No great escape from Ilya Kuryakin

A Man From U.N.C.L.E. – the floppy haired blonde one – has written a book.

He’s more recently been starring in NCIS as the Chief Medical Examiner, Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard. (Honestly, what were his parents thinking?). He was also, memorably in The Great Escape, and the tv series Colditz. But to those of a certain age, David McCallum is indelibly remembered as Ilya Kuryakin.

It’s always difficult to write about bad writing. Accusations of snobbery and elitism inevitably follow. Dan Brown, for instance. His books sold in the millions. Brown acknowledged the criticism with the absolutely fair enough sentiment that, “people get on board and go for the ride and enjoy it. Those who don’t should probably be reading someone else.”

But David McCallum is an actor, has been for 65 years. Starting on a career in fiction writing in your ninth decade is, obviously, an impressive feat. But there’s more to writing than writing. It’s tempting to patronise and say, Bless. But honestly, David, really?

The first problem with Once A Crooked Man is that we’re expected to believe that an actor (well, there’s a stretch) forced by necessity to take a piss at the back of a restaurant, overhears three mobsters inside discussing plans to ‘tidy up’ their operation. This will involve killing some people.

Our actor, catching the drift, finishes his business, tucks himself away, and then starts making notes on what he’s hearing. Names, places, victims. Who among us hasn’t done that at least once in their lives?

Elsewhere in the book, by the way, these mobsters are so careful and guarded in their conduct of business, that one of them takes a flight to Columbia for a five minute conversation rather than have the conversation on the phone.

So the whole talking so loud, open window indiscretion is shot to pieces simply as a matter of establishing character.

But then our actor, who hitherto has done nothing much more exciting than a voice over for breakfast cereals, decides to go to London to warn one of the victims, and hopefully prevent his murder. What? Sorry?

It’s when he gets to London that the book becomes not just merely a little bit ridiculous but actually risible. London clearly exists as a time-warp in David McCallum’s mind. Either that, or he thinks Americans can only handle their Englishmen in bowler hats drinking tea out of Spode china cups.

In McCallum’s England, a man (obviously from the lower classes) ‘doffs his cloth cap’ as a funeral cortege passes. We still call hardware stores ‘ironmongers’ and we don’t know what a ‘garbage bag’ is. Our hero’s synapses snap, crackle and pop as he translates for himself: “Bin liners!” Eureka!

BBC Television is still showing cricket. Not only that, but it shows replays of county matches. We carry our newspapers rolled (“The name’s Bond. James Bond. I take my newspapers rolled, not folded”).

But we haven’t yet hit bottom. Oh no. Harry Murphy – this superman bit-part actor and voice-over artist with money and time to spare – crosses the Atlantic to save a total stranger’s life. He tracks the intended victim down. Don’t ask how he does that; you wouldn’t believe the answer.

He first meets Mrs Stranger. She makes him a cup of tea, a mix of Typhoo and Earl Grey – a relic of Mr Stranger’s time ‘stationed in India’. Ah, so we’re talking of old buffers here? After all, the last British troops left India in 1948.

But no. Mr Stranger (well, Colonel Villiers to you) has managed to stay so fit and well that nearly 40 years later he was still commanding troops in The Falklands. In fact, so superhuman is he, that 30 years after The Falklands (the book is set in 2015) he’s mentally alert, physically strong and nimble enough to reverse his car at speed into an assassin on a motorbike.

Let’s just stop and think. This man must have been at least 20 when he was stationed in India, which puts his birth at least in 1928. So when he’s dodging bullets in 2015 he’s getting on for 90. McCallum’s description of him as ‘dashing, handsome and of military bearing’ makes your head spin. And – let us not forget – Typhoo mixed with Earl Grey? We can hear the Peter Kay skit now. Typhoo? Wi’ Earl Grey? Earl Grey and Typhoo? Together? In the same cup?

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the main female character is raped, and loves it. There are so many levels of wrong here, it becomes a sort of literary skyscraper. You’d do yourself a serious injury falling off.

Anyway, you’ve been warned. At £2.29 on Kindle you probably wouldn’t mind too much. But at £8.99 from Amazon, in paperback, you’d probably be asking for your money back.

Or maybe you’re so fond of Ilya Kuryakin and Ducky Mallard that you’ll forgive him anything. In which case…..oh, please yourself.


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