High Spy: The Espionage Fiction of Adam Diment

In the midst of Swingin’ London, and in stark contrast to James Bond, English author Adam Diment created Philip McAlpine, a reluctant, shaggy-haired, dope-smoking spy in the latest Carnaby Street fashions. For four novels, Diment’s counter-culture operative thrilled readers. Like his creation, Diment was young, handsome, popular with the ladies, and knew how to dress. And then, just like that, he vanished.

It was such an abrupt and, at least to those who did not know Adam Diment, unexpected departure from the public eye that many assumed he had been murdered, or committed suicide, or perhaps been spirited away in the night to a quirky village full of people who knew too much and needed to spend time wearing cardigan sweaters and running down the beach away from giant balloons. The reality, as it so often is, of Diment’s jarring disappearance was rather more mundane that some of the wild conspiracy theories that popped up in the wake of his stepping away from the limelight. He left behind a literary legacy of only four relatively short novels, almost entirely forgotten today but, in their time — the time of London during the Swingin’ Sixties — much beloved, as was their author. Adam Diment, a shaggy-haired, dope-smoking, free-love cat who decided one day to set about writing the counter-culture equivalent of James Bond.

Had Diment not written espionage novels, it’s unlikely his disappearance would have attracted very much attention. After all, literature is full of authors, even popular authors, who come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again, without generating so many theories as to their fate. As the Sunday Times once described him, Diment was “twenty-three; his hero, Philip McAlpine, is based on himself. That is to say he’s tall, good-looking, with a taste for fast cars, planes, girls and pot.” That Adam Diment was young, possessed of moddish counter-culture good looks and impeccable Carnaby Street style, and was making the scene with an endless parade of beautiful young women and hip celebrities made his disappearance all the more puzzling to many people. Who would walk away from that life? Surely there must be more to the story. Something incredible. Maybe even something sinister. Well, there’s not, so far as anyone knows. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth telling up to that point.

When we look back on the legacy of James Bond, we tend to think of the series as being the apex of cool. We do the same thing for other retro icons: Frank Sinatra, tiki culture, Perry Como. OK, not Perry Como. But a slew of other things than came to some prominence in the 1950s and 1960s are regarded fondly, and I include myself among those who do such as pretty cool. This assessment, however, is one that can only be arrived at after the fact, when the trends and tastes of a decade are far enough removed from their actual era that they become compressed and without nuance; what was cool in the sixties was cool in all of the sixties to all of the people, regardless of age or race. Only the passage of time lets us make bedfellows of such diverse things as Martin Denny and Honeybus.

So James Bond was, is, to us in 2015, pretty cool. I certainly enjoy the series in all its various incarnations (well, less so its John Gardner period). However, had I been a college kid in the late 1960s, it’s entirely likely I wouldn’t have felt the same way. Given that I was a punk rocker throughout high school and college, it’s safe to assume that had I been that age in 1967, I would have been wrapped up in the anti-war movement and the social and political rebellion of the young against the greedy, merciless chokehold previous generations held on me and the world I was to inherent but the control of which they steadfastly refused to surrender.

In that atmosphere, a well-dressed British spy who can’t abide the racket of something innocuous as The Beatles (let alone more far-out jams — what would 007 do if confronted by The Stooges?) would have seemed intensely uncool. That very line of thinking is what led Australian actor George Lazenby to abandon the role of James Bond after playing the character in only a single film, the exceptional On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In retrospect, he is made fun of for growing his hair out and, in the midst of doing the publicity rounds for the film, declaring James Bond to be dead, a relic of the previous generation, and something that was no longer cool. Not the best career decision, not the most professional behavior, and Lazenby was by his own admission a vain and insufferable prick back then.

But he was, at least to a degree, correct. What was Bond in the era of Vietnam protests and terrorism? Even the creators of Bond seemed to come around to Lazenby’s way of thinking, though perhaps they didn’t realize it. Subsequent Bond movies were substantially campier and much more comically self-aware, a characteristic that remained until Timothy Dalton took over the role in the 1980s (and even then, his more serious Bond films were relative failures financially and critically, until once again enough time had passed for a reassessment). Anyway, in 1967, James Bond may have still been popular. He may have still had a lot of fans. But he wasn’t really cool.

Her Majesty’s Secret Stash

Enter into this candy-colored scene Adam Diment. Born in 1943. Just in his early twenties when he published his first novel. The son of a Sussex farmer and product of a private boarding school called Lansing, Diment’s entry into the world of writing was by way of low-level grunt jobs in the publishing and advertising business (very much like Jimmy, the aimless young protagonist of the 1979 movie Quadrophenia). Exactly what inspired him to take up writing is not documented — and likely never will be, as Diment vanished from public life and quit writing in 1971. His first novel, 1967’s The Dolly Dolly Spy, ended up in the hands of publisher Michael Joseph, who loved it so much that he spent an unheard of amount of money to acquire it, making young Diment one of the highest paid new authors in England as well as signing him immediately on to a contract to write more books in what Joseph saw as a series.

