Next year Bloomsbury Reader is to re-release one of Gavin Lyall’s titles from the sixties – The Most Dangerous Game. That’s good news, he deserves to be re-discovered. It’s just that it is the wrong book. It’s not that TMDG is a bad thriller. It has most of the tropes familiar from early Lyall: the ex-RAF pilot slowly going to seed until something re-kindles his spirit and his sense of self-worth, great flying sequences and an interesting setting – the Russo-Finnish border. But for me, Lyall’s best book will always be Midnight Plus One. This was his third novel and for once didn’t feature a pilot. Instead, the man going to seed etc is Lewis Cane, an ex-SOE agent who once worked with the French Resistance, now almost making a living as a freelance bodyguard in Paris. He is teamed with an American gunman, Harvey Lovell, to escort a businessman who has been framed on a rape charge to a meeting in Liechtenstein. Unknown assailants want to stop them.
It is really a kind of road movie book, describing a drive across France, mostly in a Citroen DS (which expires in one of the book’s most memorable scene – who knew a car could bleed to death?). Katherine Whitehorn, Lyall’s wife, once revealed that he drove every inch of the route. His research would shame us all: “He spent many nights in the kitchen at Primrose Hill, north London, experimenting to see if one could, in fact, cast bullets from lead melted in a saucepan, or whether the muzzle flash of a revolver fired across a saucer of petrol really would ignite a fire”. No, apparently. Probably just as well for Primrose Hill.
There were and still are rumours that Steve McQueen had optioned the book, intending to play the alcoholic Harvey, but died before it could go any further. I once asked Alan Trustman who wrote Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair for McQueen about this. He said he hadn’t heard any talk of a screenplay, but it would have been a fitting end to a career – the man who rode shotgun for Yul Brynner doing the same for an ex-British spy (Michael Caine?), both more cynical and careworn than they’d care to admit. The sexual politics in the book might have dated, but Midnight Plus One holds up remarkably well as a thriller. It would still make a great, tight movie. Sadly, though, they don’t make Steve McQueens any more.
* The Most Dangerous Game is due in March 2013.