Review: THE LIQUIDATOR by John Gardner

Review: THE LIQUIDATOR by John Gardner

Published by Corgi – before ISBNs!

Okay, I have a confession to make. I adore these books. 

It was a long, long time ago that I was introduced to the Boysie Oakes series by the fortunate accident of birth that meant I was youngest of three brothers and therefore got access to a wide variety of reading material that I probably shouldn’t have. These books – THE LIQUIDATOR, UNDERSTRIKE, AMBER NINE and MADRIGAL – have been a massive influence on me and my writing, and they still work their magic on me today. In fact my Blackjack/Bloody Mary series is in large part due to them.

What is the series about? Ah, well once upon a time there was a special operations officer, Mostyn, who was being set upon in a back alley off the Boulevard Magenta. It was August 1944, and his assailants were German agents, determined to kill the spy. By good fortune, Mostyn saw a sergeant from a tank crew and called for help. The two Germans saw their danger and tried to flee, but the sergeant killed them with shots from his Colt automatic.

Mostyn looked into his eyes: 

“It was the eyes that made Mostyn catch his breath, sending the short hairs tingling on the nape of his neck: ice blue, cold as freezing point, looking down at the bodies with immense satisfaction.

“Mostyn prided himself that he could read the truth in other men’s eyes. These told the story all too plainly. This man, a perfect technician in death, had enjoyed shooting to kill. He was, thought Mostyn, a born assassin, a professional who would blow a man’s life from him as easily, and with as little emotion, as he would blow his own nose.”

If he ever needed an assassin, thought Mostyn, this would be the man for the job.

But of course first impressions are not always quite perfect. And so, when Mostyn discovered a requirement to … remove certain pieces of grit from the machinery of government or diplomacy, and recruited Boysie Oakes, he was still convinced that he had the ideal killing machine. He was not to know that Boysie was not eyeing the two corpses with satisfaction, but with horror. He had not intended to shoot anyone, only scare them away; it was pure misfortune that his aim was so poor.

Still, his wife had left him, his business had collapsed, and when Mostyn approached him to offer a job with an expensive flat in London, a sports car, and the potential of many exciting and morally questionable young ladies, who was Boysie to argue? And so he took the job, signed the Official Secrets Act, and prayed that he would never have to actually kill anyone. 

The delight of all of the Boysie Oakes books is that John Gardner set out writing them in the early sixties. James Bond rules in those days, and Gardner said he had “an idea for a comic situation, a desire to send up a particular genre at a particular time.” (Introduction to the Boysie Oakes books, by John Gardner in UNDERSTRIKE). It was at the height of the Cold War, and Gardner decided there were two ways to write about spies and espionage. A writer could “play it straight, or one could be satirical.” He chose the latter route, and only afterwards realised he had written a richly comic novel mingled with a fair amount of suspense.

I love this series. I think it displays Gardner’s skills as a writer, but also his wonderful ability with humour. In Boysie Oakes he has created one of the best comic characters, certainly of the last half of the twentieth century: a coward, who is constantly trying to avoid being called to perform the tasks for which he is employed; a womaniser whose exploits invariably get him into trouble; and as an espionage agent, a man of astonishing skill at getting things wrong. 

Not that Mostyn, for all his pride and arrogance, is much better. 

There is a brilliant cast of characters in these books. There is the agent with the sudden shooting pains in his knee when he senses Mostyn is sending him into danger; the sub-contractor murderer hired by Oakes to carry out his more onerous tasks; the alcoholic naval officer who runs Mostyn’s department, and who steadfastly refuses to accept any responsibility whatever for “L”. 

And the greatest indication, surely, of how good Gardner truly is as a writer of this kind of fiction is the fact that Ian Fleming Publishing contracted him to carry on the James Bond series, a task which he undertook for many years with enormous success. 

And so to me. Well, as I said, I adore these books. They are charming, witty, hilarious in places, but still thrillers with superb plots. One of the saddest days for me was a few years ago when I heard that John Gardner had died. He was a member of the Crime Writers’ Association, and I was a member too – and never managed to meet him. I would have liked to have been able to have a chat with him and talk about his books.

If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I implore you to try them. And of course, you have to start with THE LIQUIDATOR.

Highly recommended.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: