Let Sleeping Girls Lie

Author: James Mayo
Publisher: Heinmann
Published: 1965

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.

Let Sleeping Girls Lie

Hammerhead (1968)

Directed by David Miller
Vince Edwards, Judy Geeson, Peter Vaughan, Diana Dors, Michael Bates, Beverley Adams, Patrick Cargill, Douglas Wilmer
Music by David Whitaker
Based on the novel by James Mayo

’There’s something intrinsically honest about pornography. The more perverse, the more honest it is!’

I’ve tried very hard to like Hammerhead but it has this undercurrent of sleaze about it that I just can’t quite get past. You’ve probably got a friend who can say the most outrageous and blatantly sexual innuendo and get away with it because they display a certain amount of style and have that rare twinkle in their eye. Equally, you probably have another friend who says the same kind of things, but because of their personality and delivery it comes off as sleazy. Well Hammerhead has the latter personality.

The film opens at an art ‘happening’, sort of how I picture attending a Theatre Of The Absurd performance. In the show manikins are being shot and dismembered, while a food fight happens around them. One girl gets covered in tomato sauce and placed inside a giant bread roll, while nude violinists and accordion players serenade her out of key. It is truly weird. Loitering at the back is Charles Hood (Vince Edwards). Hood is an American secret agent, who appears to be on loan to the British. At the ‘happening’, Hood is meeting an ageing hippy who is an informant. Hood receives the information he requires just before the police arrive to shut down the obscene theatrical production. The crowd flee as the police cordon off the area. One of the performers, Sue Trenton (Judy Geeson) escapes by hiding in the back seat of Hood’s car. He take’s her back to his apartment. Now we all know what Mr. Bond would have done in this situation, but not Hood. Apparently we doesn’t mess around when he’s on assignment – but I’ll talk more about that later.

Hood’s enquiries see him board a train for Lisbon. On board he meets his controller, Condor (Patrick Cargill). Condor outlines Hood’s mission. Hood is to attempt to sell two boxes of extremely rare and valuable pornography to Mr. Hammerhead (Peter Vaughan). Hammerhead is not only an avid pornography collector, but is described as being: ‘a completely evil man. He deals in human depravity – international narcotics – gambling syndicates – and a string of brothels throughout the Far-East.’

Despite his nefarious business activities, the intelligence community want Hammerhead watched and investigated for another reason. In a few days, the top men from the NATO nations will be meeting to hear a top secret report on a project called ‘watchdog’. It is suspected that Hammerhead will somehow find a way to steal and sell these secrets.

Hood finally catches up with Hammerhead on his private yacht and attempts to sell his porn. But Hammerhead will not be rushed into buying. He takes his time. This results in Hood being virtually a prisoner on the yacht. At first this doesn’t seem so bad, as we are treated to a wild go-go dance by Hammerhead’s mistress, Ivory (Beverley Adams). Of course spy fans recognise Adams as Lovey Cravzit from the Dean Martin Matt Helm films.

Another twist in the story occurs when Sue Trenton turns up as a guest on Hammerhead’s yacht. At this point in the story we don’t know if Trenton is just a silly blonde infatuated with Hood, or if turning up again is not a coincidence.

Earlier I said I’d talk about Hood’s sexual abstinence. It seems very strange to have an action spy hero, who, during the mission is chaste. Especially when the film is filled with such blatant sexuality – everything from the nude performance artists, to rooms covered in nude artwork by the great masters (okay that’s classy), and finally Mr. Hammerhead’s obsession with pornography. It’s weird to have all this titillation served up, but not allowing the main character to indulge.

Reading all this back, it sounds a bit negative, but Hammerhead does have it’s good moments and is one of the more professional mounted sixties spy film productions. Many people will fins a lot to enjoy in this film. Indeed, Matt Blake’s review in the indispensable Eurospy Guide is quite favourable. But as I mentioned at the outset, for me there is an unsettling undercurrent that stops me from enjoying this movie as much as I should.

Hammerhead (1968)