John Brock

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John Brock is a fictional British undercover agent created by Desmond Skirrow. He appeared in three fast-paced, witty, and irreverent spy novels written in the late 1960s. Like his creator, he is a successful advertising executive in London; but he is also a part-time agent coerced to work from time to time for a secret department on the Addison Road run by the fat man.[1] Brock is tough, witty, combative, extremely competent, and supremely resilient. Even by fictional standards, he absorbs incredible amounts of physical damage at the hands of his adversaries before, after a few whiskeys and a few hours' sleep, he is ready for his next fight against overwhelming odds and, quite likely, yet another beating.

Cigarettes and sweet white wine

At the time of his first appearance in It Won't Get You Anywhere, published in 1966, Brock is most likely in his early 40s, a large, tough, extremely strong man who had apparently served with British special forces in small boats during World War II, probably with SIS (Secret Intelligence Service} or SOE (Special Operations Executive). An elliptical reference to climbing Gothic church spires, a traditional activity of students at Oxford, indicates that he may have attended that university before his military service. In the second book, in reply to a direct question about attending Oxford, he says that he was at Pembroke, one of its colleges.[2] He smokes cigarettes, drinks large whiskeys, prefers sweet white wine and Champagne to dry, and has an eye for the ladies, with whom, as is usual with fictional agents, he is frequently, though not always, successful.

My father taught me at his knee never to say no, for a refusal may offend. Whatever it is, he used to say, accept it at once and then, if necessary, reject it at leisure. I have always tried to follow this ridiculous advice and to teach it to the wives of all my friends. It never got me anywhere, of course, but I have always enjoyed the effort.[3]

And, like most fictional agents and private eyes, he also has an unlimited capacity for alcoholic consumption. In the course of a day he can drink a few Campari and sodas in the morning, have wine with lunch, several large whiskeys in the afternoon, then absorb a beating that knocks him unconscious, restore himself with a few more whiskeys, grab a couple of hours of sleep, and then be ready to go the following day with never a hangover or even an ache in his bruised body.

Large, but how large?

In the first book Brock is impressed by the size, strength, and speed of both Provis, his colorful fellow-agent in Cardiff, and Lord Llewellyn, his prime adversary. He displays numerous examples of his own strength, however, as he tosses large, fit enemies about apparently effortlessly. He also describes himself as being, at six foot one inch, somewhat shorter than Provis. In the second book, I Was Following This Girl[4], Kiki Kondor, the girl he has been following and, at the fat man's orders, supposedly protecting, is about to be abducted from her countryside home by a colorfully drawn local character, an enormous one-legged man with a crutch named Satan Smith who

"filled the doorway like Victor Mature once filled the space between the temple columns.... His great humped shoulders pressed out against the uprights. [He had] a chest like a barrel... and thighs like the haunches of a shire horse.... The great, one-legged body... swung his crutch forward for one more precise giant step towards me.... His huge left paw hung at his side... stronger than mine.[5]

After all of this buildup, however, when it becomes obvious that Brock is now going to have to fight this apparently montrously sized creature, Brock somewhat anti-climatically allows that, "Satan Smith was not much bigger than me."[6] So Brock himself is perhaps far larger than he has diffidently made himself out to be.

Sunny but surly

In spite of the detached and witty restraint of most of his first-person narration, Brock can be both surly and truculent, especially when dealing with those he considers his adversaries. His usual response, although not always a wise one, to those attempting to coerce him is an inelegant, "Get stuffed!" Aside from that, however, he generally eschews profanity and vulgar language, letting his actions express his emotions, although in his second book, I Was Following This Girl, he does swear with somewhat greater frequency. He is, in fact, disrespectful and mistrustful of almost everyone in authority. Upon being ordered to visit The fat man at the beginning of It Won't Get You Anywhere,

I pushed open the front door in Addison Road and walked past Det.-Sgt. Pratt. But Pratt had been replaced, and a newer, bigger, keener copper shoved the thick arm of the law across my throat.... He was confident as well as keen, and he flipped as though he was greased. I grabbed his throat and dangled him against the panelling.... I punched him low and let him slide.... "I'm Brock," I said. "I didn't want to come here, and I won't want to come the next time either." [7]

Hardware

Brock lives in a flat at 3a Chiswick Street, London SW1[8] and keeps his Volvo in a garage "under a block of cocktail cabinet flats behind the King's Road," where a "Volvomaniac" mechanic has spent years tinkering with it to maximize its preformance. "Many more of your modificatons," grouses Brock, "and I'll be the fastest thing between any two filling stations on the road."[9] Brock's preferred arm is an enormous single-shot Kruger Hawkeye Special that shoots .265 Magnum shells. The shells are expensive, "but it is the nearest thing to an elephant gun under twelve inches."[10] Unless he is "non-operational with fright", he carries it in his luggage. Brock says that he can reload it fast enough, but that, in fact, he has never had to shoot it twice. "The Kruger is designed to make such a spectacular stew of anything it hits that it stops most fights stone cold dead."[11]

The fat man

The fat man, Brock's sometime boss in the Addison Road and a "ruthless bastard"[12], sits, along with his wheezing, "odious" poodle, in a second-floor[13] Edwardian[14] room that faces west over Holland Park.[15] It is filled with enough Victorian bric-a-brac "to sink the Portobello Road", the "walls are flocked with fleur-de-lis and the shelves are stocked with Dickens", and nothing is later than 1910; there he sips Calvados and tries to find a partner for Scrabble, at which he always wins. The fat man apparently lives within the same building but likes to breakfast at the Connaught Hotel on "eggs and gammon[16]. He thinks people take him for a television personality."[17] As for automobiles, "I hate cars," says the fat man.

