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Gavin Lyall (1932-2003)


British thriller writer and journalist, a former RAF pilot, who often took as his theme the world of flying. In the 1980s, Lyall wrote a series of spy thrillers, whose main character was Major Harry Maxim, Special Services, assigned to the Prime Minister’s Office.

"Old pilots, ones who first trained on slow propeller-engined aircraft, cannot watch the countryside flowing past a train or car window without subconsciously evaluating fields for an emergency landing: length, slope, obstructions on approach, surface . . ." (from The Crocus List, 1985)

Gavin Tudor Lyall was born in Birmingham, Warwickshire, His father, a Scot, was an accountant. Lyall was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he edited Varsity, the university newspaper. From 1951 to 1953 he served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. In 1956, Lyall earned his B.A. with honors in English. After graduating Lyall briefly worked as a reporter for Picture Post and the Sunday Globe, and then as a producer on the Tonight programme for the BBC Television. Between 1959 and 1962 he was a reporter and aviation correspondent at the Sunday Times, London. In 1958 Lyall married the writer and journalist Katharine Whitehorn; they had two sons. Whitehorn became the star columist on The Observer, where she worked almost 40 years. 

In the early days of his marriage, being recognized was important for Lyall, who once said: "One day they're going to say: 'That's Gavin Lyall's wife over there.'" Lyall's first thriller, The Wrong Side of the Sky (1961), was drawn from his experiences in the Greek islands and the Libyan desert. The work, published by Hodder & Stoughton, gained an immediate success and in 1963 Lyall gave up his day job to become a full-time writer. The Most Dangerous Game (1963) was again narrated in the first person with dry Chandleresque humour. The story, set in the Finnish Lappland, where Lyall had traveled with his wife, featured a cast of tourists and agents and offered meticulously researched details and tidbits of local color and character.

The rights of Midnight Plus One (1965) were purchased by the American actor Steve McQueen, known for his fascination with sports cars. Set in post-World War II, it told of a pilot named Lewis Cane who drives a crooked millionaire to Liechtenstein. Orson Welles was hired by BBS to adapt the novel; he considered Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, and Jack Nicholson for the leading roles. Welles never finished the script, and due to McQueen's sudden death, the film was never made.

Shooting Script (1966), about a former RAF pilot who flies a camera plain for a film company, took place in the Caribbean. Moon Zero Two (1969), a Hammer/Warner Bros. film, for which Lyall wrote the original story with Frank Hardman and Martin Davison, was produced at the same time as the Apollo Moon landing. In the story the Moon was portrayed as a Western frontier. Though the budget was relatively small, the special effects were relatively convincing. The novelization was written by John Burke.

Lyall's novels, in the tradition of Hammond Innes, Desmond Bagley and Alistair Maclean, reflect his love of outdoors and exotic places. After publishing Judas Country (1975), an aviation thriller set in the Middle East, Lyall suffered writer's block for five years. Moreover, his drinking had been a problem for a long time. Also his heroes used to drink a lot of Scotch-and-soda during the course of the story. Kingsley Amis, a heavy drinker, had a certain Father Lyall killed in The Alteration (1976), an alternate history novel, in retaliation for some jokey insult of Lyall's.

"I lay and brooded about it until it was dark outside, then did the thing you usually do when you're worried about money: went out to a really expensive bar for a really stiff drink." (Venus with Pistol, 1969)

Abandoning his outsider heroes and first-person narrative, Lyall started his Maxim novels with The Secret Service (1980), originally developed for a BBC television series. Major Harry Maxim, a former SAS officer hired as a Whitehall troubleshooter, was also the protagonist in The Conduct of Major Maxim (1982), The Crocus List (1985), and Uncle Target (1988).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spy fiction was left adrift. In the new situation, after publishing Uncle Target, Lyall produced in the 1990s a series, which took the reader into the early years of the British Secret Service before World War I. Unfortunately, there was no wide advertising of the books, and they never gained the popularity of the Maxim series.

Lyall was a member of the Air Transport Users' Committee of the Civil Aviation Authority. For The Most Dangerous Game and Midnight Plus One he received the Crime Writers Association Silver Dagger Award. In 1967-68 he served as chairman of the British Crime Writers Association. Lyall's works of non-fiction include The War in the Air 1939-1945 (1968) and Operation Warboard (1972). His articles were published in such magazines as the Spectator, Lilliput, and Everybody's. Gavin Lyall died from cancer on January 18, 2003.

For further reading: Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1997); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); The Encyclopedia of Murder and Mystery by Bruce F. Murphy (1999); Selective Memory: An Autobiography by Katharine Whitehorn (2007); The Essential Writer's Guide: Spotlight on Gavin Lyall, ed. by Gaby Alez (2012)   

Selected works:

  • The Pictorial Story of the Royal Tour of India and Pakistan: And the State Visits to Nepal and Iran, 1961 
  • The Wrong Side of the Sky, 1961
    - Taivaan nurja puoli: seikkailuromaani (suom. Pentti Järvinen, 1962)
  • The Most Dangerous Game, 1963
    - Lento tuntemattomaan: seikkailuromaani (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1964)
  • Midnight Plus One, 1965
    - Minuutti yli puolenyön (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1966)
  • Shooting Script, 1966
    - Lentävät palkkasoturit (suom. Aarne T.K. Lahtinen, 1967)
  • The War in the Air 1939-1945: An Anthology of Personal Experiences, 1968 (selected and edited by Gavin Lyall)
  • Venus with Pistol, 1969
  • Moon Zero Two, 1969 (from the story for the film, with Frank Hardman and Martin Davison; adapted by John Burke)
    - film 1969, prod. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, Hammer Film Productions, dir. by Roy Ward Baker, screenplay by Michael Carreas, starring James Olson, Catherina von Schell, Warren Mitchell, Adrienne Corri
  • Operation Warboard: Wargaming World War II Battles in 20-25mm Scale , 1972 (with Bernard Lyall)
  • Blame the Dead, 1973
  • Judas Country, 1975
  • The Secret Servant, 1980
    - TV series 1984, prod. BBC, dir. by Alastair Reid, starring Charles Dance, Harvey Ashby, Constantine Gregory, George Howell, Harry Jones, Jill Meager, Dan O'Herlihy
  • The Conduct of Major Maxim, 1982
  • The Crocus List, 1985
  • Uncle Target: A Harry Maxim Novel, 1988
  • Spy's Honour, 1993
  • Flight from Honour, 1996
  • All Honourable Men, 1997
  • Honourable Intentions, 1999

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