A Marston Baines Thriller – Introduction


In 1963, after twenty years as a very popular writer of children’s fiction, Malcolm Saville started the eighth and last of the series that made up the overwhelming number of his books. The series’ main subject was the unlikely figure of Marston Baines, a middle-aged bachelor of somewhat nondescript appearance, who was nevertheless an experienced British Secret Service agent.
It appears that Saville hoped that the Marston Baines series, which was aimed at an older reader than he had up-to-now catered for, would be his legacy. If this is so, then he was sadly imperceptive as to where his true talents really lay.
The Baines series consisted of seven novels over a period of sixteen years, including his penultimate work of fiction. They were not a commercial success, none of the series being granted a paperback edition until the redoubtable GirlsGoneBy Press started reissuing them in 2016. The final two books only ever appeared in one edition each, making them incredibly rare and expensive to collect, until GGB caught up to them. At the time of printing, the penultimate book is due for publication within a matter of weeks.
What’s more, in contrast to his definitely English-set fictions, each of the Baines books were set in different European countries, the product of Saville’s growing taste for holidays abroad that could be set against tax as Author’s Research.
Though Baines was the series’ focal point, he was often only a background character, the bulk of the stories being carried by a rotating group of Oxford undergraduates who got involved in Baines’ cases, much like the contemporary TV group, the Freewheelers used to get involved with Colonel Buchan. The one constant was Baines’ nephew Simon, whose father dies in a car crash at the start of the series and who is taken under Uncle Marston’s wing, to the extent that he ends up training for the service himself.
Another feature distinguishing this series from his earlier books was that Saville used the Baines books for proselytising. Adult characters enabled adult themes and Saville, a committed Christian in his sixties, was out-of-step with, and both fearful and mistrustful of the changes taking place in society in the Sixties. The Baines books were his vehicle to issue trenchant condemnation of various evils, including trade unionism, the usage of drugs, Satanism and fomenting racial tension.
There is indeed the sound of axes being ground, but once again Saville’s inability to let go and, to misquote Anthony Trollope, get close enough to the pitch to be defiled, means he cannot do more than make a superficial presentation of naïve opposition. Such things are Wrong, and are the actions of people intent on committing Evil. There is no room for nuance.
Though the final book is near impossible to get hold of and unaffordable if it were, I have collected the first six books via the GGB editions (the last should be republished in a year’s time), and I’ll be looking at these individually next, before giving a broader impression at the end.

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