Thursday, October 02, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: Foreign Exchange, by Jimmy Sangster

As some readers of this blog may remember, I've been doing a book on British pulp and paperback fiction for years now. It's been on a hiatus for over almost a year, mainly because I haven't had any financial support to be able to concentrate on it, but also because I find most of the British books of this sort to be a bit dull. In average, the British paperbacks are worse than their American counterparts. I don't know why this is, but I'll take a second-rate American paperbacker over a second-rate British paperbacker anytime.

This book, however, proved to be something better. I also had a right to suspect it would be: its author, Jimmy Sangster, has been one of the most prominent British screenwriters from the late fifties on, and he has penned many classic films, mainly for Hammer: The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Taste of Fear, The Nanny... Sangster has also written some outright trash, but I read from a recent interview that he thinks the scriptwriter is not to blame, since the script always gets altered, there are always at least eight people at it before it hits the screen.

Sangster has also written thrillers, seven according to Hubin's 1975 bibliography (sorry, it was at hand and my portable's CD drive doesn't work, so I can't check a more recent edition of the biblio). His first novel is The Man Who Could Cheat Death from 1959 (Avon; so it's an American book?), written with Barre Lyndon. There was a movie based on this, so it's probably a novelization.

His first solo novel seems to have been a novelization of his own script, The Terror of the Tongs (Digit 1962), which seems like it was a paperback original. The film is not horror - it's more of an actioneer. His first original book was Private I (Triton 1967), which I'm reading at the moment and which he followed with Foreign Exchange (Triton 1968). And that's the book I recently read and enjoyed. Sangster is no second-rate British paperbacker (and this was originally a hardback, even though the Finnish translation was a PBO; FWIW, it's Manhattan No. 73, from 1970).

Private I and Foreign Exchange feature John Smith, who works as a private eye after retiring from the British Intelligence. In the both books he gets a new job from his former boss, Max, and he takes both with long teeth. (Isn't this an appropriate phrase here?) John Smith is a coward and not very good at his job, and his PI jobs are not much: usually he peeks at husbands cheating on their wives. His spy assignments are not much better: in Foreign Exchange he's imported to the Soviet Union, playing to be a tractor salesman, in order to get caught by the KGB, because the Brits want to change some political prisoners with the Soviets and they need a pawn. As you might guess, John Smith gets into trouble, especially when he's told that the Soviet spy the Brits want to swap is actually dead. Smith is sentenced into 15 years of hard labour in Siberia.

There's not much action in the book, but it moves along swiftly and Sangster makes John Smith a sympathetic character, who's rather close to Stephen "Hank Janson" Frances's Leftist spy John Gail. The book is funny, but it isn't parodic, which is a good thing in my mind (parodies become outdated pretty soon). Smith's personal life is drawn into the mix with interesting results. There seems to be a TV movie based on this, anyone seen it? (And Private I, too.)

I'm only some 50 pages into Private I, but it also reads like a very good book. Recommended. (Besides the Finnish and the American editions of Foreign Exchange you'll have the American edition of Private I. Sleazy, huh? It's by Lancer.)

My contribution to this Friday's Forgotten Book series, concocted by Patti Abbott.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Lovely article. Thanks so much. I have the link for tomorrow here.

James Reasoner said...

I recall reading PRIVATE I and FOREIGN EXCHANGE years ago (I read all the spy paperbacks I could get my hands on during that era), but all I remember is that I liked them fairly well.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It looks even more exciting in Finnish.

Juri said...

The cover is probably Spanish in origin. Thanks for comments, Patti and James!

Paul Bishop said...

I've enjoyed a lot of Sangster's novels. His last three books, Snowball, Blackball, and Hardball are among my favorites. They are set in the Hollywood film colony of Malibu and surrounding environs and features James Reed, formerly of Scotland Yard and ex-husband of Katherine Long, movie star.

I also remember enjoying his Touchfeather books, which if I remember right involved a father / daughter duo of slueths with the daughter being a stewardess.

Duane Spurlock said...

FOREIGN EXCHANGE sounds familiar, but I know I've never read any of Sangster's books. Maybe I have it confused with something else. Does he compare more to John Creasey or to Alistair MacLean? I really like that cover illustration. Looks like Bama, but I don't think he ever painted any covers for Berkley. Can you make out the artist's signature, Juri?

Juri said...

I'd say Alistair MacLean, but furthermore I'd say Sangster has more in common with John LeCarre or Len Deighton, but my best comparison would be Stephen Frances's John Gail books, which, I've noticed, are the best British-origin paperback spy novels.

But sorry, Duane, the picture of the American cover I picked up from Abebooks and I don't have the book to myself. Maybe you could take a look at it from Abe?