In honour of Louis XIV's ascension to role of official Archivist for the British Library, I decided to go back into my own collection and re-read one of the few books that I have a first edition copy of (at least I think I do; I'm never quite sure of these things): Duncan Kyle's WWII espionage thriller Black Camelot.
[To stop being facetious for a moment, it really is a cool thing that the British Library found Existential Ennui and recognized it for the value it is providing. Nick Jones has been steadily posting about some great but relatively unrecognized genre authors of the 60s, 70s and 80s. He hunts down rare editions of the books, researches their publishing history with a special emphasis on their design and covers. These are books that never received the archival respect they deserve because of their commercial or genre-based nature but in hindsight, today we see a lot of art, culture and history in them. All of us genre fans always appreciated these works and recognize their contribution to culture. It is great to see that institutions like the British Library recognize that as well and it is thanks Nick's hard work that this information will be preserved and made accessible to more people.]
I have always enjoyed Duncan Kyle's work, but in my mind I always consider him a poor man's Desmond Bagley. Such a ranking is probably not just and I think that it's based more on Bagley being more consistent and prolific as well as having excellent marketing support during the height of his popularity. (Although reading this great post about him with layouts of all his Fontana covers suggests I may be wrong about the marketing part; perhaps it was only in Canada that he didn't receive the distribution of Bagley.) I had suspected for a while that I need to go back and re-read both Bagley and Kyle to re-assess how I think about them and this read of Black Camelot has helped reinforce that notion.
The cover of my book is awesome, showing as you see here, a nazi officer hanging from a rope surrounded by fire. This does happen in the book, but it takes such a long and circuitous route to get there that I was doubtful it would even happen at points. That route is quite enjoyable and shows Kyle's skill at weaving a rich narrative and his knowledge of espionage and crime. It also reveals a pretty hard cynicism that gives this book a dark edge.
Conway is an Irish reporter based in Stockholm in 1944. In neutral Denmark, he is able to get stories on the situation in Germany. One of his tricks is to wait for the flight from Berlin and get his hands on the German newspapers before his rivals do. He happens upon SS officer Franz Rasch, who has been sent by his superiors to deliver some papers that they hope will sow division between the British and the Russians. What Rasch doesn't know is that he is set up to be condemned as a traitor and deserter to make the story seem more authentic to the Brits and Russians. By fluke, Conway helps Rasch out, figuring out what is going on, they devise a blackmail scheme.
I don't want to give away anything more, so I'll skip out the details of the circuitous path, but the novel climaxes in an assault on the famous (and real) SS castle Wewelsburg, which Himmler created to be a spiritual center for Nazi mythology. According to the novel, it also contained a room full of Nazi intelligence files, both damning for the Allie as well as many leading Nazis (Heydrich, who assembled the documents, gained his political strength by having dirt on everybody). It's these documents that are the target of the raid.
This is a great book. It's got a little bit of everything you could want in a WWII thriller: espionage, nasty domestic crime, internal politics at the top level of both the Allies and the Nazis, awesome Nazi fanaticism and it is all topped off by an action-packed finale. The really strong points that made me raise Duncan Kyle in my ranking are a couple of asides where he describes the histories of two successful British businessmen and how they could have supported the Nazi movement. They were very realistic and rich, a few pages that encapsulated how easy it is for men to be sucked into evil. Their stories could easily take place today in slightly different contexts.