The 1950s were well before my time, but it must have been a golden age for readers of paperback spy, crime and adventure fiction. That decade had so many elements that make for exciting stories: the Cold War at its most intense, the CIA and KGB waging unfettered shadow wars across the globe, the American empire rising, the British empire falling, the Mafia’s invisible empire at its peak, and thousands of veterans of World War II and Korea still young and looking for action. It’s not surprising that the decade introduced so many genre greats, like Jack Higgins, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Donald Westlake, Dan J. Marlowe and Lionel White. A more obscure author who got his start in the ’50s was Richard Jessup; I recently picked up his 1956 novel Night Boat to Paris in a lot of vintage spy paperbacks and gave it a quick read.
The novel’s protagonist is Duncan Reece, an ex-World War II British Intelligence operative who fell out of favor with the class-oriented Establishment after the war and turned to criminal work. He is approached by his old intel chief, who considers Reece the perfect man for a very sensitive mission. It seems that an ex-Nazi engineer has developed a nuclear satellite technology for the Reds, but the microfilmed blueprints have wound up in the possession of a wealthy Spaniard and a purchase has been arranged at a charity bazaar at his French villa later that month. Several intelligence agencies, most notably the Reds, are in hot pursuit of the film and are expected to be closely watching the villa. Reece’s mission is to stage a robbery at the bazaar, taking the party-goers’ valuables as well as the microfilm in order to fool the Reds into thinking it wasn’t enemy action. Reece agrees to the job for the very tidy sum in 1956 dollars of one hundred thousand, plus half the loot, an import-export license and his Scotland Yard file and fingerprint records.
Reece’s first task is to travel to France and assemble a crew for the heist. He enlists an old associate and all-around shady operator named Tookie, a desperate German gunman named Otto, a French muscle-man named Saumur, and two American mafiosi operating out of Marseilles named Gino and Marcus. There is considerable intrigue leading up to the main event, as Reece is pursued by mysterious assailants in black suits, and he suspects that one of his own men is an informant for the Reds. Several enemy operatives are killed, and there’s some interesting introspection from Reece about why he is doing this that speaks to the inner plight of the shadow warrior:
You’re a different man, Reece, from when you first started thinking for yourself. A man who has no principles, ascribing to no morality, who has perhaps had the morality knocked out of you. You’re a killer; a procurer and thief; a man who has great wit and wisdom when it comes to saving your own neck and feathering your nest. You see that the world is mad and are playing along with it.
Can such a man slip into the comfortable rut of a middle-class merchant?
And no answer for it.
Finally the crew gets to the locale of the op and sets themselves up in a farmhouse, where they begin training for their commando-style raid on the villa. From here on out it’s a riveting thriller, as the crew, clad in identical black coveralls, berets, face paint and bandanas, assault the party with a rope ladder, grappling hook and Tommy guns, get the loot and the microfilm and try to make their escape. They get to the border and desperately try to find away across, while more men in black show up and they are forced to take drastic action in a mountain village. Conveniently, a village girl unhappy about her arranged marriage joins the crew and leads them on a secret route across the mountains. This finale is a bit less believable than the rest of the story, but it races to a suitably noir ending as the traitor is revealed and Reece makes a run for it into the shadows.
This is just the kind of novel I like: an old-school, hard-boiled adventure that combines espionage, a heist, desperate criminals and ruthless shadow operators. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, but with a more sophisticated style than you get in a typical men’s adventure novel. All in all, this was an excellent little thriller, and a glimpse back to a time when spy stories could be told in 158 pages instead of 400+, without all the bloated writing, technological gimmickry and over-the-top action that would plague the genre in later decades. I will certainly be reading more novels from this era, and can recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the early hardboiled spy work of authors like Donald Hamilton, Jack Higgins, Dan Marlowe and Edward Aarons.
Get a copy of Night Boat to Paris here.