“Adam Diment is 23. His hero, Philip McAlpine, is based on himself. That is to say he’s tall, good-looking, with a taste for fast cars, planes, girls and pot.”
So wrote the London Sunday Times in 1967, upon the release of Adam Diment’s first novel, The Dolly Dolly Spy. It’s a brisk spy thriller that taps into the swinging London era, full of Carnaby Street fashion, Soho cool, and wild slang. But it turns out that the London Sunday Times had it backward; it was Adam Diment, the author, who was based upon Philip McAlpine, the character. Or somewhere in between. Adam Diment was, when the book came out, a shaggy-haired, dope-smoking, free-love cat who wrote the counterculture equivalent of James Bond. Philip McAlpine, the hero of The Dolly Dolly Spy, did indeed bear a striking resemblance to Diment, both physically and philosophically. But how much of Diment was the real deal, and how much had been carefully crafted behind the scenes, molding a bland but willing Frederick Adam Diment into Adam Diment, swinging thriller writer and man of mystery—exactly what was needed to market the book and its equally popular sequels?
And then, after becoming the toast of swinging London, Adam Diment vanished.
It was such an abrupt and, at least to those who did not know Diment, unexpected departure from the public eye that some assumed he’d been murdered, or committed suicide, or perhaps been spirited away in the night to a seaside village full of quirky people who knew too much and needed to spend time wearing cardigan sweaters and running down the beach away from giant balloons. Some reported he was a casualty of drugs, or that he attained enlightenment. He was spotted on the beach in Ibiza and living with a mysterious Cuban-English model at a remote Italian villa. Backpackers caught sight of him in Cambodia and India. Was he living in Zurich, reeling from some shady financial fraud? Was he a student at UCLA? Was he a farmer in Kent? How had a young man who, before his 25th birthday, had written such popular books, who had more book deals and writing deals and movie deals in the works—how had such a young man so totally vanished?
Had Diment not written espionage novels, his disappearance probably wouldn’t have attracted as much attention. Literature is full of authors, even popular authors, who come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be heard from again, without generating so many theories as to their fate as have arisen about Adam Diment. That he was young, with moddish good looks and impeccable style, and was making the scene with a parade of beautiful young women and hip celebrities made his disappearance all the more puzzling. Who would walk away from that life? Surely there must be more to the story. Something incredible. Maybe even something sinister.
Or maybe there’s not.
“This espionage racket is spreading like mould, I thought. Soon I won’t have a friend left who’s not in the racket.”—Adam Diment, The Great Spy Race
I don’t remember how Adam Diment first came to my attention. Born in the 1970s as I was, I was not on the Adam Diment bandwagon in the 1960s, though that bandwagon was huge. The Dolly Dolly Spy sold over a million copies in its first year, was translated into seventeen languages, and netted Diment the single biggest advance ever given to an unpublished author. He toured the US and UK and was fêted at every stop, except for the ones where squares showed up to heckle his flamboyant attire and long hair. But even those encounters only fueled the fire of his popularity.
Back when I first heard about Diment, sometime around 2014, the path to learning more about him was straight and narrow. one did an internet search and ended up at Rob Baker’s website, Another Nickel in the Machine. His 2009 post, “The Disappearance of the Author Adam Diment,” was, at the time, the most complete account of the strange legacy of Adam. Baker’s own research and the many comments left by former friends and business acquaintances of Adam Diment still serve, to this day, as the ideal starting point for anyone interested in Diment’s story. Between 2009 and 2015, most articles about Diment paraphrased Baker’s. In 2015, John Michael O’Sullivan, writing for Esquire UK, took the next step. He pored over the comments on Baker’s article and tracked down everyone he could find who might provide insight, confirm or disprove rumors, and hopefully lead him to the elusive Adam Diment.
On his surreal odyssey, O’Sullivan spoke to former friends, colleagues, and girlfriends of Adam Diment, including Suzie Mandrake, one of Diment’s frequent partners in crime and a remarkable story in her own right. O’Sullivan spoke to publishers, publishers’ assistants, and Diment’s old roommate, Sir Timothy Miles Bindon Rice, who went on to write lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Evita. He talked to backpackers, hotel clerks, and others whose ship passed in the night with Adam Diment. He spoke to relatives. He got close to what was most likely Adam Diment’s home, only to find an open front door and an empty house. He tracked Diment to a hotel in Cambodia, only to have the conversation with the front desk go from,”Yes he’s here,” to” Sorry, he just left,” in the blink of an eye.
