If James Bond is a blunt instrument, surviving on instinct and sheer bloody-mindedness while maintaining a sort of post-empire fantasy of Britain’s position on the global playing field, then Harry Sullivan is an imbecile.
A vague, caddish, slightly priggish upper middle class boob who, when not bumbling into danger, can often be found with his foot squarely in his mouth. In other words, he’s not what you’d call a regular spy.
You can already see the comedy potential in this spin-off novel, Harry Sullivan’s War, the title alone is your first clue that the novel contained within has a neat line in sardonic humour.
The book sticks slavishly to Harry’s perspective, as though, from his grunts eye view of a larger conflict – in this case the clandestine world of chemical weapons manufacturers – but it’s played for largely comedic effect. Even when Harry does seem start to rally against authority, like the title and the genre it places itself in suggests he might, it’s largely voiced in very broad ‘can’t we all just get along?’ sentiments as though the thought had just occurred to him.
Marter’s stroke of genius is to leave Harry pretty much as we left him; he still wears the same blue blazer, still drives the same red MG (what’s with the Porsche 911 on the cover?) and is still a hopeless flirt around the opposite sex (in a brief cameo, he still calls Sarah Jane ‘old thing’ much to her perpetual annoyance).
Surrounded by a cast of colourfully named, aggressively posh characters like his cleaner Mrs Wrigglesworth, his codebreaking chum Percy Jolly and his solicitor Cedric Hetherington of Hetherington Popplewell, he’s more a Hardy Boy than James Bond.
However, it’s on the eve of Harry’s 41st birthday that he starts to question his place within the world. He’s been offer a new job that brings with it a switch from ‘defensive’ chemical weapons manufacture i.e anti-viruses and poisons to ‘offensive’ weapons used to threaten enemies with all kinds of unimaginable horrors that the book doesn’t really dwell on (you can probably see why Harry has such a hard time getting on his soapbox – it’s not like ‘state sponsored poisoning’ was one of the lines in John Lennon’s Imagine.) If there was ever a companion who might have enjoyed the brief career boost travelling with the Doctor brings, it’s Harry.
It’s not until he’s attacked by a decidedly un PC strongman in a gym and in a resulting funny turn near the National Gallery, that he meets Samantha, a femme fatale who doesn’t really have to try hard to seduce the hapless Harry into inadvertently spilling national secrets to a shady organisations known as EAR and EARACHES that he throws caution to the wind; partly to thwart those responsible, partly because a pretty girl told him to.
And all this somehow revolves around the repeated appearance of Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear in one of those delightfully daft spy novel details that make absolutely no sense in the real world.
If you think all this sounds a million miles away from Doctor Who well, it is and it isn’t – the secret organisation is one noble intention for humanity away from being the kind of organisation you’d find in a Malcolm Hulke script. Also, the whole novel has the feel of a Third Doctor episode sub-plot where all references to otherworldly beings have been exorcised; where the companion has been sent off to explore a suspiciously noble institute. The Brigadier, on summer’s leave from his position at Brendon Public School from Mawdryn Undead, even puts in an appearance to share old stories about the Doctor and to be implicated in the controversy that you one hundred percent never believe he’s involved with.
You get the feeling that Marter’s attention was taken with writing more charming dialogue for Harry rather than crafting a spy story beyond the usual clichés. The villains and their plans never really ascend higher than the usual stock ‘capture a weapon and threaten the world’ shenanigans. If you were feeling generous, you could describe the nefarious Alexander Shire’s scheme as hopelessly ambitious.
There are, however, far too many matter-of-fact scenes to make the book entirely recommendable. The narrative travels back and forth from Scotland to London more times that a travelling salesman, Marter’s descriptive passages – the visceral boon of Doctor Who and the Ark in Space – are few and far between (there’s a wonderfully viscous passage of Harry passing out after a car chase that’s the equal of anything in that seminal book), and the end promises a comic-tragic denouement that it just hasn’t earned (Marter had originally intended to kill Harry off at the end but Target wisely told him that was absurd on its face).
But in what other in what other spy novel would have its protagonist, soaking wet, trapped in a changing room, where, forced to rely on his wits to escape decides that the only way to free himself is to wait until the villains come and get him again when they need him again?
It’s delightfully silly.