Category Archives: Robert Ludlum

There Ain’t Nobody That Spies Like Us*

EspionageNot long ago I got a request to take a look at spy/espionage crime fiction and I can see why there’s such an interest in it.  Well-written spy thrillers have lots of suspense and tension, and there’s plenty of room for the author to add in plot twists. Some spy novels sacrifice rich and well-developed characters for the sake of a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. But the best espionage fiction shows us the human side of the characters involved. And it’s interesting how even novels that aren’t generally thought of as ‘spy fiction’ actually could be labelled that way, and several authors who aren’t usually thought of as ‘spy novel’ authors have written novels like that.

Spy fiction has been around for quite a long time. Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes story His Last Bow features an espionage plot. In that story, which takes place just before World War I, Holmes and Watson investigate a German émigré named Van Bork. Van Bork has quietly been gathering information on the British government for a few years and plans to turn over what he has gotten to his own government. Holmes and Watson come up with a brilliant plan to stop Van Bork before he can do any damage and the end of this story is really (in my opinion) quite effective.

Agatha Christie mentions spies and spying quite frequently in her stories, even those that don’t focus on espionage. And fans of her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels will know that they’ve dabbled in espionage more than once. In N or M? for instance, the Beresfords are middle-aged and considered too old for regular active espionage duty. But then, Tommy gets a new mission. A British agent has discovered that a pair of German spies has landed in England and that one of them is likely staying at the Sans Souci, a hotel/guest residence in Leahampton. Tommy is asked to go to the Sans Souci and find out whether one of the other guests is the spy. This mission doesn’t include Tuppence, but of course, that doesn’t stop her. When Tommy arrives at the Sans Souci, she’s already there under the name of Mrs. Blenkensop. The Beresfords work to find out who the spy is and soon find that they’re in quite a bit of danger themselves. In the end, a chance discovery in an unexpected (and therefore, quite effective) hiding place puts the Beresfords on the right trail.

The Cold War between the US, the UK and their allies, and the USSR and its allies lasted for decades and gave rise to some of the best-known spy/espionage thrillers. Authors such as Robert Ludlum have created memorable spy novels that have the Cold War as their backdrop. Perhaps the best-known (and in my opinion, one of the most talented) of these authors is John le Carré. He’s written (among others) several novels featuring British agent George Smiley. Two that stand out (at least for me; your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary) are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Tinker, Tailor… is the first of the Smiley novels. In it, George Smiley has been forced into early retirement and a new crop of agents has gotten into power. Everything changes though when it’s learned that a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest levels of British Intelligence. It’s soon clear to Smiley that his old nemesis Karla, a mysterious Soviet spy leader, is behind this breach of British security and he goes back on the job to catch the mole and stop Karla. Smiley plays a smaller role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that story British agent Alec Leamas is recalled from East Germany when several of his team members are killed on his watch. Then, when his best agent is killed, he’s asked to take on one last assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who’s responsible for the killings. Want to know more about le Carré? Sure you do. Check out a superb post on his work at Mrs. Peabody Investigates, an excellent crime fiction review-and-news blog that richly deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

The Cold War isn’t the only backdrop for spy thrillers. After the end of World War II, there was a great deal of speculation about Nazi plots to re-establish themselves as a world power, and plenty of spy fiction deals with that prospect. For instance, there’s Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, in which Yakov Liebermann, a Nazi-hunter, discovers a frightening plan to re-create the Third Reich. And there’s Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File in which journalist Peter Miller happens to be covering the suicide of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber. A diary he finds eventually leads to a top-secret worldwide organisation dedicated to re-establishing a Nazi regime.

There are also plenty of spy/secret agent stories in which the ‘targets’ aren’t just Cold War or Nazi enemies but different sorts of international criminals and crime rings. For instance, Victor Banis’ The Man From C.A.M.P. introduces us to LA secret agent Jackie Holmes. In the first of those stories, Holmes works with an agent from the US Department of the Treasury to catch a gang of counterfeiters. And there’s Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer,’ whom we meet in The Ipcress File. In that novel, ‘Palmer’ and his colleagues in a special department known as WOOC(P) investigate the case of several scientists who’ve disappeared. There’s also Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, who works for a special Israeli Intelligence department called The Office. He’s gone after international arms traffickers, terrorists, and other groups as well.

Spies and spy novels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as the saying goes. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, who in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax decides to give up her middle-class suburban widhowhood and become a CIA agent. As an elderly ‘grandmotherly’ type, she hardly looks like a spy, but she’s quite resourceful and gets quite good at her job.

And of course, no discussion of spy thrillers or espionage stories would be complete without a mention of Ian Fleming’s Bond. James Bond. Dashing and ever-resourceful, Bond epitomises the fantasy intelligence agent. The Bond novels and films were many people’s first introduction to spy fiction.

