In many respects, the Kindle Store on Amazon is a very odd place: titles appear and disappear for no apparent reason, prices change seemingly from day to day, and, of course, there’s the endless frustration of discovering that the book one wants to get on Kindle isn’t actually available in that format yet. Or ever. On the other hand, it sometimes comes up with pleasant surprises, too. I’ve just had one of those: the discovery that the entire backlist of Anthony Price titles will be available on Kindle from this week. Price has been one of my favourite authors since I discovered him when I was at college in the 1970s, and it’s a shame that he never became better known. (By coincidence, he was the editor of The Oxford Times throughout the time I spent at the university.) The complete run of paperbacks still sits on my shelves, now somewhat yellow and well thumbed, so I think my next re-reading of the series (probably the fourth or fifth) may well be done electronically!
Set in the murky world of intelligence during the Cold War, the thing that makes Price’s books stand out from much of his competition is his ingenious use of historical back-stories. His heroes, the prickly and unconventional Dr David Audley and his stolid ex-military colleague Colonel Jack Butler, are both men who are fascinated by the past, and their cases invariably involve delving into historical mysteries that somehow still have a bearing on the present. Moreover, their enemies on the other side of the Iron Curtain are fully aware of their interests and sometimes exploit Audley’s and Butler’s fascination with history to their own ends. Price presents the battle of wits between the two sides as an intricate game of chess, and indeed Chessgame was the title of the TV series adapted from the first three Price novels back in the early eighties, with the ever-watchable Terence Stamp as David Audley. (And if anyone knows where, or, more likely, if, it’s possible to obtain a DVD of that series, I’d be eternally in their debt!)
The great strength, but also arguably the great weakness, of Price’s books is that they’re always exactly contemporary – thus one of my favourites, The Old Vengeful, published in 1982, has a back story set in the naval history of the Napoleonic period, but has its ‘front story’ set squarely in the early years of the Thatcher/Reagan era. As a result some of Price’s contexts and references may now seem a bit dated or obscure, but to offset that, he employs a common but cleverly executed plot device that always makes his books highly readable. Although Audley and Butler are always the main characters, they are only rarely the viewpoint characters, so they are often seen through the eyes of others: subordinates, enemies (Audley in particular is very good at making enemies, both in the Soviet Union and among his own colleagues) or simply innocent bystanders who get dragged into their complex intrigues. Thus the central mystery is often only glimpsed tangentially, with Audley in particular often ‘off stage’ for much of the book – although he’s invariably the subject of discussion, and his past or present actions often form the basis for the plot. Perhaps my favourite of all Price’s books, Tomorrow’s Ghost, has a young female operative as its protagonist, and builds through an elaborate plot which sees her investigating the ghosts in both Colonel Butler’s past and her own before reaching a shattering climax in the ruins of a Yorkshire abbey. That’s one of Price’s other great strengths: as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I always look for stories with a strong sense of place, and like Robert Goddard, another of my favourite authors, Price is simply brilliant at conveying that.
The problem, of course, will be finding time to re-read the Price backlist. As well as having Britannia’s Dragon to finish by the end of the year, the ‘to read’ pile is as high as ever, and it’ll shortly be joined by Stephen Taylor’s very positively reviewed new biography of Sir Edward Pellew, John Humphries’ new book Spying for Hitler, and Merivel, Rose Tremain’s sequel to Restoration. As the old saying goes – so many books, so little time!