Espionage books were still hot, very hot, thanks to the ongoing Cold War, but most of them were written for a slightly older (or younger), more conservative (at least politically) audience. But here was Adam Diment, looking more like something from the back of an album cover than a book cover. And just as importantly, here was Philip McAlpine, the protagonist of The Dolly Dolly Spy and a secret agent quite unlike any the world had seen.

Although Diment is frequently compared (or juxtaposed) to Ian Fleming and McAlpine to James Bond, the closest parallel to The Dolly Dolly Spy is the nameless, faceless everyman spy in Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File, who later got a name (Harry Palmer) and a face (Michael Caine) when the book was turned into a film in 1965. He even has more in common with the cynical, jaded company men of John Le Carre novels than with 007. But Fleming and Bond cast a long shadow over all espionage fiction, so well, you just sort of have to deal with being compared and contrasted to them. Like Deighton’s bitter spy, or Donald Hamilton’s similarly “pressed into service against his will” agent Matt Helm, Diment’s Philip McAlpine is blackmailed into being a spy. A low-level but unusually competent employee at an industrial security firm, McAlpine finds himself forced into the spy game when he’s threatened with imprisonment for possession of hashish. He has no love for the job. In fact, he proudly thinks of himself as a coward with a healthy aversion to risk-taking. He despises the bureaucratic authority figures who make intelligence work their game.

He finds himself in the employ of a thoroughly strange take on the M character so familiar from the Bond books and films, or the Harry Palmer series’ Major Dalby. But whereas both of those men are stern British military men, Diment’s spymaster Rupert Quine is a campy, flamboyant popinjay of the green velvet and yellow ruffled shirt variety. He frequently refers to hapless hipster McAlpine as “sweetie” and “honey.” His foppish affectations shroud a keen (if twisted) mind and sadistic streak. If M eventually becomes James Bond’s father (or mother, depending on the version) figure, Quine is more like McAlpine’s S&M dungeon mistress. He’s more than happy to threaten McAlpine — as well as friends and family — with murder, rape, whatever unsavory act will pressure McAlpine into playing ball.

In The Dolly Dolly Spy, it’s prison for McAlpine and his sister. With no real choice other than jail time, McAlpine agrees to become a contract employee for Quine’s shady intelligence unit with an overly complicated name: CI-6 NC/NAC (non-communist, non-aligned countries). His first mission is to infiltrate a charter airline company that specializes in clandestine operations and is used by just about every intelligence organization in the world. Initially, McAlpine is given a pretty sweet gig: just get hired, do his job, collect his pay, and occasionally let Quine know what’s happening. They even let him bring his favorite girlfriend with him to the posh Ibiza setting the charter company uses as its headquarters, giving the two young modsters ample chances to recline around pools, smoking weed and wear white jeans or bikinis. But McAlpine is no idiot. He knows he wouldn’t be drawing such a large second salary from Quine if something a lot more dangerous wasn’t in store for him.

New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher wrote that Diment was “a happy answer to my recent plaint about the lack of really young writers in the suspense field. The Dolly Dolly Spy introduces Philip McAlpine, an agent who smokes hashish, leads a highly active sex life, kills vividly, uses (or even coins) the latest London slang, and still seems a perfectly real (and even oddly likable) young man rather than a reflected Bond-image.” Given the initial description of McAlpine, one could be forgiven for expecting some sort of send-up of the spy genre. That is certainly how almost all the press about the book describes it. That’s not what Diment delivers, however. Ruffled collars and Chelsea boots aside, Diment plays it straight.

McAlpine was a sort of character many more people — especially young people — could relate to, living a life more recognizable (and more attainable) than that lived by James Bond, yet substantially more fun than the dreary existence of Harry Palmer. The high concept pitch of Philip McAlpine sounds fairly outré, and one can be forgiven for expecting a campy, over-the-top sort of romp. But despite his Regency suits and affection for both hash and single malt scotch, McAlpine is an otherwise believable character who gets involved in a pretty believable scheme (at least by the standards of espionage fiction). And while McAlpine harbors no love for his profession, he’s not bad at it. In fact, he proves rather able despite being tossed into the deep end. He is an accomplished pilot and, after a bit of training, adept with firearms and all manner of tradecraft.

