JOHN GARDNER – Understrike.

Corgi; UK paperback reprint, 1966. Hardcover editions: Muller, UK, 1965; Viking, US, 1965. US paperback reprint: Fawcett Crest d1126, 1968

JOHN GARDNER Understrike

   I didn’t purchase too many paperbacks at last weekend’s Windy City show, and only four pulp magazines. Most of the paperbacks I bought came from one dealer very early on, the lot consisting of British espionage thrillers from the 1960s and 70s and written by authors such as James Leasor, James Mayo, Colin Forbes, Alan Williams and so on, all of them pretty much hard to find in this country.

   The author most highly represented in this assortment was perhaps also the one most known in the US, John Gardner, his reputation here most likely based on the James Bond books he wrote in 1980s and early 90s. For a complete checklist of his novels and story collections, see Jim Doherty’s obituary for him here when he died in August 2007.

      Gardner’s earlier series character was a fellow by the name of Boysie Oakes, a most reluctant spy extraordinaire, and I’ll get back to him in a moment. First, however, here’s a chronological list of the novel length fiction that he appeared in:

BOYSIE OAKES – The Novels.

      o The Liquidator. Muller, 1964; Viking, 1964. US pb: Fawcett Crest d856, 1965.

JOHN GARDNER Understrike

      o Understrike. Muller, 1965; Viking, 1965. US pb: Crest, 1968.
      o Amber Nine. Muller. 1966; Viking, 1966. US pb: Crest R1173, 1968.
      o Madrigal. Muller, 1967; Viking, 1968. US pb: Berkley, 1969.
      o Founder Member. Muller, 1969. No US edition.
      o Traitor’s Exit. Muller, 1970. No US edition.
      o The Airline Pirates. Hodder, 1970; U.S. title: Air Apparent, Putnam, 1971. US pb: Berkley, 1973.
      o A Killer for a Song. Hodder, 1975. No US edition.

JOHN GARDNER Understrike

   The first of these was made into a film starring Rod Taylor as Boysie, and Jill St. John as his leading lady. The comments on IMDB are fairly positive, and in fact Variety says “Peter Yeldham’s screenplay and Jack Cardiff’s direction combine plenty of action and some crisp wisecracking,” but it doesn’t appear to be available on DVD. I’ll have to see if I can’t track down a copy, maybe on VHS.

   The gimmick in the Boysie Oakes books, as I alluded to earlier, is that as a spy, he’s supposedly inept, a coward who’s wracked with fear and stomach cramps at the thought of confronting the enemy, and a consummate womanizer. Or in other words, the direct opposite of Bond, save maybe the last category, although Bond usually stuck to one girl per book (didn’t he?). In Understrike, Oakes strikes up dalliances with two, neither being Elizabeth, his girl friend back home.

   It must be a British thing, the sense of humor that enjoys spoofs like this, as there never was a second movie, and many of the books never had US editions. I read The Liquidator, the first in the series, long ago, so I’m relying only on the book at hand, Understrike, and no, the book didn’t quite jell with me, either.

JOHN GARDNER Understrike

   Oakes is a pitiful creature on one page, then (sometimes accidentally) fully capable and in charge on the next. Not having read the first one in so long, it was also never clear to me how he became a secret agent in the first place. It doesn’t seem as though it would to be a position that he’d actively seek out. There’s a story there, obviously, but without it being told in this second tale, there’s something actively missing.

   Plot line: The Russian spy apparatus has created an exact double of Boysie, down to the fear and cowardice, as it turns out, with a switch planned to be made shortly before a demonstration of a new US submarine missile off the coast of San Diego, a show of rocket power that Boysie is traveling (under some duress) across country to attend and bear witness to.

   Much hilarity is intended to follow, which sounds more sarcastic than I mean to be, but it’s a dry hilarity, British-style, and I do not mean Benny Hill, even though one hugely fortuitous bedroom switch has a large role in the proceeding. Let’s put it this way. I smiled a lot, but I did not burst out loud in guffaws.