'Sometimes this town remembers its past,' says Agnes in The Secret Servant, pausing in the gun-play to quote Wordsworth's 'Westminster Bridge'. This thriller is about contemporary nuclear strategies and the elimination of agents and double agents. Agnes is an agent herself (from 'Box 500', which seems to mean M15), and the hero is no sooner posted to 10 Downing Street than a grenade comes through the front door. The material is that of any hard-core thriller, and very unsympathetic it is, cold-hearted in its violence and cynical about loyalty or affection. Most modern thrillers not only use this material but show a disturbing attachment to it. Gavin Lyall's talent is for distancing his material. There are homely domestic details: 'On the way, he stopped at a tiny village grocer's and bought himself a rough picnic: cheese triangles, potted meat, biscuits and a couple of tins of beer.' One remembers the bag of ginger biscuits Hannay bought from a baker's van in The Thirty-Nine Steps. But mainly it's a sense of the past that gives this story an extra dimension and makes the Wordsworth quotation sit comfortably in place. It's true that the main reference back is to more violence, a long-range desert patrol in North Africa in 1943, which Lyall brings to life as vividly as Popski once did in Private Army. Lyall has a feeling for battles long ago and knows his World War Two, which he has used in this way before. He could be said to be repeating himself. Certainly he seems to do so in another episode, the visit to a dying colonel playing with toy soldiers in a chateau in the Midi - pretty close, this, to the scene of the man with the gun collection and a secret to sell in Montreux in Midnight Plus One. I very much liked this repetition, as a sign of a writer who has settled into his vein. The vein is more that of the classic adventure yarn than of the brutal modern thriller, though he brings these two things together. It's not only that a packet of biscuits suggests John Buchan's Hannay. The older tradition is acknowledged to the point of parody when the Prime Minister's private secretary is given a family set of rooms in Albany where, 'coming in off the chilly stone staircase, Maxim and Agnes had walked through a time gate, back seventy-five years to the days when the Empire was built of solid dark mahogany and pictures of dead animals.'
LRB 4 September 1980 | PDF Download