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28.05.2014
Secret Ministry was first published in hardback in the UK by Frederick Muller in 1951, under a dustjacket designed by the great illustrator, graphic artist and children's author Val Biro.
Secret Ministry, you see, is set in large part in the Sussex South Downs, specifically the area around Brighton and Lewes, the latter being the town in which, for the past four years, I've lived and worked.
I had a brief chat with spy novelist (and friend of Existential Ennui) Jeremy Duns about Secret Ministry on Twitter the other day. Many of the differences between younger Johnny and older Johnny can, of course, be attributed to both Fedora and Cory growing up. Now, all throughout these Desmond Cory posts I've been banging on about how scarce some of the Johnny Fedora novels are. Not from AbeBooks, or Amazon, or eBay, or even an actual, physical, bricks-and-mortar bookshop.
Lewes is mentioned a couple of times in the book, and Brighton looms large as well, but much of the story centres on the fictional village of Cootsbridge – and when you consider that Desmond Cory was born in Lancing in Sussex, it's not a huge leap to conjecture that he probably based the made-up Cootsbridge on the real village of Cooksbridge, which lies about two miles north of Lewes. At heart of the drug ring is the "Three of Clubs", a gambling den perched atop the Downs overlooking Brighton, where Johnny meets an intriguing mix of managers, barmen, cloakroom attendants, singers and wives, any one of whom could be involved in the nefarious Nazi plot. Jeremy had just finished the book and noted that it was "light but very enjoyable" and "almost a comic novel, strikingly different tonally from Casino Royale" (Ian Fleming's debut James Bond novel, published two years after Secret Ministry in 1953).
It's fair to say that Johnny becomes more thoughtful, more introspective as the series progresses (and certainly a lot less gabby: he's quite the chatterbox in Secret Ministry).


But it isn't just Cory's chief protagonist who becomes more rounded (and, it must be said, more interesting) as the series continues: Cory's writing style changes as well.
On top of that, we learn Johnny's real name (Sean O'Neill Fedora), and there are hints of the darkness to come, notably in the novel's opening scenes, where Johnny and two fellow agents separately dispatch three Nazis. In one sense, Secret Ministry isn't scarce at all – you can download it as an ebook and read it right now. Then there's being able to compare and contrast the story to later Fedora outings to see how Cory and his leading man developed, which is certainly instructive.
And it's true that Secret Ministry is a breezy read – punctuated by bursts of violence, sure, but verging on the madcap in places. Here, though, he's a whirlwind of frantic activity, forever darting about, dispensing quips, charming the ladies, charging into action. Self-evidently, Cory became a much better writer as time went on, more willing to let the narrative drift if he felt a few pages of reflection might be necessary, more assured in his handling of character, in digging beneath the surface of his cast.
The remainder of the story may be quite jolly, but right from the off Cory makes no bones about the fact that an encounter with Johnny Fedora will, likely as not, lead to an unpleasant death.
But for me, the book also boasts an added, more personal significance, one I had no inkling of before I read it. But what's especially interesting about it is the way its lightness stands in stark contrast to later novels in the series.


To some extent a number of those traits are evident in later books, too; Fedora is never the most subtle of operatives, and he retains his roving eye. Which is all very well when it's a straightforward chocks-away airforce pilot (Murray), but slightly more intrusive when it's a young man of Spanish-Irish extraction who's spent some time in America (Fedora). A lot of the remaining available first editions of his novels have ended up in either South Africa, Australia or New Zealand; I guess they were either taken out to those countries by expats or exported by distributors. Undeterred, I searched bidorbuy to see if the auction had been won or simply ended, and discovered the latter to be the case.
Thankfully it's a habit Cory quickly rids himself of, and by the time of Undertow he can confidently convey nationalities and accents without recourse to verbal tics and idiosyncrasies. Bidorbuy being an African website I had no idea whether foreign bidders could even participate on it, but I signed up anyway, and contacted the seller to see if they'd consider shipping overseas. Happily they said they would, and after some further communication, between us we managed to arrange shipping to the UK. I believe Shakespeare Head were the Australian arm of Muller, but books were still printed in Britain, as you say.



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