Host of Extras by James Leasor (1973, Heinemann)
If you have ever seen the David Niven movie Where the Spies Are, you will be familiar with Host of Extra‘s author James Leasor (1923-2007). Mr. Leasor created the country doctor turned spy Dr. Jason Love in the book Passport to Oblivion in 1964. Leasor had a long literary career turning out historical novels about the glorious days of the British Empire and WWII. But he also authored nine Dr. Jason Love novels. Another series he created was about the owner of Aristos Motors, a company specializing in classic automobiles. In this book, Host of Extras, Dr. Jason Love makes an appearance, so it is considered a crossover novel. It’s also one of the most hilarious crime novels I’ve ever read.
At the beginning of the novel, the owner of Aristo Autos is paid a visit by a man who’s talked to Dr. Love about their mutual interest in old cars. The man has discovered his father owned two mint condition Rolls Royce automobiles from the 1920’s. Can the owner of Aristo Autos find a buyer for them? The owner, who tells the story in first person, agrees to help him and has the cars transported to his shop. Soon after they arrive, he’s contacted by a man who claims to run a film company and wants to lease the cars for a movie he’s shooting in Corsica. With the price right, the owner of Aristo agrees and is soon transporting the cars to the island in the Mediterranean sea. But things are not as they seem and suddenly everyone is mixed up on murder. Oh, yes, there’s a crazy blind Comte who owns two beautiful cars from the 1930’s. And a guided missile. But you’ll have to read more to find out.
What makes this book an absolute scream is the narrator and his quaint observations about the world:
“I remembered it a month later when I received a letter from some old woman who explained that a relation had recently passed away – it is odd how people rarely admit in writing that anyone has died. They have always passed away, or are called to higher service, or go beyond the veil – when, in fact, they are dead as a bounced cheque, and the undertakers are already picking the gold fillings out of their teeth and preparing to switch their expensive coffins for something cheaper before they slide them past the Bunsens in the crematorium.”
“…A couple of English web-foots were sitting in the waiting room wearing unattractive English clothes; shorts too long, shirts the wrong colour, pale, sweaty pustuled flesh showing through open collars. I guessed they’d lost their passports and were here to beg money for the return fare. And I thought of the elegant consular officials endeavouring to conceal their distaste at these shabby, shoddy representatives of the island race. I didn’t bother to conceal my own – as the defendant in the raincoat told the magistrate on another occasion.”
I highly recommend this book and want to read more in the series. I’ve learned an incredible amount about antique cars just from reading it.