Evelyn Anthony (pen-name of Evelyn Ward-Thomas) turned 86 this month. She began writing historical romances in the Coronation year of 1953 but by the late 1960s had switched to topical suspense mixed with romance. The Tamarind Seed is a perfect example of her approach, a tale of Cold War espionage where a Russian agent falls in love with a British counterpart – will they make it?
I submit this review for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog,
“… it had never occurred to Judith before how magnificent a coloured man could be as a physical specimen”
Judith Farrow is a British woman working as an assistant to a senior diplomat at the UNO in New York. A traditional, deeply conventional woman, she is still grieving over the death of her husband in a car accident many years earlier, even though she had fallen out of love with him by then. Her poor luck in love continues when she embarks on an affair with an ambitious man who works at the British Embassy in Washington – when she realises that he actually has no intention to leave his wife now that she has joined him from the UK, she immediately breaks it off. Looking to get her life back together, Judith goes on holiday to Barbados. There, by sheer coincidence, she meets and begins a chaste friendship with Feodor Sverdlov, who just happens to be the head of the KGB at the Soviet Embassy in Washington.
“… we’ve got more than just a leak, or a single instance of some colossal bloody blunder. This is a deadly menace to our whole Western security. A double agent that could make Mr Philby look like a filing clerk”
It doesn’t take long for the security chiefs from both sides of the iron curtain to get twitchy, refusing to believe that this is just a chance encounter. Matters are complicated further by the presence of a mole – codename ‘Blue’ – working at the heart of the British Intelligence in Washington. Jack Loder, the supremely able if unpopular working-class head of security, is tasked with neutralising ‘Blue’ before it is too late (and keeping up appearances with the CIA). His main ally is the British minister, Fergus Stephenson, a first class diplomat who has done well despite failing completely in his marriage to Margaret, who has never forgiven him for telling her of his homosexual past while at University at Cambridge. It won’t take long for spy fans to realise just who ‘Blue’ really is …
“The Capitalist world has to be destroyed, Comrade Sverdlov. Our way of life and theirs cannot co-exist”
Despite his position, Feodor is a moderate, helped in his career by being married to a high-ranking doctor who slavishly follows the party line and has refused to leave Moscow. Unfortunately for Feodor the line has hardened and he realises he is soon for the chop after his assistant is sent back home, never to be heard from again. He decides to ask Judith to help him defect to the British – his main tradeable asset being original documents that could help then identify the true identity of the mole.
“It was a real indication of age in a woman when she started lusting after her sons’ generation”
The novel is ably constructed but decidedly underpowered, the incredibly long chapters certainly slowing down the pace. Also, Judith is a bit of a bore and so straight-laced that the romantic element becoming anodyne as she refuses to give in to Feodor’s advances. Instead they trade platitudes about religion and politics, and although he reveals an appealing soft side (despite a reputation built on reprisals he led after the 1956 Hungarian uprising), this doesn’t really provide a proper substitute. The spy story is efficient but incredibly contrived, with ‘Blue’ alerted to Feodor’s plans through an unlikely chain of coincidence, seemingly predicated on the assumption that everyone in the British diplomatic and intelligence community in New York and Washington really do all know each other.
“He had the peasant’s suspicion of intellectuals …”
This is a book then of many parts and contradictions, though it also has several surprises, not least the development of the unlikely relationship between the working-class Loder and Cambridge-educated aristocrat Stephenson. This ultimately proves to be a highlight of a book that never digs too deep and has very little action until the finale, when the couple head back to Barbados with both sides hot on their trail, leading to an ambiguous finish. On the whole Tamarind is perfectly entertaining but when compared with the likes of John le Carré’s The Russia House it definitely comes off as second-best with its dull heroine, bland romance and unconvincing spy machinations. The movie adaptation would make some interesting attempts to counter this …
The 1974 film version was the second of seven films made by the husband-and-wife team of Julie Andrews and writer-director Blake Edwards and from the outset, with its title sequence by Maurice Binder and languid score by John Barry, feels like a mellow, half-speed James Bond movie. As the film was financed by British company ITC the story was re-located to Paris and London, though the scenes in Barbados were thankfully shot on location! This is otherwise a very faithful adaptation of the book, perhaps even too much so as at two hours it is a bit too slow. Edwards does make some interesting changes, not only providing a proper night of passion for the two lovers before the film is out (and making the ending less open-ended) but also adding more suspense in the shape of an elaborate airport sequence not found in the novel, providing some much-needed action to pep the story up a bit. The casting however, is absolutely first-rate, with Dan O’Herlihy and Sylvia Syms pitch-perfect as the warring couple Fergus and Margaret Stephenson. Their splenetic exchanges are so bile-filled that they are likely to burn themselves into your monitor!
Julie Andrews is so perfect as the upright, no-nonsense Judith that one wonders if Anthony had her in mind all along, though she is quite a bit younger in the book. Indeed this movie does have a slightly languid, middle-aged feel to it, something compounded by the casting of Omar Sharif, an obvious choice to play Feodor as he was the so successful in Doctor Zhivago (as was Edward’s cinematographer, Freddy Young), but who does not ever give the impression of a man of action. What we have then in a mature romance in a world of treachery with a terrific cast (Anthony Quayle is also very good as Loder and Oskar Homolka inevitably plays a Russian general) and impeccable technical credentials and that also improves on the original novel while sticking very closely to it.
For an in-depth review of the film from its original release in 1974, see what Kathleen Murphy had to say by clicking here. For an overview of Blake Edwards’ other many excursion in the crime and mystery genre, see my earlier post here.
DVD Availability: Released many times over the years, Network in the UK is set to re-release it soon (originally due in August, this has now been pushed to February next year) for what promises to be the best edition yet with a new HD transfer and an isolated soundtrack to better appreciate John Barry’s mellifluous score – for details, click here. In the meantime there are many, many DVD releases to be found all over the globe, all of them perfectly adequate if bare-bones.
The Tamarind Seed (1974)
Director: Blake Edwards
Producer: Ken Wales
Screenplay: Blake Edwards
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Art Direction: Harry Pottle
Music: John Barry
Cast: Julie Andrews, Omar Shariff, Anthony Quayle, Dan O’Herlihy, Sylvia Syms, Oskar Homolka, Kate O’Mara, Bryan Marshall
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘author I have never read before’ category: