Lessons from Lyall

It isn’t often one gets to read a thriller writer’s every novel, back to back.  But last year I volunteered to talk about an old favourite, Gavin Lyall, at an ‘Authors Remembered’ panel at CrimeFest 2019; given the probability that at least one person in the audience would have either a) known Lyall, or b) re-read his books obsessively every year, I thought I’d better brush up.  Would that most research were this much fun.

Lyall published 15 thrillers over 38 years – a comparatively slow production cycle that he attributed to systematic research but which may have owed more to a sweetheart deal with the Booker group that both weakened the incentive to write and paid for a regular supply of booze.  (In 1964 he split future royalties with Booker in return for £25,000 up front, or about £425,000 today, and an annual salary.)  He started out improbably young – his first thriller, ‘The Wrong Side of the Sky’, was published when he was 29, in 1961 – and in a hard-boiled style, part Raymond Chandler, part Ian Fleming, that drew initially on his expertise as a pilot and air correspondent.  His anti-heroes were usually down-on-their-luck WW2 veterans – pilots or bodyguards – who found themselves in the kind of hole that only cynicism and kit could get them out of; if women popped up they tended to have less personality than the planes or guns that kept the plot humming. 

But by the mid-1970s the appeal of that kind of character seemed to be waning, and in 1980 Lyall introduced Downing St troubleshooter Maj Harry Maxim in ‘The Secret Servant’.  A much more rounded and less cynical hero than his predecessors, Maxim starred in four books and a TV three-parter (where he was played by Charles Dance).  The women were real people; the kit didn’t matter so much; and the world Maxim battled with – Cold War-era Whitehall – was convincingly and understandingly drawn.  However, by the end of the 1980s Lyall seemed to tire of Maxim and turned to Matthew Ranklin, a disgraced former Army officer recruited to the nascent MI6.  The four ‘Honour’ novels saw Ranklin, his Fenian sidekick Gilroy and his rich American girlfriend grapple with threats to the peace or established order in the last few years before WW1 broke out.

Reading all 15 back to back proved a real education. Part of that education was a writer’s memento mori; his books are only occasionally reprinted by Bloomsbury, and getting hold of those not already on family shelves involved second-hand booksellers on both sides of the Atlantic.  But most of the teaching came from Lyall himself.  He was incredibly professional; each thriller is pacy, economical, set in a world that rings true, and has at least one brilliant plot device that comes out of nowhere.  Several of his pre-Maxim books haven’t dated well – the women are too one-dimensional, the men too cynical.  In that they have a lot in common with the novels that Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes were writing at the same time.  But at his best – and I’d suggest the four Maxim novels plus the pursuit thriller ‘Midnight Plus One’ are that best – Lyall was much cleverer and more skilful than either Innes or Maclean.  Dig him up if you can – he kicks most airport reads into touch, and can serve as a superb primer too.