A William Haggard novel is more likely to engage the English reader than the American in its portrait of the powers behind the powers, the hierarchy that remains as prime ministers and other such ephemeral authorities come and go. It is a top-level view of the behind-the-scenes machinations of national and multinational corporations and security agencies and the politics that inevitably affect them. Often these dealings involve major breakthroughs in science and industry, resulting in discoveries with potential military application.
In The High Wire (1963), for example, the plot centers on a major foreign power’s attempt to acquire, by blackmail, kidnapping, torture, or even murder, the secret of a new weapon being developed by British industry, while in The Antagonists (1964) the United States and the Soviet Union, fearful of an apocalyptic military secret, struggle either to subvert or to eliminate a world-famous scientist residing in Great Britain. The Arena (1961) depends on a foreign power’s struggle to take over a British company to have access to new British discoveries in radar, while Slow Burner (1958), Venetian Blind (1959), Yesterday’s Enemy (1976), and The Meritocrats (1985) concern a security leak of restricted nuclear information. The Unquiet Sleep (1962) concerns the damaging effects of a new drug on government personnel, and The Mischief-Makers (1982) an Arab attempt to foment a rebellion among London blacks.
In each novel, Colonel Russell or his minions in British intelligence prove to have been on top of the situation from the beginning but must proceed cautiously, according to the unspoken rules for espionage and counterespionage, judging just how far to push the other side and when to count one’s losses and yield to the inevitable. Instead of derring-do, there are quiet, understated discussions, analyses of data and potential actions of all parties, and finally active steps to resolve the issues and personalities in England’s best interest, though these steps are often thwarted by, or prove unnecessary because of, the actions of private individuals. Always the situation is politically explosive, the personalities unpredictable, and the realities far more complex than a surface analysis indicates.
Most Haggard novels depend heavily on the character of Colonel Russell, a realist who feels more comfortable with established government—communist or not—than lack of government, who recognizes the necessity of sometimes making national concessions, and who in fact has “almost lost the habit of thinking in terms of countries or nations.” At times Russell feels more respect for a competent counterpart in the Soviet hierarchy than for some of his own country’s secretaries and ministers, especially those of the far Left. The description of his ruminations on an old friend sums up his conservative values:To the idealists in their world of shadows he was simply another fascist dictator, to the hardline communist a contemptible turncoat. Russell considered him neither of these, indeed they were birds of a similar feather. Both had spent lives on the same tightrope, on the one side the furnace of total power, on the other the bog of wishful thinking. Man was a very dangerous animal and Russell cared little who ruled him in practice. The enemy was the absence of rule. . . . All one could do was to walk one’s tightrope, balancing by the light of realpolitik.
Russell recognizes Great Britain’s declining world status and its need to depend more heavily on strong allies (calling in Americans, for example, to assure the secrecy of a British discovery). He disapproves of liberals on principle and might admire, but never trust, a card-carrying communist. He respects Israeli intelligence for walking a tightrope between political expedience and war.
Russell is a professional, scornful of amateurs for the disgusting messes they often leave and of diplomats for their affectations and incompetence. He finds the agony column of the London Times the only sane and accurate reporting. What intrigues him most from the security files are not those classified “red” (suspects by history or association) or “green” (suspects by political sympathy) but those classified “yellow” (suspects by character), for they are the least predictable and hence potentially the most dangerous. Russell is attuned to the vulnerability and corruptibility of the most polished and successful of diplomats, businesspeople, and scientists, and it is his ability to put himself in their place and anticipate their responses that makes him so effective at his job. Russell may be right wing in sympathies, but he deeply values the rights of citizens and fights to avoid invoking the Security Act, which would give him police-state powers. His response to breaches of security is to focus on human psychology and to try to outguess his opponent by placing himself in his shoes.
The Poison People
His office at the Security Executive is untidy, with silver trophies and excellent Persian rugs—items that spell “an intelligence shrewd but unfussy.” Russell is fascinated by the convolutions of other minds and other cultures (particularly the unpredictable twists of the Byzantine mind or the deep-seated wisdom of the Latin woman); he...
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