Poignantly, in light of our collective loss of Robert Vaughn last week, a belated self-birthday present arrived a day or so ago to remind me a little of how much fun The Man from U.N.CL.E. could be.
One thing that American TV has always done far more often than British TV, where Doctor Who is the only example I can recall, is the licensed novel. Take the characters off the small screen and run them through original stories, written quickly and simply by professional authors. Star Trek has done this even more than Doctor Who, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was very popular in the licensed novels game, with a different writer every month.
This isn’t news, of any kind, nor is the fact that half a dozen such novelisations were written by the late David McDaniel, a writer of SF and spy thrillers, with a good, smooth, inventive approach to these fast and cheap books. He wrote the middle of the three The Prisoner novelisations, and his second U.N.C.L.E. book was the best seller of the series.
Only a couple of months ago, in one of my prowls around the internet, I learned about the above U.N.C.L.E. novel and it’s extra interest. ‘The Rainbow Affair’ was the only novel set in England, but it had an extra cachet over and above that distinction, one that made it a rarety, and expensive to collect.
And then a copy appeared for about £6.00 so I bought it and it arrived this week, and I read it and enjoyed it immensely.
The story is well and professionally told and McDaniel captures the personalities of Messrs Solo and Kuryakin quite convincingly, though alone among the writers of such novels, he doesn’t indulge in the usual level of flirting from Napoleon. The plot is simple, and seemingly a bit below U.N.C.L.E.’s usual level of interest, as Ilya Kuryakin makes plain from the outset. In England, there is a master-criminal, Johnnie Rainbow, a planner, organiser, leader, mastermind (the then-recent Great Train Robbery is attributed to him). Bank robbers are certainly not U.N.C.L.E.’s remit, but THRUSH are looking to take Johnnie Rainbow under their wing, absorb his organisation, and his organisational capabilities into their organisation, and our two heroes are despatched to step into the way of this goal.
They will, of course, have the full cooperation of Scotland Yard (newly decanted into New Scotland Yard and still feeling its way around a bit) which is good but only up to a point, that point being that Scotland Yard is absolutely convinced that Johnnie Rainbow does not exist and never has existed outside of pulp fiction.
Nevertheless, Johnnie does so exist, and at the end of the day he has no intention of allowing his perfectly-sized and, in its odd way patriotic, kingdom to be subsumed into anything so cold or inhumane as THRUSH.
What makes this book special in any way? There’s a hearty dose of cliche, right from the start, with London socked in by a pea-souper of the kind that were becoming non-existent in 1967, and from the opening chapter you wouldn’t imagine there was a single Englander not dropping their aspirates in an impeccably Cockney accent.
But the delight of this book is in the inside joke, as McDaniel throws in near-anonymous references to British thriller characters from books and television. At various times, one or other or both of our heroes find themselves passing the time with – or simply passing – The Saint, Steed and Mrs Peel, Miss Marple and Father Brown, and of course a very elderly gentleman who has retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs.
The first of these characters, the recognition of whom set me off into a delighted peal of laughter, was a Police Detective described as a large stomach with a red face following it, who is named only as Claude. You can work that one out for yourselves.
There are opportunities missed. There is no room for a pixie-ish man with a soup-bowl haircut, brandishing a recorder and hanging around a police telephone box, nor an Edwardian-caped gentleman with a sword-cane, but I think I’ve spotted everyone (the one from the Goon Show was indecently explicitly identified).
Though I am suspicious of the young woman on the motor-cycle, who prefers to be called Joey, and who does an awful lot of running around for her Aunt Jane. If she isn’t some sort of adventurer in her own right, she damned well ought to be. And if she is, could someone drop me a hint in the comments?
No, though the book would not be unfairly characterised as a cheap pot-boiler, it was cheerful and expert and fun, and well worth its time for its shameless drawing together of so many disparate worlds into a temporary continuity, and I recommend the book happily. And dedicate to the memory of the late Mr Vaughn, who is not in the least shamed by it.