Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jimmy Sangster's Touchfeather

Touchfeather is a 1968 spy thriller by Jimmy Sangster which slots neatly into the “glamorous sexy lady spy” sub-genre. And I do so love that sub-genre.

Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) had an incredibly successful and impressive career as a screenwriter. He wrote a huge number of movies from Hammer, including most of their best early films. He had some success also a novelist although that side of his writing career tends to get overlooked.

Sangster wrote a number of spy novels, including the two Touchfeather novels.

Katy Touchfeather is an air hostess (to call her a flight attendant would be silly and anachronistic). At least that’s her cover. She’s actually a spy (or perhaps counter-spy) working for a very hush-hush British intelligence agency run by a Mr Blaser.

There’s a security leak at a research establishment and a Professor Bill Partnam is under suspicion. Partnam is off to Bombay to read some scientific papers at a conference and Katy’s job is to watch him and find the necessary evidence if he’s passing secrets on to The Other Side. Katy will be the air hostess on his flight to India. She doesn’t think she’ll have much trouble getting close to the Professor. She’s right about that. They quickly end up in bed together.

That’s no problem. Mr Blaser won’t have any objections to that. She does however fall in love with Bill, and Mr Blaser would not approve of that at all. Katy is aware that her emotions are interfering with her judgment. She just can’t believe that Bill could be a traitor. And of course he might not be, but Katy isn’t thinking too clearly where Bill is concerned.

The whole mission starts to fall apart. Katy is going to have some explaining to do to Mr Blaser. To be fair it’s not all Katy’s fault. The whole mission was ill-conceived.

The case is not over yet. Katy is drawn back into it, and once again her personal life and her professional life get all mixed up together.

In the course of this adventure Katy discovers just how dangerous flying can be. And just how dangerous spying can be.

The plot is a nicely constructed web of tangled motives and deceits, and self-deceit. It all leads up to an an absolute corker of an ending. It’s a bit of shock but if you’ve been paying attention you’ll realise that it’s the only possible ending.

We get some backstory on Katy, which explains how she came to be a spy. It also explains why she’s willing to kill in the line of duty, and why she has absolutely no qualms about doing so.

Any English author creating a glamorous lady spy in 1968 was inevitably going to be influenced to some extent by Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, and especially by Modesty Blaise. Katy, like Modesty, has an active sex life. She likes sex, and she likes men. She genuinely likes men, and like Modesty Blaise she gets emotionally involved. Katy isn’t excessively promiscuous. Three regular boyfriends at a time is enough for her. Of course she sleeps with other men occasionally as well. Unlike Modesty Blaise, she does allow her emotional life to interfere with the job.

Katy doesn’t have the psychological, emotional and moral complexity of Modesty Blaise but she does have some complexity.

There is a slight Len Deighton influence at work. There are touches of cynicism and you don’t want to put too much faith in authority figures, or in the rich and powerful. Sangster isn’t trying to be terribly cerebral but he is trying to write a book that is more than just a potboiler. And he succeeds. It all turns out to be a very satisfying spy thriller indeed, with some real punch to it. Very highly recommended.

The good news is that Touchfeather is in print, from Brash Books, and apparently without the text having been tampered with.

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