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by Bamber Gascoigne

Gavin Lyall (1932-2003)


British thriller writer and journalist, a former RAF pilot, who often took as his theme the world of flying. In the 1980s, Gavin Lyall wrote a series of spy thrillers, whose main character was Major Harry Maxim, Special Services, assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office. Now mostly forgotten, Lyall was among the top British thriller writers in the 1960s.

"Old pilots, ones who first trained on slow propeller-engined aircraft, cannot watch the countryside flowing past a train or car window without subconsciously evaluating fields for an emergency landing: length, slope, obstructions on approach, surface . . ." (from The Crocus List, 1985)

Gavin Tudor Lyall was born in Birmingham, Warwickshire, the son of Joseph Tudor Lyall, an accountant, and  Agnes Anne Hodgkiss, a complete Quaker. The family had a small house in Bournville, near Birmingham, where Lyall grew up. Because his family were pacifist Quakers, Lyall wasn't allowed a toy gun until his parents realized that it was "just making other's boys guns glamorous. If I went in for self-analysis I could probably make something out of that." ('Lyall, Gavin (Tudor),' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991, p. 556) Lyall was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he edited Varsity, the university newspaper. Under the name Red Lyall he formed with his friend Martin Davison a jazz band, initially called The Canal Street Four after King Oliver's 'Canal Street Blues'. Lyall played drums, but he later claimed he had a tin ear.

From 1951 to 1953 Lyall served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, a very important time in his life. In 1956, Lyall earned his B.A. with honors in English. After graduating Lyall briefly worked as a reporter for Picture Post and the Sunday Globe, and then as a producer on the Tonight programme for the BBC Television. Between 1959 and 1962 he was a reporter and aviation correspondent at the Sunday Times, London. While at Picture Post, Lyall met he writer and journalist Katharine Whitehorn. They were married  for forty-five years and had two sons. Whitehorn became the star columist on The Observer. She worked there almost 40 years. 

In the early days of his marriage, being recognized was crucial for Lyall, who once said: "One day they're going to say: 'That's Gavin Lyall's wife over there.'" Lyall's first thriller, The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), was drawn from his experiences in the Greek islands and the Libyan desert. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, it gained an immediate success and in 1963 Lyall gave up his day job to become a full-time writer.

Like in the work of Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean, Lyall's thrillers reflect his love of outdoor life and traveling. The Most Dangerous Game (1963), set in the Finnish Lappland, where Lyall had spent some time with his wife, featured a cast of tourists and agents and offered meticulously researched details and tidbits of local color and character. The story was narrated in the first person with dry Chandleresque humour. 

The rights of Midnight Plus One (1965) were purchased by the American actor Steve McQueen, known for his fascination with sports cars. Set in post-World War II, it told of a pilot named Lewis Cane who drives a crooked millionaire to Liechtenstein. Cane is a former gunrunner for the French Resistance in World War II, he is tough but at the same time he questions the morality of his actions. Orson Welles was hired by BBS to adapt the novel; he considered Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, and Jack Nicholson for the leading roles. Welles never finished the script, and due to McQueen's sudden death, the film was never made.

Shooting Script (1966), about a former RAF pilot who flies a camera plain for a film company, took place in the Caribbean. "Gavin Lyall is a master of his craft," said Hester Mageik in the Spectator, "which is the expert setting of an adventure rathet than a crime story. He has the gift of creating reader-involvement in the vivid events he portrays." Moon Zero Two (1969), a Hammer/Warner Bros. film, for which Lyall prepared the story outline with Frank Hardman and Martin Davison, was produced at the same time as the Apollo Moon landing. In the story the Moon was portrayed as a Western frontier; there is even a bar-fight in zero gravity. Though the budget was relatively small, the producers wanted the film to be as polished as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had premiered a year earlier. Roy Ward Baker, who directed the film, complained that "so much time was spent on solving the production problems that not enough attention was paid to the characters or the story." (Roy Ward Baker by Geoff Mayer, 2004, p. 44) The novelization was written by John Burke. 

Lyall tolerated alcohol well and he smoked too. Noteworthy, also the author's heroes took a lot of Scotch-and-soda during the course of the story. Following pain in his leg, Lyall was told to stop drinking and smoking by a neurologist. Lyall's son Bernard, in his speech at the memorial service of his father in 2003, said that "It was no secret that Gavin liked a drink, and the one after that." (see 'Drink,' in Selective Memory: An Autobiography by Katharine Whitehorn, 2007) Drinking didn't matter in the 1960s, when Lyall  was among the top British writers and was able meet the deadlines of his publishers Kingsley Amis, famously heavy drinker, had a certain Father Lyall killed in The Alteration (1976), an alternate history novel, in retaliation for some jokey insult of Lyall's. After publishing Judas Country (1975), an aviation thriller set in the Middle East, Lyall suffered writer's block for five years.

