It’s not easy keeping up with Max Allan Collins’ literary production.
Over the last nine months alone, that Iowa-based author has come out with Skim Deep, his ninth novel starring a professional thief known only as Nolan; what I believe is the 15th “Trash ’n’ Treasures mystery,” Antiques Carry On, penned by Collins and his wife under the joint pseudonym Barbara Allan; his sixth Caleb York western adventure, Shoot-Out at Sugar Creek (on which the now very late Mickey Spillane shares the byline); a collection of short stories titled Reincarnal and Other Dark Tales; a couple of paired-book reprints of early Nolan yarns, Two for the Money and Double Down; and a trio of paperback originals from Wolfpack Publishing—Come Spy With Me, Live Fast, Die Hard, and (released just last week) To Live and Spy in Berlin—all co-authored with Matthew V. Clemens, and all starring a not-quite-retired British secret agent named John Sand. Or as he introduces himself, “Sand. John Sand,” reminding readers of Collins and Clemens’ conceit that he was the “real-life” model for Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Collins explained in a blog post that the roots of their Sand series date back some two decades:
Matt and I had been writing short stories together for a while, but had not yet embarked on the series of TV tie-ins (CSI, Dark Angel, Criminal Minds, Bones) that we’d be doing for something like fifteen years. We were, in fact, discussing doing some kind of novel series together.
And along came a strange opportunity. A new publisher was going to bring out (wait for it) erotic novels in which all of the sex was between married people. Married to each other. At the time, I pointed out to them that few married people, particularly if they’d been married a while, did their fantasizing about their mates. But this, the publisher insisted, was a time that had come.
Matt and I kicked around the notion of, “What if at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond’s new wife (SPOILER ALERT) was not killed by his arch-nemesis, Blofeld? What if Bond got married and quit the spy game, and then got pulled back in? Adding to this was the concept that Ian Fleming had been a colleague of our “John Sand” and had based James Bond on him. We both loved that idea.
We were signed to do the novel, and got to work … but the married-people-having-sex concept turned out not to appeal (imagine that) and the publishing idea went belly up. Well, it was soft-core porn, so let’s call it “tits up.”
Matt and I were frustrated, because we really liked what we’d written. But we shelved it, as the tie-in market summoned us and, well, no project lives forever.
Or does it?
After Collins and Clemens got into discussions more recently with Wolfpack, which was prospecting for original works the duo might contribute to its publishing calendar, that incomplete espionage novel was unearthed and its story’s concept modified slightly. Says Collins: “We removed the soft-core porn aspect—although there are erotic moments between man and wife—and (at the suggestion of [one-time Bond novelist] Raymond Benson) were more coy about the Sand/Bond connection, although it’s certainly implied. But neither Fleming nor Bond are mentioned by name in the novel.”
Come Spy with Me takes place during the diapered days of the 1960s. John Sand is a tall, dark-haired, athletically constructed, and “cruelly handsome” ex-employee of MI6, the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service. For many years he’d been one of its top operatives, but when “a longtime friend and former colleague” (the unnamed Fleming, of course) began using him as the model for his fictional super-spy in a series of popular thrillers, and the press sought him out for profiling, Sand’s effectiveness as an undercover agent was shredded. He married Stacey Boldt, the stunning, auburn-tressed daughter of a Texas oil tycoon—28 years old to his 36—and retired from the cloak-and-dagger business. At least for the most part.
The violent demise of her father, Noah “Dutch” Boldt, has put Stacey in capable, confident charge of his oil empire, and she’s promoted her new hubby into an executive suite. Sand seems to be sincere in his wish to leave his old and dangerous occupations behind. But events conspire against him. While on their honeymoon trip to Jamaica, Stacey thinks she spots one of the men responsible for Dutch Boldt’s abrupt end—someone who’s supposed to be dead, too.
Now leap ahead a year, to May 1961. As executive vice president of Boldt Oil, Sand is in the Dominican Republic to close a deal with dictator Rafael Trujillo for test-drilling rights on land outside of that nation’s capital. Trujillo seems agreeable, but balks at the price Sand is offering, so their negotiations stall. Then, not long afterward, Sand catches sight of a “cadaverous” freelance assassin—George Glace, often employed by the CIA—and follows him and his cohorts, knowing that trouble is in the offing. Unfortunately, Sand’s heroics cannot stop Trujillo from being ambushed and killed in his own car.
