THROWBACK THURSDAY: FALL-OUT (1989) By Kenneth Royce
Although largely unknown these days, Kenneth Royce (Gandley) was a middle ranking British thriller writer who wrote some very good spy, war and adventure novels between 1959 and 1997. He also wrote some dark spy novels under the Oliver Jacks pseudonym, particularly Man On A Short Leash.
He is probably best remembered nowadays for his series of books about the semi-reformed cat burglar William ‘Spider’ Scott (the XYZ Man) who reluctantly worked for British Intelligence, which were made into a television series (The XYZ Man) in 1976 and gave birth to the popular spin-off series of Strangers and Bulman starring Don Henderson.
Mike Ripley, through the Top Notch Thriller series, brought back into print the early novels featuring Scott, but most of Royce’s later output has now disappeared from the shelves. I reviewed some of Royce’s books in the mid-1980s, but his later ones suffered from limited print runs and are hard to find.
I recently read for the first time one of his later books, Fall-Out (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), which turned out to be a very enjoyable, if somewhat dark, spy novel, with an original and very clever premise at its core. It is also of interest now, with much of the early action occurring in the Ukraine around Chernobyl.
In the chaos following the emergency at Chernobyl, an inmate from a local mental institution goes missing. No one knows who the patient, known as Zotov, really is or why he is kept in a heavily drugged state at the institution, but there is a note on his file saying that if anything happens to him that KGB boss Aleksei Chernov is to be notified. Chernov is on the verge of retirement, but the disappearance of Zotov brings him back into the game, as he tries to recapture Zotov before it is too late. Meanwhile, Zotov with his memory gradually returning, heads west and British Intelligence, alerted to his bid for freedom, send a small team into Russia to recover him, without really knowing who he is.
Fall-Out has all the ingredients of a good, action spy novel. There is mystery around the identity of Zotov; recklessness on both sides of the Iron Curtain to find him; internal politics within the KGB, which gets bloody; cynical British Intelligence bosses and agents; and a solid chase plot, which also gets very violent. There is also that enjoyably dark undercurrent of cynicism that permeated a lot of British spy fiction of the period.
The story moves at a good pace, with Zotov’s desperate journey towards Poland generating plenty of action, which is accompanied by bloody ‘clean-up’ efforts by Chernov to remove anyone who might know of Zotov’s real identity. There is also tensions between Chernov and his successor, Zhadin, which eventually escalates into violence, and the increasingly risky efforts by a pair of freelance Polish operatives for British Intelligence to find Zotov and get him out.
The story is also helped by evocative images of the chaos following Chernobyl and vivid descriptions of the countryside through which Zotov moves, although it is probably unlikely that Royce had ever visited the Ukraine. The internal politics in the British and Russian Intelligence services has a gritty credibility to it, as does Royce’s depiction of the developing political upheaval in Poland. The central characters of Zotov and the two Polish agents are sympathetically drawn and credible, and the book builds to a good climax with a couple of surprises. The final revelation about Zotov is also very good and quite original, and it is not an idea that I can recall coming across before.
In all, I really enjoyed Fall-Out. Royce’s books can be a little hit and miss, but Fall-Out has inspired me to track down and read some of his other titles that I have missed, such as The Ambassador’s Son and The Proving Ground. I would also like to re-read his spy novel under the Oliver Jacks pseudonym, Assassination Day, which I remember as being quite good.
Fall-Out is well worth the effort to track down.