John Braine holds a curious position in the canon of spy fiction: very few know he’s in it.
He’s most famous for being one of the Angry Young Men, a group of British writers in the 1950s – including Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne and Kingsley Amis – who rebelled against the establishment in excoriating novels and plays about working-class life. Braine’s novel Room at the Top is a modern classic; the 1959 film adaptation of it, starring Laurence Harvey, won two Academy Awards, despite receiving an 'X' certificate in Britain.
The work of the Angry Young Men had a significant impact on the spy novel – until their arrival, the spy genre had predominantly featured patriotic upper-class gentlemen beating off plots by Johnny Foreigner with a customised walking stick as something to while away the time before the hunting season begun. The nameless anti-hero of Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File and its sequels has a few things in common with Joe Lampton, the anti-hero of Room at the Top.
Deighton helped legitimise the spy novel, but the gentlemen adventurers still prospered, notably in the work of Ian Fleming, although even James Bond was described in Moonraker as not looking like 'the sort of chap one usually sees in Blades’ (Fleming's fictional gentleman's club). James Bond may have been expelled from Eton, but he still wore Savile Row suits. Bondmania took hold in the Sixties, and this led to a proliferation of imitators. In 1968, following Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis, fellow Angry Young Man and a friend of Braine, wrote the Bond novel Colonel Sun. This, and an earlier book by Amis on the Bond phenomenon, went some way to legitimising Fleming’s species of adventures. But it wasn’t for another eight years that Braine tried his hand at a spy thriller.
Published in 1975, The Pious Agent was marketed as a Bond clone: the cover of the paperback featured a young woman wearing black lace underwear being held by a man holding a gun, with a rosary wrapped around his knuckles. And there are certainly plenty of Flemingesque (or should that be “Flemish”?) touches. Braine’s hero, Xavier Flynn, is a half-Irish, half-British counter-espionage agent who is also a devout Roman Catholic. He drives fast, has easy sex with beautiful women, and goes after a terrorist group called F.I.S.T., standing for Fear, Insurrection, Sabotage and Terror. But stylistically, the novel is much more akin to early Deighton (or the other way round). Flynn is working class, a rough diamond, religious but still deeply cynical.
This book, incidentally, opened my eyes to Donald Hamilton: the villain has a bookshelf with first editions of the James Bond and Matt Helm series. It’s also a brilliant thriller, and deserves to be much better known.
A sequel, Finger of Fire, was published in 1977. While it’s not quite as good as the previous installment, it’s still great stuff. At one point in the novel, a villain calls Flynn 'a smudged carbon-copy of James Bond'. He's much more than that, although one of the reasons I like these two books is to see a twist on the familiar themes. Here’s a chance to get all the stuff you like about Bond, but with the thrill of the unfamiliar; to immerse yourself in another formula, a new iconography. Flynn drinks Bison vodka, prays for his victims, and his agency uses CS Lewis’ Narnia novels as a base for its codes. Somehow, it doesn’t feel contrived: Flynn is as much his own man as Deighton's unnamed narrator (he was given the name Harry Palmer for the films).
What really lifts these two books, though, particularly the first, is the writing: you start out thinking you're reading a well-crafted Bond clone, and by the end you feel like you've put down a minor classic. Both novels are widely available at online used books specialists such as Bookfinder. Do seek them out!