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Mystery Monday – Slow Burner

Slow Burner by William Haggard

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

From the 1960s to the 1980s, William Haggard was an English writer of what he himself described as “suspense stories with a political background.”  Critics regarded him as one of the best writers in the genre of espionage novels, with the Sunday Express calling him “the adults’ Ian Fleming.”

A novel Haggard wrote in 1958 was Slow Burner, about the leakage of nuclear secrets. It introduced his series hero , Colonel Charles Russell of the fictional Security Executive, a shadowy unit connected to Military Intelligence. Russell ‘s Paul Drake is the highly skilled investigator Major Mortimer. Their conversations about cases rely on logical deduction and they toss around adverbs like “ex hypothesi.”  Like a don, but shrewd, Russell asks searching questions and Mortimer slices away with Occam’s Razor. So, it’s rather talky. “His plots were first-rate, his world-weary characters were slyly intelligent and manipulative, says thriller writer Christopher Fowler, “but a great many scenes ultimately consisted of men arguing in offices.”

But what conversations! His dramatic plots are played out by powerful figures in the public and private sectors. Haggard’s experience living and working overseas and in government gives his stories a genuine atmosphere. His executives, scientists, ministers, bureaucrats, and operatives of various stripes maneuver according to their own self-interested motives and schemes. The constant buzz of “What’s in it for me” lends authenticity.  Very much the old-style conservative like John Buchan, Haggard values objective acumen, discretion, and intelligent realism. Haggard’s protagonists  respect competence even in adversaries and detest crass behavior.

Mystery critic Robin Winks, in Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (1988), notes: “What has given Haggard his readership is his unwillingness to shed blood unnecessarily, his sympathy and insight into all of his figures, who are seen less in the traditional roles of villain and hero than as actors in a stylish drama in which all are motivated by a reasonable self-interest, and his subtle, ironic, detached voice. His books are not for the impatient.”

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