An agreeable way of learning history. A love story and thriller set in Paris during the May 1968 student riots which brought France to a standstill. Based on real events and with a surprise revelation. “Everyone,” so the conventional wisdom tells us, “has at least one book in them.” In not a few cases it’s hard not to regret that the work in question ever made its escape into public prints. This is sadly true of many novels produced by the elderly who become suddenly aware of a literary vocation. John Hefford’s writing is a heartening exception.
When I met him over lunch in Nice he filled me in on his background. “When I came to Nice a long while ago I ran a bookshop and wondered if I could write. Then for many years I was very busy in the property field. Actually I did a bit of rather tentative writing but didn’t take it very far. When my wife died I took up my pen again, I suppose as bereavement therapy. I then realised I could actually produce a good book.”
That first book – The Rebel Legionnaire (UK: Matador), reviewed in Reporter 114 – was a reworking of an earlier attempt at fiction, which this time turned out well. It’s got a strong autobiographical basis, relating the experiences of a young British surveyor who marries a French girl, moves to Paris and gets involved willy-nilly in the Algerian crisis. The book is not only highly readable but offers real insight into the events of that time.
In his new title The Spy She Loved, Hefford claims to have found evidence that East German secret services orchestrated the student riots all over Europe in 1967-68, but it also has some autobiographical reference, drawing on his first-hand experience of Paris at the time in which the story is set. Max Patterson – the hero of his earlier book – reappears but the plot’s central figure is Angie, daughter of his former boss, the American building tycoon Joe Bennett, a rich kid who became “an anarchist” at her convent school. She meets and falls for a handsome German at university in New York. What she doesn’t know, in fact, is that Karl Kruger is an agent of the Stasi, the East German secret service, sent to the West to stir up student violence. Karl fails in an attempt to enlist Angie’s help in a scheme to bring pressure on her father. This “failure” leads to his recall to Berlin but he’s then dispatched to Paris to provoke disorder among the city’s volatile students. There – Quelle chance! – he comes across Angie who’s arrived to begin a European year at the Sorbonne. The following pages are dramatic: Karl eventually murders Joe Bennett so that he will gain influence over his powerful foundation when Angie inherits. So do we end up thinking young Kruger is a very bad German indeed? Well, maybe, but there’s a twist at the end of the tale that makes a judgment rather more complicated.
Hefford’s strength is to know how to tell a good story that carries the reader along in a readable style, clear and uncluttered, that never gets in the way. The good news is that he’s now carrying his third literary offering – The Débâcle – set at the time of the drôle de guerre, the phoney war. Those who know his earlier books will look forward to it.