18 APRIL 1981, Page 23


Harriet Waugh

'OD Len Deighton (Hutchinson pp. 397, £6.95).

Off Duty Andrew Coburn (Seeker & Warburg pp. 255, £6.95).

More Deadly than the Male James Hadley Chase (Robert Hale pp. 223, £6.50). From Eternity to Here Michael Sellers (Macmillan pp. 173, £5.50).

The Death-Cap Dancers Gladys Mitchell (Michael Joseph pp. 192, £6.50).

At their best, spy thrillers are a quest where the protagonists move in and out of a shadowy and viorent world where people's motives (sometimes including those of the hero) are uncertain. The quest is to disentangle truth from its mirror images or, to put it more crudely, work out who is threatening whom about what, and why. Since real life spies are now continually breaking new fictional ground it is probable that the creation of realistic spy fiction is becoming more difficult. Nevertheless Len Deighton has given us some of the tightest and most convoluted plotting in the busi ness which makes his new spy thriller, XPD, not just a sad but a puzzling disappointment.

The brew contains a ludicrous Edgar Wallace-style league of elderly German financiers dedicated to democracy in West Germany feeling murderously protective of Churchill's wartime reputation (this plot fades out but unhappily not nearly soon enough); some ex-Nazis; some curiously unconvincing KGB agents who go about randomly chopping people's heads off (no sophisticated umbrella jobs here); a potential SIS field agent hero who is forgotten about for large chunks of the book, and an American father and son who should have been forgotten about more often. There is very little tension or mystery because everything is explained to the reader, usually twice over, immediately after it happens. This is a pity because there is the germ of a good story fighting to get out.

This concerns a KGB plot to gain possession of a highly embarrassing wartime memorandum describing a secret meeting in France between Churchill and Hitler at which Churchill contemplated handing over Europe and North Africa to Germany in return for peace. The memorandum is in the possession of some American ex-service men who, having succeeded in hijacking part of Hitler's treasure and the papers in the confusion of the mopping-up operation towards the end of the war, have been living the life of Riley ever since. The Russians and their agents descend on Los Angeles on a flushing-out operation to find out where the papers are, and the rest of the cast go there to try to stop them and gain possession of the memorandum for themselves. Sadly the story comes unstuck in the telling and fails to grip.

It is only a small step from spies to the equally murky world of crooked cops and the criminals they sustain and cull in the manner of wildlife preservationists. The same rules apply. The hand of friendship can as easily be holding a gun, and alliances are always uneasy. Andrew Coburn's third novel Off Duty enters this claustrophobic world and displays all the strengths of tight plotting, muscular prose and understanding of his characters which the reader has had reason in the past to expect from Mr Deighton.

Set in America, around Boston the hero is an ex-cop called Frank Chase, a policeman of exemplary rectitude until he holds up a drug peddler, stealing his ill-gotten gains as well as a large consignment of cocaine which he throws in the river. He uses the money to facilitate marrying Ida, his ex-police buddy's former wife and starting a new life as a real estate agent in a country town. One day his suburban idyll is disturbed by the appearance of a mutilated body on his front lawn. Frank starts sweating as does his ex-buddy Rupert Goetz who is the corrupt head of homicide. Frank and Ida are the reluctant beneficiaries of Goetz's crooked and overpoweringly macho benevolence. The body on the lawn Spectator 18 Apri11981 means Frank has been taken for a sucker, probably by Goetz, and the hijack was not just a few thousand dollars, and the dope peddler was not just any old dope peddler but a collecting agent of the inah' The main part of the novel concerns Frank s race against time to make his peace with the mafia, (despite Goetz's impossible pride), before he and his family are murdered. It's a tense, psychological thriller, fast movin.g' well written and with an excellent surPrise ending. Another well known thriller writer who has come up with a slightly less good offe.ring than usual is James Hadley Chase In More Deadly than the Male. Mr Chase.' however, seems to have been aware of tins himself as he originally chose to publish the book under the pseudonym . of Ambrose Grant when it first came out in 1946. It 15 now being reissued for the first time under his own name. Although it inhabits the same territory as many of his other books where small, weak people are sucked int° a situation of escalating violence and fear, time to get under way. this one takes an unusually long The hero, George Fraser is a timid, lonely door-to-door salesman in London who IlsV in a boarding house with a cat and, to make life less drab, tells people that he was once an American gangster who mixed with the likes of Al Capone. Trouble comes when he forms a passion for an amoral, vicious, End quasi-whore who forces him to real his fantasies. He does This ineptly with catastrophic results. The subsidia`Yt characters are vividly nasty and gripping,b,n, the book is borne downwards by the wog' of poor old George. From Eternity to Here by Michael Sellers entertains in a more light-hearted manner,: Private dectective Cal Fisher is hired bY n" aristocratic lady to persuade her daugh,ter: Lady Alexandra Salve, to leave a religion" sect, the Cosmotheistic Birds of Passage, and dissuade her from giving her fortune t° it. The members of the sect live in a eount,,1 house and go around smiling with go?LP goggle eyes. They spend their days danag' contemplating and having sex. Our detee: tive has to try and find out if the guru Ti , Kajama Kam is a genuine mystic, and if s whether he is a criminal genuine mystic, all° whether Lady Alexandra is a prisoner or freu., to leave, and why it is that people who sh°7, an interest in the sect turn up dead. Thh: story moves at an agreeable pace and ,t surprises come thick and fast, althougn advise readers to skip the scenes between e our detective and his girlfriend as they a'„A embarrassing, add nothing to the plot inn' slow things up.

Dancers concerns the M Death murders Gladys Mitchell's The Dea-qie of two girls ll : belonging to a folk dance group, and three middle-aged girls and one ingenue who gel mixed up in it. The characters resemble Famous Five when enlarged a bit, an inhabit a world in which sex murde , take place without sex having been disc" vered. Mysterious.