ALAN WILLIAMS: An Appreciation.
Born 28/8/1935, Died 21/4/2020.
“…Williams has fallen out of favour. But Alan Williams is among the most impressive in what might be called the Graham Greene/Eric Ambler school of ‘Englishman at bay and sultry climes’.” [Barry Forshaw British Crime Writing An Encyclopedia, 2009]
Alan Williams who died in April at the age of eighty-four was the son of playwright/actor Emlyn Williams, (The Corn Is Green/Night Must Fall), his godfather was Noël Coward. Following a youth conference in 1955 Williams smuggled a student out of Poland at considerable personal risk. A year later, while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he witnessed the Hungarian Revolution at first hand. Thereafter Williams made a point of being in the thick of it. He began his journalism career at The Western Mail in South Wales before moving briefly to the Manchester Guardian and then on to The Daily Express, covering the Algerian War, the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Mozambique, Northern Ireland et al as a foreign correspondent. Rumour has it he enjoyed the suspicion of the journalist/spy nexus that follow the international hack. There’s a story that he smuggled Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward out of Czechoslovakia, which was then published in Russian and English by Bodley Head.
Williams first novel Long Run South, (1962), was well received, winning the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize. A young disillusioned Englishman, Rupert Quinn, is kicking his heels in Morocco as the Algerian rages across the border. He unwittingly becomes involved in smuggling arms to the Algerian rebels before falling for Leila, a liaison officer for the anti-government forces. This is an unusually upfront novel for the time, no ordinary adventure story, the violence is brutal, and Williams has a firm grasp of the local politics. Books and Bookmen described Williams as a ‘natural successor to Ian Fleming’ but his work is much more grounded, the subject matter grittier and his characters more morally ambiguous and, therefore, real.
Barbouze, (1963), allowed Williams to continue to develop his distinctly literary and flamboyant writing style. This novel introduced Charles Pol, a newsman on holiday who becomes embroiled in the vicious conflict between North African Nationalists and the French. The novel drew comparisons with Greene and Ambler. Snake Water, (1965), deals in a well worn theme; a jungle setting, a fortune in diamonds and squabbling rivals, a la any number of lesser writers of adventure stories, Williams brought a fresh take to the idea. A comedy film version entitled, Pink Jungle, starring James Garner, Eva Renzi and George Kennedy was a flop, (Williams hated it, I’ve never seen it). Not all his novels were a critical success, one notable failure being a satire on Mary Whitehouse and censorship, The Purity League, (1968), while it’s motives were laudable it was also dull. The Tale of the Lazy Dog, (1970), a high octane heist thriller set in southeast Asia was widely praised as a real return to form.
The Beria Papers (1973) said to have been envisaged as a hoax before the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes affair broke was subsequently written as a novel. Based on the idea that Stalin’s chief of secret police, Beria, a sadist, child rapist and mass murderer, left a diary behind that sparked a deadly hunt. It was an inventive thriller melding fact and fiction to great effect, HRF Keating described it as having an ‘authentic feel’. Robert Harris went on to explore a similar theme with Stalin in his 2008 novel, Archangel.
Williams met a drunken Kim Philby in a hotel bar the day before he disappeared from Beirut (23/1/63). Philby became the subject of his 1975 novel Gentleman Traitor, (Ted Allbeury and others have since written fictional accounts of the notorious spy). The fictional Philby comes back to work for MI6 after returning from Russia, the plot set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). John Gardner said that The Beria Papers and Gentleman Traitor ‘were both ahead of their time’. The Widow’s War 1978, Dead Secrets 1980 and Holy of Holies 1981, followed. Eventually Williams writing dried up, by the late eighties his crime writing career was over, a handful of failed film projects never got off the ground. Long out of print the Charles Pol novels are now available as eBooks and some as Paperbacks. Last word to Barry Forshaw:
“…those willing to seek out his work will find that Williams is a writer whose accomplishments are varied and considerable.”