Diment’s prose is breezy and stuffed with slang, but never at the expense of easy reading. And more importantly, without sounding false, as is often the case when someone less immersed in youth culture attempts to write youthful slang. If there’s anything truly camp about The Dolly Dolly Spy, it’s Rupert Quine, but given how many truly strange people have been employed by British Intelligence over the decades, the mincing, threatening, madly attired Quine seems at least somewhat plausible. This hasn’t stopped The Dolly Dolly Spy and Diment’s subsequent books from being labeled as comedies or send-ups of the spy genre, even though they’re no more outrageous — sometimes considerably less so — than books taken much more seriously in the genre. I mean, no one calls Fleming’s You Only Live Twice a spy spoof, but it has a main villain with a face deformed from syphilis who spends his days stomping around a poisonous garden whilst clad head to toe in a suit of vintage samurai armor. Nothing in Diment’s novels is as absurd as that. It’s simply the fact that Diment’s protagonist is a fashionable, dope-smoking young man that people seem to think qualifies the books as comedies.

The Flash Life

As the story goes, the only thing Adam Diment’s publisher wanted changed about the draft of the novel the aspiring young writer handed him was the title, which Diment originally had as The Runes of Death (an allusion to McAlpine’s tendency to amuse himself by casting runes to see what fate had in store for him, even though he didn’t fully believe in such supernatural powers). It was the right call. The book was a massive success, and reading it is a treat. Diment suddenly found himself in the midst of a media blitz the likes of which is normally reserved for rock stars and movie starlets. How much of what emerged from maelstrom was Diment and how much was carefully crafted persona remains hazy and, in the long run, unimportant.

As far as anyone could tell, Diment was McAlpine, and he appeared surrounded by a crowd of celebrity fans, a bird on each arm, at all of London’s hippest spots. He jet-setted in support of the book and even popped-up in a Life magazine pictorial about Swingin’ London. It was the sort of life James Bond himself might lead, if 007 had listened to The Yardbirds and favored go-go girls in miniskirts and body paint. And yet, as much as he was in the spotlight, Diment remains something of a cypher. Searches for interviews with him turn up very little. Something from Publisher’s Weekly. That’s about it, meaning that – perhaps by design – the man Adam Diment was a blank canvas onto which the pop culture icon Adam Diment could be painted.

This level of success does not go without being noticed by the movie industry. The Dolly Dolly Spy was quickly picked up by United Artists and launched into pre-production with plans to cast David Hemmings — who cemented his counterculture cool in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) and Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) — as McAlpine. Diment even met Hemmings, and it seemed like the perfect pairing. Unfortunately, United Artists’ initial profit-motivated zeal was soon tempered by the realization that they’d have to either take a major risk or make major alterations when it came to McAlpine’s love of hash. Although both the United States and England were well into their counter-culture days, when smoking pot was something that wouldn’t faze most young viewers, the government and the tattered remains of the old Hays Code would still come down hard on them for such a pro-weed hero. And even though McAlpine drinks as much scotch (a much more acceptable vice to the old guard) as he does smoke weed, taking away his joints would undermine the character. And it was something about which Adam Diment would likely be none too happy. The book — and Diment — were already under fire for the positive depiction of casual drug use, and it was a battle he felt worth fighting.

As United Artist struggled with the project, which ultimately fell apart and never went into production, Diment wasted no time getting to work on a second novel. The Great Spy Race came out in 1968, followed that same year by The Bang Bang Birds. The Great Spy Race picks up very soon after the first book, with McAlpine still an unwilling employee of Quine’s bizarre intelligence outfit but nearing the end — he hopes — of his contract. When he’s sent on what seems rather a routine assignment, he soon finds himself set up to become Quine’s representative in a competition for spies being mounted by an eccentric billionaire. The prize is a piece of intelligence so juicy that the top spy agencies of the world all send participants. Up against such big guns, McAlpine considers himself absurdly outclassed and outgunned, but since it’s his life on the line, he taps into all his skills and cunning to come out on top, or at least make a good show it things.

In The Bang Bang Birds, finds McAlpine pressed into service yet again, this time on loan to the Americans who need him to infiltrate a chain of ultra high-end swingers clubs — think Playboy Clubs only more so — that have been collecting top secret information from tipsy, loose-lipped politicians and scientists. Among the book’s best bits are Diment’s characterization of American intelligence workers, a hopelessly square and uptight bunch headed up by the perpetually enraged, crew-cut — but very intelligent, very competent — General Eastfeller. Eastfeller, predictably enough, can barely tolerate McAlpine shaggy haircut and moderately outlandish clothing. McAlpine enjoys teasing his belligerent ally, but only up to a point, as Eastfeller is the type to make good on his menace.

