The first rule of Spy Club. Don’t talk about Spy Club.
12 men received the invitation.
On an unseasonably cool afternoon at the end of June they made their way across England to a back room of the Savoy Hotel. They came singly or in pairs, pushing through the wooden revolving doors and strolling anonymously across the black and white marble lobby, passing the famous Savoy Tea shop and dining room before walking down a long hallway to the Patience meeting room. They came from a variety of backgrounds, but had one thing in common – espionage.
This wasn’t the first time spies were connected to the Savoy. It was a favorite spot of Ian Fleming during the war, Mata Hari stayed there during a visit to London, and when the hotel’s beloved restaurant manager was jailed due to unfounded suspicions of spying for Italy it led to protests by the upper crust clientele.
On this day, in the waning years of the Cold War, the event’s mastermind had brought them there with one purpose – to review one of their peers. The man who had called them together was also a gourmet and had his guests take in the view of the River Thames as they sat through courses of salmon terrine and roast of lamb served from the one of the world’s best kitchens run by the first celebrity chef.
Some of the guests had previous run ins with each other and bad blood. Others were long time friends. Some had battled Nazis or sparred with Russian spies.
They were England’s best spy writers.
Spies at the Savoy
It’s little known, but June 29th, 1984 should stand as the date of an amazing event in the history of spies at the Savoy and espionage fiction as a whole. It was the day Len Deighton threw a surprise 75th birthday luncheon for Eric Ambler and invited the most acclaimed British spy novelists to attend.
It’s a guest list made up of a who’s who of espionage fiction and sounds like the start of a murder mystery novel. Gladly, no one was poisoned via umbrella at this event; le Carré, Deighton and Forsyth even picked up the check. However, it is fascinating to think of what conversations might have occurred.
Le Carré has always been a bit prickly about his critics. What would he have had said to H.R.F. Keating who, as Adam Sisman notes in his Le Carré biography, had panned his novel A Small Town in Germany writing that “[t]he whole structure is ridiculously undermined by one omnipresent vice. It is overwhelmingly literary.” As well as saying “Mr. Le Carré, the common verdict was, had not done it twice. Has he done it this time? I fear not.”
Although I would guess le Carré didn’t hold it too much against Keating as he went on to give glowing reviews to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and even praised The Naïve and Sentimental Lover.
We do learn a bit about what was said from John Gardner who wrote of talking with fellow guest and Bond novelist, Kingsley Amis.
From the very informative John Gardner site –
Amis was in fact quite amusing. . . . Out of devilment I said to him, “Kingsley, you’re quite right: the Bond books are terrible hokum. No good at all. Dreadful,” – he had reviewed Licence Renewed for, I think, The Times Literary Supplement, and it was a review in which he set about me with a cat o’ nine tails, the Rack and the Chinese Water Torture. Kingsley looked at me in bewilderment, spluttering, “Oh no. my dear chap, no! No!”
Gardner was quite justified in his needling of Amis given the review he’d received. From Amis’ review of For Special Services in the September 17, 1982 issue of The Times Literary Supplement –
Quite likely it ill becomes a man placed as I am to say that, whereas its predecessor was bad enough by any reasonable standard, the present offering is an unrelieved disaster all the way from its aptly forgettable title to the photograph of the author – surely an unflattering likeness – on the back of the jacket. If so that is just my bad luck. On the other hand, perhaps I can claim the privilege of at least a momentary venting of indignation at the disrepute into which this publication brings the name and works of Ian Fleming. Let me get something like that said before I have to start being funny and clever and risk letting the thing escape through underkill. . . . What makes Mr Gardner’s book so hard to read is not so much its endlessly silly story as its desolateness, its lack of the slightest human interest or warmth.
No matter what the writers thought of each other, it sounds like they were in agreement when it came to Ambler. As Julian Symons said in an article on Ambler, everyone was praising his writing –
To say he is held in high esteem by his writing colleagues would be an understatement. Five years ago Len Deighton arranged a lunch in his honour at the Savoy. Among the 13 at the table was included le Carre, Frederick Forsyth, Gavin Lyall, and Lionel Davidson. Graham Greene sent a cable: ‘To the master from one of his disciples’; le Carré said his works were the well into which everybody had dipped.
Ethan Iverson wrote an extremely thoughtful essay looking at all Ambler’s works. He also managed to get a comment on Ambler from Deighton who had this to say about the luncheon –
I lunched with him from time to time and also organized a Savoy tribute lunch for him at which a dozen of his fellow writers . . . ate, drank and told him how much they admired him. I even phoned Graham Greene [then living in the south of France] and squeezed a verbal from him to read along with the digestifs.
Thinking of that blockbuster lineup of authors it’s hard to imagine another such singular event in the history of spy fiction occurring.
If we learn nothing else about this event, it’s that the current crop of spy writers dropped the ball if they didn’t do something to celebrate Len Deighton’s 75th birthday.
