A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Marston – Master Spy’

Marston – Master Spy, which has just been published in paperback for the first time, is the last of Malcom Saville’s artistically and commercially unsuccessful series of Marston Baines Thrillers, aimed at an older audience than those he usually attracted. It was the penultimate novel of his career, with only the final Lone Pine Club book to follow. It is the 39th book of his that I have bought since being re-awakened to the Lone Pine Club books almost exactly five years ago and, unless I develop an unlikely interest in his books for younger readers, the last I shall buy.
A quick refresher for those who need it: the Marston Baines series was conceived by Saville in 1963, shortly after Not Scarlet But Gold, the book that finally allowed David Morton and Peter Sterling to grow into young adults and admit their true feelings towards one another, a book which he hoped would allow him to bring his most popular series to an end.
Instead, he wanted to write for older readers, readers who, hopefully, had grown up with him, and to whom he could express his concerns about changes in society that he hated and feared and that he hoped his books would help turn back.
This is repeating myself but it has to be remembered that Saville, who was born in 1901, was a deeply Christian and deeply Conservative man, who was far from at home with the changes that were starting to escalate in the Sixties, and who sought to warn young readers against these. His new series was, he hoped, what he would be remembered for, was being written for posterity.
I’ve already described the series as being written out of fear, and I don’t think I’m being overly fanciful if I suggest that the root of that fear was young people thinking for themselves, and not blithely following the mores and principles he had grown up with throughout his entire life. All and any change, but especially those that cast older people’s wisdom aside, was wrong, and damaging.
What’s worse is that, if the books represent his true feelings in all their depths, he could not give these young people any credit for thinking for themselves. All these new notions were the product of manipulation, of being misdirected, or brainwashed, or seduced by people who didn’t want a potentially better, or fairer, or more accepting society to emerge from change, but who wanted to destroy society, to profit from its ruination by taking personal power.
All that I knew of this story before I read it came from the rather scarce Illustrated Bibliography, which told me that it involved Marston being kidnapped, and that it’s ending was completely different from any other of Saville’s series. And the cover reproduction told me that this was by far and away the worst cover for a Malcolm Saville book I’d ever seen, and there have been some truly awful ones. Indeed, now that I can see it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, it is truly abysmal, something that amateur artists would have torn up rather than allow other eyes to see it.
Now: eight years have passed since the penultimate Marston Baines book. Stephen Biggar, whose Introduction is considerably more neutral than the last few, refers to Ian Fleming identifying himself with James Bond and suggests Saville did so with Baines. Taking this at face value, that ‘unexpected ending’ takes on a greater psychological depth that it might have with a different writer.
There are two storylines going on. To begin with, Marston Baines – who is now in his fifties and is being retired, not just on age grounds but more practically because it is believed too many opposition agents have penetrated his double-life – is kidnapped out of England far too easily for such an experienced agent, and although there’s a suggestion later in the book that he allowed it to happen because he wanted to find out who he was up against, the way it happens is certainly not to his credit.
Worse still, he’s been kidnapped by amateurs, good guy amateurs but still amateurs, an underground organisation known as La Promesse, run by a Belgian Consulting Engineer called Jan Schmidt, who are dedicated to preserving Western Civilisation from those seeking to overthrow it and diminish both its morale and its morals. Saville goes for the authentic espionage paranoia in posing the questions: are they a KGB front? Do they know Marston is more than merely the thriller writer they want to help direct their PR? But no, they are as straight as they seem.
The other story concerns Marston’s nephew, Simon, and his fiancee Rosina Conway, and brings back Charles Hand and Kate Boston, or rather Kate Hand, for this pair have now been married for eighteen months, not that marriage seems to have changed Kate one whit. I mean, we all know that Rosina is still a virgin even in 1978, but you get the suspicion that Kate might be as well.
Simon is now an editor at Pendant Press, a branch of British Intelligence owned by Peter Pendant, assisted by his wife and secretary Elizabeth (not that Saville can conceal that Elizabeth Pendant is herself a singularly intelligent and highly capable woman, and an Agent: not bad for a secretary. Incidentally, she’s very attractive but then all the females in the Marston Baines book are beautiful before they’re anything else).
Everyone from Schmidt to Pendant is interested in high-power photographer Paul Schengen, who’s suspected of being a KGB Agent, as well as mixed up in Satanism and Black Magic, not to mention the usual plans to violently overthrow Western Democracy. They’re also credited with being absolute experts in undermining foreign countries through all manner or propaganda and ploys, which calls into question why they need to set up spectacular but easily disruptable attacks.
Anyway, Simon is to go to Luxemburg to find out the truth about Schengen and, as part of his cover, he’s encouraged to take three civilians, namely Rosina and the Hands with him, as part of his cover.
To be honest, I have no wish to go any further into the plot. It is not very different from the previous books in the series and I am sure you can anticipate most of the twists and turns from here, especially as although the story has its twisted elements, its turns are not very sharp ones.