This being a novel by Collins (who’s become famous for incorporating real-life characters into his historical yarns), you can almost guess what happens next. We find Peter Lawford—the actor brother-in-law of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, as well as an old friend of Sand—dropping by the ex-spy’s Houston manse with the request that he and Stacey travel to a movie set in southern Utah (the comedy-western Sergeants 3 is in production there). When they arrive, of course, the 35th president himself—along with Rat Pack icons Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop—is there to greet Sand … and recruit him into an assignment drawing on his intelligence experience. Kennedy worries the CIA might have killed Trujillo behind his back, perhaps as a test run to take out Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro, and he wants Sand to get to the bottom of it all.
In the aftermath of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the last thing the president wants is more negative press for his young administration or for the United States, in general. But as it turns out, the circumstances in which Stacey and the spy who loves her soon find themselves are considerably more dire than anything Kennedy feared.
Collins and Clemens aren’t trying to imitate Fleming. Obvious fans of the espionage-fiction genre, they are seeking to add their own idiosyncratic twists to it. By the nature of the story being told, Sand must be brutal with the bad guys, but his relationship with Stacey is romantic, sexy, and quite modern, in that he appreciates her brains as well as her body. And the quondam Ms. Boldt proves altogether capable when Sand needs her aid in a pinch; it’s clear she’s going to be part of any double life he returns to in the future, like it or not. The couple share plenty of ribald innuendos, and the book is filled with humor and some clever jokes at James Bond’s expense. Early on, for instance, Peter Lawford asks whether Sand would like his martini “shaken not strirred.” To which Sand snaps, “Do I care?”
Book 2—Live Fast, Spy Hard—once more plays delightfully with comparisons between Sand and Bond; Ian Fleming even makes an appearance in these pages, though without being identified by name. The text relates some of Sand’s MI6 history, including the fact that his superior there was Lord Malcolm Marbury, known in-house as Double M; Marbury’s “severe” secretary was Mrs. Cash (not Miss Moneypenny); and Sand’s MI6 designation was Agent 777.
As far as the larger tale goes, it fills in the background of how Sand met his ever-lovin’-to-be, while engaged in an undercover assignment in Texas in 1959. He was sent there to determine whether Dutch Boldt and his business partner, Jake Lonestarr, were trying to corner the world’s oil market—“and employing strongarm techniques, even terrorist techniques, to do so.” Without giving too much away, let me note that the mission culminated in Boldt’s murder as well as Lonestarr’s apparent death.
Note that word “apparent.” Because Sand begins to suspect in this book that Lonestarr may have survived the agent shooting him off the deck of a yacht in the Gulf of Mexico. If true, then Lonestarr represents an extreme and imminent danger to both the erstwhile Agent 777 and his spouse. Sand looks into the matter, but information sources available to a private citizen are less comprehensive and far-reaching that those on which a government operative might rely. And he still isn’t sure yet of Lonestarr’s breathing status when Stacey suddenly vanishes while on a potentially lucrative business excursion to the southern Texas border town of Brownsville.
Sand’s subsequent struggle to find his bride leads him into a bloody confrontation with a contingent of minor organized-crime figures in Brownsville. Which, in turn, brings him an unexpected visit from Jack Kennedy. The president hopes to recruit our hero into a new international intelligence-gathering agency called GUILE (sounds like something Fleming might have made up, doesn’t it), to be lead by none other than Sand’s old boss, Double M. If Sand will at least meet with Lord Marbury to talk about GUILE’s work, Kennedy promises, he will make GUILE’s assets available to Sand in rescuing Stacey.
There’s no shortage of action or intrigue as Sand, in his search, follows clues from Las Vegas to Acapulco to the Caribbean. Gunplay, betrayal, hired assassins, a certain real-life, tequila-drinking movie cowboy (think Stagecoach or True Grit), plus further kidnapping and the truly unconventional plot twist of an earthquake, are all mixed into Live Fast’s storyline. So is Sand’s amorous reintroduction to a young French espionage agent (naughty naughty, Triple Seven!). And there’s a fine reveal at the end that will cause you to flip back through the pages, looking for the point where it became inevitable.
This is one Sand man who won’t put you to sleep!
As much hard-boiled fun as these first two John Sand novels are, Collins says he and Clemens consider the brand-new To Live and Spy in Berlin—which apparently involves pilfered uranium and deranged Nazis in South America—to be “the best of the bunch.” I haven’t yet gotten around to reading that one, but I’m sure I shall. The big question then, Collins asks in a recent blog post, is “Will there be more John Sand books? That’s up to you. We have left something of an incredible effing cliffhanger [in Book 3] that needs resolving, so it’s on your conscience not ours if sales don’t justify that resolution.” ◊