Forgotten authors No. 25: Gavin Lyall

Chrisopher Fowler
Sunday 01 March 2009 01:00

A bit of a man's man was Gavin Tudor Lyall. In the 1960s, he wrote tales of square-jawed men dodging bullets and doing man things, but his writing style was far from thick-ear. He was married to the journalist Katharine Whitehorn (who has written lovingly about their marriage in her autobiography). Lyall's love of aircraft and all things mechanical provides the power for his early novels. Indeed, it's hard to think of his work without hearing the choking cough of a plane engine dying somewhere above hostile territory. Luckily, you have to give his heroes only a spanner to guarantee an escape attempt. The author was among the top British thriller writers of the 1960s, and made his name with literate suspensers, most of them featuring butch chaps performing tough jobs in the changing political post-war climate.

His first big seller concerned dodgy pilots on The Wrong Side of the Sky, and the paperback boasts an awesomely sexy 1960s Pan cover. Researching meticulously, the writer built in a level of technical detail that instantly appealed to his male readership. Like Eric Ambler and Nevil Shute, there's something comfortingly solid about the Lyall style. His capable heroes travelled the world in beaten-up aircraft, trying to stay ahead of the law or the lawless. In 1965's award-winning Midnight Plus One, his pilot does a favour for an ex-Resistance comrade, protecting a businessman, but he's grounded and forced into a terrific extended cross-France chase. The film rights were purchased by Steve McQueen, but the star's death deprived us of the movie version.

Lyall suffered writer's block for five years, but returned with something new; a Le Carré-esque series of tough novels featuring Major Harry Maxim of the SAS. The BBC filmed the first, The Secret Servant, with Charles Dance, but the writing was on the wall for spy fiction of this kind. Such derring-do could not survive the end of the Cold War. Lyall bounced back with another series, starting with Spy's Honour, set just before the First World War. These were enjoyable romps in the style of John Buchan, but they now played as retro adventures and proved less popular.

Although his characters were pretty thinly defined, his pacy plots had the kind of clear through-lines rarely found in modern thrillers. Lyall knew what to include and when to stop. Taken in the context of the times in which he wrote, he's an attractive addition to any library.

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