It was the 1960s. Free love, psychedelia, counter culture, drugs, music and spies; spies were everywhere – you couldn’t walk round the block without tripping over hordes of them. Although James Bond started in books in 1953, it wasn’t until the 1960s, with Sean Connery as the silver screen Bond, that the spy craze really took off. Suddenly we were inundated; secret agents were anything but secret.
Our Man Flint, Get Smart, Danger Man, I Spy, The Man From B.U.N.G.L.E. (In Smash), the Girl From D.O.R.S.E.T, (in Judy), the Girls From N.O.O.D.L.E.S. (in Diana), Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents – the list is seemingly E.N.D.L.E.S.S.! But my favourite (excluding the wonderful Avengers) was the Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Back in the 1960s, we didn’t have streaming, DVDs or even videos, so had to rely on unpredictable repeats to see an episode of our favourite shows more than once. Small wonder then that TV such as the Man from UNCLE (we’re all friends here, so let’s drop the dots, eh?) successfully spun off into other media. There were Man From UNCLE films, comics, magazines, annuals, merchandise (I’m sure I must have had an UNCLE gun, and I can certainly remember sending off to join UNCLE and getting a membership card) and, most especially as far as I was concerned, a memorable series of novels. There were 23 in all; 16 published in the UK by Souvenir Press/Four Square, and a further seven (in addition) in the US only by Ace Books. The UK also had four Girl From UNCLE novels, three of which were not published in the US, although Ace published a fifth that wasn’t published in the UK.
These fondly remembered volumes provided a resource to dip into when Robert Vaughn and David McCallum weren’t on our screens, and although they’re hardly great works of literature, they provided good escapist entertainment and have stayed with me for over fifty years; I re-read them all relatively recently. They had evocative titles in the same format at the TV series (The Radioactive Camel Affair, The Stone-Cold-Dead-In-The-Market Affair and the splendid Unfair Fare Affair) and were written by a large number of different authors.
It’s generally recognised that David McDaniel is the best of the many to turn their hand to a Man From UNCLE novel; he wrote six of the 23. My favourite is the Vampire Affair (UK #9), where Napoleon and Illya are in the Transylvanian Alps on an adventure with an East European nobleman who just might – or might not – be a vampire. Told with a nice mix of action, horror and humour, our heroes are portrayed spot-on and the writing is clever and entertaining. So too with McDaniel’s Dagger Affair (UK #6), where there is an uneasy alliance with Thrush in the second best book in the series. All of McDaniel’s outings are good, although the Rainbow Affair (US #13) deserves a special mention for the unnamed cameos by Sherlock Holmes, Steed and Mrs. Peel, Simon Templar, Chief Inspector Teal, Father Brown, Fu Manchu, Miss Marple, Neddy Seagoon and even James Bond.
Peter Leslie was perhaps the next in line in terms of quality; he had a reasonably accurate handle on the characterisation of the cast and a strong sense of locale in the agents’ globe-trotting adventures, whether that was in the South Of France (the Finger In The Sky Affair UK #5), The Sudan (The Radioactive Camel Affair UK #7, introducing the well realised character of information guru Habib Tufik, who would appear in later novels) or Brazil (The Diving Dames Affair UK #10). Leslie could be just a tad dull occasionally, but could usually be relied on for a solid, entertaining job. His Cornish Pixie Affair (Girl from UNCLE UK #4) is easily the best of April Dancer’s and Mark Slate’s outings in this format.
After them, the series is a bit more patchy. Michael Avallone wrote the first in the series (The Man From UNCLE UK #1), and although a competent spy adventure, he didn’t really capture the characters or the feel of the series (the same can be said of his two Girl From UNCLE stories). So too for Harry Whittington’s Doomsday Affair (UK #2); once again a competent if somewhat violent plot more reminiscent of a James Bond novel than an UNCLE one. John Oram contributed two early novels (The Copenhagen Affair UK #3 and the Stone Cold-Dead-In-The Market-Affair UK #4) and he was very strong on sense of location (Denmark and Wales respectively); the plots and writing were good, if again they seemed not to feature the Napoleon and Illya we knew from TV. I’m pleased to say that my least favourite book in the series (Joel Bernard’s Thinking Machine Affair UK #11) was not as badly written as I remembered it to be upon my re-read.
There’s good stuff among the rest. I particularly enjoyed John T. Phillifent’s Mad Scientist Affair (UK #8), with its gothic Irish castle setting and memorable beer truck chase. J. Hunter Holly’s Assassination Affair (US #10), although well written, is really two novellas unconvincingly linked, and Thomas Stratton contributes two novels with almost sci-fi plots (invisibility and mind-warping). The Cross OF Gold Affair by Frederic Davies (US #14) features a memorable villain called Porpoise, a Coney Island setting and our heroes’ amusing encounters with hippies. These last few are among the books published in the US only, and thus I didn’t get to read them as a kid. Having come to them as an adult, they have a different resonance to me, but still with much to appreciate.
Finally, a brief word on the Girl From Uncle novels. With the honourable exception of the Cornish Pixie affair referenced above, none of the authors here really captured the times, despite Simon Latter’s portrayal of Carnaby Street and swinging London in the Global Globules Affair (Girl From UNCLE UK #1); April and Mark were reasonably portrayed in both Latter’s efforts, but the books did seem to lack an exciting dynamic.
Having said all that, the books are all quick to read, feature outlandish schemes by Thrush and other interests to rule or undermine the world and give Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, April Dancer, Mark Slate and their boss Alexander Waverly a chance to save us all, time after time. The spy genre was never the same again as it had been in the 1960s, and we should all rejoice in the adventure, the characters, the humour and the atmosphere of the time evoked.
Rob Rudderham, April 2020