"I lay and brooded about it until it was dark outside, then did the thing you usually do when you're worried about money: went out to a really expensive bar for a really stiff drink." (Venus with Pistol, 1969)

Abandoning his outsider heroes, Lyall started his Maxim novels with The Secret Servant (1980), originally developed for a BBC television series. Used to always write in the first-person – an essential feature of a Gavin Lyall book – Lyall found it difficult to change to third person narrative, and it took him six months before he had developed an authorial voice of his own. ('Lyall, Gavin (Tudor),' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991, p. 557) Major Harry Maxim, a former SAS officer hired as a Whitehall troubleshooter, was also the protagonist in The Conduct of Major Maxim (1982), The Crocus List (1985), and Uncle Target (1988). In spite of the quiet and solemn surroundings, Maxim  never turns into a mild-mannered Smiley, but aggressively tracks down defectors, spies, and moles. Maxim's office is frequently visited by PM's cat; Lyall loved cats and owned several throughout her life. In addition, he created a column called 'Dear Auntie Mog', to which cats were supposed to bring their problems.

As a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spy fiction was left adrift. In the changed political situation, after publishing Uncle Target, Lyall produced a new series, starting with Spy's Honour (1993), which took the reader into the early years of the British Secret Service before World War I. Unfortunately, there was no wide advertising of Lyall's books and they never gained the popularity of the Maxim novels. His TV script based on the "Honour Quartet" was not produced.

Lyall was a member of the Air Transport Users' Committee of the Civil Aviation Authority. For The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One he received the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger Award. In 1967-68 he served as chairman of the British Crime Writers Association. Lyall's works of non-fiction include The War in the Air 1939-1945 (1968) and Operation Warboard (1972). His articles were published in such magazines as the Spectator, Lilliput, and Everybody's. Gavin Lyall died from cancer on January 18, 2003.

Four of Lyall's novels have been translated into Finnish: The Wrong Side of the Sky (Taivaan nurja puoli, 1962), The Most Dangerous Game (Lento tuntemattomaan, 1964), Midnight Plus One (Minuutti yli puolenyön, 1966), Shooting Script (Lentävät palkkasoturit, 1967) – the last two appeared in Otava's Crime Club paperback series, which featured writers such as James M. Cain, José Giovanni, Arthur Upfield, and Peter O'Donnell.  

For further reading: 'Lyall, Gavin (Tudor)' by J. Randolph Cox, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Lyall, Gavin (Tudor),' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby (1991); 'Lyall, Gavin (Tudor),' in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1997); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); 'Lyall, Gavin (1932-),' in The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy (1999); Selective Memory: An Autobiography by Katharine Whitehorn (2007); 'Forgotten authors No. 25: Gavin Lyall' by Christopher Fowler, 2009, Independent, 01 March 2009; The Essential Writer's Guide: Spotlight on Gavin Lyall, ed. by Gaby Alez (2012); 'Lyall, Gavin (1932-2003),' in Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction by Alan Burton (2016)   

Selected works:

  • The Pictorial Story of the Royal Tour of India and Pakistan: And the State Visits to Nepal and Iran, 1961 
  • The Wrong Side of the Sky, 1961
    - Taivaan nurja puoli: seikkailuromaani (suom. Pentti Järvinen, 1962)
  • The Most Dangerous Game, 1963
    - Lento tuntemattomaan: seikkailuromaani (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1964)
  • Midnight Plus One, 1965
    - Minuutti yli puolenyön (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1966)
  • Shooting Script, 1966
    - Lentävät palkkasoturit (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1967)
  • The War in the Air 1939-1945: An Anthology of Personal Experiences, 1968 (selected and edited by Gavin Lyall) [with plates]
  • Venus with Pistol, 1969
  • Moon Zero Two, 1969 (from the story for the film, with Frank Hardman and Martin Davison; adapted by John Burke)
    - film 1969, prod. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, Hammer Film Productions, dir. by Roy Ward Baker, screenplay by Michael Carreras, starring James Olson, Catherina von Schell, Warren Mitchell, Adrienne Corri
  • The War in the Air, 1939-1945: An Anthology of Personal Experience, 1971 (selected and edited by Gavin Lyall)
  • Operation Warboard: Wargaming World War II Battles in 20-25mm Scale, 1972 (with Bernard Lyall)
  • Blame the Dead, 1973
  • Judas Country, 1975
  • Operation Warboard: Wargaming World War II Battles in 20-25mm Scale, 1978 (Gavin and Bernard Lyall)
  • The Secret Servant, 1980
    - TV series 1984, prod. BBC, dir. by Alastair Reid, starring Charles Dance, Harvey Ashby, Constantine Gregory, George Howell, Harry Jones, Jill Meager, Dan O'Herlihy
  • The Conduct of Major Maxim, 1982
  • The Crocus List, 1985
  • Uncle Target: A Harry Maxim Novel, 1988
  • Spy's Honour, 1993
  • Freedom's Battle. Volume 2, The War in the Air 1939-1945: An Anthology of Personal Experience, 2004 (selected and edited by Gavin Lyall)
  • Flight from Honour, 1996
  • All Honourable Men, 1997
  • Honourable Intentions, 1999
  • The War in the Air, 1939-1945: An Anthology of Personal Experience, 2007 (selected and edited by Gavin Lyall; with an introduction by Max Arthur)

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