BRIAN CLEEVE – Vice Isn’t Private. Sean Ryan #3. Random House, hardcover, 1966. Lancer 73-621, paperback, 1967. First published in the UK as The Judas Goat (Hammond, hardcover, 1966).

   Somewhere between the suave James Bond, the tough minded Quiller, and Len Deighton’s nameless (in the books anyway) Chandler-voiced cynical operative there was Brian Cleeve and his creation, former IRA killer turned reluctant British agent, Sean Ryan.

   Like many of his fellow British spy writers, Cleeve was a former intelligence operative, but unlike most, he chose a darker and less glamorous path. You wonder if Ryan ever owned a dinner jacket; in fact, you wonder if he owned a decent suit most of the time.

   This gritty thriller opens with Ryan recently rescued from prison by a cold-blooded major (is there any other kind in spy fiction) to work for counter-intelligence, “You don’t have to know anything, just do what you are told.”

   Kathy O’Hara’s “friend,” Mike Rafferty, is in Garside prison, and a fixer named Harry Marks has arranged for a meeting with Ryan as the man to get him out, but Harry is under the thumb of brutal gangster Guilio Romano, and he sings like a bird that Ryan is “Big Law”.

   Ryan’s job is to get Rafferty out, disguising the fact he has the government behind him, follow him and retrieve the photographs Rafferty is blackmailing a cabinet minister with. Not just any cabinet minister either, Garrett Cameron-Harvey, the Home Secretary.

   To this point, this entry in the series is pretty clearly based on Sean Bourke’s book about breaking traitor George Blake out of prison and smuggling him out of England to Russia. It was a good story as true spy stories go, demonstrated by the fact it was the basis for Desmond Bagley’s Freedom Trap (John Huston’s The MacIntosh Man) and would have been the basis for a Hitchcock film had he lived.

   It made headlines and Bourke’s book was a bestseller, optioned but not filmed itself.

   Of course nothing is ever that simple in any spy novel, much less suspense novel, and the same is true of this one.

   Complicating things farther is the source of the Home Secretary’s blackmail, Irina Mortimer, a discrete dominatrix who has reasons of her own to keep his secrets from destroying her access to a very elite clientele in Europe and England.

   The escape proves the easiest of Ryan’s tasks, which escalate when Romano kidnaps Rafferty in order to get the papers for himself, leaving Ryan to rescue Rafferty, retrieve the photographs, and get Rafferty and Kathy O’Hara out of England and well away from the Home Secretary, all complicated by Ryan’s growing hate of Rafferty and desire for Kathy, and Cameron-Harvey himself on the thin edge threatening to collapse under the threat.

    Vice Isn’t Private is a tight and lean book, under two hundred pages, far from today’s bloated thrillers. There isn’t an extraneous word or missed beat, the violence shocking and sometimes sadistic, the suspense palpable, and Ryan a fascinating protagonist torn between his violent past and glimpses of a world away from it he can never quite reach, all told in tough and sometimes poetic prose by Cleeve, who later went on to write bestselling historical fiction.