“The Labyrinth Makers” by Anthony Price (published by Penguin Books)

Buried treasure in the ground, in the back pages

This is the riddle that lies herein – what was it that was of such great interest for the Russians to seize in defeated Germany in 1945, was attractive enough for a private individual to steal it from them and fly it to Britain, then went missing but is still of interest to the Russians today, today being 1969, some quarter of a century after the end of World War Two?
30. June 2024 5:32

It is the central question posed in this, Anthony Price’s debut novel, first published in hardback in 1970 by Victor Gollanz in the UK and in 1971 by Doubleday in the US, reissued in different editions many times since, and now out again in a new paperback in the Crime & Espionage series by Penguin Random House. It is the first of Price’s total 19 spy novels, all centred on the unlikely figure of Dr. David Audley.

True, Audley works for the British Ministry of Defence in London but he is strictly a back-room fellow, doing painstaking research on his area of expertise, the Middle East. So why is the unassuming civil servant yanked – not exactly willingly – out of his comfort zone to lead an important investigation into this ageing mystery?

Before we get to that, “The Labyrinth Makers” won the UK Crime Writers’ Association’s Silver Dagger award in 1971, a feat for a first book. The winner of the Gold Dagger that year was “The Steam Pig” by James McClure, a British author and journalist who would become best known for his Kramer and Zondi mysteries set in South Africa. Are they still around?

The CWA was founded in 1953 by prolific author John Creasey. The Gold Dagger goes to their best crime novel of the year and the Silver Dagger to the runner-up. Price duly won a Gold Dagger in 1974 with “Other Paths to Glory”, and it was one of the first 20 Crime & Espionage titles revived by Penguin in 2023. Otherwise, in a world where the ever-increasing number of published authors cannot remain in print all the time, Price’s books may have to be found lurking in libraries and charity shops.

As we recounted when taking a look at “Other Paths to Glory”, Alan Anthony Price was born in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, England, on 16 August 1928, and it was as a junior reporter on the Oxford Times in the early 1950s that he was asked if he’d like to review a book for its sister paper, the Oxford Mail.

It was, he was told, “only a children’s book but it’s by a local author”. The local author was actually a Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who was the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford University, from 1945-1959, and the book was “The Fellowship of the Ring”, the first volume of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Price went for the opportunity and made an auspicious start to his career as a reviewer. He specialised in crime fiction and his efforts in the Oxford Mail earned him high regard as a judge of the genre, so much so that in 1968 the publisher Livia Gollancz asked him to consider writing a history of the crime novel.

He declined, feeling it would be too much work, but added he did have an idea of his own for a novel if Gollancz might be interested. They were, and when “The Labyrinth Makers” was published in 1970 it was to laudatory reviews and that Silver Dagger. It introduced Audley and Colonel Jack Butler, respectively an academic and a solid military man working for British counter-intelligence, who were to recur in Price’s 19 novels over the next 19 years.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, “The Labyrinth Makers” displays the hallmark of a debut novel, plunging straight into the mystery with no hanging about. The conundrum is the discovery of a Royal Air Force Dakota, a cargo plane presumed lost at sea during World War Two, now suddenly seen at the bottom of a drained lake more than 20 years later – mud- and weed-encrusted, and complete with the skeletal pilot and a strange cargo of Berlin rubble in seven rotting wooden boxes. To cover up for something else? Where is the real load?

Why are the Soviets so interested in it, even to the extent of attending the much-belated funeral of the pilot, Flight-Lieutenant John Steerforth? Equally perplexing in a different way, why has insular, aloof Middle East analyst Audley, usually toiling away behind the scenes, been drafted to the front lines by intelligence chief Sir Frederick Clinton?

Working alongside Audley are fellow intelligence operatives Colonel Butler and Squadron Leader Hugh Roskill, and they are charged with investigating the puzzle of why Steerforth told the crew to bale out then seemingly purposely crashed the Dakota, killing himself in the bargain. Before long we are tangled in a tale of subterfuge and misinformation.

Complicating matters is the involvement of secretive Nikolai Andrievich Panin, an important figure in Cold War Russia. Nobody knows who pulls his strings but he is a fixer, a smoother-over. The mysterious Panin has to be the key to Steerforth and it has been Panin’s involvement alone that kept the dead pilot alive in the files over the passing years. And now, withe discovery of the Dakota, Panin is coming to England, raising more suspicions.

Audley chips away at the question of what Steerforth was carrying that some people will kill for. He finds himself wondering if he has possibly been given the assignment in order to fail, to preserve the decades-old secrets at the bottom of the lake that his superiors would rather keep submerged? If so, someone’s made a bit of a bloomer, because the scholastic Audley is not a man to leave loose ends dangling.

What is the creative instinct that drives someone like Anthony Price to “have an idea of his own for a novel” then spend months getting it out of his brain and onto paper? Where does all that background knowledge come from, of political plotting (the “labyrinth of the title), the byzantine rivalries that exist within the intelligence community, the Stalinist and Cold War machinations, military matters, archaeology, and, central to the plot, the hunt for the lost Schliemann Collection.

This consisted of priceless gold jewellery, vessels, anthropomorphic figures, weapons, shields and other artefacts discovered by Heinrich Schliemann during his excavations in Hisarlik/Troy in 1872-1890. Was this Steerforth’s stolen cargo?

Untangle the plot, spot the references in the novel. John Steerforth, the dead pilot, may have something in common with the duplicitous James Steerforth in Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel “David Copperfield”. And when Audley’s contact in West Germany, Theodore Freisler, gives Audley a gift it is the three volumes of “The Lord of the Rings”, a nod to that first volume of which Audley had reviewed for the Oxford Mail back in the early 1950s.

And here is a little comment on the British environment, even in distant 1970 – “He prattled on gaily as they shuddered down a rutted track through a belt of young trees. The hedges on either side were thick and overgrown, brushing against the side of the vehicle. “I ought to cut ’em back,” shouted Warren. “Pull ’em out. That’s the way with hedges now. But where’d the birds and such like go?”

“The Labyrinth Makers” is a book of its time, keeping readers guessing, perhaps too much so. The storyline twists and turns, getting more and more labyrinthine and finally making some sense of the title. The past continues to haunt the present.

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