It Won't Get You Anywhere

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It Won't Get You Anywhere, published in 1966, is the first of three thrillers by the English novelist Desmond Skirrow about John Brock, an irreverent but very, very tough advertising executive who is also a sometime undercover agent. Published in England by The Bodley Head and in the United States by Lippincott, it is a little under 80,000 words in length and almost certainly the best of the Brock novels.[1] (Skirrow, about whom little is known, came relatively late to writing, published only five novels in a three-year span, and died in his early fifties.) Published in today's market, it might be classified as a techno thriller, as it does employ a few elements of that genre. More likely, however, it simply falls into the much broader category of spy thrillers that contain some elements of science fiction such as Moonraker and Thunderball, the near-contemporaneous but far more famous books by Ian Fleming, or others that go at least as far back among well-known writers as The Dark Frontier, Eric Ambler's 1936 novel in which an atomic bomb is involved, nine years before it became reality.

The New York Times appraisal

Martin Levin wrote in The Times of October 23, 1966 that:

I can remember when... the hallmark of British adventure fiction was elegant restraint. Ha! Tell that to John Brock, who punches and kicks his way through Desmond Skirrow's "It Won't Get You Anywhere". John, a freelance secret agent called upon for the really tough cases, is out of Dashiell Hammett by way of the comic books—and he is too busy walking his way into cul-de-sacs and kneeing his way out of them to do more than use the brute strength his author has given him.

Mr. Skirrow, who is a nimble and amusing writer, has a lot of fun with the incredible Brock and his stupendous adventures and so will the reader. But this would have been a better book had the author restrained his taste for Captain Marvel and kept matters within reach of a powerful but possible Sam Spadeish operator.[2]

As Levin suggests, much of the appeal of It Won't Get You Anywhere comes from the quirky and Chandleresque vigor of Skirrow's writing ("she dealt me into Schneider's presence like a hand of aces"), its fast-paced and inventive action, and the light-hearted, first-person narrative of its protagonist, Brock, and his many witty asides and observations. The plot itself, however, is extremely simple, with no sub-plots, complications, or side stories: a madman is about to take over the British Isles; it is Brock's job to thwart him.

Plot

Three agents who work for the fat man, the head of a secretive and deadly undercover agency whose headquarters are on the Addison Road in London just across from Holland Park, have been killed in automobile accidents in the last few months, in Italy, Germany, and London. After the third death, in London, of the agent who is shadowing a certain Lord Llewellyn as he dines in a Soho restaurant with his mistress, the fat man becomes concerned that his "lads" are dying in disproportionate numbers. On a hunch, Brock, a reluctant agent who only works for the fat man when he is compelled to, is coerced into coming to the Addison Road and is given a sketch of the situation.

"All right," I said, "I'll look into Llewellyn."
"That won't get you anywhere," he said.[3]

But it takes Brock only a few pages, a beating by black-uniformed Welshmen, a near-fatal attempt on his life by a Land Rover in Hyde Park, and several other people telling him that "it won't get [him] anywhere," to determine that the fat man's dead lads all had one thing in common at the moment of their deaths: they were, for nothing more than bureaucratic principles, keeping a vague eye on Lord Llewellyn, the most powerful industrialist in Britain.

Born Tudor Owen Glendower Llewellyn and the creator of Allied Electrical Industries, called Allelec, the "single most powerful force in Britain's industry," Lord Llewellyn is a fabulously rich, powerful Welsh industrialist and madman who believes himself to be the direct descendant of Henry VII and hence the legitimate ruler of Great Britain. He has, therefore, for two decades conceived and begun to carry out an elaborate scheme to destroy, in a single climactic moment, the entire national electrical grid of England, at which point, he and his minions, both Welsh and German, aided by science-fictional devices of his own manufacture, will take over the isles and he will install himself upon the throne. As well as being politically and financially powerful, Llewellyn is also an enormously charismatic, physically powerful man of middle age who is a compulsive womanizer, using and then discarding one beautiful woman after another.

As the book opens, Llewellyn is only days away from turning the British Isles dark and seizing absolute power. Brock, however, with a brief lyrical side trip though the Cotswolds, where he harbors his secret cottage, drives to Cardiff and soon begins to seriously interfere with Llewellyn's plans. First he penetrates Llwellyn's Gothic castle, killing an enormous guard dog on his way out, and eventually infiltrates the mysterious four-mile long factory in which Llewellyn is accumulating his forces for his take-over. Fights, beatings, and exotic threats accumulate along the way, along with problems caused by the local police. With the timely, and unexpected, help from two lovely women, Brock eventually manages save himself from death at the hands of science-fictional self-directed killing machines and thousands of black-uniformed German goons, as well as killing Llewellyn and blowing up his enormous plant in a vast explosion. In doing so, however, he has also inadvertently blown up power stations all over Britain, shutting down the National Grid, and causing a country-wide blackout. When he realizes this, he and his new girlfriend go into hiding at his cottage in the Cotswolds to escape the wrath of the fat man. But not before he has reflected with premature satisfaction that:

Since I had left Addison Road and snooped off down the A40, I had uncovered a plot to switch off England and give it back to the Taffies, I had fallen in love and consummated the union. I had copped twelve of the best,[4] I had been to a party and goosed a mad, electronic Alsatian. I had shot goons and been shot at at almost every step I took. I had saved my girl from a fate worse than death, I had watched Britain's premier tycoon fry himself, and I had minced up his chief boffin.
In fact, I thought, I had made the world safe for the fat man to drink his Calvados in and I was looking forward to telling him so.[5]

Provis

In Cardiff Brock joins forces with Provis (no first name), the fat man's "man in Cardiff", an enormous, and enormously strong, charismatic character whose cover is that of a ship's chandler on Bute Street and who, by the force of his personality, nearly takes over the rest of the book.

