When you’re suffering from a bad case of “I don’t know what to read next”, in my experience it’s often best to plump for a crime novel – preferably a vintage Penguin! And this is what I’ve done, as I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to commit to reading.

I picked up “Night’s Black Agent” on my recent visit to Leicester because it was an old green Penguin and because it sounded intriguing – I knew nothing about it or its author, but a quick check on Wikipedia brought up the following:

John Michael Ward Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris (3 November 1908 – 6 August 1988) was an English novelist who published 17 thrillers, detective novels and spy novels. During the Second World War he worked for MI5, and was reportedly the inspiration for John LeCarre’s character George Smiley. Prior to his service in MI5, Bingham had been the Art Editor of the Sunday Dispatch. His first novel, My Name is Michael Sibley (1952), is unusual for its time in suggesting that the British police might not always play fair.

Gosh! Turns out his daughter is Charlotte Bingham, who those of us of a certain age will recognise as a TV scriptwriter.

Anyway, on to the book itself. The story is perhaps more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery, as it is something of a psychological study of a murderer/blackmailer/all round bad lot who calls himself Green, and the effect he has on two characters. Our narrator describes himself as a newspaper man and tells us the tale of a civil servant and a doctor, both of whose lives are dramatically affected for the worse by Green’s actions. The newspaper man is in Norway, tracking Green, and it seems that the criminal has also impacted on his life.

It’s impossible to say much more specifically about the action without spoiling the book. However, I can say that this is a jolly good thriller – very well written, very exciting to read and extremely compelling. It was another one of those which I read in a couple of sittings and would have liked to finish in one go. Bingham’s characters are interesting and very human – the timid civil servant who has lived in the shadow of his domineering wife for years; the philandering doctor ready for his comeuppance; the civil servant’s daughters, some of whom are going/have gone off the rails; the doctor’s mistress and her blind husband. As with so many of the best mystery novels, there is no simplistic division between good and evil, and there is quite a lot of consideration of the actions of the narrator and whether his intentions towards Green are justified.

As a side comment, I’m often surprised to notice how many so-called serious novelist write crime novels – either under their own names (Bingham, C.P. Snow) or an alias (Michael Innes/J.I.M. Stewart). I get very frustrated with people who lazily condemn mystery writing as rubbish. Some of my favourite novels are coincidentally vintage green Penguin and I challenge anyone to find fault with the prose or storytelling ability of, say, Edmund Crispin. It’s possible to use a thriller as a valid vehicle to make some very strong points about morals or society or life in general, whilst telling a great story and entertaining the reader!

So, was I entertained with this one? Yes, I was – strongly diverted for a few hours, puzzled, amused and intrigued. I think I’ll be searching out more of John Bingham’s Penguin volumes!