O’Sullivan’s article was posted to the Esquire UK website in November and appeared in the December 2015 print issue. Between Baker and O’Sullivan, they represent the first and last word on the strange saga of Adam Diment. While I will recount pieces of it, I suggest that you go to those two sources. They’re the ones who did the leg work and deserve the accolades.
What has often been mentioned only in passing are the Philip McAlpine books themselves. Much that is written about them is, in my opinion, a bit off. Three of them—The Dolly Dolly Spy, The Great Spy Race, and The Bang Bang Birds—were published in 1967 and ’68. The fourth, Think, Inc., came out in 1971. They are not comedies, nor exactly are they spoofs, though many articles refer to them as such. Diment was contracted for two more Philip McAlpine books, which never materialized since the author dematerialized. They certainly contain satire, but the books are pretty grounded despite their fanciful attire, and in the case of Think, Inc., surprisingly bleak. They are also snapshots, if exaggerated—like Adam Diment himself—of life in London during the 1960s.
Although inevitably compared to Ian Fleming and James Bond, Diment and Philip McAlpine have more in common with The IPCRESS File, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm, and the morally grey antiheroes of John Le Carre. That none of the books has been in print for decades contributes to people who write about them relying on hearsay and second-hand knowledge. They are available on the second-hand market, but the second-hand market being what it is, that means you could be seeing prices anywhere from $2 to $40 for a paperback.
Let’s begin our journey through the psychedelic world of Diment and McAlpine by doing what I just complained about: writing about James Bond.
Bond vs. the Brit Beat
“McAlpine is the most modern hero in years. He’s hip, he’s hard, he likes birds and, sometimes, marijuana.”—The Daily Mirror
There’s no one event that sparked the era known in retrospect as swinging London, but the book to which I refer to most often as a concise history of the era, Shawn Levy’s Ready! Steady! Go!, names three players that served as major flashpoints: David Bailey, Mary Quant, and the Beatles (Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, and the Rolling Stones get in on the fun as well). Bailey was a fashion photographer who eschewed norms and famous models in favor of searching London clubs and streets for more contemporary, realistic models. He happened upon a young woman named Jean Shrimpton, photographed her, and turned her and her look into the face and style of the era. Mary Quant was a young fashion designer who wanted to make cool, affordable clothes for kids who had some—but not much—money and fewer inhibitions than their parents. She opened a shop, designed her own clothes, and invented a thing called the miniskirt. And the Beatles became the fucking Beatles.
All spy fiction is viewed through the lens of James Bond. Ian Fleming’s creation cast a long shadow, and EON’s cinematic version casts a longer shadow still. When we look back on the legacy of James Bond, we tend to think of the series as the apex of cool, despite the forays into “attitudes of the time” around the portrayals of women and minorities. We do the same thing for other retro icons: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley…Perry Como. OK, maybe not Perry Como. But a slew of other things that came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s are regarded fondly as pretty cool.
This state is one that can only be arrived at when the tastes of an era are far enough removed from their actual era that they become compressed and without nuance; what was cool in the 1960s was cool in all of the 1960s, to all of the people, regardless of age or race or whether it was early or later ’60s. The passage of time make bedfellows of such diverse things as Martin Denny, Honeybus, and James Brown. And James Bond. Bond was, and still is, usually defined as cool—if a tad out of step with modern moral sensibilities. However, had I been a twenty-something in the late ’60s, it’s likely I wouldn’t have felt the same way. If I had been that age at that time, I suspect I would have been very much into the swinging London scene. I suspect that in large part because I am, now.
At the beginning of the 1960s, England was still colored—drably—by post-War austerity. But the young generation was sick of the “make do with less” attitude, especially as movies showed off how abundant things were in the United States. So British youth rebelled, first in the form of Teddies pilfering second-hand shops for cheap Edwardian finery, and then in the 1960s by a new wave of mods, freaks, and hipsters. Pretty soon, a whole population was designing their own clothes, opening their own shops, forming their own bands, and rejecting the classic tweed-and-bowler-hat image. Dr. No, the first James Bond film, was released in October 1962, and in its own way it was as much a rebellion against austerity as the miniskirt and Please Please Me, the first full-length Beatles LP, released in March 1963. Bond was brash and had swagger, everything the older English generation was afraid they’d lost after WWII. The movie was colorful and packed with sex and violence, the tolerance for which in British film was being pushed by cult movies such as Beat Girl (1959)—the score for which, incidentally, was composed by John Barry, the same man who would write the music for Dr. No and many subsequent Bond films.
