A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Three Towers in Tuscany’


Malcolm Saville’s Three Towers in Tuscany first appeared in October 1963. By this time, Saville had already published 56 books, including fourteen Lone Pine novels. Ian Fleming’s James Bond had first appeared on screen in the form of Sean Connery the previous year in Dr No and From Russia with Love would shortly appear.
Saville’s readers were growing older with him. They had already convinced him to allow David and Peter resolve the future of their relationship in Not Scarlet But Gold. He was in need of a change, something for those older readers, and for older readers who had not previously considered his work. An espionage series, adjusted to Saville’s personal sympathies and his moral code, was perhaps inevitable.
Three Towers in Tuscany was very rare when re-published by GirlsGoneBy in 2016, and that edition is already incredibly hard to find. After missing out on a copy on a German bookselling site, I ended up having to buy from a bookshop in New Zealand.
This quirk of availability meant that the first book of the series was one of the last I read, and I wasn’t impressed by it. I admit to being prejudiced by my political views, which are a good deal more left than Saville’s (but then again Tony Blair would have qualified as a good deal more left in Saville’s terms).
What unimpressed me most is that Saville does not make a good job at all of transitioning from even Not Scarlet But Gold era Lone Piners around sixteen to Oxford undergraduates whose age has to be around eighteen to twenty. Though to be fair, it’s less the core group of Simon Baines and his two friends, Charles Hand and Patrick Cartwright than it is the girl, Rosina Conway, who doesn’t even display the maturity of Peter but is more on Jenny Harman’s level.
I’ll come back to that. Saville concentrates very much on his younger characters for fully half the book. Simon is our viewpoint character, with Rosina as an alternate for scenes where he is not present, such as in her bedroom.
When the story starts, Simon is arriving in Florence. His father has died some two months ago and his uncle, Marston, has invited him to stay at his Villa in Fiesole, just outside Florence, for the summer. Marston is a successful writer of thriller stories who appears to have been living here for the past dozen years. Simon has never met Marston: his father disapproved of his brother. And indeed, though welcoming and easy-going, Marston doesn’t display much interest in Simon at first, and is dismissive of Rosina when she enters the picture that night.
Rosina is an English girl, daughter of a West Midlands industrialist, who has been invited to stay the summer in the Villa Venezia belonging to rich psychiatrist Dottore Salvatore. The idea is for Rosina to improve her Italian whilst assisting Signora Salvatore to improve her English, but the Signora is cold and indifferent to Rosina, and scares her by coming over as evil, a sensation she communicates to Simon.
Rosina runs away, refusing to return, and bumps, literally, into Simon. She tells her story, protesting that she’s not hysterical but all the time sounding as if she is. He’s all protective (as who wouldn’t be when they’ve already held a bird as fit as her in their arms) but Marston is dismissive and unhelpful, and doesn’t want them to get involved.
Things multiply. There’s something weird about Marston’s relationship with his Italian secretary, Mario (behave yourself, there is absolutely nothing like that in a Malcolm Saville book). Next day, he wants Simon to clear out as he’ll be writing all day, but he’s seen in a public park talking to a man who has already scared Rosina by his attempts to get her alone, and both men deny knowing each other.
By now, Simon’s two Oxford pals, Charles and Patrick, historian and scientist respectively, have turned up. Both flirt with Rosina, to Simon’s obvious distress (he owns her already, it seems). But it’s his insistence on blowing the cover of Marchant, Marston’s contact, that leads to the man’s murder, the dumping of his corpse in Marston’s garden, Marston’s arrest by crooked police and Mario’s gnomic refusal to worry or act as if anything is wrong.
Because it’s not. The scene shifts abruptly to London, a nondescript office at a garage that is the headquarters of someone high up in Britain’s Secret Service. ‘Peter’ has three visitors: John Conway, whose business makes vital parts for nuclear submarines and who is being plagued by targeted industrial action, an agent who’s infiltrated the ‘Commies’ behind this anti-Britain agenda… and Marston Baines.
So he’s a secret agent, eh? He’s also one who’s jumped to conclusions, blaming Marchant himself for his death without knowing that it’s his own nephew who dropped him right in it.