He meant, of course, when other people drive them and kill his lads. He has a Pontiac Parisienne[18] himself, the one with the 6.7 American engine, which he drives like a bumper car on August Monday.[19]

His aides, Muir and Greene, direct a department with 242 field operatives. Down in the basement, just as in the James Bond films, Pusser Talbot runs a supply department filled with improbable gadgets and armaments, including a recent addition, "a motorized Graziella bicycle that collapses into a small Revelation suitcase labelled Metropole Hotel, Brighton."[20] Brock, however, disdains all of the gadgetry, yearning only for his Kruger Hawkeye Special, which, at the fat man's orders, is kept locked away from him.

Fear and coercion

Given Brock's ingrained distaste for authority in any form, why then, does he occasionally risk his life at the fat man's orders? Two words: fear, and coercion. As a young man, Brock met the fat man in a Brighton pub just after the war. "I had my theory of perverse action at the time, just a matter of lowering your head and charging in, instantly and at the unlikeliest spot.... there was unlimited trouble lying around to be picked up. He had a great way of picking it up, handing it to me so that he could observe perverse action in action, and disappearing." A while after that, the fat man offered him a post and additional training. Eventually Brock agreed. After three months of training, he is sent on his first job.

It was completely unnecessary, highly illegal and minutely recorded in words and pictures. And now, if he presses the button marked Brock, I will be instantly transported in a plain wrapper to Germany to be electrocuted, then brought back here to be hung. They will then ship me across the Channel to be decapitated, and afterwards I will probably spend the rest of my life in the black hole of Madrid.[21]

Now the fat man keeps Brock's gun (and passport) unless absolutely needed. "For my own good, he said."[22]

"You know I've used it only five times since I've had to follow your nose for you."
"If you can call it that," he said. "And you slaughtered seven people with those five shots, remember?"
"Eleven," I said.
"Do you want a chit?" he said.
"Stuff the chit," I said. "It's my own pistol."[23]

The principle of perverse action

As Brock readies himself for action against an unknown number of enemies who might be waiting in ambush for him in the second book, he reflects upon his penchant, up till now successful, for perverse action:

This is the principle I always follow when I cannot see the way ahead, for it involves no decisions. It is simply a matter of following the nose and so long as you do it quickly and the nose is not pointing where they are looking, it sometimes works, whoever they are.

If they are holding out their hands for bread, for instance, you ram a piece of cake down their throats. If they are expecting a kick in the teeth, you bury your fist in their belly. Whatever you do, you do it instantly, head down and without thinking, in the unlikeliest way at the unlikeliest place. It also works with girls sometimes.[24]

Popular culture

As might be expected for a successful advertising executive, Brock has a wide range of knowledge and appreciation of popular culture. He enjoys pub food and eulogizes, among others, the specialities at the Swiss Cottage, the Wellington in the Strand, the Windrush in Witney, and the Amberly Inn in Woodchester Priory. He alludes frequently to films and their stars: Humphrey Bogart, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald, Charlton Heston, James Cagney (at least twice); Richard Burton, Big John Wayne (at least twice—"Perhaps there's nobody left but Big John Wayne and me."[25]); John Carradine (at least twice, in conjunction with a pipe organ in the hallway of a Gothic mansion); the two stars of Shane, the classic Western film of 1953 ("for a happy minute or two, Provis and I got back to back and laid about us like Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.")[26]. As well as mentioning the American singer Nat King Cole and television personality Dick Van Dyke, he also brings in the science-fiction writers Ray Bradbury and Brian Aldiss. And in spite of his apparent Englishman's disdain for all things Welsh, encompassing its culture, history, people, and food, Brock does make favorable mention of the great Welsh rugby player Wilf Wooler twice, and even more often of the beautiful Welsh songstress Shirley Bassey. In the second book, in only the space of the few pages in which he has to deal with the one-legged giant, Satan Smith, he manages to invoke Victor Mature, King Arthur, Saint George, Robin Hood, Robert Browning, old Errol Flynn, young Doctor Kildare, Batman, Restif de la Breton, Mickey Spillain, Margaret Mead, and Little John, as diverse a list of names as has ever appeared in five pages of a popular thriller.[27] Later in the same book Marshall Dillon, Gilbert Harding, and Richard Dimbleby are all mentioned, along with Terrence Rattigan (with a sardonic reference to the so-called "Rattigan [real estate] Line" in Brighton), Alice Faye, Paul Robeson, and von Clausewitz,[28] as well as a facetious mention of Rudyard Kipling with a witty snatch of Kiplingesque verse: "Though we caned them and we raped them, by the living God we draped them. Which accounts for the rise of the Lancashire cotton industry."[29]

Novels in which Brock appears

References

  1. Although he is invariably referred to as the fat man, and is called He and Him by some of his underlings, in neither the British nor American editions is he ever capitalized as The Fat Man or the Fat Man.
  2. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, page 80
  3. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 123
  4. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968
  5. Ibid., pages 94-96
  6. Ibid., page 97
  7. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 11
  8. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, page 53
  9. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 51
  10. Ibid., page 51
  11. Ibid., page 51
  12. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, page 60
  13. First floor in Britain
  14. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, page 60
  15. Ibid., page 60. This is wrong, however; Holland Park is to the east of Addison Road
  16. In Britain, a kind of smoked ham
  17. Ibid., page 60
  18. The version made and sold in Canada; in the United States it was called the Bonneville
  19. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 14
  20. ibid., page 47
  21. Ibid., page 12
  22. Ibid., page 40
  23. Ibid., page 12
  24. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, pages 103
  25. It Won't Get You Anywhere, Corgi Books paperback edition, London, 1968, page 144
  26. Ibid., page 100
  27. I Was Following This Girl, Curtis Books paperback edition, New York, 1968, pages 94-98
  28. Ibid., pages 147, 155
  29. Ibid., page 126