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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Dandy in Aspic

Derek Marlowe

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To purchase A Dandy in Aspic

Title: A Dandy in Aspic
Author: Derek Marlowe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966
Length: 256 pages
Availability: A Dandy in Aspic - US
A Dandy in Aspic - UK
A Dandy in Aspic - Canada
Requiem pour un dandy - France
Ein Dandy in Aspik - Deutschland
Un dandy in trappola - Italia
Requiem por un dandy - España
  • Note that the 1966 first US edition differs from the version originally published in the UK
  • A Dandy in Aspic was made into a film in 1968, directed by Anthony Mann (completed, uncredited, by) Laurence Harvey, and starring Harvey, Mia Farrow, Peter Cook, and Tom Courtenay
  • With a Foreword by Tom Stoppard

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating, out-there variation on the 1960's spy-thriller novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/6/1966 Penelope Houston
Sunday Times . 22/5/1966 Julian Symons
The Times . 24/2/1968 .
The Times . 25/4/2015 Fiona Wilson
TLS . 4/8/1966 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Obliquely and cleverly written, if sometimes rather self-consciously so. Settings range from shabbily modish London to West Berlin, all described with a relish for the eccentrically offbeat" - Penelope Houston, Financial Times

  • "Nicely told, with occasional wit and considerable irony. Lacks some final touch of conviction" - Julian Symons, Sunday Times

  • "It is a curiously non-aggressive, un-gimmicky spy thriller (...) and merits more attention from the reader than its publishers have given it." - The Times

  • "Intelligent and fashionable (.....) rather clever than likeable." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the 1966 G.P.Putnam's first US edition, where they note: "This book has been published in Great Britain in a different version" (as Marlowe apparently re-worked or re-wrote the second half of the book for the American market/publication); take this also into account when considering the review-quotes -- all based on the original UK edition -- above. It is unclear to me whether this then became the 'definitive' edition -- i.e. the one then also published in the UK in various paperback re-issues, including the most recent one (2015) from Silvertail Books, none of which I have seen.]

       In rough outline A Dandy in Aspic could pass for a typical 1960s secret agent thriller, but -- as the title might already suggest -- at a more basic level, and especially in its presentation, it takes, in many ways, a different tack. Steeped in spy-thriller tropes and attitude, an embrace of British knowing-cool, and with a killer premise, easily boiled down to a simple tag-line, that explains why the film rights were immediately snapped up and also why the book will endure (at least in memorable summary, if not actually read) -- A Dandy in Aspic is a creative variation, indeed extension of the genre. Yet it's also understandable that it didn't really fully catch on: stretching the bounds of the genre in this way probably goes further than the average thriller-devourer cares for.
       The dandy of the title is Alexander Eberlin. He is thirty-six, with an Oxford first that earned him -- "after all the necessary pulls and pushes and committed dinners were finally over", a British Ministry position that saw him detailed first to Africa -- four years based in Entebbe --, followed by six months in Berlin and four in Abadan; ever since, he's been at a desk in London. He has no friends or family, his one close relationship with a woman having ended nearly a decade earlier; they had had a son, but Eberlin hasn't seen him since the boy was two. Outside work, the only person who figures regularly in his life is the valet who attends to him for a few hours daily, a man with whom he barely exchanges a word.
       Eberlin does like the finer things in life, at least as far as appearances go. His clothing is, of course, bespoke, and his keen eye goes beyond mere affectation: he can recognize who tailored a suit from the cut and stitching. He drives a proper spy car, a Maserati Mistrale [sic] 3.7, a sleek two-seater -- though tellingly it's in the shop when the story starts, after an accident he had in France. He's even reading the model silver-fork novel, Edward Bulwer Lytton's classic dandy-tale Pelham.
       Appearances -- and Eberlin is very much about appearances -- can, of course be deceiving, and they certainly are here. As loathed and long-suspicious colleague Gatiss realizes:

     You're not an English dandy, Eberlin. You're not even a loyal English gentleman.
       Indeed, Eberlin may have been passing as one since his Oxford days, but he's anything but. What he really is is a deep, deep sleeper agent, Russian-born and bred, his real name Krasnevin. He has Russian handlers, with whom he is occasionally in touch -- with all the complicated rigmarole of arranging secret meetings -- and he does do some work for them. Oddly, for a man who has infiltrated deep into the British spying machinery and looks set to be in a position to gather valuable secret information for the Russians for decades to come, that is not how he is primarily being utilized:
Some passing of information had been involved, but he knew that he had been trained to kill the secret enemies of the Soviet Union
       Eberlin's remit is to take out various important figures: he's an assassin. Quite a good one, too, it seems. (It does seem rather a waste to employ an asset so deeply and well-embedded in a prime -- for information-obtaining purposes -- government position; it's hard not to see this as the weakest piece in Marlowe's fiction.)
       Indeed, Eberlin may be too good at his (covert) job: the British are beginning to see a pattern, and they're certainly beginning to be annoyed, at losing so many men. Unsurprisingly, they've been sniffing around -- and, as they reveal to Eberlin, they've identified the man behind the killings. As one ... Krasnevin.
       Uh-oh .....
       They even have a photograph .....
       What they apparently haven't done is made the real connection (helped by the fact that the photograph is of someone else -- though someone well-known to Eberlin). Indeed, Eberlin's British superiors seem to be so much on the wrong track that they have decided that Eberlin is the man best-suited for the job -- to eliminate this Krasnevin. It is, of course, a brilliant premise for a thriller: a double agent is charged with finding and liquidating ... himself.
       If that's the elevator-pitch summary of the novel, the novel itself is arguably better described as something rather different, a lonely man's longing for his homeland and a quieter life, and his efforts to recapture it. Obviously, the threat of exposure -- compounded then by the Catch-22 situation he soon finds himself in -- play a role in Eberlin's wish to escape his current life, but really, it only seems to be a final or convenient breaking point. Dandy Eberlin is a skilled, cold-hearted assassin, but he's rather unfulfilled by his dreary existence -- and he longs for the motherland. As he tells handler Pavel, early on:
Everything's just snow balling in size every second and I don't think, if it gets any bigger, that I'm the right man to cope with it. For my sake and for the sake of everybody, I ought to be sent back to Moscow.
       Indeed, most of his efforts for much of the novel then revolve around his efforts to cross back over to the East, first by official means -- getting himself recalled by his Soviet bosses -- and then by increasingly desperate unofficial means, right down to trying to get himself smuggled across the border in Berlin (in the opposite direction that almost everyone else is heading). This is all actually quite amusing, as both sides, British and Soviet, repeatedly thwart his efforts, much to Eberlin's increasing frustration.
       Eberlin is sent to Berlin, where all his effort goes into finding a means to flee East. Admittedly, looking for Krasnevin, as he has been charged with, would be a fool's errand, but eventually his superiors get a bit concerned about a lack of any progress. Colleague Gatiss comes to see how everything is going, and takes matters somewhat in hand, and Eberlin's balancing act becomes ever-more precarious.
       If the story sputters along at times, Marlowe's resolution is ingenious and inspired, as he brings his double-agent premise to its chilling close. Well played. Very well played.
       Marlowe isn't satisfied with merely unspooling all these elements of the manhunt spy-thriller in familiar form. For one, his Eberlin might be both a dandy and a clinically efficient assassin, but he's not entirely the suave spy type. He goes on quite a few benders, and generally drinks without caution -- indeed, acts quite rashly on numerous occasions. And while a number of attractive women (and some prostitutes) flit across the scenes -- and throw themselves at Eberlin, too -- he's not exactly a lady's man; indeed, the novel is striking for the awkwardness and downright unpleasantness of the closer relationships between men and women (including Gatiss' failed office romance, and then the prostitute he takes to his Berlin hotel). Indeed, while there's a great deal of sexual swagger (generally by the women ...) and coquetry -- and while an issue of Playboy even plays a significant role along the way -- A Dandy in Aspic is decidedly, even emphatically, unsexy.
       Beyond that, Marlowe also goes in for a lot of playfulness with language and style. If much of the sharp, quick back and forth is, in some ways, typical of the genre, he often takes it further. It's hard, at times, not to read some disdain for genre-work in that, with some of the references and banter. So also with much of the presentation, beginning with his division of the novel into two parts titled 'Apogee' and 'Perigee', as well as some of the chapter titles ('Didactic Nude'; 'Au Suivant', etc.). An amusing touch is that each chapter comes with one or several epigraphs -- many of which are ascribed to Alexander Eberlin (quite clever ones, too).
       There's a great deal here to admire, from the premise(s) to the clever final twist, and in many of the scenes and exchanges, but it's hard not to be left with a feeling of a novel falling just a bit short. Marlowe does a lot of things well, but the sharp writing, scenes, and even some of the action tend a bit too extremely to the laconically elliptical. And while parts of the story are pleasant surprises in how well they work -- Eberlin/Krasnevin's longing for a long-lost home, in particular -- others, such as the romantic and sexual (non-)relationships, leave an unpleasantly sour taste.
       Still, A Dandy in Aspic is an in many ways fascinating piece of work, a welcome change from your typical thriller that nevertheless ultimately (especially in its neat resolution) also provides exactly the satisfactions expected from the genre.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 October 2020

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A Dandy in Aspic: Reviews: A Dandy in Aspic - the movie: Other books by Derek Marlowe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British writer Derek Marlowe lived 1938 to 1996.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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