Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a ‘reader’s history’ – specifically this reader – of a particular period, roughly 1953-1975, when British thriller writers ruled the world.
Whether it was a ‘golden age’ is open to debate. Some would argue that the two decades immediately post World War I were the heyday of popular spy and adventure fiction – when the likes of John Buchan, Edgar Wallace, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Sapper, Sidney Horler and Francis Beeding ruled the roost, not to mention Leslie Charteris, Graham Greene, Dennis Wheatley and that new kid on the block, Eric Ambler – most of whom massively outsold the now revered detective story writers of what is regarded as the official ‘Golden Age’
But in 1953, something distinctly different happened. The appearance of James Bond put a splash of technicolour into a grey, austere and virtually bankrupt Britain still recovering for the Second World War and the arrival of Alistair MacLean (who rapidly outsold Ian Fleming) in 1955 triggered a boom in British thrillers. British writers went on to dominate bestseller lists internationally virtually unchallenged for the next twenty years, whilst the traditional British, actually very English, crime novel went through a cycle of decline (though not a terminal one).
Expanding public libraries, cheap Book Club editions and then innovative design and the mass marketing of paperbacks made household names of Fleming and MacLean (as well as established thriller writers Hammond Innes and Victor Canning) in the late 1950s but the real boom was to come as the Sixties started to swing. In the space of two years – 1960-62 – there was an explosion of British talent which saw the names Lionel Davidson, Gavin Lyall, John Le Carré, Alan Williams, Len Deighton and Dick Francis vying for attention on bookshop shelves, and a relatively modest-budget film, Dr No, making a big impact at the cinema.
A flood of adventure thrillers and spy stories followed with machine-gun rapidity and the avid schoolboy reader like me soon became familiar with other names: Wilbur Smith, Desmond Bagley, Geoffrey Jenkins, Berkely Mather, Jack Higgins, James Leasor, James Mayo, John Gardner, Adam Hall and many, many more.
It was indeed a boom time for thriller readers like myself and, in the course of writing a homage to that era, I discovered it wasn’t just me. Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Dennis Lehane turn out to be Alistair MacLean fans; Stella Rimington and Andy McNab fly the flag for Hammond Innes; and it seems that just about every American thriller writer of the 1970s admired Adam Hall.
Writing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang gave me almost as much pleasure as reading all those ripping yarns for the first time, half-a-century ago. Almost, but not quite; as nothing could ever really recreate that weekly (it seemed) frisson of excitement when discovering a new author in the days when British thriller writers and their heroes saved the world on a regular basis.