Forgotten authors No.32: William Haggard

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At the height of Bond mania in the mid-1960s, a number of other espionage writers emerged, some as good or better than 007's creator. One of these, described rather damningly by the Sunday Express as "the adult's Ian Fleming", was William Haggard, the pseudonym of Richard Clayton. He produced some 33 novels, 25 of which featured Col Charles Russell of the (fictional) British Security Executive.

Haggard lacked Fleming's snooty dilettantism, and was better at creating subtle layers of political intrigue. As the series progressed, he gained stature and popularity, and the books began to extend their range to also include exotic locations and sexier set-ups.

Here was the problem. Born in Croydon in 1907, Clayton, a former Indian civil servant and British establishment figure, was middle-aged by the time he started producing novels. His experience gave him an appealing air of cynicism and some strongly held opinions about the British government, particularly in its relations with big business, but it also meant that he was heavily drawn to characters who spent their lives manoeuvring themselves around the political system. The public wanted Bond in a casino with a Martini. Gunplay and continental sex made for tartier adventures, but weren't really Haggard's field. His plots were first-rate, his world-weary characters were slyly intelligent and manipulative, but a great many scenes ultimately consisted of men arguing in offices.

In The Unquiet Sleep, a popular Valium-like drug is found to have devastatingly addictive qualities, and a parliamentary official is linked to its parent company. Colonel Russell finds each level of government involvement murkier than the next, in contrast to Fleming's approach, which leaves world domination to a few egotistical madmen. Haggard treats his women with more respect, too. They are investigators and heroines with lives of their own. As for exoticism, try Haggard's character Miss Borrodaile, the elegant, black-clad, former French Resistance fighter with a steel foot.

By the time Haggard wrote The Power House, his publishers had cottoned on to the Bond effect, and the paperback cover featured an alarming décolletage perched over a pile of roulette chips.

His writing requires attention, but there are rewards for modern readers, especially in the scenes that explore the sleazy private lives of 1960s civil servants. His books are out of print but not unavailable.