William Haggard spent much of his life in India, first working his way up to being a judge, then serving in the British Indian Army during the War, and then returning to England to join the Board of Trade. Between all that, he found the time to write at least 26 novels staring Charles Russell of the British Security Executive, and several other spy-thrillers, between 1958 and 1990. None remain in print following the end of the Cold War and Haggard’s death in 1993, though Singularity&Co‘s Save the Adventure picked one of Haggard’s books to bring back as its first saved adventure novel. Perhaps it was the end of the Cold War that caused readers to lose interest in spy fiction.
Haggard’s works were praised by critics at the time, and it’s surprising how such highly reviewed works have all but vanished. Anthony Boucher said of it: “This admirable cloak-and-daggerer reaches its vivid climax in a ski-lift in the Alps; England also visited. A-1.” From Kirkus Reviews: “Mr. Haggard supplies an expert atmosphere of watching for his spies and an active conclusion for the likable Col. Russell who prefers to play fair but knows how to play rough.” And in the Lewiston Evening Journal: “There is excitement from start to finish in this action-packed novel.”
What is Project A? One of the few people who knows is Rex Hadley, recently put in charge of the Maldington complex where Project A is being produced before he was sent off to vacation in the Italian alps. That’s when things take a turn for the worse, when he realizes he may have drunkenly blurted out some incriminating details about Project A to his three dining companions: a foreign military attaché named de Fleury, his mistress Mary Francom, and a left-wing journalist. Within a few days, the journalist is found dead, and de Fleury is putting the screws to Hadley—blackmail, pressuring him for information about the project.
Luckily for Hadley, de Fluery’s mistress Mary is a spy herself, working for the British Security Executive and keeping tabs on de Fleury. Colonel Charles Russell of the Security Executive is on the case; their goal is to keep Hadley safe without revealing any information about Project A to foreign powers. As Hadley—attempting to escape a failed marriage through England’s strict divorce laws—falls for Mary, de Fluery’s handler ratchets up the pressure to learn the secrets of Project A.
Poor Rex is caught in the middle of a game of cat and mouse; without knowing it, he narrowly evades being roughed up by foreign mercenaries thanks to quick maneuvering by Charles Russell. In the world of spies, exposure to the public eye can be worse than death—and the Colonel is adept at keeping the public blind to the cloak-and-dagger maneuvering, even keeping Rex unaware of the Security Executive’s involvement. There’s a lot of tension and a lot of ace maneuvering; it’s not an “action-packed” novel in terms of fight scenes and whatnot, but it has plenty of excitement and some class-A adventure. And the climax is plenty explosive, as promised.
De Fleury, despite blackmailing Rex, is very much in the gentleman spy mold. There are moments when the veneer is shattered and his dangerous nature is revealed, but he can’t hold a candle to his handler, Victor, who is no gentleman at all. Victor wants to learn the secret of Project A at all costs, which bodes poorly for Rex. To make things more interesting, it’s implied that de Fleury and Victor are working for an ostensibly friendly nation—yet another reason for the Security Executive to keep this under wraps.
While Colonel Charles Russell is the central character of the series, he’s the brainy spymaster behind the scenes who doesn’t physically get involved with any of the hands-on activities. Instead, he plans and directs, and it’s up to Major Robert Mortimer to go forth and get things done. Russell is more like Nero Wolfe than James Bond in that regard, directing the action but reliant on field operatives to get things done.
Haggard’s writing is strong and capable, though it comes with some unique eccentricities. It’s pretty formal, and quite stingy with exposition: if you don’t pick up the clues in the dialogue and confirm their meaning by context, you may find yourself lost once and again. This is not a book that gives the reader a leg-up; it expects you to pay attention and note the details. It’s also a bit awkward for us non-British readers; some of the British jargon caught me unawares, though at least I knew that, when someone went chasing after a black saloon, it was referring to a sedan and not an old west bar.
The plot is a grown-up version of Fleming’s Bond novels, similar to but different enough from John le Carre’s brand of spy fiction. Most interesting to me, the series is known for its realistic characters who evolve over time; High Wire was indeed rich in characters, all of whom had complex back-stories and motivation. If you can find the entire series and read through them, Colonel Russell undergoes a lot of development, retiring from the Security Executive, coming back as a consultant, retiring again, and in his final volume, an aged and retired Russell fights through local politics to find out who’s dumping toxic waste just offshore of his retirement estate.
The High Wire may seem low-key compared to today’s espionage thrillers, lacking all those car chases and gunfights, but I enjoyed its more cerebral and realistic depiction of subterfuge. Haggard isn’t shy on tension or suspense either, and if you can keep abreast of the novel’s intricate plot the experience is richly rewarding. It’s a taut game of cat and mouse played out across Europe for a mysterious industrial/scientific breakthrough. And I’m very thankful that S&Co. chose it as their first adventure to save, because it’s a worthy choice.
I’m also hoping that S&Co., or someone, anyone, will bring back the rest of the series—some of his novels are inexpensive on the secondary market, others go into the tens or hundreds of dollars, and Haggard is an author whose work needs to be available again. While there’s not many reveiws on the web, there is a wealth of information at Existential Ennui about Haggard, and a great overview at Spy Guys & Gals.