Bond may have been a form of rebellion against post-war austerity, but it wasn’t the same type of rebellion as what was brewing on Carnaby Street, in the nightclubs of Chelsea, and the shops along King’s Road. James Bond was no young kid struggling to get by on a low wage. Economic depression wasn’t something that touched 007, especially in the movies. Bond didn’t so much embrace new morals as he did openly celebrate the sin in which the British upper class had always indulged. He was an attempt to reclaim British world prominence that in the real world had been passed to the Soviet Union and, Britain’s rebellious upstart child, the United States.
By the release of Goldfinger (1964), James Bond was openly mocking the youth movement, commenting to a young woman while staying in Miami’s expensive Hotel Fontainebleau, “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
To this day, that line is regarded as the most hopelessly square thing James Bond ever said. But it wasn’t entirely wrong of Bond to say that. If 007 during the Connery era (as well as in Fleming’s original novels) was a way for Britain to reclaim a bit of past glory, then James Bond was also an anchor for older Brits who weren’t in tune with what was brewing down on Carnaby Street. The revolution being built by the likes of Bailey, Shrimpton, Quant, and the Beatles would result in no less an impressive cultural conquest for England—the Beatles, after all, would topple a king (Elvis Presley)—but this sort of British glory wasn’t what the older generation had in mind. Bond assured them they weren’t alone in disapproving of all the racket.
At that point, the paths of James Bond and swinging London diverge. But they also remain tangled, as pop culture often is. One of the key players in the career of the Beatles was Sir George Martin, who was also one of the key players in soundtrack production for the James Bond films, a partnership that began when he produced, hilariously enough, the soundtrack for Goldfinger. The Beatles lightheartedly spoofed some iconic Bond scenes in their films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! A scene in A Hard Day’s Night was shot in Le Cercle, the casino that serves as the location for our first glimpse of Bond in Dr. No. That scene also features an appearance by actress Margaret Nolan, who later gives Bond a poolside massage in…wait for it…Goldfinger. In 1973, a former Beatle would record a James Bond theme song, and another would marry a Bond girl in 1981.
As the world entered the back half of the 1960s, the anti-war movement sparked by Vietnam manifested in one form or another nearly everywhere. The kids were not all right, and they were not interested in what their parents thought was cool. Sinatra, suits, cocktails, James Bond—no thanks. Instead, it was flash clothes, hash, and psychedelic rock. In that atmosphere, a well-dressed British spy who can’t abide the racket of something as innocuous as the Beatles (let alone more far-out jams — what would 007 do if confronted by the Stooges?) would have seemed uncool indeed. That line of thinking is what led Australian actor George Lazenby to abandon the role of James Bond after a single film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Lazenby is often made fun of for growing his hair out and, in the midst of doing the publicity rounds for the film, declaring James Bond to be dead, a relic of the previous generation.
But he was, to a degree, correct. What was Bond in the era of Vietnam? What was cool about a smug secret agent drinking fancy cocktails and wearing expensive clothes when the youth were running wild in the street, wearing miniskirts and jeans? They were smoking dope instead of drinking Martinis, and listening to the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds and even more out-there underground acts. What was Bond when the spy genre was exploring darker territory (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The IPCRESS File) or making fun of it all (Our Man Flint, the 1967 Casino Royale)? Can you imagine that dude showing up at 2i’s Coffee Bar or checking out that crazy dude Jimi Hendrix at Bag O Nails? There were still a lot of Bond fans, and even a lot of younger Bond fans, but he was increasingly out of step with a large chunk of the population. But was it a chunk of the population Bond needed to be in step with? Did he need to loosen up? Or would that lead to something ridiculous, the equivalent of Daniel Craig showing up for a mission in Nike Dunks, joggers, and a Supreme t-shirt (wait…is Supreme still cool???).