I’ve listed the full guest list below along with a short blurb on their spy credentials and a link to any relevant websites I could find on the author. The thirteen in attendance were:
Len Deighton – Deighton is a prolific author of espionage novels who also wrote deeply researched books on things as varied as World War II, Zeppelins and French cooking. Both his Harry Palmer and Bernie Sampson series are classics. The Deighton Dossier is an excellent resource for more information.
Eric Ambler – The reason for the get together was the master of the thriller. His A Coffin for Dimitrios and The Light of Day are classics and essential reading. His estate has created a very nice website that promotes his work and I’ve written on him before on the site.
Ted Allbeury – Of all the authors I researched, Allbeury was the biggest revelation. Twelve years after his death, he has seen a recent resurgence and given the life he led, it’s deserved.
Specifically, he wrote The Twentieth of January, about a Russian spy elected to the presidency. Current US politics had publishers scrambling to rush out a new edition of the 1980 novel which had been long out of print. Allbeury, like many of his fellow spy writers, had been a spy throughout WWII and into the Cold War. He was the real deal, having parachuted into Nazi territory as well as been tortured during the cold war.
For further reading, I highly recommend this obituary which includes an appreciation by Len Deighton. Deighton gives a hair raising description of some of his spy exploits. I’d be surprised if you aren’t rushing out to read his books after reading it.
John le Carré – If you look elsewhere on this site you’ll find plenty on le Carré. At this time The Little Drummer Girl would have been released with the film soon to follow. He has a slick website that lists his work.
Frederick Forsyth – Forsyth wrote the what may be the best assassin story ever with The Day of the Jackal in 1975. He continued to write and before declaring he’s retiring published an autobiography, The Outsider: My life in Intrigue, in which he admitted to doing work as a spy for MI6.
Lionel Davidson – Davidson was praised for his thrillers and his book Kolymsky Heights has seen a bit of a renaissance twenty years after publication. It’s been made a book club pick, had positive recent reviews, and Philip Pullman wrote an introduction that called it, quite rightly, one of the best thrillers ever. His son hosts a website with further information here.
John Gardner – Gardner was already well known for his spy creation Boise Oakes when he was tapped to write the first James Bond continuation novels since Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun. He went on to pen 16 Bond novels. I previously referenced the great John Gardner site managed by his son.
Kingsley Amis – Amis was well known for his literary novels but also had a fascination with Bond. He wrote a nonfiction look at 007 before getting the nod to write the first Bond continuation novel after Fleming’s death. It was his only real foray into spy fiction.
Gavin Lyall – Lyall began his career as a writer of adventure thrillers before shifting to espionage. His Harry Maxim series followed an ex-operative of the SAS as he handles spy related dirty work for Number 10 Downing Street. His books appear to all be in print via ebook.
Anthony Price – Price was a journalist and book reviewer who went on to write 19 books in the Dr. David Audley/Colonel Jack Butler espionage series. His books have for some unknown and undeserved reason fallen out of favor in the past two decades but Nick Jones, who runs a great spy fiction site, existentialennui.com, conducted this essential interview with Price back in 2011.
Julian Symons – A well respected writer on crime fiction, Symons also wrote mystery fiction as well as poetry. His books and knowledge of the mystery genre were very well known and his works that looked critically at mystery and crime fiction helped to give the genre legitimacy.
H.R.F. Keating – A mystery writer best known for his Inspector Ghote novels. In addition, Keating was known for his mystery reviews in The Times and also the person that connected John Gardner with Gildrose Publishing, now known as Ian Fleming Publications, who manage the Bond books. A lost novel of his has recently been published and this wonderful website continues to promote his work.
Miles Tripp – Tripp was a thriller writer primarily of crime fiction who was also a good friend of Deighton’s.
I first discovered this event in a profile of Ambler written by the aforementioned article by Julian Symons that appeared in the June 23, 1989 issue of The London Times. Symons mentioned some of the guests and the rest were found by Jeremy Duns via the previously referenced piece by John Gardner and also in the German biography of Eric Ambler by Stefan Howald.
Stefan Howald wrote what appears to be a very good biography of Eric Ambler. Unfortunately, it has only been released in German and the author told me there is not currently interest in a translation. Ambler’s work is currently being re-released, so there’s hope that it may lead to an english release.
The book included a photo of the menu of the luncheon, signed by the attendees.
Just a couple days before I was set to post this I got my hands on an advance copy of Mike Ripley’s wonderful new book, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, a readers guide to the British thriller which I recommend you run out and buy. He provided a couple of additional details on the luncheon. Apparently Deighton had arranged the luncheon as a surprise, with Ambler unaware of the other guests and Deighton, Forsyth and le Carré were the ones that picked up the check.
Thanks to all those who already had previously published bits and pieces of this event including Ethan Iverson, Nick Jones, Stefan Howald, Simon Gardner, Mike Ripley, the Savoy Hotel and especially Jeremy Duns.