Read in a Faber and Faber 2005 edition. This is one of Frayn’s early (1967) novels about life in the newspaper industry pre-Wapping. It is an affectionate portrait, which some well observed scenes, but overall it is the slight kind of novel that can slide over your eyes without ever entering your brain. You really get no sense of the highly skilled writer Frayn was to become. The story, such as it is, follows two men in one of the backwaters of an unnamed Fleet Street newspaper, pointlessly churning out unread copy to fill gaps in the paper. Churning is a poor choice of verb actually, because we rarely see them doing any work before going to the pub, and their colleague sleeps extensively, then dies, at his desk, without anyone noticing for some time. His replacement is a charmless character who is never really fleshed out at all. The men are unlovable buffoons, tolerated with a deep sigh by their womenfolk. They have various mildly amusing situations before the novel peters out inconclusively. The comic scenes, such as the freebie holiday one of the newspapermen goes on, are over-extended, and I found them tiresome and unfunny. This has all been done so much better by for example, Kingsley Amis.
Frayn writes in his introduction that “No-one, for some reason, can remember the title I gave it” (the novel). This short essay, written presumably for the re-issue of the novel in 2000 on the back of some of his more successful, contemporary work, is arguably a more interesting portrait of the lost world of Fleet Street than the novel itself. But the reason the title is forgotten is the forgetability of the novel itself. If evidence of this were needed, look at these two book covers:
Spot the difference? The title of the novel!!
Frayn is one of our most interesting writers and probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His craft is infinitely stronger these days, and while I thought Spies was flawed, it is still a great book. Hopefully I will get round to writing about it soon.