Let Sleeping Girls Lie is the second book in the Charles Hood spy thriller series by James Mayo. Mayo is actually the pen name for Stephen Coulter, who allegedly (according to Donald McCormick in Who’s Who in Spy Fiction) provided much of the background information on the operation of French Casinos, which Ian Fleming used as a basis for Casino Royale.
Inspired by Fleming’s success, Coulter, writing as Mayo, would then start his own spy series, starting with Hammerhead (which was made into a film starring Vince Edwards as Hood), continuing with Let Sleeping Girls Lie, Sergeant Death, Shamelady and A Man Above Suspicion. He would also write books under his own name, like Embassy and An Account to Render.
However Let Sleeping Girls Lie is a very frustrating book. There are passages that are absolutely brilliant, including a battle on a road construction site with earth moving equipment, and a piece where Hood is staked out as food for a vulture that has been trained to attack and eat live prey (possibly mimicking how Sayyid Qutb was tortured in prison in the 1960’s as outlined in the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares). It’s spine tingling stuff. As a spy fan I couldn’t be happier, and at this point in the novel (about half way), I was thinking ‘was this one of the great unsung ’60s spy novels?’ The answer is no. The story ran out of puff there and then.
There is a plot thread, which is introduced at the start of the book, in the first chapter actually, about a unique disease known as ‘the laughing death’. The villain of the piece, named Zagora, uses ‘the laughing death’ to control legions of women who are drawn to him as a prophet. How Zagora uses this disease to control the women is never truly explained. As the story goes on, it is alluded to again and again, and Hood even postulates a theory about where it came from and how it spreads, but it is never really resolved. In fact at the end of the novel, the reader cannot even be sure that the heroine, Tiara Evenly, does not have ‘the laughing death’. It’s all very much up in the air.
And furthermore, Zagora is never brought to justice. In fact, he disappears from the story at the half way mark, with only his minions left to battle Hood. The promised confrontation between hero and villain never happens, and in its stead is a mad dash through a women’s beauty treatment salon. So instead of battling the Zagora, Hood draws back curtains on scantily clad or naked women covered in mud packs and beauty creams. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a cheap bit of titillation, but I also expected a final tussle and a neat resolution to the story. Instead I got the literary equivalent of a brief glimpse of nipple.
Another failing in the story is the travelogue aspect. Vivid, detailed description of a cities sights and sounds, in the right hands, is a fine thing. It immerses the reader in the story. The early description used by Mayo / Coulter in France is quite okay. The story moves fast, and the characters do not stay in one place for too long. But the last third of the story is set in Venice. And here the repetition of the descriptions start to wear very thin – endless canals and bridges and water taxis. By themselves, each description is well-written and evocative, but when they are stacked on top of each other, it slows the narrative down to a weak-kneed crawl. It only picks up again for the last ten pages for a spirited but (as I have already carped on about) unsatisfactory resolution.
The most disappointing thing about Let Sleeping Girls Lie is that it did start off so well. For it to crumble away to nothing seems like a wasted opportunity. There is no debate that Coulter/Mayo is a good writer. It’s there to be seen. I’d guess – and that’s all it is, as I have no information to base this on, other the the book itself – was rushed to be completed. The ending is truncated without resolution and the editing could have (and should have) been tighter. That reeks of a story rushed to meet a deadline to me. But forty-six years after the event, I’ll guess we’ll never know.
Ultimately this is a poor book in the series described as ‘the slickest of the SuperBonds’. I’d give this one a miss.