SPYSHIP (1980) by Tom Keene with Brian Haynes

Keene-Haynes-Spy-Ship-penguin-81This topical Cold War yarn about a sunken ship marked the fiction debut of two TV journalists. The premise is based on the true case of the Gaul trawler, which sank in February 1974 off the north coast of Norway, which the authors investigated for a TV news magazine show. Attempts to find the wreckage failed, leading to several conspiracy theories that would not be truly resolved for another thirty years. Do they match the fictional resolution provided here?

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 Bingo and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“It’s the Russians! You mark my words …”

Martin Taylor is a 26-year-old journalist whose father was aboard the ‘Arctic Pilgrim’, a high-tech, top of the line fishing trawler that in February 1974 goes missing without a trace. We know from the start that it was being monitored by a Russian submarine and that the trawler was sunk by a torpedo – however, we have no idea why and things are much less straightforward than they first seem. Indeed, that this is not just some sort covert attack from a trigger-happy Soviet sub captain soon becomes clear as it turns out that the British are in fact colluding with their Easter Bloc equivalents in covering up the incident. At the same time a doctor in Norway is treating several patients for radiation sickness while back in the UK an agent by the name of Paul Evans starts smearing and even killing anyone who tries to uncover the truth of what really happened to the trawler. It’s up to the dogged Martin and his plucky girlfriend Suzy to survive several murder attempts and uncover the truth, which will eventually lead to an elaborate game of cat and mouse all over Norway.

“He paid off the taxi, tipping with an imagined generosity that was four years out of date”

In some editions the eponymous vessel is referred to as the “Mary Castor’, a name also used in the TV adaptation (see below) where it becomes the “Caistor” with several other names changed too. In my Penguin paperback edition from 1981 however (featured at the top of the page), it’s definitely the “Arctic Pilgrim,” so perhaps it was renamed in later editions for legal reasons. The plot is certainly lively as we cut from Suzy and Martin’s amateur investigations to Whitehall mandarins and assorted secret agencies making plots and Evans cleaning up afterwards. As is often the case, credibility is stretched pretty thin: in particular Martin makes for an improbable action hero when pitted against Evans. Also the way that huge chunks of exposition is delivered is not very dramatic or plausible, with our hero usually just falling across important pieces of evidence from scientific reports to taped confessions.

“Die, please – why won’t you die?” he said, the tears running down his cheeks.

Keene-Haynes-Spyship-pbThe story is the main thing here though and is fairly compelling, the final ironies in particular being quite nicely dovetailed in fact. The book does fall prey to what we might call the ‘airport thriller’ syndrome – it’s a bit too long and has tons of explanatory detail and even the occasional footnote, which can frankly a bit tedious, However, if you are curious to know how they used to appoint someone to chair an inquiry into a wreckage circa 1974 or the minutiae of marine flora (we get four pages of this), then this is definitely the book for you! It also slows down much too much in its closing stages with the chapters getting longer and longer and more and more bogged down in exposition – it’s almost like the authors are so near the final stretch by this point that they won’t even add a chapter break before they can sign off. But these are minor quibbles – this is very much a topical, ‘inspired by true events’ conspiracy thriller of its time, which despite some pacing problems rattles along at a fair speed and which definitely earns brownie points by not forgetting the way that everyday people get trampled on in the name of the national good – definitely worth a read even though the solution to the real case, when it came, proved to be much more prosaic.

In 1983 Tom Wilkinson starred in a BBC miniseries based on the book and adapted for the screen by James Mitchell, creator of the Callan spy series as well as When the Boat Comes In, which dealt with the fishing industry in the North East of England. In many ways he was the ideal person to bring the book to life. He keeps practically all the plot, makes some cosmetic changes to names (as noted above) but also significantly tightens up the story and overhauls the book to emphasise the people in the shipping community and reduce the emphasis on standard action thrills..


Tom Wilkinson and Lesley Nightingale in SPYSHIP (BBC, 1983)

Indeed, the most important aspect of the TV version, split across six hour-long episodes, is the extent to which it deepens the characterisations. We spend much more time with the sailors and their families, the genuine emotions contrasting with the bloodless machinations of those in the secret service on either sides of the Iron Curtain. The love affair between Martin and Suzy is taken much more slowly and credibly while their narrow escapes are made less implausible – the theme is very much cynicism versus realism as the layers of deceit are slowly revealed to its ironic conclusions. The TV version however does also include a very cynical coda, a nastier variant of the one on the book, and did shock audiences at the time. Thirty tears later, it still packs a punch. The real-life case which inspired the story by the way led to a protracted investigation that only arrived at a full resolution decades later – to read more about the official conclusions from 2004 (there was no evidence of foul play though the UK government admitted it had been using such civilian trawlers for the purposes of espionage) can be found here.

DVD Availability: The six-part serial has now been made available on DVD in the UK by Simply Media in a no-frills but perfectly decent edition though initial pressings did suffer from a technical bug shortening the first episode unless the ‘play all’ function was selected.