No Swinger is Called Fred
“Only bits of London are swinging, very small bits – nobody could delude themselves into thinking Barnet is swinging.”—Adam Diment, The Great Spy Race
Enter into this candy-colored scene Adam Diment, whose name was coincidentally close to the name of the main character in the 1966 TV show Adam Adamant Lives!, about an Edwardian adventurer (Gerald Harper) who is frozen in time and reawakened in the 1960s, taking to the streets of swinging London with a mod sidekick (Juliet Harmer). Born Frederick Adam Diment (he later dropped the Fred since, as he said himself, “no swinger is called Fred”) in 1943. he was the son of a sailor who switched to farming. Diment studied at Lancing College, West Sussex, which is also where he started writing. He also briefly studied at the Royal Agricultural College. Diment’s entry into the world of writing was by way of low-level grunt jobs in the publishing and advertising business (much like Jimmy, the angry young mod in the 1979 movie Quadrophenia). He ended up rooming with a former Lansing classmate, Tim Rice, who was struggling to make it as a lyricist. By this time, Diment had fourteen finished manuscripts, all rejected by every publisher that had seen them.
The flat the two lads leased was owned by a man named James Leasor, author of a popular espionage book from 1964 called Passport to Oblivion (adapted as an audio drama in 2019, starring…George Lazenby). Inspired by Leasor, or at least by Leasor’s success, Diment decided to try his hand at the spy fiction game. He immersed himself in Fleming and Len Deighton, whose 1962 novel The IPCRESS File would seem to have the biggest influence on Diment. A film adaptation was released in 1965. Like Adam Diment’s books would be, The IPCRESS File was positioned as an anti-Bond, albeit one produced by a Bond producer (Harry Saltzman), with Bond’s set designer (Ken Adams), and starring one of the most important up-and-coming faces around swinging London: Terence Stamp’s flatmate, Michael Caine.
Tim Rice had an agent named Desmond Elliot, referred to in at least one newspaper as a “dapper little elf.” Elliot was well along the road to becoming a legend in the publishing business. Diment asked his roommate to slip Elliot a new manuscript, The Runes of Death. Elliott, famous for spotting new talent, agreed to meet Diment. Exactly what Adam Diment was when he walked into Desmond Elliot’s office is something about which we can only speculate, though Suzie Mandrake described him in O’Sullivan’s Esquire UK article as “still quite green and a country boy” and “quite anorak.” Diment was as country around the edges as Sean Connery when he landed the role of 007.
Suzie Mandrake is one of the greatest untold subplots in the Adam Diment saga. She was one of his earliest London friends, a co-worker of Diment’s at the advertising agency Connell, May & Stevenson. She introduced him around, and when he became famous, went on tour with him. The two were often photographed together, including for a series that appeared in Life magazine. O’Sullivan describes Mandrake as a “society deb, cave dweller, artist’s model, adult film starlet.” The comments section on Baker’s article contains nearly as many people looking for info on or reminiscing about Mandrake as are Diment. Yet information on her remains difficult to come by, with most mentions of her name being in conjunction with the role she played in Adam Diment’s story (the character of Veronica in The Dolly Dolly Spy is reportedly based on her). In 2015, she was not as elusive as Adam Diment. But it seems she is always asked about Adam, and rarely about herself. That’s a shame. I mean, “cave dweller”???
While Elliot negotiated a knock-out deal for Diment with publisher Michael Joseph—whose only revision (or so the lore claims) to the book was to change the title from The Runes of Death to the “hipper” The Dolly Dolly Spy—he also got to work on Diment himself, who seemed willing to go along with whatever, especially after fourteen unsuccessful manuscripts. Whatever Adam Diment walked into Desmond Elliot’s office, it was “Adam Diment” who walked out. Elliot, who passed away in 2003 before the revival and thus was never interviewed by any of the 21st-century Diment sleuths, liked what he saw in The Runes of Death, and he liked the raw material he had in Adam Diment who, though he may have been rough around the edges, was still young and good looking. Elliot could make him into something. After all, Sean Connery had been a Scottish hick before director Terence Young got a hold of him and molded him into the James Bond we see on screen.
With money from his advance on the book, as well as Elliott’s investment, Diment was decked out in the finest and most outrageous London fashion. According to Mandrake, Diment’s Elliot-approved attire was a bit over-the-top even for swinging London. As O’Sullivan quotes her in his Esquire UK article, “the only other people I saw dressed like that were the likes of Jagger.” Press releases shaved a few years off of his real age. Although he reportedly resided in London’s hippest neighborhood, it later (much later) came out that he probably never lived in Chelsea, and instead spent his time at the decidedly less-hip address of a flat at 28 Tregunter Road, Fulham. He got an Aston Martin, grew his hair long, and became a fixture in London’s hippest nightclubs, surrounded by London’s hippest women, including Suzie Mandrake and, later, the most mysterious figure in a story full of mysterious figures: a Cuban emigre and model known only as “Camille.”
