John Gardner, the author of a long-running James Bond series in the 80s, wrote a masterfully deranged and darkly hilarious spy comedy series in the 60s as his attempt to mock the many things in Fleming’s work which he didn’t like and began the shenanigans of Gardner’s cowardly superspy – Boysie Oakes in The Liquidator (Originally published in 1964). This is definitely not a spy thriller, but a spy comedy that’s perfect for old-fashioned classical spy fiction readers and even more for the lunatic fanbase of the spy comedy/dark humor adult animated TV show – Archer – which is popular in the last decade.
The book starts in 1944, where a British Intelligence Corps officer is being beaten by two Nazis at the recently liberated Paris when a young armored corps Sergeant shoots down the two Germans and saves the older man. Then in the early 60s, the intelligence officer from WW-II Paris – Colonel Mostyn – became the second-in-command of British Intelligence. With new threats to his MI6 in the Cold War, Mostyn tracks down his savior from Paris who’s been mixed up in a few deaths in the course of his life with no evidence or suspicion of foul play. The cunning spymaster recognizes the natural talent of a cold-blooded murderer and traps him with a job filled with a life of luxury and richness which Boysie accepts only for the lifestyle and the women that he gets from his job.
Unknown to Mostyn, Boysie Oakes is a coward who gets shocked by the sight of blood, violence, and any form of danger. The now so-called assassin has spent his life trying to forget the day in Paris where he pulled the trigger and killed two Germans as he’d masterfully put in the effort to avoid combat and danger for his entire time in the army during the Second World War. Boysie’s idiotic life was spent in a few jobs and enterprising ventures that had collapsed disastrously because of his own stupidity and that of his partners whom he did not actually kill. His neurological disorder causes his eyes to pop out and his mouth to curl up a bit on one side when he’s in a state of extreme shock, fear, or anxiety. That facial expression when he was standing next to two men whom he had accidentally gunned down made the MI6 officer sure of Boysie’s ‘psychopathic killer instincts’ which the spymaster uses as an asset. Boysie’s put through a training program, which includes reading Fleming’s Bond books among lots of other forms of training and given the code name – The Liquidator or L.
The main story starts with Boysie, secretly going on a romantic getaway with Mostyn’s secretary – Iris – who plays a major role throughout the story in a classic Archer-esque fashion. Mostyn’s normal paranoia goes to a higher level when his two trusted subordinates go behind his back. The weekend getaway leads to Boysie getting kidnapped, his fake escape, codes, manipulations, trickery, and hilarity when he’s targeted by a Russian agent – The Coronet in a plan to use Boysie to kill the member of the Brit royal family and steal a top-secret weapon while leaving The Liquidator dumbfounded in confusion and embarrass the British intelligence. Without going into any major spoiler other than what I’ve already mentioned about the villain’s plans, the real charm of the book isn’t the plot, but the characters, their minds, and their interactions.
Just the perspectives of each character about other characters in all the scenes are the works of comedic greatness. Mostyn’s sadistic cunning along with Boysie’s idiotic helplessness mixed with Iris’ twistedly maniacal charm and the Coronet’s devious brilliance make this book better than Archer on many levels. Gardner’s writing keeps switching in a non-linear narrative, in old-fashioned prose that manages to stay character-driven while staying very atmospheric to the settings and the locations. His descriptive style and the world in this book is almost like visiting inside an early 60s James Bond movie, but with the type of ride written by someone crazier than the makers of Archer. My comparisons of this book to the TV show Archer feel redundant, considering when The Liquidator was written, and I can’t help but feel that the show-makers of Archer were heavily influenced by John Gardner’s Boysie Oakes books. There’s even a movie adaptation of this book from back in the 20th century, which I suspect of not having been very popular.
Boysie starts as a money-loving coward, who initially outsources his kills to a street thug in London to do the dirty work while standing at the right spot to fool his boss at MI6, and does not lose any money as he pays the thug with his government bonus and keeps his hands clean. Through the course of the book, he faces many of his worst fears, almost dies, accidentally saves the day, all while remaining an idiot and continuing to be the same. His relationship with Mostyn is ludicrous, with high amounts of mutual hate and mutual dependency, and never ceases to entertain. It’s not high literature, and it’s by no means an actual ‘thriller’ with serious action or spycraft, but it is a great piece of classically awesome comedy that any fan of both spy thrillers and deranged dark comedy should not miss reading in their life.