The Marston Baines series is the fourth (of eight) series of Malcolm Saville books I have now read, and the second that I have approached as a reader in his sixties. The other four series being aimed at younger readers and therefore completely unsuitable unless I suddenly acquire step-grandchildren to read to, it is where I draw the line, and sadly I draw it well below the standard of all the others, even the very weakest of the late Lone Pine Club books.
With the shining exception of my favourite Not Scarlet But Gold, Malcolm Saville’s books of the Sixties and Seventies represent a falling-off of his abilities. The changes in Society throughout the Sixties clearly upset him, undermining in both good and bad ways the principles in which he believed. For the first time, his writing does not reflect the world as it was and he’s not comfortable about that.
Furthermore, there was a demand from publishers and, I shouldn’t be surprised, a sector of his audience that wanted new stories to reflect the new times, and that was something Saville was ultimately unable to do to any effective degree. The number of times his characters proudly proclaim themselves as ‘square’ or even ‘cube’ tells us that.
But twenty years into a very successful career, Saville wanted to change. Like anyone known for a long-running series of books, he wanted to leave these behind. He wanted to be recognised for more serious fiction, fiction that occupied itself with issues of the time and enabled him to deliver warnings about what he feared. He wanted to be known and remembered for something better, and older in audience.
Sadly for him, his concerns may have been genuine, but they were anchored in fear, of the unknown, of what he couldn’t come to terms with. History very rarely turns round and goes back. And successful writers of one form of genre, steeped in its tropes and motifs, find it difficult to discard the habits of twenty years that have served them so well, and which have become ingrained.
Given its debut in 1963, it’s impossible not to see the Marston Baines series as a juvenile version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond as made world-wide success by the Sean Connery-starring films, filtered through Saville’s Christian sensibilities. As such, the series strips out everything that made the James Bond books and their multifarious copycats successful, the violence and especially the sex.
Marston Baines is himself a bachelor. Saville doesn’t use the phrase ‘confirmed bachelor’, thankfully, as that was a contemporary code for homosexual, an idea that was even further beyond the pale than the idea of sex before marriage. Saville is so sterile that the idea of sex between married couples isn’t even allowed to arise.
All the books abound in undergraduate age characters, men and women, their ages for most of the series lying between eighteen and twenty, though by the time of the penultimate book, Baines’ nephew Simon has graduated a year previously, and we must assume his friends from Oxford have all done the same, though no discernible change in their behaviour takes place. Even in 1963, real undergraduates, men and women, would have had a quite powerful interest in sex, but instead characters fall in love during books, especially Simon, only to be fancy free the next time they appear. There is precious little kissing and such as there is, as in the final Caves of Drach scene in White Fire is cut away from very rapidly.
Saville’s inability to compromise his Christian principles was the hindrance that kept Jon and Penny Warrender in the ‘Lone Pine’ books from the engagement that was their due, and here his insistence upon good clean entertainment, without the actuality of death and brutality or the physical attraction of healthy young men and women to each other ensured that the series would never achieve the popularity or respect he sought. An evil organisation that will not act with realistic violence cannot create a genuine sense of danger. A writer who constantly relegates violence to offstage cannot create a grown-up atmosphere.
The overall tone of the series is pitched on a single note. It’s rather like my long-term take on the Daily Mail‘s ethic, that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves – and it’s got to STOP! In both cases it’s fear that is paramount. Saville is seeing the world changing. He doesn’t like it changing, it is ceasing to be understandable to him. The rigidity of British Society, with its clearly defined social strata is beginning to soften. The ground beneath his feet is no longer the rock-solid thing he has lived upon for so long. Young people are starting to think more for themselves, to turn away from being pressed-out copies of the templates their parents, their elders and betters – especially the latter – and moving towards thoughts, feelings and preoccupations of their own. They’re beginning to experiment with possibilities instead of taking for granted what they have been told.
Inevitably, they will get into ‘bad habits’.
It’s understandable, if not necessarily forgivable in a writer whose work has been directed entirely and successfully to the entertainment of children. And it’s equally understandable but only a little more forgivable in a writer whose stories have always eschewed the remotest shades of grey. Law. Order. Crime. Criminals. There’s never been any difficulty in telling one from the other.
But here Saville is addressing himself to an older audience. Not boys and girls, but young men and young women, but he cannot escape the didactic tone. What’s worse is that he cannot, not for one moment, give his young men and women any credit for thinking or themselves unless they are in total agreement with him. If they disagree, it is because they have been manipulated into doing so, because they have ben brainwashed by sinister organisations, criminal or Chinese, seeking to create anarchy in order to create fascist control, for their own selfish purposes.
No-one believes in anything, unless it’s in their undirected hatred of order and decency. No, I exaggerate slightly: the Antisemitic unreconstructed Nazi in Power of Three believes in his poisonous hatred. But no-one else does.
Saville does his cause(s) down from both directions by refusing to admit the least fraction of validity, by constantly insisting to the very audience he is trying to sell to that they are fools, dupes and idiots, and by paradoxically trivialising everything by insisting that it’s only down to criminal masterminds who can be overthrown by deus ex machina swoops with the Police.
It can’t. The issues that scared him, rightly or wrongly, were genuine changes in societal temperature that could not be wished away by attributing them to Signora Salvatore. They had to be confronted, acknowledged, and argued with. Malcolm Saville steered himself out of his depth. He may have had enough and more than enough of David and Peter, Jon and Penny and the like, trapped by a public demand on a par with that laid upon Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, but not only did the commercial impact of this series diminish with every book, but – and I hate having to say this – the longer he persevered, the more he demolished his own genuine artistic qualities.
Malcolm Saville was simply unable to write a half-decent adult-oriented book. The last six weeks have demonstrated that.
There is still one book in the series to come. Should all go well, GirlsGoneBy will republish it, and I will read it about twelve months from now. By then, the third Jillies book will have been reprinted. I am looking forward to that. I cannot say the same for Marston – Master Spy.