I’ve criticised Saville time and again for his chauvinist attitude to his female characteristics, emphasising first their attractiveness to the male stare and their feebleness, in that order, as their primary characteristics, and of course this continues. Saville even has Rosina play up a bit about the way Simon treats her both as a mere girl AND his withholding of even unimportant information about what this mission she’s accompanying him on. What’s worse is not that Simon tells her not to be bitchy but that she admits to being bitchy.
(Actually, that scene could have been much better handled by a very minor change of words: Rosina does say something petulant and then goes out to apologise to Simon, but if she’d said something like, ‘that time I was bitchy’, it would have been perfect.)
But despite all that, Saville cannot help but depict Rosina as displaying considerable intelligence, courage and capability, not to mention dedication that places her on a level with Simon. It is worth the wait for him to do so much for one of the loyal, steadfast, women who do so much to support the men they love.
I was warned in advance that this series ended in a way that never happened in any other of Malcolm Saville’s series. I had my suspicions as to what that might be, but found the obvious thought to be completely uncharacteristic of someone who was not merely a writer of children’s fiction, but whose work was so simplistically black and white. No, that doesn’t change in this book, indeed Saville is as strong as ever on Good vs Evil, and how there can never be even the slightest mixing of shades, or the suggestion of nuance.
The book’s climax is in keeping with its predecessors, a mass attack on the citadel of the enemy by a determined force. Simon is in peril, forced to attend a Black Mass that is to conclude with human sacrifice, and he the sacrifice. Once more, his Uncle Marston leads the invading force that will overpower evil. And evil is indeed overpowered, but this time there is a price to pay. In defending his nephew, Marston Baines is shot. Shot dead, through the heart, instantly.
Initially, I was too surprised about Saville going for that kind of ending at all, and despite my opinion of the series overall, I was saddened and, to a degree, disturbed at his killing off the hero. The books have been about black and white, Good vs Evil, without compromise, shading or, sadly, nuance. A step like this, allowing Evil to win in even a single respect, was out of character.
What’s worse is how little impact it had. The actual death scene was so casual, but also oddly perfunctory. Marston steams in to break up the Black Mass, heads towards the handcuffed Simon, calling that he’s ‘On my way.’ He then gets hit over the head by a candlestick wielded by a very minor character, knocked unconscious and shot dead. It’s not much of a death scene. Like the kidnapping that starts the book, it’s a bit insulting to a man of his experience and skills. I intuit that, though Saville intended to do it, his heart was not in the actuality to any serious degree, and he just wasn’t able to write a dramatic death. Given his writing career, that’s both entirely understandable sand, in a left-handed way, laudable.
Malcolm Saville was 77 when he published Marston – Master Spy. He was almost at the end of his career as a writer of fiction. That would follow later the same year, with the last Lone Pine book, the one that had to be written before he put down his pen. The high hopes he had for the Marston Baines series had long since been dashed. This re-publication is not just the first paperback edition but only the second ever edition. And he chose to end this series by killing off his leading character, with whom he identified, and for whom he’d had high hopes that had never materialised.
Crude psychology as it may be, I find it impossible not to attribute this ending to a combination of Saville’s awareness of failure and the end, or ‘death’, of the writing career that had been so important and meaningful to him.
The psychological aspect of this conclusion is deepened by the effect it has on Simon Baines, who has been much more the hero of this series than its title character, the youngster who echoes the life Saville wished to proscribe for his readers, his Uncle’s shadow and disciple. The loss of that Uncle, who had been so much a friend to him, as well as a guide and mentor, led Simon, the Intelligence Agent of such promise, to renounce the fight, leave it to others, dedicate himself and his life to Rosina only. In terms of the series and its purpose, and the much quoted epithet, ‘for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing’, this is nothing but a betrayal, a reneging, a compromise, but for Simon the cost had proved too great. No doubt, in that moment of loss, he saw only too clearly the possibility that one day Rosina would undergo it over him, and cared too much for her to ever expose her to that risk?
And in Simon’s renunciation of the great task before him, I see Malcolm Saville renouncing the great task that lay behind him. Taken together with Marston’s death, and the revelation of the great secret that he was a devout Christian, it makes for an ending that suggests a deep and painful experience for the author. I’ve criticised the Marston Baines series, and my position remains unchanged on that, but it leaves me very sad to think of the emotions going through Leonard Malcolm Saville’s mind when writing a conclusion of such defeat.
Anyway, that’s an end to it. GGB have sent out feelers about possibly re-publishing the Nettleford series which, from what I know of Saville’s series for younger readers, is the only one I might consider reading, but for the moment they owe me three more Jillies books to complete that series. Unless someone can magic an unwritten Jillies or Buckinghams book out of the ether, this is where I reach the end of the road that began when I casually tossed the word ‘Acksherly’ into a post of a social forum and a friend from Gainsborough who I’ve never met responded in gleeful reaction, went on to buy an old Lone Pine book cheap off eBay and posted it to me to read… Thanks, Rebecca!

