Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Dolly Dolly Spy - Adam Diment



Ah, the Sixties. Sex, pot and spies - all of which feature strongly in Adam Diment's debut novel, published in 1967 when he was only twenty-three and looked - judging by the photo on the back of this paperback - like a handsome, thinner version of Boris Johnson.


To be honest, I had always assumed Diment was a pseudonym and that whoever he was really had simply taken to writing under another nom de plume when the Sixties went sour. But no - I spotted an article in the Guardian about someone trying to crowdfund a reprint of the Diment canon and, lo and behold, we find that Diment is still apparently alive, possibly living in Switzerland, and actually walked away when the film of The Dolly Dolly Spy fell through and his fourth spy novel Think Inc didn't exactly set the book-buying world alight. He does not comment and never has.


The book itself, despite its cheesy title, is actually very good. Diment writes extraordinarily well and takes quite startling liberties with form. For example his hero Philip McAlpine, reluctantly compromised into going undercover with a dodgy air transport company, is listening to his boss drone on about the war and uses this as an excuse to reflect upon his training. This works because McAlpine obviously was there. Later flashbacks, concerning the villain of the piece during the war, do not have that advantage but are nevertheless acceptable because a) it tells us that his war crimes were so appalling that even a young hipster in 1967 is aware of them, and b) that our hero is not so dumb or self-centred as he sometimes makes out.


The joy is period detail - it seems £2000 would buy you a Maserati in '67. The downside is the sexism and casual racism. They are of their time and the saving grace is that Diment, via McAlpine, does not disparage women and black people beyond the use of demeaning terms like 'dolly' and 'spade'. His only interaction with a black person is in the remarkably thrilling prologue, in which his passenger is a black African politician who is sympathetically drawn and whom McAlpine respects. Likewise, although there is lots of talk of promiscuity, and quite a bit of it in practice, McAlpine remains sentimentally attached to girlfriend Veronica Lom.


The spymaster Quine is horrendously camp - but turns out to be happily married to a plain woman who is both intelligent and sexually empowered.


What really dropped my jaw is the amount of reflection and self-scrutiny that is on display. This is something which eludes pretty well all first-time novelists and the vast majority of 23 year-olds. But look at this, from towards the end:

This country [Britain] is, for the time being, a whore. Our Empire has gone and our people remain lazy. We are clever, original, class-ridden and small. The sooner we can get back to being another small country and forget our now useless role of world arbiter the better. Nobody has listened to our advice for years; it is just accepting this fact that is painful. Meanwhile we export fashion and trend to the rest of them, like a good little whore should.

That's how Diment saw it back in '67. Fifty years later you could and paste it into any broadsheet editorial and no one would argue. So who was a very clever boy then? No wonder he was the publishing sensation of '67. They say The Dolly Dolly Spy sold a million. I'm not at all surprised.

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