Director: Michael Cunstance
Producer: Colin Rogers
Screenplay: James Mitchell (with additional material by Robert Smith)
Art Direction: Myles Lang
Music: Richard Harvey
Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Lesley Nightingale, Peter Eyre, George Baker, Michael Aldridge, David Burke, Jimmy Naill, Christine Hargreaves, Vivienne Martin, Don Henderson, Judy Monahan

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘Mystery involving Water’ category:

mark2-Vintage Silver Card

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Book to Movie Challenge, 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Cold War, Espionage, James Mitchell. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to SPYSHIP (1980) by Tom Keene with Brian Haynes

  1. TracyK says:

    You are moving along in the challenges. This sounds good. You know I love spy stories.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – I always think it’s interesting when writers take actual events and create stories with them. And this one definitely sounds better than average. My guess is that there was more of that co-covering-up than we know even now and I’m not really a conspiracy theorist.

    • I know what you mean Margot – conspiracy stories of course also tend to be depressing, with good reason, which sometimes puts me off (I never beieved the ending of The Pelican Brief for instance) – it’s one of the reasons why I am such a fan of All the President’s Men (the movie rather than the turgid and unreadable book) as it has a credibly positive ending!

  3. Bev Hankins says:

    This sounds like a winner and I’m not much for the thriller/conspiracy genre.

    And look at that card filling up!

  4. Colin says:

    I think I vaguely (and I mean very vaguely here) remember the mini-series. The book is a new one for me though. It sounds like it gets a bit too bogged down in places – always a danger in this kind of writing.

    • Yeah, I’m not a big fan really of the big doorstopper thriller (you know, chunky books by Forsyth or Clancy) – this one is definitely overlong and sometimes way too detailed – but it does have some humour and the plot is good – in some ways though the mini-series is better.

      • Colin says:

        I think we’ve probably been here before but I look with extreme displeasure on books that fail to tell their story in 350 pages or less. In their heyday, writers like Hammond Innes, Alistair Maclean and Jack Higgins were able to knock out thrillers in pretty slim volumes. That’s how it should be – they’re thrillers, not epic sagas.

        • I agree that to me many of these very long books simply fail to sustain their length – I am just about to reach the stage in the Ed McBain books in the mid to late 70s when he was pretty much obliged by market forces to make the books much longer and mostly he handled it well but it wasn’t a benefit either,

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Super review – I have a fondness for cold war fiction and I’m always happy to hear of a new title!

  6. I’ll watch anything with Tom Wilkinson in it. I’m a big fan of James Mitchell’s work, too. Nice review!

  7. John says:

    Not my kind of thing, but I sometimes can be entranced by the tendency for contemporary writers to “info dump” when the topic is something I know little of. I’m not a big fan of expository dialogue like what we get on TV crime shows these days nor do I like the emphasis on exposition in a novel. But that portion on marine flora would probalby have been my favoirte part of this book had I read it! I know I have a bit of Asperger’s (I’m on the “highly functioning” end of the scale) in me so it’s the oddities and the immersions in those oddities that arouses my interest in techno thrillers. Helen McCloy (whose The Man in the Moonlight I reviewed this week) did this a lot in her mystieres. Her immersion in arcana is the focus of my review.

    • I’m not a big one for overblown thrillers either but one of the enjoyable aspects of the book is the fairly nuts and bolts feel and I do enjoy cold war espionage tales – this one needed better characterisation to really standout. I know what you mean about getting enjoyably side tracked by arcana (it’s actually one of the things I like about the Philo Vance books). I need to read more McCloy as I really liked Through a Glass Darkly but haven’t read much else other than some short stories – thanks John.

  8. Great choice, Sergio! I’m a sucker for Cold War espionage thrillers with conspiratorial elements. I may take them with a pinch of salt but i enjoy reading them nonetheless. I think rival intel agencies often worked together, clandestinely, when the truth got unpalatable for both. I’ll try and read this book. Colin mentioned three terrific spy fiction writers who dabbled in this sort of thing often with real names and situations.. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Thanks very much Prashant, really glad you enjoyed this. I don;t do many thrillers here at fedora but really glad to have got round to this one especially no that the TV adaptation is also available again.

  9. Kelly says:

    I normally get irritated with books based on real stories. If I know too much about the case, anything that deviates from real facts makes me mad. (As much as I like Ellroy, I have a hard time with THE BLACK DAHLIA). In this case, though, I know nothing except what you’ve told me. I could probably relax and just enjoy it, and look up the real story later.

    • Thanks Kelly – it’s doesn’t pretend to be based on the story except as an inspiration (but like episodes of Law & Order on TV) and the authors so make this plain in their introduction. As it turned out, decades later the truth did sort of come out …

  10. Pingback: Nautical naughtiness – Classic crime in the blogosphere, January 2014 | Past Offences

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