Funerals meant going outside, into the field, among strangers. And he was not a field man, never had been and never wanted to be. The back room among the files and the reports was his field. It was far more interesting there, more rewarding and infinitely more comfortable. And it was the only place he was any good.
At the end of the Second World War an RAF Dakota crash-landed in a lake in Lincolnshire, for some reason carrying several crates of rubble from the ruins of Berlin. The pilot, a minor rogue named Steerforth, failed to bail out in time and died in the accident. Now the lake has been drained and the remains of plane, man and crates have all been exposed.
The RAF are surprised as they had thought the plane lost at sea. The Russian authorities seem less surprised – they have been looking for a crashed Dakota since 1945. But why have they been so interested for so long? And why are they sending one of their most important officials to visit the plane?
Dr David Audley is a historian who works for the Ministry of Defence as an expert on Middle Eastern politics. He has a reputation for reading between the lines and making intuitive leaps on the basis of vague hints in documents, but he is definitely a back-office man. To his disgruntlement (he doesn’t like change), Audley is assigned to find out why the Russians are so interested in the Dakota and its cargo, and if possible, get to whatever they are looking for before they do. And then give it to their Professor Panin.
The official view is that whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be more valuable than his gratitude.
What follows is a treasure hunt with a backdrop of espionage and a dash of romance (In the course of the book he falls for the daughter of the Dakota’s pilot, which softens his old-fogey act).
The Labyrinth Makers won the CWA Silver Dagger when it was published, and is on their list of the 100 greatest novels. It’s an enjoyable and evenly paced read, if not in the league of John Le Carré or Len Deighton. In its favour, the bufferish Audley is more likeable than most fictional spies, honest about his inadequacies and occasional moral failings, and disinclined to get involved in dirty work. He’s no James Bond – when the opposition visits his house in the night, he hides in the priest hole – but he is brave in his own way and you can’t help liking him.
For a broader view of Anthony Price’s place in the world of spy-writing see the blogs listed below…
The Labyrinth Makers
First published in the UK by Victor Gollancz, 1970
This edition Orion Books, 2002
Final destination: Charity shop
Existential Ennui: Price’s novels are characterised by long stretches of dialogue, often with entire chapters consisting of a single conversation, and that’s as true of The Labyrinth Makers as any of the books in the series. But these conversations don’t merely shed light on the plot, as Audley and co. discuss the available evidence and reason and intuit their way towards the answers; they grant insight into character, too, especially in the back-and-forth between Faith and Audley. As the novel progresses Audley gradually warms towards this uninvited guest, and through that softening of his standoffish nature, we warm towards Audley.
The Rap Sheet: The Labyrinth Makers has been called an old-fashioned novel, and that’s undoubtedly true. Like his creator, Audley is very much a gentleman of the Old School, and if the romance is muted, the sex can only be described as virtually non-existent. The violence in these pages is equally restrained, certainly by present-day standards. But shrouded characters and a devilish plot easily hold readers firmly in their grasp as they make their way among the various clues and red herrings toward an exciting climax with an unexpected twist.
Another writer I haven’t explored – but then, I haven’t traditionally been a fan of spy fiction, with a few exception. I’m actually getting more into it now.
TBH I prefer Price to both LeCarre and Deighton, both of whom I find a bit pretentious. I read the first half-dozen of the series a year or two back, and enjoyed all of them. They feel like ‘whodunnits’ or more often ‘why/howdunnits’ where some old mystery has an influence on the present. This has helped them date less quickly than some Cold War thrillers. They’re not to everyone’s taste, but I’m pleased that they haven’t dropped completely out of sight.
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That’s a very good point. This was very short on pretension, and was also light on the obscure spycraft stuff (Audley just tends to phone people up rather than arranging clandestine meetings or leave coded messages).
I do want to read some of Price’s books. I was originally enticed by reading about him at Existential Ennui, but I had forgotten that he had a book on the top 100 list.
The Existential Ennui reviews are far more informed than mine – there is even an interview on there.