Feel free to differ with me if you do, but in my opinion, the best espionage thrillers are those that develop the characters of the people involved. They do have action and suspense. There might even be a gun battle or explosion or two. And there’s that little matter of the escapism they offer. But they are also stories about believable people. What do you think? Do you read spy fiction? What about it appeals to you? If you dislike it, what about it puts you off? I promise; I won’t blow your cover…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Spies Like Us.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Victor Banis

I Think You Were Lost in the ’70′s*

As anyone who lived through them could tell you, the 1970′s were a time of real social, political and geopolitical change. And because good crime fiction reflects society, we see those changes reflected in the crime fiction of the era. There won’t be space in this one post for me to discuss all of those changes; I’ll just mention a few of them and you’ll see, I hope, what I mean.

Let’s start, though, with some major changes that were going on in crime fiction itself. You may disagree with me on this, but I see the 1970′s as a bridge between the end of the Golden Age/traditional kind of detective fiction and more modern crime fiction. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and some other Golden-Age authors were still writing as the 1970′s began, and we see their influence. At the same time, though, other authors were taking that tradition and innovating with it.

For instance, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö began writing their series featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the mid-1960′s and carried it through into the mid-1970′s. In that series, we see elements of traditional crime novels. But we also see innovations such as exploration of psychology and social critique. We could say a similar thing about Ruth Rendell’s series featuring Inspector Reg Wexford. That series began in the 1960′s and has continued since then. As the series moved into the 1970′s, we see the traditions of the Golden-Age detective story, but made more modern and addressing more complex themes. I would argue (but feel free to differ with me if you don’t see it this way) that these two series reflect a growing interest in 1970′s crime fiction in the development of deeper and more complex characters.

We also see that development in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, which also began (with Last Bus to Woodstock) in the 1970′s. That series has some elements that you could argue come from Golden Age traditions (e.g. the brilliant detective, the cast of suspects and so on). But at the same time there’s exploration of psychology, there’s the development of the flawed and complex sleuth, and other elements that one could argue are more typical of modern crime fiction.

The world outside was changing too and crime fiction of the day reflects that. One major change was the development of what I’ll call the youth culture. Many people think of ‘hippies’ as a ’60′s phenomenon,’ and certainly there was plenty of youth activism then. But student demonstrations and student political activism was vey much a part of, especially, the early 1970′s. We see that for instance in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, in which Superintendent Andy Dalziel and (then) Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate a murder on the campus of Holm Coultram College. There’s a strong student movement also in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler. In that novel, a Classics professor is asked to investigate his brother’s connection to a radical student movement on the campus of quiet Hewes College. There are lots of other examples too of crime fiction that involves student activism and the ‘youth culture.’

Another major change of the 1970′s was the beginning of the move in international politics from the Cold War to what we think of as modern-day terrorism. Oh, the Cold War was still going on, and I’m sure you could list lots more Cold War-themed novels of the day than I could. And terrorism did not begin in the 1970′s. But especially after the tragic attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics, terrorism began to be a reality more than it ever had. We see that reflected, for instance in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. In that novel, Martin Beck and his team are assigned to protect a U.S. senator who’s visiting Stockholm because he is at risk from terrorists. In the meantime, they’re also investigating the murder of pornographic film-maker Walter Petrus (Valter Pettersson) and the case of Rebecka Lind, who’s on trial for a bank robbery she says she didn’t commit. It’s an interesting look at, among other things, the rise of the threat of terrorism and its effects on policing.

The politics of the 1970′s (I’m thinking in particular about the Watergate scandal that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration) changed the way many people viewed political leadership. There’ve been political thrillers around for quite a while of course, but consipiracy thrillers (such as those of Robert Ludlum) were made even more popular by real-life events such as Watergate.

The 1970′s was also a time of a great deal of social upheaval too. As women began to insist on being treated as equals (the movement was called Women’s Lib(eration) in the U.S.) there was a real re-thinking of the roles men and women should play. Basically, the rules had changed and a lot of people were no longer sure exactly what they were any more. We see that reflected in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, there’s Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who is old-fashioned in some ways. As the 1970′s goes along, he has to increasingly interact with women who simply don’t see the world, or male/female relationships, the way he does. And then there’s the beginnings of the truly independent female crime fiction protagonist. Of course there’ve been female protagonists for quite a long time in the genre. But protagonists such as Marcia Muller’s PI sleuth Sharon McCone were a newer development. McCone does have relationships, but she doesn’t depend on a man to ‘do the rough stuff.’ Nor does she try to ‘act like a man.’ By the end of the decade, women were beginning to take on the world, if I can put it that way, on their own terms, and we start to see that in crime fiction.

I could mention a lot of the other major changes the 1970′s brought (e.g. the rewriting of the ‘rules’ for race relations, the beginning of the gay rights movement, and so on). And the crime fiction of the era reflects what an unsettled time it was. But what’s your view? What 1970′s phenomena do you see reflected in that decade’s crime fiction? C’mon, comb those sideburns or that ‘Farrah Flip,’ dig out that forest-green suit or peasant blouse and let me know what you think.

ps. You will notice that this post contains no mention of disco or disco fashion, other than this sentence. There is a reason for that.
 
 
 

*Note: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s All You Want to Do is Dance.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Marcia Muller, Per Wahlöö, Reginald Hill, Robert Ludlum, Ruth Rendell