Friday, January 6, 2023

E. Howard Hunt's The Towers of Silence

Former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt became best-known (and most notorious) for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, for which he served nearly three years in prison. Hunt had been involved in many CIA covert operations, most of them probably illegal. He was therefore ideally qualified to write spy fiction and using the pseudonym David St. John he wrote the ten successful Peter Ward spy thrillers. Hunt was an extremely prolific writer using his own name and various pseudonyms, writing numerous other thrillers and some excellent hardboiled crime fiction. Whatever you might think of his activities on behalf of the CIA Hunt’s fiction is worth checking out.

The Towers of Silence, published in 1966, was the second of his Peter Ward spy novels.

CIA agent Peter Ward has been sent to India, to Bombay, to find out how Paul Walker met his death. Walker was a low-grade CIA agent but he was murdered and the CIA isn’t happy about that. The problem is that nobody knows what Walker was working on at the time and therefore neither Peter Ward nor his bosses at Langley have any idea why he was killed.

What Peter Ward does discover is that Walker took some photos just before his death. Photos of very explicit Indian erotic art works. This surprises Ward. He’d assumed that Walker was a clean-living all-American hero.

Ward makes contact with Helene Bush. She was working for Paul Walker but Ward is disturbed to learn that she is a former British spy, an MI6 agent. In fact she might well be a current MI6 agent. The British are America’s allies but as Ward knows that doesn’t mean they’re on the same side. The CIA and MI6 would cheerfully slit each other’s throats if there was some advantage to be gained thereby.

What does attract Ward’s interest is a new Indian political movement which might be innocent or it might not be. A very wealthy man named Paramandi, a Parsi, is involved. Ward takes an interest in Paramandi’s daughter Nara. He thinks she might be worth recruiting although perhaps his interest in her isn’t entirely professional.

Ward is still puzzled by those erotic photographs taken by Walker. They were photographs of carvings in caves on the island of Elephanta. Maybe Walker wasn’t interested in expanding his knowledge of the art of love. Maybe he was more interested in that island.

Ward must be on to something because people keep trying to kill him (in one case in an extraordinarily imaginative and horrible way).

This could perhaps be described as the spy fiction equivalent of a police procedural, an espionage procedural if you will. The emphasis is on solid routine espionage tradecraft. Sifting intelligence, making connections, putting suspects under surveillance, gradually building up a picture. You don’t know what the subject of the picture is until it’s complete but you follow procedures. There are certainly action scenes but Peter Ward is not a fly-by-the-set-of-your-pants follow-your-instincts kind of spy. He’s a professional. He doesn’t take risks and he doesn’t act as a lone wolf. British fictional spies tend to work along because they’re working for British Intelligence which has virtually no money and virtually no resources. Peter Ward on the other hand is CIA, with unlimited resources and money behind him. He’s an organisation man.

Hunt was clearly aiming for verisimilitude, to make us feel that we’re watching a real spy working a real case. The plot has twists but it’s very much grounded in reality. There are no outrageous fanciful elements to the plot.

Hunt was a profession intelligence agent so naturally he tries to make the tradecraft fairly realistic and he certainly goes to great lengths to give us a rundown on the political situation in India in the mid-60s and the activities of British, America, Chinese and Soviet intelligence agencies in that country. He devotes a lot of attention to various organisations used as fronts by those intelligence agencies. I have absolutely no idea how authentic any of this background is but what matters is that it feels authentic. It makes us feel that we are getting a glimpse into the real world of international espionage.

And Peter Ward is what real spies (the successful ones anyway) are like. He isn’t colourful. He’s a cog in a machine. He gets the job done. He doesn’t expect the job to be glamorous.

He is however a bit of a womaniser and he’s more cold-blooded about it than Bond. He beds women who will be useful to him and he doesn’t worry himself about their feelings.

The first thing you have to do if you’re going to enjoy Hunt’s spy thrillers is accept the idea of the CIA as the good guys. Hunt wasn’t just trying to write entertaining thrillers, he was also trying to clean up the CIA’s image.

The Towers of Silence obviously doesn’t belong to the high adventure over-the-top school of spy fiction exemplified by Ian Fleming but just as obviously doesn’t belong to the Graham Greene-John le Carre-Len Deighton school of cynical spy fiction. There’s not a trace of cynicism here. The CIA is working for freedom and democracy and the commies are the bad guys and there’s no room for doubts. So as I said earlier I’d call it an espionage procedural. Whatever it is it moves along at a good pace and it just about convinces us that it’s hyper-realistic. And it’s entertaining. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed one of Hunt’s slightly later Peter Ward spy books, One of Our Agents Is Missing. And I’ve reviewed his excellent 1950 hardboiled noir crime thriller The Violent Ones.


  1. If you’re into espionage try an unusually thrilling autobiography entitled Beyond Enkription (misspelt on purpose) by Bill Fairclough (ex MI6 agent codename JJ). He was one of Colonel Alan Pemberton’s People in MI6. It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti. The fact based narrative is set in 1974 about a British accountant working in London, Nassau and Port au Prince who unwittingly works for MI6 and later the CIA.

    It’s a compelling read but whatever you do, don't just surf through the prologue as I did. Also, if like me you could only just stomach the film Jaws don’t be put off by the passing savagery of the first chapter. I finished this huge book in two sittings and a week or so later read it again.

    To get the most out of it try researching the real events behind it on the web and in particular look at the brief News Article dated 31 October 2022 about Pemberton’s People in TheBurlingtonFiles website. There is a lot out there once you start digging but as a minimum include a half hour read of one of the author's bios which don’t include spoilers. You’ll soon feel like you know his family. After my first reading I did even more research and kept on unravelling increasingly enthralling material that drove me to reread the book. My second reading was richly rewarded and just as captivating as my first.

    If you like raw or noir espionage thrillers, you’ll love it. Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote it. Atmospherically it's reminiscent of Ted Lewis' Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they'll only have themselves to blame if it doesn't go down in history as a classic espionage thriller. Do look up the authors or books mentioned on Amazon, Google The Burlington Files and read Beyond Enkription.

  2. Now I want to read BOTH of these! Thanks, everyone!

  3. Good luck and don't forget Slow Horses if you haven't read it yet!