Books we Like: Dennis Drayon re-reads Gavin Lyall’s “The Secret Servant”

I originally read “The Secret Servant” shortly after it came out. It seemed breezy enough although I didn’t like the (spoiler alert) cannibalism part. This time, I found George and Agnes cartoonish but acceptable and noticed the tragic aspect of Maxim more fully. Although I also noticed how occasionally he said something snarky which seemed out of character and would have been better coming from one of the other two. Agnes is probably a bit too much on top of George. Lovely vignettes of the other senior civil servants, who are underused. Possibly not really meant to be “Yes Minister” with guns but it ended up that way, as a caricature. A sharply observed one but nonetheless…

As always with Lyall, there are great descriptions and a strong sense of place. Obscure mews in London comes alive, castles in Luxemburg and odd out of the way country villages, and crumbling coach turned motoring hotels. 

And as nearly as often, a pivotal character who just didn’t make enough sense nearly ruins the book. Just as the nutty big game hunter spoiled “The Most Dangerous Game”, so for me Charles Farthing the Yorkshire near-pensioner spoils this book, with his incomprehensibly motivated campaign against Professor Tyler. Also like “The Most Dangerous Game”,  “The Secret Servant” is jam-packed with incidents. There is a whole thirty pages of a Long Range Desert Group Mission in World War Two which contains battles enough to fill a war novel of the time. And in the contemporary timeline, there is a  grenade-ing, a shootout, a second and third shootouts, a sex scene, a riot, a bomb, a fourth shootout, a firebombing, hand to hand combat and in the end it seemed to be bursting at the seams and a little underdeveloped. This time around, Mr Lyall seemed a bit uneasy with his material. There are third-person head-hoppings and sudden cinematic pull-backs to shady characters not necessarily seen by the viewpoint characters. I remember that he seemed much more assured in “The Conduct of Major Maxim” although  I  have only read the start of that again and this time it struck me as being more in the style of the later Smiley books with many different character viewpoints.

Another oddity of “The Secret Servant” is a certain vagueness in the time setting. It might be happening in the early 1970s and not the early 80’s as you would expect on the surface, because World War Two is often spoken of as having happened thirty and not thirty-five to forty years before as would be the arithmetic if it was set at the time the book was published.