Ostara Publishing Colourfon

Ostara Publishing

19 Nov 2009
Books: Snake Water

Barry Forshaw on a welcome return

Alan Williams: Renaissance of a Master

Barry Forshaw on a welcome return

 When the standards of current crime and thriller writing vary between the dispiriting and the excellent – sometimes in the work of the same author – it’s salutary to read again (as we are now able to do in a reissue programme masterminded by Mike Ripley) the compact body of work produced by Alan Williams, the writer son of the playwright and actor Emlyn Williams. It’s a highly pleasurable reminder of a time when writing of a rare order of excellence was the norm, and a novelist such as Williams could be on consistently blistering form, book after book.

Alan Williams is among the most impressive in what might be called the Graham Greene/Eric Ambler School of ‘Englishman at bay in sultry climes’. Williams was educated at Stowe, Heidelberg and King's College Cambridge. He was in Hungary during the revolt in 1956, and was forced to make his way out of East Germany by clandestine means. Like several of his writing confrères, Williams had some involvement with the espionage world, working for a Munich radio station with American intelligence links (and which in turn was targeted by Soviet intelligence). After becoming a journalist, the author wrote in Britain for the Western Mail and The Express, acting as foreign correspondent in the war zones of Vietnam and Algeria. As a badge of honour, on several occasions he was suspected of being a spy.

Long Run South (1962) and Barbouze (1963) announced with a flourish that a major new thriller writer had arrived. The former concerns a young Englishman, Rupert Quinn, who is sick of his job and seeking escape in Morocco at the time of the Algerian war. Quinn is offered as a job as a courier on a coach tour into the interior, but finds himself unwittingly smuggling arms for the rebels, as well as becoming involved with the seductive Leila, liaison officer for the anti-government forces. This was no 007-style escapist piece: after the brutal torture of Leila, Quinn, despite his crippling fear, manages to survive more through luck than judgment.

Continuing the theme of the Englishman out of his depth à la Greene, Barbouze has a newspaperman trying to enjoy a quiet holiday in North Africa and finding himself involved in a brutal and grisly terrorist war. This heady tale of innocence and assassination is couched in a colourful and invigorating literary style that was easily the equal of such prestigious forebears as Greene’s The Confidential Agent (even if Williams’ writing lacked, as yet, moral force of his mentors). By now, Williams was a master of his craft, ringing changes on themes he’d explored repeatedly – notably the moral equivocation of his ambiguous heroes.

With Snake Water (1965), Williams tackled a plot that might initially have seemed somewhat shopworn: a fortune in raw diamonds is hidden in the lethal swamps of a South American jungle, and a disparate, squabbling group of four people risk everything to acquire them. But such is the freshness and vitality of the author’s treatment that he is able to strip-mine the crucial elements of his narrative, jettisoning the non-essentials. The result is violent and kinetic, yet couched in prose of real elegance (even as the mayhem comes unfeasibly thick and fast: carnivorous crabs, volcanoes, brutal bandits). The Purity League (1968), was an attack on the self-appointed moral guardians of the era such as Mary Whitehouse and the Christian peer Lord Longford, and The Tale of the Lazy Dog in 1970 drew praise from no less an authority than Eric Ambler himself (who called it 'superbly exciting'). A team of adventurers and agents in Southeast Asia attempts to pull off an ambitious robbery, with an Irish journalist as the lynchpin. Apart from the pithy characterisation, the vividly evoked sense of locale marked Williams out as a master of this territory, and The Beria Papers (1973) built on the success of the earlier books, with its clever notion of a secret diary written by the former chief of the Soviet secret police before he was executed in the 50s. Cleverly synthesising the known facts (Beria was Stalin's right-hand man, with a million armed men at his command and a noted predilection for sadism, rape and mass murder) with the fascinating possibility that he may have kept a diary lasciviously recording his sexual proclivities and murderous atrocities. In Williams’ book, the diary sets off a lethal manhunt for those responsible for its release.

Another ingenious melding of truth and fiction can be found in Gentleman Traitor (1975), which was based on a conversation that was reported to Williams in which the drunken British spy Kim Philby announced how desperate he was to leave Russia after his defection. Williams’ novel has Philby actually doing this, and taking on an assignment in Rhodesia, facilitated by British intelligence (still packed full of old colleagues just as ready as he was to betray his country). His mission ends in confusion and death, but Philby himself is exuberantly characterised, though thankfully lacking Graham Greene’s roseate picture of his old colleague. Equally strong work could be found in The Widow’s War (1978), with a bored ex-soldier and the alcoholic wife of a brutal dictator up against a psychopathic terrorist. The setting, an island wrecked by a volcano, is as memorably realised as anything in the author’s work.

Apart from his sheer storytelling ability, Alan Williams continually shored up his novels with a totally persuasive verisimilitude, utilising authentic historical detail to create narratives that generated considerable suspense. While not achieving the immense success of Frederick Forsyth, Williams demonstrated, in novel after the novel, that he could produce books packed with as much persuasive detail as Forsyth's Day of the Jackal. At the start of the 21st century, Williams’ achievement was neglected, so it’s a genuine cause for celebration to see it re-appearing; new readers will find that Alan Williams is a writer whose accomplishments are varied and considerable.

Barry Forshaw is the author of The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction  (2007) and the editor of the two-volume British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia (2009).



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