Espionage books were hot, but most of them were written for, or at least from the viewpoint of, an older crowd. But here was Adam Diment, looking more like something from the back of an album cover than a book cover. And just as importantly, here was Philip McAlpine, the protagonist of The Dolly Dolly Spy and a secret agent quite unlike any the world had seen.
Swing, Spy, Swing
“Mostly concerned with a very wicked air charter firm. Read it when you feel about 18: it will save you finding out for yourself what smoking ‘pot’ is like.”—H. R. F. Keating, The Times
Although Diment is frequently compared (or juxtaposed) to Ian Fleming and McAlpine to James Bond, the closest parallel to The Dolly Dolly Spy is the nameless, faceless everyman spy in Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File. He even has more in common with the jaded company men of John Le Carre novels than with 007. Like Deighton’s unwilling spy or Donald Hamilton’s “pressed into service against his will” agent Matt Helm, Diment’s Philip McAlpine is blackmailed into being a spy. He’s a low-level but unusually competent employee at an industrial security firm when he catches the eye of MI6. He’s forced into the spy game when he’s threatened with imprisonment for possession of hashish. He has no love for the job. In fact, he proudly thinks of himself as a coward. He despises the bureaucratic authority figures who make intelligence work their game. But he’s also kind of good at it.
He finds himself in the employ of a strange take on Bond’s M character, or Harry Palmer Major Dalby. But where both of those men are stern British military types, Diment’s spymaster, Rupert Quine, is a campy, flamboyant popinjay of the green velvet and yellow ruffled shirt variety. If The Dolly Dolly Spy was made into a movie today, Quine would be played by Tom Hollander. He frequently refers to hapless hipster McAlpine as “sweetie” and “honey.” His foppish affectations shroud a keen (if twisted) mind and sadistic streak. If M eventually becomes James Bond’s father (or mother) figure, then Quine is McAlpine’s S&M dungeon mistress. He’s more than happy to threaten McAlpine—as well as friends and family—with murder, rape, whatever unsavory act will pressure McAlpine into playing ball.
In The Dolly Dolly Spy, it’s prison for McAlpine and his sister. With no choice other than jail time, McAlpine agrees to become a contract employee for Quine’s shady intelligence unit with an overly complicated name: CI-6 NC/NAC (meaning they operate in non-communist, non-aligned countries). His mission is to infiltrate a charter airline company that runs clandestine operations for just about every intelligence organization in the world. Initially, McAlpine’s assignment is a pretty sweet gig: get hired, do his job, get a suntan, collect his pay, and occasionally let Quine know what’s happening. They even let him bring his favorite girlfriend, Veronica, with him to the charter company’s posh Ibiza headquarters, giving the two young modsters ample chances to recline around pools, smoking weed and soaking up the sun while wearing white jeans or bikinis. But McAlpine is no idiot. He knows he wouldn’t be drawing such a large salary from Quine if something a lot more dangerous wasn’t in store for him.
New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher wrote that Diment was “a happy answer to my recent ‘plaint about the lack of really young writers in the suspense field. The Dolly Dolly Spy introduces Philip McAlpine, an agent who smokes hashish, leads a highly active sex life, kills vividly, uses (or even coins) the latest London slang, and still seems a perfectly real (and even oddly likable) young man rather than a reflected Bond-image.” Diment’s prose is breezy and stuffed with slang but never at the expense of easy reading. More importantly, it doesn’t sound false, as can often be the case. If there’s anything truly camp about The Dolly Dolly Spy, it’s Rupert Quine, but given how many strange people have been employed by British Intelligence over the decades, the mincing, threatening, madly-attired Quine seems at least somewhat plausible.
Ruffled collars and Chelsea boots aside, Diment plays it straight. McAlpine was a character many more people—especially young people—could relate to, living a life more recognizable (and more attainable) than James Bond’s but more fun than the bland existence of Harry Palmer. Philip McAlpine sounds outré, and one can be forgiven for expecting a campy, over-the-top sort of romp, but McAlpine is a believable character who gets involved in a pretty believable scheme (at least by the standards of espionage fiction). McAlpine harbors no love for his profession, but he’s not bad at it. He is an accomplished pilot and, after a bit of training, adept with firearms and all manner of tradecraft. He proves able despite being tossed into the deep end.
