Monday, May 29, 2023

E. Howard Hunt's Diabolus

E. Howard Hunt (1918-2007) is best-known for being one of the Watergate conspirators. He was a career CIA agent. He was also a popular and successful and extremely prolific novelist, mostly in the crime and spy genres. He had an exceptionally long career as a writer. His first novel was published in 1942; his final novel was written in 2000.

Using the pseudonym David St. John he wrote ten Peter Ward spy thrillers between 1965 and 1972.

The final three Peter Ward thrillers marked a slight change in direction. They were both spy thrillers and occult thrillers. These three books included Diabolus, published in 1971.

Diabolus opens on the small French-Controlled Caribbean island of Lapoire. Peter Ward is on holidays. He’s thoroughly enjoying himself, until his young black housekeeper Dominique disappears. And is found dead. She had been brutally sexually assaulted. The police assume she committed suicide as a result of the rape, and they obviously do not intend to investigate any further.

Peter is very unhappy about this. It’s not that he had anything other than a straightforward employer-employee relationship with Dominique. But she was a nice girl. And Peter doesn’t like the idea of young girls being raped and murdered. He does not believe the suicide theory. And he doesn’t like unsolved mysteries.

He’s even more unhappy after talking with the cop in charge of the case, Commissaire Ducamp. Ducamp’s indifference to Dominique’s fate bothers him a lot.

Peter decided to do some investigating on his own, which has very unexpected consequences. A few days later he is back in Washington, about to be sent on a totally unrelated mission to Paris. It’s a very delicate mission. The wife of the French Foreign Minister is being blackmailed. This would normally be none of the CIA’s business, except that relation between the US and France have been slightly strained and the CIA fears that a scandal involving France’s Foreign Minister could make it difficult to improve those relations.

Peter’s job is to free the Foreign Minister’s wife (her name is Simone de Marchais) from the blackmail threat. Peter is given to understand that he can use whatever methods he thinks necessary but it must be done discreetly. The French must have no inkling of the CIA’s involvement.

There are certain compromising photographs of Simone de Marchais in existence. Not just your regular sex stuff, but showing her involved in Satanic rites and Satanic sex orgies. That’s about all Peter has to go on but he feels that ValĂ©rie may be able to help. She has very high-powered connections. She is married to a very important very rich man. She is also Peter Ward’s mistress. Peter Ward is one of those spies who likes to combine the serious business of espionage with pleasure.

Peter discovers that Simone really is involved in a diabolical cult and the cultists are dangerous people to mess with, as he soon finds out. It’s a cult that involves devil-worship, sex and mind-altering drugs. And probably murder.

All of this has no connection with those curious events on that tiny Caribbean island. At least Peter doesn’t see a connection at first. But of course there is a connection.

Since the author was a senior CIA agent it’s not surprising that Peter Ward never questions the idea that the CIA are the good guys. But that could be said about most American (and British) spy fiction of that era. Hunt does not allow his political views to be the slightest bit intrusive. As a writer he was in the business of writing entertaining commercial fiction.

The plot has some nice twists and the spy and occult elements are woven together seamlessly. Spy fans and occult thriller fans should be equally pleased by this book. The plot might be far-fetched, but the real-life world of espionage could be pretty far-fetched as well.

As a career spy Hunt certainly knows how the world in intelligence agencies works, and having been a high-ranking CIA officer he understood the world of international intrigue.

As to whether we’re supposed to take any of the diabolism seriously, you’ll have to read the book to find that out.

Hunt was a perfectly competent writer. His prose isn’t dazzling but it’s solid enough, he understands suspense and he understands action scenes.

There’s just enough sex and sensationalism to add spice without dominating the story. It’s a wonderfully lurid tale which doesn’t quite cross over into the sexy spy thriller sub-genre but at times it comes close.

And it’s great fun. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed several of Hunt’s other books including his excellent hardboiled crime novel House Dick, his noirish thriller The Violent Ones and one of his earlier Peter Ward spy novels, One of Our Agents Is Missing. They're all worth reading.

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