Wednesday 14 December 2016

Not Single Spies

A reader’ history of the boom in British thrillers 1953-1975 (roughly, Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed), a period when Britain lost an Empire, was demoted in terms of global power and status and was economically crippled by debt yet its fictional spies, secret agents, soldiers, sailors and even (occasionally) journalists saved the world on a regular basis.

British thriller writers, from Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean in the 1950s through Desmond Bagley, Dick Francis, Len Deighton and John Le Carré in the 1960s, to Frederick Forsyth and Jack Higgins in the 1970s, dominated the bestseller lists, not just in Britain, but internationally. 

The spread of eye-catching mass market paperbacks in the 1960s also boosted the careers of already-establish thriller writers (such as Hammond Innes and Victor Canning) but also encouraged new entrants into the field – a large proportion of them coming from the military and/or journalism and almost all of them male.

Many have been labelled ‘boys’ books’ written by men who probably never grew up, but as Mike Ripley recounts, the thrillers of this period provided the teenage (male) reader with adventure and escapism, usually in exotic foreign settings, or as Lee Child puts it in his Foreword: “the thrill of immersion in a fast and gaudy world.”

In Not Single Spies, award-winning comedy crime writer and crime fiction critic Mike Ripley examines the rise of the thriller from the austere 1950s through the boom time of the Swinging Sixties and early 1970s, examining some 150 British authors (plus a few notable South Africans). Many flourished only briefly, in the wake of the success of the James Bond films after 1962; some were ground-breaking and wrote novels now rightly regarded as classics of the genre; some authors became national treasures, some became synonymous with parts of the genre (as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler of an earlier generation had done); many were disgracefully forgotten, many probably rightly so. 

The genesis of Not Single Spies dates from 2010 when Mike Ripley was asked to develop a creative crime writing class for Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education and through his work as consultant editor for the Top Notch Thrillers imprint, which has reissued over 50 British thrillers ‘which did not deserve to be forgotten’. In his researches he drew on many of the personal contacts he has made in over 25 years as a crime writer and reviewer as well as 25 years before that as an avid thriller reader.

He met and discussed thrillers with many of the authors mentioned in the book, including Len Deighton (to whom the book is dedicated), Anthony Price, Dick Francis, Duncan Kyle, Alan Williams, Gavin Lyall, Lionel Davidson and Brian Callison, and has made contact with the children and families of others, such as Adam Hall, Geoffrey Household, John Gardner and Berkely Mather. 

Not Single Spies attempts to define the term ‘thriller’ and show how British writers, working very much in the shadow of World War II, came to dominate the field of adventure thrillers and the two types of spy story – spy fantasy (as epitomised by Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and then films) and the more realistic spy fiction created by Len Deighton, John Le Carré and Ted Allbeury, plus the many variations (and imitators) in between.

When today’s leading thriller writer Lee Child (who is of the same reading generation as the author) was approached to write the Foreword to Not Single Spies, he said he knew: ‘It would be a book I would want to read – maybe even pay for!’


MIKE RIPLEY is the author of 21 crime novels, was a scriptwriter on the BBC’s “Lovejoy” series and the crime fiction critic for the Sunday and then Daily Telegraph (1989-2000) and the Birmingham Post (2000-2008) during which time he reviewed 978 crime novels. For more than ten years he has written the Getting Away With Murder column on and has appeared at innumerable crime fiction conventions and literary festivals. A former journalist and Director of Public Relations in the brewing industry, his obligatory mid-life crisis resulted in him becoming a field archaeologist, enabling him to claim that he was one of the few crime writers who really did trip over bodies on a regular basis. He is currently continuing the adventures of Albert Campion, the ‘Golden Age’ fictional detective created by the late Margery Allingham.

AUTHOR:               Mike Ripley
FOREWORD:             Lee Child
PUBLISHER:            Harper Collins
DATE:                 18 May 2017

*[NB: the illustrations here are purely for decorative purposes and will not be the ones to appear in the finished book.]


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