"In the light he was big, nearly the biggest man I had ever seen. He was a big dresser too, his double-breasted grey suit was so light it was almost white and his shirt had strawberry stripes... He had the face of a fat, inquiring chickenhawk... quite apart from sheer physical power, he radiated a massive uncomplicated confidence... I wondered why he was down here in Cardiff instead of up nearer the centre of things. Then the coffee came in a big enamel ship's pot and I knew what he liked about Cardiff. The girl who brought it was golden brown like Shirley Bassey[6] and at least as lovely."

Bigger, faster, and even tougher than Brock, the mild-manned Provis was brought up in Cardiff by a hopelessly romantic father who drove an amphibious boat around the local roads and filled his son's head with tales of faraway wonders and fantastic paradises.

"I took off when I was fifteen and went to India. It wasn't all just snakecharmers and bellydancers and yum-yum trees, like the old man said. It was all pox and no penicillin so I moved to Singapore. And by my seventeenth birthday I was eating special fried rice and sleeping between Japanese blankets... I was a big strong lad and I met a Eurasian fortune-teller in the Happy World. She was old enough to be my sister, but she was very pretty. It was the nearest thing I ever got to one of my father's stories.
...She took up with a Chinese and he put her on the game. I killed him. Then the Japs came and I took a couple of loads out of Singapore and up the coast...."[7]

Later, after a wild chase through the Welsh countryside with Brock at the controls of one of the electrical wonder-cars that Llewellyn has secretly built in his vast plant, Provis is captured and tortured for a full day by two of the tycoon's goons. Brock eventually rescues him, although Provis appears near death. But Brock pulls a button off Provis's coat and after swallowing it

It was like watching Jekyll and Hyde, for he seemed to be regenerating himself as I watched, out of the tortured, bloodied hulk that I had unstrapped only minutes before.

"Christ," I said, "I thought you were done for."

"It's the blockbuster," he said. "I'll be all right for just about an hour. Don't you carry one?"

"No," I said.

"The fat man always insisted in the old days," he said. "he must be getting soft." He put his legs on the floor and tested his strength. It was like magic.

"They're good pills," he said. "I fed one to a pony at St. Mellon's last year and won fifty quid. Knock you dead cold after an hour, though. And then you need a very quick quack or it's curtains."[8]

A tin ear

Even by the notably low British standards of realism in fictional rendering of dialog by American characters, Skirrow is exceptionally deficient, whether intentionally or not. "High," says Al Schneider, an advertising man who works for Allelec and "an eagle from the eyries of Madison Avenue, USA," to Brock upon their first meeting. "It's great, real great to meet you at last, John.... It would be great if we can work out some scheme to pipe you aboard." And later, after Brock has beaten up two of Lord Llewellyn's Welsh Allelec goons in the London office building where Schneider works,

"You're a big boy all right, Brock. What you say, let's file it behind a squeeze of the sauce bottle, eh, man?"
Perhaps he got more American after sunset.
"I'd like to," I said, "but I'm going home."
"Righty-right, fellow," he said. "You call the barn dance."[9]

And later, when Brock overhears a phone conversation between Schneider and Lord Llewellyn:

"High, sir," said Schneider. "Everything schmoolie here. I've fed them the marketing tranks and run through the deal distribution-wise."
"Are you drunk, Schneider?" said Llewellyn.
"No, sir," said Schneider.
"Then stop being American."[10]

Observations

Aside from Brock's sheer indestructibility, other improbabilities abound but are glossed over or ignored. How, for instance, have 5,000 German paramilitaries made their way into an industrial plant in the city of Cardiff without being noticed by either the local Welsh police or, more particularly, by Provis, the extremely capable local agent of the fat man's secret department? And how is it that no one really knows what is being manufactured within Allelec's plant in Cardiff, which is described as being an astounding "four miles" in length? Four miles long? A single building in Wales? And no one knows that it is housing a secret army of 5,000 Germans? And there are also, of course, the secretly designed and built products that are going to help Llewellyn's minions take over the British Isles, the electrically powered pistols that shot hundreds of needles capable of piecing steel, the high-speed, armor-plated electric cars that move "as dainty and obedient as a Lambretta",[11], and the half-dozen varieties of small turtle-shaped, autonomous killing machines designed by Llewellen's head scientist.

Although Brock himself, who is exuberantly and unmistakably heterosexual, is tolerant enough of gays, and is certainly no overt homophobe, either he or Skirrow, his creator, are perhaps typical of their era, the mid-1960s, and flippant, condescending mentions of gays abound throughout the book. Although this may seem extravagant by current standards, his references to "queens" and "faggots" are mostly used to refer to some of the mad scientists and murderous plotters that Lord Llewellyn has gathered around him, nearly all of whom have some sexual quirk or another, whether homosexual or heterosexual.

References

  1. It Won't Get You Anywhere, The Bodley Head, London, 1966; Lippincott, New York, 1966, ISBN 0552079111
  2. "Reader's Report", by Martin Levin, The New York Times, October 23, 1966, at [1]
  3. It Won't Get You Anywhere, The Bodley Head, London, 1966; Lippincott, New York, 1966, ISBN 0552079111
  4. British phrase for being caned a dozen stokes by a schoolmaster
  5. ibid., page 183
  6. Dame Shirley Bassey, a well-known, and beautiful, British songstress from Cardiff (born 1937)
  7. ibid., pages 93-94
  8. ibid., pages 168-169
  9. ibid., page 33
  10. ibid., page 59
  11. ibid., page 95