Once again, the relationship between agent and superior is dramatically different than in many other spy novels. None of the fatherly warmth of M, or even the mere dickishness of Harry Palmer’s superiors, always dropping him off far away from his hotel in Billion Dollar Brain. Even the bitterest spy of them all, Matt Helm, gets along better with his boss than McAlpine. He, Eastfeller, and Quine all seem to genuinely hate one another, not just because they have antagonistic professional relationships, but because they are different generations. Different social mores. Different cultures. Because one is young and the others are old.

Both books proved as popular as The Dolly Dolly Spy, and it seemed Diment was riding the crest of a wave. And ride it he did — straight out of the limelight and toward destinations unknown, or at least unconfirmed. After the publication of The Bang Bang Birds, Diment dropped out. “I’m getting a little tired of the character now,” Diment was quoted as saying in a 1968 interview, and while rumors were started that Diment had fled to Rome after being caught up in a bit of a currency swindle, those rumors are almost certainly false.

It’s no mystery why a stylish young man in the late 1960s might tire of success of want a few moments to himself, or if not to himself, than to himself and whatever lady he happened to invite to come with him. That lady, as the rumors have it, was a mysterious Cuban beauty named Camille, to whom he dedicated The Bang Bang Birds and with whom he traveled to either Rome or Zurich, possibly both. There’s no official account of his time away from the spotlight, but over the years, friends who knew Diment during his sojourn in Rome remember that he and Camille spend most of their time sunbathing on rooftops. If the price of sunbathing with a Cuban beauty in the villas of assorted Italian friends is the price one pays for stepping away from publicity, well then, it seems fair enough and perfectly understandable.

And Just Like That…Poof

During his sabbatical from the prying eye of the public, Diment must have had his interest in Philip McAlpine revived. He wrote a fourth book in the series, Think, Inc., published in 1971. There was a certain bitterness and a certain melancholy in the three previous books despite their garish clothing and wild situations. By Think, Inc., that dark streak has become more prominent. It’s more cynical. It’s more violent. The candy-colored fantasy of the previous three novels has given way to a bleakness that is almost on the level of Le Carre, though still with more sex and style than the average George Smiley tale. While the previous three had been thoroughly enjoyable larks, this fourth book is denser, with more complex characterization and some obvious growth on the part of McAlpine, who has gone from swinging ladies man to a more mature, more depressed fellow.

The Swinging London of McAlpine’s heyday was fading. Adam Diment’s interest in celebrity was fading. The summer of love was over, exhausted. Vietnam was still raging. When asked what the scene in London was like by the character Charity, with whom McAlpine falls in love, the hip young spy replies, “Coming down off its high.” He finds himself, in what was to be his final adventure, on the outs with the intelligence community, turned out into the cold with nothing in the way of protection from the many enemies he made during the course of duty. He finds himself in the crosshairs of more than a few assassins, and with few options opens to him, joins up with a criminal organization known as Think, Inc.

Think, Inc. ends on a harrowing, depressing scene and a bit of a cliffhanger. Or, perhaps, simply an open and vague conclusion fitting for the revelations that have come to McAlpine during the bloody course of the novel. As Diment flies off into an ambiguous future, it’s easy to see Adam Diment’s own departure from the scene in the pages of the book. 1971 and Think, Inc. was the last anyone in the public heard from Diment. He never wrote another book. He never did another interview. The abruptness of his disappearance caused rumors to flow. That he was dead. That he was in trouble over drugs or some financial scam. None of these were true. Others were more credible. That he simply grew weary and disillusioned with fame. That he had been spotted in Nepal. In Switzerland. And finally, that he had packed it all in, bought himself a farm in Kent, and lives there to this day, quietly tending his garden and avoiding any sort of publicity.

Diment and McAlpine perhaps understood one of the most important rules of cool: don’t overstay your welcome. And don’t lead your own rediscovery. He didn’t vainly trumpet his departure from the party. And he’s not hungry to relive the night before. Although friends and relatives have made comments over the years that seem to confirm that he is leading a quiet life in the English countryside, none of them have betrayed his trust or handed out his address. And to date, no reporter or fan has successfully scored an audience with the elusive Mr. Diment.

And perhaps that is how it should be. Rather than demanding more of those who have entertained us, perhaps we should just let him be. And perhaps instead of demanding more of Philip McAlpine, we should let the man be and be happy with what we have. There are four books out there, each one very entertaining. His name might be more obscure than James Bond, Harry Palmer, or George Smiley. But isn’t that part of being a spy? Leave him out there, a truly mysterious international man of mystery relaxing with a puff of hash on some unknown beach, free at last from the endless demands heaped upon him by Rupert Quine.

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