Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Desmond Cory’s Hammerhead

Hammerhead (published in the United States as Shockwave) was the thirteenth of Desmond Cory’s sixteen Johnny Fedora spy thrillers. It was published in 1963. Hammerhead forms parts of a five-novel cycle dealing with Johnny Fedora’s battles with a top Soviet spymaster named Feramontov.

Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (1928-2001) was an English academic who was also a successful thriller writer. He was best-known for the Johnny Fedora books.

Johnny Fedora is half Spanish and half Irish. He is an agent for the British Secret Service and it’s understood that if he feels it necessary to kill in the line of duty than that’s quite acceptable. A series of thrillers about a British spy with a licence to kill is obviously going to sound like a rip-off of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels but in fact Cory got there first. The first Johnny Fedora novel was published in 1951, a year before the first of the Bond novels. I don’t think it’s a case of one writer influencing the other. In the postwar period readers’ tastes had changed and it was obvious that the spy thriller was going to become more violent and action-oriented. Desmond Cory and Ian Fleming simply happened to realise that before other writers did.

And Cory certainly knew how to deliver violence and action. Johnny Fedora is pretty ruthless. He’s quite happy to use torture to extract information and in this story he kills a man, chops him up into little pieces and stuffs the dismembered body parts into a suitcase. It’s not a good idea to get Johnny upset.

Hammerhead takes place in Franco’s Spain. begins with Johnny receiving a request for help from the glamorous Marisa de Camba. She wants him to investigate the death of actress Sofia Domecq. Sofia had gone to a journalist named Delgado with some startling allegations about a very rich very powerful man named Chaval. The whole story seems odd, which interests Johnny. The British Secret Service is also interested. Those allegations involves drug-smuggling but more to the point there’s the suggestion that American military personnel are mixed up in it. The sort of military personnel who fly nuclear-armed bombers.

Johnny decides he’ll have to infiltrate Chaval’s social circles. He wants to attend one of Chaval’s parties. He’ll need some help. He gets that help from Sofia Domecq’s sister Carlota, a very high-priced prostitute. Chaval’s parties are the sorts of parties at which high-class hookers are welcome.

When Johnny finds out just what Operation Hammerhead really is he realises he’s stumbled onto something very big indeed. Nobody is going to believe him without evidence. He has the evidence, but whether he can hold on top it is another matter.

The plot twists and turns in a satisfying manner. This is a spy thriller and spies can never be sure whom to trust. Even the bad guys can’t be sure about that.

This story is perhaps just a bit more violet than the Bond novels, but with less emphasis on sex. There is Carlota, and she qualifies as the kind of sexy dangerous female you hope for in a spy novel.

There’s a race against time aspect, always good for adding a bit more tension. And it’s not just that Johnny is running out of time to find the key to the problem. He doesn’t even know what it is he’s looking for and he has no idea where to look. All he knows is that he has to find it, fast. There’s a very effective nail-biting climax.

Johnny Fedora is a bit Bond-like but he’s less of a womaniser and he’s much more ruthless. In fact he’s closer to the Matt Helm of Donald Hamilton’s novels than he is to Bond. The overall tone is also very close to that of the Matt Helm books, although Cory is not as successful as Hamilton in showing us the personal consequences of immersion in the vicious world of espionage.

This is a classic Cold War spy thriller with a straightforward Good Guys vs Bad Guys theme. It is extremely well executed and it offers more than sufficient quantities thrills and suspense. Highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the previous Johnny Fedora book, Undertow. It’s also very much worth reading.


  1. I'd also recommend this - I'd highly recommend all the Johnny Fedora books, although often for wildly different reasons! At this stage in the series, the books had settled down into a more consistent style - they feature a recurring villain, and they're much more traditionally Cold War spy novels. Fedora himself is also written more consistently - not that he's badly written in the earlier books, but they are so varied in content, and sometimes even genre, that the character sometimes changed to fit the story.

    In fact, that's why I prefer these to the Matt Helm series, which I found started to grind me down as a reader as they went on - they were very good, but a bit samey samey same same ... which is one thing the Fedora series definitely isn't lol

    1. I've read a couple of the Johnny Fedora books, from the early 60s. I'm going to have to make an effort to track down some of the early books.

    2. Pretty much any of the early books will do, but my favourites were Secret Ministry, This Traitor Death and Height of Day (books 1, 2 and 5) - just about all the Fedora books have alternative titles. Height of Day has IMO the best ending in the entire series, although also the most outlandish one (it was Cory's least favourite book).

    3. I've come across an affordable copy of Trieste (AKA Intrigue). Would you recommend that one?

    4. Oh, I'd recommend any of them - but sometimes for different reasons. That one's pretty good - I should point out that technically it's a sequel to the previous one, Dead Man Falling (which is also the one where Fedora first meets Sebastian Trout); actually I think Intrigue is better. I'd buy it if I were you.

    5. I just placed my order for TRIESTE. I'm looking forward to it.

    6. Cool, I think you'll like it.