Indeed, Simon himself realises that his gaffe has had horrific consequences, but he’s a hero so Marston has to slander Marchant all over again and insist it was all his fault. Even in a book aimed at older readers there is to be no nuance, just Black and White and never the twain shall mix.
Politically, which is not a word you’d usually expect to be using about a Malcolm Saville novel, the book is based in fear of Trade Unions and industrial actions and the risk of a Government that is not the Conservative and Unionist Party. It’s not directly expressed as such, the underlying threat derives from a complex masterplan, directed at destroying the West and producing anarchy. But not once is the idea that owners and manufacturers might be treating their workers parsimoniously or unfairly, or that there may be genuine grievances, or that the working classes might perhaps deserve to be treated more generously or be allowed greater opportunities, permitted to penetrate. Society is as it is and the notion of a change to its structure produces an hysterical reaction for which the best that can be said is that it was typical of the times. I remember the BBC sitcom, Beggar My Neighbour where the point of the joke was that a bowler-hatted pin-striped manager lived penuriously next door to a plushly situated trade unionist worker, the underlying assumption being that this should be the other way round, and that that was RIGHT.
That’s going to be a common feature of most if not all of the Marston Baines books, a very black and white view of the world. The sound of axes being ground is never omitted from the background hum.
But that’s not why we are interested in the books, though Saville hoped we would take heed and come to think like him. It’s the people, and the young people, who matter.
Rosina is the big problem: on her very first appearance she says she is not being hysterical but she acts that way far too often. She also displays the Saville trope that, no matter how well she knows someone or trusts them, she accuses them of not believing her every time they don’t instantly back up everything she says.
The boys are primarily into bantering. There’s a curious ornateness to the quips and languidly expressed put-downs they indulge in. I’m the last to criticise a relish in words for their own sake, but it’s a bit too over-expressed. No matter what the circumstances, nobody can restrain themselves to speak in an ordinary, direct fashion. Usually there’s one, but only one, whose speech is florid and circumlocutory, which is fine, but everybody talking like that is a bit much.
I’m also inclined to criticise Saville’s decision to relegate Marston, the nominal star, to a background role where he’s offstage for the majority of the book. Marston only really gets two front-of-house scenes, when Saville reveals, two-thirds of the way through, that he’s a Secret Agent, and when he pulls a deus ex machina stunt to take down the anarchists and save the day.
(I must mention that I am mildly surprised that Saville allows Dottore Salvatore to escape by committing suicide, given the Christian anathema of that action).
The book ends on a quasi-cliffhanger note. This bold strike has foiled an international plot to bring down all Western Governments, just a few days hence, on behalf of anarchists, only some of whom are Commies. Salvatore is not the head of the operation, that turns out to be Signora Salvatore, the purely evil woman Rosina has warned against from her first appearance, and who has got away.
Three Towers in Tuscany suffers from a mixture of motives. It wants to be a spy thriller but it doesn’t want any of the trappings of a spy thriller. Thus Marston is middle-aged, sedentary, described as shambling and with thinning hair, a direct symbol of diminished potency. There will be no sexuality from him, nor will there be violence, let alone extremes of it.
The action, in both areas, is displaced down the generations to the amateurs. They’ll do the energetic stuff, but this won’t include violence and it had damned well better not include sex. Such things as desire that are an almost-constant presence in the mind and body of a healthy 19-20 year old, are to be sublimated into love and chaste romance. Rosina’s attractive, but Charles and Patrick only joke about her falling in love with them, in a manner characteristic of nervous virgins who are nowhere near ready to change that status yet but don’t want to be seen as schoolchildren. Simon’s not as bad as that, and at least he’s already contemplating a longer lasting relationship, but he still has no drive, beyond easy jealousy and basic distrust of a kind far too representative of that era. Rosina is seen as more of a desirable possession, by him and Malcolm Saville.
And Saville shows far too little sign of being prepared to let his young women be much more than pretty.
All told, for me Three Towers in Tuscany is a tangled book whose central quartet are wrongly pitched. They’re all, not just Rosina, behaving far too young for their ages and undergraduate statuses. Saville has failed to adjust his mindset for both the characters and the new audience he was looking to attract. He would make a far better fist of things in the second book.

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