Given the initial description of McAlpine, one could be forgiven for expecting some sort of send-up of the spy genre (Austin Powers comes up in discussion almost as often as James Bond), even though they’re no more outrageous—sometimes considerably less so—than books taken much more seriously in the genre. I mean, no one calls Fleming’s You Only Live Twice a spy spoof, but it has a villain with a face deformed by syphilis who spends his days stomping around a poisonous garden while clad in a suit of samurai armor. Nothing in Diment’s novels is as absurd as that.
Her Majesty’s Secret Stash
“I think the sexy spy’s going out of vogue, don’t you, Bill, darling?”—Adam Diment, The Dolly Dolly Spy
As the story goes, the only thing Adam Diment’s publisher wanted to be changed about the draft of the novel the aspiring young writer handed him was the title, The Runes of Death (an allusion to McAlpine casting runes to see what fate had in store for him, even though he didn’t believe in supernatural powers). The Dolly Dolly Spy is a better title, more in line with what everyone wanted from it. The book was a huge success. Diment was swept up in a media blitz the likes of which is normally reserved for rock stars. As far as anyone could tell, Adam Diment was Philip McAlpine. He appeared surrounded by celebrities and fans, an attractive young woman on each arm, at all of London’s hippest spots. He jet-setted in support of the book and even popped up in a Life magazine pictorial about swingin’ London. How much of what fans saw was Diment and how much was crafted persona remains hazy and, really, unimportant. It was the sort of life James Bond himself might lead, had 007 listened to psychedelic rock and hung around the streets with go-go girls in miniskirts and body paint. If James Bond was fashion photography before David Baily and Jean Shrimpton, then Diment was everything that came after.
The success didn’t go unnoticed. The Dolly Dolly Spy was optioned by United Artists (home of James Bond). David Hemmings (who cemented his counterculture cool in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up) was tagged as the likely star. Diment met Hemmings, the two were photographed together for Life, and it seemed like the perfect pairing. Unfortunately, United Artists’ zeal was soon tempered by the realization that they’d have to either take a major risk or make major alterations when it came to McAlpine’s love of hash. Censors would come down hard on a pro-weed hero. Taking away his joints would undermine Philip McAlpine.
As United Artist struggled with the project, which ultimately fell apart and never went into production, Diment wasted no time getting to work on a second novel. The Great Spy Race came out in 1968, followed that same year by The Bang Bang Birds. The Great Spy Race picks up very soon after the first book, with McAlpine still an unwilling employee of Quine’s bizarre intelligence outfit but nearing the end of his contract. When he’s sent on what seems to be a routine assignment, he finds himself set up to become Quine’s representative in a competition for spies being mounted by an eccentric billionaire and former spymaster. The prize is a piece of intelligence so juicy that the top spy agencies of the world all send participants. Up against such big guns, McAlpine considers himself absurdly outclassed, but since it’s his life on the line, he taps into all his skills and cunning to come out on top, or at least make a good show it things.
The Great Spy Race is a slim novel with a slim plot, easily read in a single go. It’s sort of like one of those martial arts tournament movies that were so common in the 1980s and ’90s, with a bunch of outlandish characters and fighting styles all thrown together. McAlpine gets to adventure his way through the espionage underworld, indulging in all of the sleaziest tricks of the spy trade in a series of thrilling locations, including Ibiza and the French Riviera. Even more so than The Dolly Dolly Spy, Diment’s second novel is more about style and attitude than plot. It’s more absurdist than The Dolly Dolly Spy, but I still wouldn’t call it a comedy. Cheeky satire, maybe? I’ve seen McAlpine compared to George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. They share a certain cynicism toward authority, but Flashman is truly a villain. Philip McAlpine is a decent guy whose survival instinct has been goosed. He can be, but rarely is, ruthless.
In The Bang Bang Birds, McAlpine is pressured into service again, this time on loan to the Americans, who want him to infiltrate a chain of ultra-high-end swingers clubs that have been collecting top-secret information from tipsy, loose-lipped politicians and scientists. American intelligence workers, in the eyes of McAlpine, are a hopelessly square and uptight bunch headed up by the perpetually enraged, crew-cut General Eastfeller. Eastfeller, predictably enough, can barely tolerate McAlpine’s shaggy haircut and moderately outlandish clothing. McAlpine enjoys teasing his belligerent ally, but only up to a point, as Eastfeller is the type to make good on his threats. Again, the relationship between agent and superior is different. There’s none of the fatherly warmth of M. Even the bitterest spy of them all, Matt Helm, gets along better with his boss. McAlpine, Eastfeller, and Quine all genuinely hate one another.
