Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler by Jimmy Sangster.
“…referred to as the battle of Santhoma Sea. Others who knew just that something had happened, but who weren’t aware of all the facts, called it either the South Sea Bubble or That Monumental Cock Up Down There.”
The title gives it away, this is an irreverent black comedy thriller, a damn good one. The novel catches the zeitgeist and has a healthy scepticism about the way the world works. Money talks and who you know really can get you that leg up in life, even if that elevation drops you into ethical sewer. There’s enough meat on the thriller element to make this an intriguing read and the characters have depth but overall it’s the riotous farce that will crack your funny bone.
Context: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Death Peddler was originally published in 1971, a decade after Catch-22 and a couple of years after Monty Python hit the TV and The Italian Job hit cinemas. The spoof wasn’t ubiquitous but it was carving a niche for itself across the decade; Deighton’s The Billion Dollar Brain, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and Albert Finney’s Gumshoe were all released around the same time. Sangster’s novel about an innocent stepping into arms dealing fits right into that niche. It’s also a fore-runner of Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin series and a distant antecedent of Mick Herron’s Slough House crew. You want more context? This is Kafka meets Billy Liar.
What’s it all about? Anthony takes 15 minutes to fill in the questionnaire, it’s not complicated, it’s just more difficult when you’re making it up as you go along, (an MA from Leeds rather than a BA), a sabbatical rather than unemployment. In the end he’s happy with it, as long as they don’t find out he was fired from his last job all’s well. He’s a shoe in anyway, the job is a quid pro quo. A few weeks ago Anthony started seeing this girl, Lillian – Roedean, Swiss finishing, sex maniac, daddy’s money. This was fortunate as he had no money and nowhere to live until they shacked up. For weeks they hardly left the flat, then she starts introducing him to her friends and eventually mummy and daddy. Off to the country, Anthony puts his best speaking voice on and preps a speech on the tragic loss of empire. The Elizabethan, Georgian Victorian house;
“…the single most hideous edifice he has ever clapped eyes on, not excluding the Albert Memorial.”
Mummy is charming, daddy “buys and sells” things. On their first encounter Anthony sees daddy getting a blow job from his sexatary. Daddy isn’t too keen about Anthony getting too attached to his daughter. They strike a trade, he gives Anthony his independence back – a job, money, his own place, just go see Walpole at the London office. So Anthony dumps Lilian. The enigmatic Walpole has no intention of spelling out what the job entails but he’s delighted with Anthony questionnaire responses, specially three years in the army. £5,000 a year plus commission, Anthony is minted! He just needs his passport, first job – collect signor Carlos Ramirez from the airport. Thus Anthony steps into the world of arms trading and gun running, prostitutes, African affairs, embassies and corrupt officials, boat trips, spies, and you get the picture. . .
Sangster has a keen eye for telling detail and storytelling delivered with style; taut, lean prose, snappy dialogue, and a subtle use of setting bolsters the mood. It’s all devilishly wicked, loaded with irony and satirical bite, a cynical view of a jaundiced world. All his novel are tongue in cheek but this one is right out there.
I’ve reviewed a handful of Jimmy Sangster novels recently, all available on NB magazine, including a previously unpublished California PI novel, Fireball. Brash Books and publisher Lee Goldberg have done a new generation of readers a real service by republishing these British crime classics.
About Sangster: He is better remembered as a screen writer and director. He was there for the early days of Hammer House of Horror directing films including Lust for a Vampire with Barbara Jefford and Ralph Bates and writing the screenplay for Curse of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (1957). His screenplay credits include versions of his own novels Spy Killer and Foreign Exchange (1969/70), Wonder Woman, Cannon, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and B.J. and the Bear. That list is not exhaustive. Sangster was born in Kinmel in Denbighshire, North Wales. At sixteen he began working as a clapper board boy and after military service joined Exclusive Studios in 1949 which later became Hammer Horror. Over the years Sangster worked with Bette Davis, George Peppard, Raymond Burr, Dean Jagger, Keith Michell, Sheila Hancock, Barbara Stanwick and a who’s who of British cinema.