaming Private I as The Spy Killer. Both are available with new artwork in digital and print versions.
The Spy Killer introduces readers to ex-British spy John Smith, now a lowly private-eye struggling to fulfill financial obligations to his creditors. To his surprise he obtains a paying client in the opening chapter – his ex-wife. She hires Smith to track down her new husband, Dunning, whom she fears may be having an affair with a man named Alworthy. Smith, giddy to receive money while relishing in his ex's misfortune, agrees to tail her husband in hopes of photographing him and a lover.
Smith learns that Dunning is Principal Under-Secretary for Britain's Foreign Office and during a rather clever exercise, stumbles on the whereabouts of a meeting between both Dunning and his suspected lover, Alworthy. Arrriving at the residence with a camera, Smith is greeted by Alworthy as he bursts out of the couple's front door. Thanking Smith for arriving so quickly, the two hastily rush inside where Alworthy shows Smith the bloody dead corpse of Dunning! Alworthy, thinking Smith is a police officer, excuses himself to the kitchen while Smith awaits the police's arrival. Once there, all fingers point to Smith as they surprisingly confirm that there is no Alworthy in the house.
In jail, Smith fears that someone has blackmailed him. Through some backstory segments, we experience Smith's violent past, including the grim slaughter of a household of youths. It's a valued effort on the author's part to transcend the novel from sleuth private-eye into the international spy novel it aspires to be. As the novel moves into espionage, we learn that Smith has stumbled onto a plot by the Chinese to uncover American spies in their red state. Facing criminal charges for murdering Dunning, Smith is forced out of retirement by his notorious boss, Max. Temporarily freeing him, Max instructs Smith to find Alworthy, locate a stolen notebook and return it to Max. If the mission is a failure, Smith will either be killed or face a one-sided murder trial.
Sangster successfully runs the gambit of private-eye, murder mystery and international spy-thriller, creating enough depth and dynamics to propel The Spy Thriller into a suspenseful and engaging high-wire act. While utilizing a lot of moving parts, Sangster's spy hero fights and manipulates his enemies into a complex game of cat-and-mouse from London to Paris. Surprisingly, the book's strength lies in the fact that Smith is a very human, very flawed champion. His skill-set, while durable, is offset by his rather humorous clumsiness. Thankfully, this isn't the lovemaking, tuxedo-wearing international hero that saturated the market.
While not as dominant as his contemporaries, Sangster proved he was a master craftsman. The Spy Thriller is exceptional. Critics agreed as both Private I and Foreign Exchange were adapted for film starring Robert Horton (Wagon Train).
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