I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.
I read this for the category S-3 “Featuring a Crime other than Murder”
A homicide does occur in this novel but as it is at the end, the killing does not play a central role.
The Arena – William Haggard, 1961
In this novel, the merchant bank known as Bonavias is insensibly declining. However, a parvenu competitor approaches them, offering an amount 20% over Bonavias’ market value. Col. Russell must become interested when he learns that also part of the deal is a research start-up called Radarmic. There is suspicion that an unfriendly power wants access to the radar technology Radarmic is developing. The rep of the unfriendly power would certainly stoop to violent means to take over the bank and the start-up.
Haggard, an Englishman, was an intelligence officer in India during WWII and then worked in Whitehall after the war. So he has the knowledge and experience that we trust in a writer of highly intelligent crime and espionage stories. A Tory through and through, he understands the Establishment, despises most politicians, and sees anybody left of center as wooly, ineffective, and prone to be covetous of other people’s money and power. He’s also clear-headed about the hazards faced by middle-aged men, such as overrating the role of brains in career advancement and day to day life, and the snares of appetites for alcohol, women, honors, and property.
His series hero was Col. Charles Russell, head of the Security Executive. The department minds odd security issues that fall in the grey areas amongst other departments, in border regions where no clear authority to act exists. Anybody who has worked in a biggish bureaucracy, especially one that oversees numerous smaller units, will be able to relate to the amount and kind of information gathering (spying) and diplomatic interplay (persuading) with which Col. Russell and his trusty sidekick, Major Mortimer, must deal.
Russell is a cheerful stoic who maintains his cool in stressful situations. His attention is attracted when the ordinary patterns are disturbed. He thinks logically, but assumes logic will not be enough to explain or predict what people will eventually do. Russell doesn’t do much except think, assign and talk to people of interesting clubs and office. He spends much time being perplexed. I don’t know how Haggard makes this fascinating and un-put-downable. But he does.
Back in the day, Haggard’s novels were not popular in the US, though critics often praised his work as “James Bond for adults.” Haggard’s ability to take the reader into the closed worlds of research, government offices, criminal syndicates and spymasters is irresistible. At least to readers who like John le Carré, John Bingham, Emma Lathen, or Alan Furst.