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Ted Allbeury

Thriller-writer and spy

Theodore Edward le Bouthillier Allbeury, novelist, advertising executive, disc jockey and spy: born Stockport, Cheshire 24 October 1917; three times married (one son, three daughters); died Tunbridge Wells, Kent 4 December 2005.

Ted Allbeury - like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, David Cornwell ("John le Carré"), Phil Atkey ("Barry Perowne", who revived A.J. Raffles after the gentleman-crook's creator E.W. Hornung died) and Francis Warwick (the boys' fiction and Sexton Blake writer "Warwick Jardine") before him - was a genuine spy before he took up writing: late in life and more for therapeutic reasons than any particular desire to spin thrilling yarns. That came later.

In fact his first novel, A Choice of Enemies (1973), was largely triggered off by a tragedy in his own life (the carrying off of his four-year-old daughter by her aggrieved mother), and throughout the book the conscience and emotional pain of his protagonist Ted Bailey is at war with the needs of his country and the urgent demands of the bureaucrats who pull his strings. Bailey (in fact Allbeury's mother's maiden name) is recruited originally into the British secret service during the Allied occupation of Germany in much the same way as his creator - via the back-room of a barber's shop in Trafalgar Square - but gets out of the "spy business", only to be virtually blackmailed back into it a quarter of a century later, when shadows from the past (including a KGB agent he first encountered in the wasteland that was Germany just after the Second World War) threaten to overwhelm him.

This was classic spy-fiction terrain, bleak and chilly and morally ambiguous, with the difference that Allbeury had actually inhabited that world, and thus brought to his stories an immense amount of local knowledge and hard experience. As he said years later,

Anyone can mug up on the KGB's weapons or the CIA's methods, but only someone who has done it knows what it feels like to arrest a man, to shoot a man, assess a deadly opponent, chase and be chased.

In his early books there was a good deal of chasing of one kind or another, and an emphasis on action rather than character: The Special Collection (1975) concerns a KGB plot to bring industrial chaos to Britain through Soviet penetration of the unions (about which Lord Chalfont commented at the time, "I hope . . . people who read it will not regard it entirely as fiction"); The Only Good German (1976) features the resurgence of Nazism in post-war Germany; in The Man With the President's Mind (1977) a duplicate has been prepared by the Russians to take the place of the real leader of the Western world.

Allied to these more sensational aspects of the thriller-writer's art was an extraordinary speed of composition. Indeed, such was Allbeury's rate of production that he was delivering two or three books a year, including a two-book sequence - Where All the Girls are Sweeter (1975) and Italian Assets (1976) - that was so out of kilter with his normal spy novels that his then publisher had to issue them under the name "Richard Butler".

A second frenzied burst of creative activity occurred half a decade later, in 1980-81, when Allbeury produced four thrillers under his own name as well as two more under the pseudonym "Patrick Kelly". It was almost as if he were making up for lost time. Unlike most writers of popular and genre fiction - who generally start producing in their twenties - Allbeury began writing in his fifties, after a career path which was notably eccentric, taking in as it did foundry-work, technical drawing, advertising, sales, espionage and managing a pirate radio station.

Theodore Edward le Bouthillier Allbeury was born in Stockport in 1917. His father, an officer in the Black Watch, was killed a few days before the Armistice in 1918, and the family moved to Birmingham, where Allbeury attended Slade Primary School in Erdington, then King Edward's Grammar in Aston. He worked in a foundry, attending evening classes to become a junior draughtsman, then a tool designer. For good measure he taught himself French and German in his spare time.

When war broke out he attempted to join the RAF but, as he later related to the writer Donald McCormick, as he was in a reserved occupation he was barred from entry, prosecuted and fined. With no money and no income he spotted an advertisement in the Personal Column of The Times for "linguists for work with the Army; no possible promotion above lance- corporal" and applied.

He was so taken with the faintly absurd aspect of the subsequent interview - in the barber shop back-room in Trafalgar Square - which turned out to be for a job in army intelligence, that it later appeared in one guise or another in a number of his books. He passed the test, and to avoid bureaucratic complications the Army put down his occupation as "labourer" and paid his fine. Despite the advert's strictures, he finally emerged from the Intelligence Corps in 1947 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, having served in Africa, Italy and Germany.

Finding it difficult to settle down, he took a number of jobs in sales management and advertising before starting his own agency, W.J. Southcombe, running it from 1957 to 1962. He then got out of advertising completely to farm chickens and breed (Alsatian) dogs. When, in 1964, this became too boring he started another advertising company with a friend, Allbeury Coombs and Partners, and then became embroiled in the burgeoning pirate-radio business.

Allbeury's station was Radio 390, broadcasting from one of the offshore forts. At a time when pirate stations filled the airwaves with pop music he hit on an unusual and winning formula: middle-of-the-road music aimed at housewives. This was an instant success. He even had his own show, Red Sands Rendezvous (after the fort's name) on a Sunday night, and his radio activities were only curtailed when an irritated government's Marine Offences Act became law in August 1967.

Most of the pirates joined the BBC for the start of Radios 1 and 2, while Allbeury tried, and failed, to get into Parliament on the Liberal ticket. He returned to advertising and PR, continuing with these occupations ("as a fallback") even when he was pouring out spy thrillers in his new guise of novelist.

Allbeury really began to hit his stride with The Alpha List (1979), a riveting first-person narrative in which the narrator has to investigate his closest friend. From then on a steady stream of excellent, character-based novels came from his typewriter: The Other Side of Silence (1981, a fictional exploration of Kim Philby); All Our Tomorrows (1982, a "what if?" novel about the capitulation of Britain to Soviet Russia, with none of the ranting of Constantine Fitzgibbon's notorious When the Kissing Had to Stop); Pay Any Price (1983, which he memorably turned into a suspenseful radio drama); and the chilling A Wilderness of Mirrors (1988).

For his humanity and depth of characterisation Allbeury may be considered the spy-story writer's spy-story writer. He could handle technology, hardware, introspection, excitement, convoluted plots, and his dry sense of humour shines through when least expected. He evidently viewed espionage as something of a cockeyed world, wryly noting at one point in his immensely entertaining, though all too brief "Memoirs of an Ex-Spy" (published in Murder Ink: the mystery reader's companion, 1977) that when he was recruited he "went through the usual medical checks, with our urine examined for Communist infiltration".

Allbeury's private life - away from advertising, chicken farming, pirate DJ-ing and writing - was often irregular, on occasion mildly chaotic. He seemed never quite sure how many wives he had in fact married, although his last marriage, to Grazyne Felinska in 1971, was enormously happy and fulfilled. In 1985 he suddenly became his own news story when The Mail on Sunday located Kerry, the daughter he had lost back in the early 1970s, and reunited them.

Jack Adrian