Saturday, June 18, 2022

John Gardner's The Liquidator

The Liquidator, published in 1964, was the first of the Boysie Oakes spy thrillers. It was in fact the first work of fiction by Englishman John Gardner (1926-2007) who is perhaps now better remembered for having written more James Bond novels than Ian Fleming.

Ian Fleming earned some notoriety among disapproving critics with his habit of dropping brand names of luxury goods into the Bond novels. Within the first couple of pages of The Liquidator Gardner has dropped more brand name than Fleming would in an entire novel. Gardner does it so often that we immediately suspect that he’s having fun with us. That impression is confirmed when we discover that his spy hero, Boysie Oakes, is also a British secret agent with a licence to kill. Bond had one minor weakness - a fear of flying. Sure enough Boysie is afraid of flying as well.

And as the novel opens Boysie (his actual name is Brian Oakes but nobody calls him anything but Boysie) is off to the Riviera for a weekend of fun and sex with his boss’s secretary Iris, so he’s a womaniser as well. In fact a more shameless womaniser than Bond.

While Bond is routinely described as being good-looking but with a rather cruel mouth Boysie is good-looking but with rather cruel eyes.

Gardner is indeed having fun with us, and will have a great deal of fun turning the Bond formula on its head.

Bond does indeed have a licence to kill and he is prepared to do so if it’s necessary. He does not enjoy killing. There are times in the Bond stories when he dislikes it very much. Bond is a killer, but not a conscienceless killer. Boysie on the other hand thoroughly enjoys killing. He has no conscience at all. Mostyn realised this the first time he encountered Boysie, during the war. He saw Boysie kill two men. It was in the line of duty but Mostyn knew there could be no mistaking the positive joy in Boysie’s eyes.

Some years later, in 1956 in fact, Mostyn was a senior member of one of Britain’s intelligence agencies. A major espionage scandal had just erupted. The two spies involved had been suspected but there had been no evidence against them until it was too late. Mostyn’s superior decided that the best way to avoid such unpleasant situations in the future was to forget all this sentimental nonsense about rules of evidence and presumption of innocence and the rule of law. The best thing to do would be simply to liquidate suspected spies. Of course the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and the public might not approve, so it would all have to be done secretly. Mostyn is given the job of setting up a kind of government version of Murder Inc. Of course finding suitable personnel could be tricky. You’d need someone with no conscience whatsoever, someone who genuinely enjoyed killing people. And then Mostyn remembers Boysie. He does some digging around and is convinced that Boysie has committed several murders. The important thing is that he’s never been caught. He’s obviously clever as well as ruthless. Boysie becomes the British Government’s unofficial hitman.

Mostyn is not happy at all to discover that Boysie and Iris have gone away for a dirty weekend together. It has major security implications.

Boysie is looking forward to a weekend of bedroom bliss but it doesn’t turn out that way. Things start to go wrong when he leaves the hotel to buy cigarettes and meets a gorgeous blonde named Coral. The next thing he knows he’s getting hit over the head and knocked unconscious. He wakes up to find that he’s a prisoner (along with his blonde lady friend). He has no idea who was kidnapped him or why but he soon figures out that this is going to be a very unpleasant experience. That proves to be the case, although he does at least get to have sex with the blonde.

Things get worse. Having escaped from imminent death he finds that he’s been activated. He has an assignment. And he’s really not in the mood for it. He’s been beaten up and terrorised and he’s badly shaken and rather frightened and very confused. There are very nasty people trying to kill him. He’s so upset that he’s not even sure if he will be able to perform in the bedroom with Iris.

The fact is that Boysie is not a super secret agent. He’s a good shot and he’s had some training but he’s not a superb fighting machine. His one qualification for the job is his willingness to kill anyone he’s been told to kill. His job is to kill people whom Mostyn considers to be security risks (some of whom might well be innocent of any actual wrongdoing). Boysie’s victims are invariably unarmed and they have no idea that they’ve been targeted for liquidation. Boysie kills efficiently and he’s good at making his kills appear to be accidents or suicides but he’s effective because his victims don’t know what’s coming and are totally unprepared to fight back.

While Bond is an old-fashioned patriot Boysie took the job because it paid well and had attractive fringe benefits. He doesn’t kill for Queen and Country. He’s in it for the money. And the women.

Boysie isn’t particular brave. He doesn’t like the idea of being shot at himself. He doesn’t like that idea one little bit.

So he’s very much an anti-hero. He’s an absolutely deplorable human being. But we can’t help liking him. He’s a bit like Flashman. We know he’s a rotter, we know he’s a wrong ’un, but he provides us with a great deal of amusement. And, as is the case with Flashman, his total shamelessness and his unapologetic acceptance of his outrageous character flaws is oddly appealing. We like Boysie because he know he’s no hero.

And then we get halfway through the book and there’s a major revelation and we find that we’ve been cleverly and wittily deceived. Things are not at all as they appeared to be and we have to revise our assumptions. Boysie is indeed a scoundrel, but he’s not the type of scoundrel we thought he was.

The Liquidator could I suppose he described as a spy spoof but it doesn’t have the tone normally associated with spy spoof. It’s a very amusing book but it tends more towards black comedy rather than high camp. Gardner doesn’t try too hard to go for laughs. He lets the humour develop naturally out of the desperate situations in which Boysie lands himself. It’s more a wickedly sly satire that has fun twisting the conventions of spy fiction, rather than an outrageous campfest. Don’t be misled by that cover that describes it as zany. Zany is not the word I’d use. This is not Carry On Spying. The humour is rather more sophisticated than that.

It really does remind me a great deal of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. It does for the James Bond-style of spy fiction what the Flashman books did for Victorian tales of adventure and military glory. And It’s worth pointing out that The Liquidator was published five years before the first of the Flashman books. Both The Liquidator and Flashman tapped into the sceptical cynical zeitgeist of the 60s.

The Liquidator is really rather clever in the way it cheerfully and wittily mocks the spy genre, while demonstrating a sound understanding of the conventions of that genre. Highly recommended.

Gardner eventually wrote eight Boysie Oakes books and I’m now rather keen to find out what else Boysie gets up to.


  1. What an interesting review - I grew up with the Flashman novels and when I read the Liquidator books a few years ago, I don't think the comparison ever occurred to me, but it definitely makes sense.

    This was filmed with Rod Taylor and Trevor Howard in the 60s, and it was on TV a few times when I was younger (it's quite good), so I knew what the big twist was before I read the books. Shame, really, because it's a good one.

    IIRC, most of the rest of the book series is pretty good.

    1. I think both George MacDonald Fraser and Gardner were very effectively tapping into the 60s zeitgeist, with its scepticism about heroes.

      So the other books in the series are worth reading? I'll have to add at least the second book to my shopping list now.

    2. I re-read the first one and I definitely get your Flashman point. What's interesting is that the other twist is more heavily sign-posted than I remembered (Gardner used exactly the same technique in one of his first Bond novels), although again knowing the plot from the film helped.

      I just re-read the second one today to see what it was like - once you know the set-up, it's probably not as effective, although in some ways, the plot is better than the first one.

    3. Used copies of the second book aren't overly expensive. I really should grab a copy.

    4. In the UK, Amazon have the whole series on Kindle Unlimited - although the presentation isn't perfect. I read the third one over the last couple of days, and I think you'd like that one, as well. It's as much a spoof of Bond movies and Eurospy movies as the Fleming novels.