6 thoughts on “A Marston Baines Thriller: Malcolm Saville’s ‘Marston – Master Spy’

  1. I haven’t got this book but intend to buy it, I have four of the others, all GGB issues but have only read Purple Valley so far. I enjoyed it but no-where near as much as the Lone Pine books, they are without doubt my favourite books. I’m not sure why I’ve held off reading the others yet, part of it’s because I want the full set before I start, but that didn’t stop me reading the Lone Pines as and when I got them, (apart from the last book that I didn’t want to read because I knew that was THE END!) I’m also wondering if I’ll read them over and over like the L.P’s?

    1. The Lone Pine books are my favourites too. I’ve only read this series in the past few years and I find them disappointing, for reasons I’ve set out in this review, and in a bit more detail elsewhere. Saville had such high hopes for the series that, given his character and his aversion to the times , in which his audience were coming into their own, were probably impossible to achieve. I have the Jillies series (three GGB to date and hoping for the fourth this year) and The Buckinghams, which are closer to the Lone Pine style and all the better for it. I’ve read the Marston Baines books twice over (except for this) but I’ll never read them as often as the Lone Piners.

  2. I’m slowly collecting the Jillies and Buckinghams, I’ve a couple of each series and think they’re O.K. The latest I read, ‘The Luck of Sallowby’ I found quite long winded, though there was some great descriptions in it. I’ll read them again when I’ve completed my collection but I’m not sure if I’ll keep them.

    1. The Jillies I read when I was young, the Buckinghams only in the past few years. Quite apart from the nostalgia, I won’t get rid of the Jillies, I like the family, I like their energy, their Life too much. Doesn’t stop The Sign of the Alpine Rose from being a disaster, though.

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