Both The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds were as popular as The Dolly Dolly Spy. Adam Diment was riding the crest of a wave—straight out of the limelight and toward destinations unknown.
Coming Down Off Its High
“I’m getting a little tired of the character now.”—Adam Diment
Rumors started that Diment had fled to Rome after being caught up in a bit of currency swindling. However, as much as it’s framed as a puzzle, it’s no mystery why a young man in the late 1960s, especially one playing the role of a London hipster but who is really just a farmer at heart, might tire of success and want a few moments to himself—or if not to himself, then to himself and whatever lady he happened to invite along. That lady, as the rumors have it, was a mysterious Cuban ex-pat named Camille, to whom he dedicated The Bang Bang Birds and with whom Diment traveled either to Rome or Zurich, possibly both. There’s no verified account of his time away from the London spotlight, but over the years, friends who knew Diment during his sojourn in Rome remember that he and Camille spent most of their time sunbathing on rooftops. If the price of sunbathing with a Cuban beauty in the villas of assorted Italian friends is the price one pays for stepping away from publicity, well then, it seems fair enough.
During his sabbatical from the prying eye of the public, Diment wrote his fourth book, Think, Inc., published in 1971. There was a certain bitterness and a touch of melancholy in the three previous books, despite their garish clothing and wild situations. With Think, Inc., that dark streak becomes the defining characteristic. It’s more cynical. It’s more violent. The candy-colored fantasy of the previous novels gives way to a bleakness that is almost on the level of Le Carre, though with more sex and style than the average George Smiley tale. The previous three had been enjoyable larks, but Think, Inc. is denser, with more complex characterization and some obvious growth on the part of McAlpine, who has gone from swinging ladies man to a more mature, more depressed man.
By 1971, the swinging London of McAlpine’s heyday had all but faded. Adam Diment’s interest in celebrity was fading along with his celebrity. The summer of love was over, exhausted. Vietnam was still raging. When asked what the scene in London was like by the character Charity, with whom McAlpine falls in love, the hip young spy replies, “‘Coming down off its high.” He’s unceremoniously dumped by Quine’s intelligence organization after a mission goes awry, turned out into the cold with nothing in the way of protection from the many enemies he made during the course of duty—many of whom immediately set their gunsights on poor Philip McAlpine. What’s more, Quine ferrets out all of McAlpine’s bank accounts and seizes his hard-earned pay, leaving the reluctant spy broke and with a lot of targets on his back.
He ends up in Italy, where he grows a beard (just like George Lazenby), cuts his hair short, ditches his Carnaby Street finery, and tries to stay off of everyone’s radar. As is usually the case, though, the past isn’t the past, and McAlpine is kidnapped by an independent criminal organization called Think, Inc. Although they’re more polite about it than Rupert Quine, Think, Inc. doesn’t give McAlpine much of a choice. With few options, he joins up.
However, it turns out the criminal pursuits of Think, Inc. and its boss, Faustus, often have more righteous aims than the legitimate intelligence work McAlpine did for Queen and country. Among the members is Charity, a black radical who white America and Europe have given more than enough reason to live outside of the law. She and McAlpine fall for one another. A significant change in McAlpine, and in this books, is that he becomes pretty contemplative about life, and about Charity, ruminating frequently on the emptiness of his life and the desire to settle down with Charity and get away from a life of crime and violence. McAlpine was always a down-to-earth, relatable character, but Think, Inc. really leans into his vulnerability.
His first assignment is rather harmless: kidnapping a famous starlet—a plan she herself concocted and contracted Think, Inc. to execute so she can get out of an exploitive contract with a Roman film company. It’s easy-breezy, and McAlpine is thinking that between this sort of work and the company of Charity, maybe Think, Inc. isn’t such a bad temporary gig. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last. Their next mission, a gun-running job in the Greek Islands, turns into a gory disaster. Half of the team is wiped out, and McAlpine barely escapes. Things go downhill quickly, as the next job—hijacking a plane full of gold—goes even worse, leaving just about everyone else, including Faustus, dead. Charity is badly wounded, and the novel ends with McAlpine dragging her onto the plane and making a desperate take-off.
That’s the last we ever see of Philip McAlpine…and Adam Diment.
