Crime Writing

Discovering a crime fiction gem

I’d seen “The Robespierre Serial” on my parents shelves for years. It was published in 1975, so I assume it must’ve been up there since I was eight. I knew the cover because, even as a kid, there was something compelling about a southern European country scene viewed through the sights of a sniper. I finally got around to reading it on a recent visit and discovered it’s quite a gem.

Nicholas Luard, the author, smirks from the back cover of the Book Club Associates Edition. It may have been this author photo that had prevented me reading it when I had picked it up before. His chin is on his hand (a definite “thoughtful, creative type” strike against); he looks French (great in a woman, but not so fabulous, I’ve found, when it comes to crime fiction); and what hair can be seen appears to be in one of those long-at-the-sides ‘Seventies combovers favored back then by Paul Simon.

It turns out Luard was rather an unconventional man. He was descended from Huguenots fleeing France for religious freedom in Britain. He befriended Peter Cook (whose comedy sketches, my wife can attest, I have frequent occasion to recite verbatim) and founded The Establishment Club. Which was anti-Establishment, in the way that only true silver-spoon members of the Establishment are allowed to be. He died in 2004, having written a number of spy novels and some memoirs. They’re all out of print.

Luard also had a compelling military background, in a reconnaissance unit of the Coldstream Guards. This resulted in one of the two things I found most interesting about “The Robespierre Serial.” His military and survivalist details are excellent, as his main character Carswell is forced to hike through the mountains of Spain with a French woman (lucky him) in tow.

The first thing that struck me about “The Robespierre Serial,” however, was how fine the writing was in comparison with much of today’s crime fiction. True, it’s a spy novel, and spy novels tend to be written with a little more “literary” finesse than detective books. Perhaps that’s because the writer assumes that a reader is more likely to want to delve into the characters and be less dependent on action than a detective junky. Perhaps it’s just that they want to read like Le Carré.

Nonetheless “The Robespierre Serial” stands out for the quality of Luard’s descriptive writing. His dialogue lets him down – he clearly decided to drift into the land of Boy’s Own comics for much of the speech in the book. The construction of the book’s title suggests he was after a Ludlum crowd (and I’ve no idea really why “Robespierre” and why “Serial”) and the characters speak with all the banality of the Bourne types. However, they think in complex elliptical patterns that are fascinating.

Luard also constructs a very supple plot, in which the reader knows what’s happened in a moment and sees clearly how that one mistake has caused everything that follows. When writing about the British secret services, after all, it’s more accurate to put everything down to bumbling than to Bond-like superiority.

Do read the book. Then write and tell me why Luard’s spies refer to the defector as Robespierre (at least, I think they do) and why it –– whatever “it” is –– is also designated by the spooks as a “serial”.

2 thoughts on “Discovering a crime fiction gem

  1. Thanks Matt for this tip. I am going to track the book down on amazon if I can. I agree with you about the quality of the writing of much detective fiction nowadays. I get sent a stream of books to consider for review and some of them are just unreadable: clunky, formulaic and using violence – not action – to pull the reader in. That said, I just read an excellent debut by Thomas Mogford, ‘The Shadow of the Rock’ set in Gibraltar and Morocco, very atmospheric, beautifully written which I will try and review for someone.

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