Thursday, June 02, 2016

Jack Higgins' Paul Chavasse: A Cold War Spy

This is the first two parts of a three part series about Harry Patterson’s Paul Chavasse novels, published in the 1960s by Abelard-Schuman and John Long.  The first two parts are an introduction to the character, and the third part is an analysis of the six titles to feature Paul Chavasse.  This essay was originally posted July 2, 2012.

Paul Chavasse:  An Introduction to the Cold War Spy Story
I.       Introduction
The 1960s were a decade of espionage—both in cold war machinations of super power maneuvering and popular fiction.  The popular front of the adventure spy story started when it was made public President John F. Kennedy enjoyed Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.  According to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum website, Allen Dulles, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, stated:
“‘Jacqueline Kennedy gave her husband his first James Bond book (probably From Russia, with Love).’  Dulles then began to buy other books, and sent them to John F. Kennedy.”
Ian Fleming’s work became a sensation, hitting the major bestseller lists and, in the decades since, becoming a pop culture icon; spawning a myriad of films and, after Fleming’s death, attracting authors great and small to continue the Bond series.  While the James Bond series is the most well known of the adventure spy genre, it is far from the best.  The most striking of its contemporaries was Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels—a series first appearing in 1960 with Death of a Citizen, and totaling 27 titles in its three decade run.  
In industry, and publishing is no different, when a commercial strike is made—in this case the rise of Fleming from midlist writer to bestselling phenomenon—a host of copycat products are rushed to market.  One of the many spy novels published in the wake of Fleming’s success was a slim volume published by Abelard-Schuman, a British publisher, in 1962 titled The Testament of Caspar Schultz (Testament).  The name on the copy was Martin Fallon, which was a pseudonym for a young Harry Patterson. 

The name Martin Fallon and Harry Patterson have a long and successful history.  Martin Fallon was used for the protagonist of two separate novels—the first was an early title, Cry of the Hunter, which was published in 1962 under Patterson’s own name, and the second was A Prayer for the Dying published in 1973 as by Jack Higgins.  Mr. Patterson has a tendency to repeat himself, and he did something very similar to the two incarnations of Martin Fallon: He killed both.  The novels are both very good, but A Prayer for the Dying is one of Patterson’s best.

II.    Chavasse
Testament featured a stark and hard protagonist named Paul Chavasse.  Chavasse was a former academic who caught the eye of Mallory, the boss of a British espionage agency answerable to the Prime Minister called “The Bureau,” when he helped a friend escape from Communist Czechoslovakia.  Mallory, known as “The Chief,” offered Chavasse a job while he was in hospital recovering from his wounds.  The Bureau is headquartered in an old house in St. John’s Wood—on a polished brass plate next to its main door is inscribed “Brown & Company – Importer’s & Exporter’s”.
Paul Chavasse is a recognizable character to readers of Harry Patterson; educated, exotic—he was derived from a Breton father and British mother—cynical in a romantic sort of way, and tired of the game he can’t, or really doesn’t want, to leave.  Chavasse’s personal life is not really explored in the novels; however, a paragraph from Testament summarizes his early life, in order to explain his French name—
“My father was a lawyer in Paris, but my mother was English.  He was an officer in the reserve—killed at Arras when the Panzers broke through in 1940.  I was only eleven at the time.  My mother and I came out through Dunkirk.”
The novels are serious adventure stories, but there is some humor.  Enough that it seems Patterson likely had a great time writing the Paul Chavasse novels.  An early scene in Testament finds The Chief explaining why Chavasse can’t have some much needed time off.  When Chavasse asks about two specific agents—Wilson and LaCosta—Mallory responds that Wilson is presumed dead in Ankara, and LaCosta—
“…cracked up after the affair in Cuba.  I’ve put him into the home for six months….I’m afraid we shan’t be able to use LaCosta again.”
Another example is a line from the 2001 edition of The Keys of Hell, where two characters are speaking of Chavasse’s excessive skill as a linguist, “He speaks more languages than you’ve had hot dinners.”
The Bureau is set up similarly to that of Fleming’s MI6.  The Chief is over the top and larger than life, and very, very British, and his private secretary, Jean Frazer, is all curves and someone Chavasse quite enjoys looking at—
“She was wearing a plain white blouse and tweed skirt of deceptively simple cut that moulded her round hips.  His eyes followed her approvingly as she walked across the room to her desk and sat down.” 
While his eyes are appreciative, Chavasse is anything but a womanizer, and his relationship with Jean Frazer is that of a friend.  Chavasse, like most of Patterson’s protagonists, has a romanticized view of women, which is often both a strength and weakness, but it always lends itself to the character’s loneliness—he is an outsider, isolated from a society that depends on his work to survive, and often a gentleman people look upon as fallen far below his stature. 
Chavasse always gets the job done and he does it with a complex mixture of larger than life exploit and human frailty; a mixture and style only Harry Patterson can routinely employ successfully.  It is atmosphere, dialogue and action.  When in top form Patterson can tell a character’s story with the singularity of the way he smokes a cigarette, stirs his drink, or looks at a woman.  The six novels to feature Paul Chavasse are a step below Patterson’s best work, but only just.

Part III.  Novels

1.  The Testament of Caspar Schultz (1962)

2.  Year of the Tiger (1963)
3.  The Keys of Hell (1965)
4.  Midnight Never Comes (1966)
5.  Dark Side of the Street (1967)

To be continued...

1 comment:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, I enjoyed reading your insightful essay on Paul Chavasse, and I look forward to reading Part III. I haven't read "The Testament of Caspar Schultz," "Midnight Never Comes" and Dark Side of the Street" mainly because it's not easy to find Higgins' early novels in my neck of the woods. Chavasse was at his entertaining best in "The Keys of Hell" and "A Fine Night for Dying."

I thought A PRAYER FOR THE DYING, both novel and film, were very good and Mickey Rourke fit the role of the brooding Martin Fallon, especially in the end scene. I don't know what it is about Higgins and priests and luckless women, although anyone who has read up on his early life in Northern Ireland will understand why.

Although Patterson does repeat himself, in terms of characters, plots and settings, I find his books highly entertaining nonetheless. He is a storyteller in the truest sense, just like Jeffrey Archer.