Requiem for a Secret Agent
“I don’t want to be writing McAlpine when I’m 27!”—Adam Diment
As McAlpine flies off into an ambiguous future, it’s easy to see Adam Diment’s own departure from the scene in the pages of the book. 1971 and Think, Inc. was the last anyone in the public heard from Diment. He never wrote another book. He never did another interview. The abruptness of his disappearance caused rumors to flow. That he was dead. That he was in trouble over drugs or some financial scam. That he simply grew weary and disillusioned with fame. That he had been spotted in Nepal. In Switzerland. And finally, that he had packed it all in, bought himself a farm in Kent, and lives there to this day, quietly tending his garden and avoiding any sort of publicity. Diment and McAlpine understood one of the most important rules of cool: don’t overstay your welcome. In 1975, the Observer Magazine wrote an article titled, “Whatever Happened to Adam Diment?” The article concluded that “Diment now lives in Zurich, shunning publicity, and has no plans to write a new book.” He didn’t surface to confirm or deny.
The same year Think, Inc. was released to mediocre response, Diamonds are Forever was released to much the same. Connery’s return as James Bond sparked interest, but it didn’t do much to help the overall health of the franchise. Roger Moore debuted in the role in 1973’s Live and Let Die (with a theme song by former Beatle Paul McCartney) to mixed reception. 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun fared even worse. Critics lambasted the film (to be fair, was nothing new for a Bond film), and bad word-of-mouth poisoned the box office. Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman didn’t like each other. Creative differences and financial trouble led to Saltzman selling his share of what looked to be a sinking ship anyway. Broccoli decided to give it one more go and, if the next film failed, fold up the tent and let the James Bond franchise retire.
Pre-production was disastrous, and the franchise was tangled in legal issues. But in the end, they stitched together a bombastic blowout in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Exhausted from years of social turmoil, political upheaval, and economic uncertainty, audiences in 1977—including a young Keith Allison (me, not the drummer from Paul Revere and the Raiders)—were hungry for The Spy Who Loved Me‘s blend of over-the-top action and Roger Moore’s smirking lounge lizard take on the character. It pulled the Bond films out of their nosedive. It was also the first Bond film I saw in the theater, and a life-long love was sparked. It was a different time and a different approach, but in 1977 James Bond was cool again. What’s more, over a decade removed from Goldfinger, not many people had a problem liking James Bond and the Beatles—without earmuffs.
Adam Diment didn’t trumpet his departure from the party. Partially manufactured the persona may have been, but he learned a thing or two about being cool. Today, he’s still not hungry to relive last night’s party. Friends and relatives have made comments over the years that confirm he is leading a quiet life in the countryside, but none of them have betrayed his trust. And to date, no reporter or fan has successfully scored an audience with the elusive Adam Diment.
John Michael O’Sullivan begins his Esquire UK article with the sentence, “Mysteries are only mysteries if you want them to be.” In the end, the mysterious disappearance of Adam Diment wasn’t that mysterious. What he did and where he went in the aftermath of his popularity remains the stuff of tantalizing half-memory and rumors, but Diment’s eventual “fate” isn’t the mystery it seemed like it might have been. However, it’s a different thing to meet the man. In that effort, O’Sullivan was unsuccessful. O’Sullivan got close but, ultimately, was unable to track him down.
And perhaps that is how it should be. Rather than demanding more, perhaps we should just let him be. Perhaps instead of demanding more of Philip McAlpine, we should be happy with what we have. There are four books out there, each one very entertaining. McAlpine might be more obscure than James Bond, Harry Palmer, or George Smiley…but isn’t that part of being a spy? Leave him out there, a globe-trotting international man of mystery relaxing with a puff of hash on some unknown beach, free at last from the endless demands heaped upon him by the Rupert Quines of the world.
- “The Extraordinary Case Of The Missing Spy Novelist,” John Michael O’Sullivan, Esquire UK (Nov., 2015).
- “The Disappearance of the Author Adam Diment,” Rob Baker, Another Nickel in the Machine (Aug. 2009).
- “Adam Diment,” Bear Alley (Jan. 2012)
- “Adam Diment Was a Swinging 60s Icon and the Prince of British Spy Fiction—Until He Disappeared,” Luke Poling, CrimeReads (July 2021)
- Ready, Steady, Go! : Swinging London and the Invention of Cool, by Shawn Levy. 2003, Harpercollins Publishing.
- “The Man With The Golden Gun Almost Ended James Bond Movies,” Ben Aldis, ScreenRant (March 2020)