spy fiction

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

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Generic Secret Agents (TM)

There was a time when literary secret agents weren’t just generic characters from central casting.  Back in the sixties and seventies, they had personality and quirks.  James Bond’s womanizing was accompanied by a lot of internal monologue that today would cause shaken heads, furrowed brows and comments like “well, he was a product of his times.”  Jason Bourne was a killing machine before it became popular.  Smiley’s people were well-developed , flawed characters in well-written tales (not sure why, but there you have it).  The thing is, all these guys were different.

Now, everyone seems to be a spinoff  Jason Bourne.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Bourne is always an entertaining read, but it’s a truth that if you’re a secret agent in today’s world, you are either ex-special forces or trained up to be the equal of any ex-special forces guy you’ll encounter.  Even Forsyth falls into this pattern, probably because he has to stay relevant.

Why this reflection?

Pursuit of Honor by Vince Flynn

Because I recently ran across a book entitled Pursuit of Honor written by Vince Flynn.  I never buy books in airports, which apparently is the literary equivalent of living under a rock, so I hadn’t heard of him, but apparently, this is the tenth book in his Mitch Rapp Series, and Flynn himself is a best selling author.

I read the book and enjoyed it at the time.  It appears to be the perfect airport book (even though I didn’t buy it in an airport).

The problem is that, if you ask me about it in a year’s time, I’d have to read the back cover and then wonder whether I actually read it or not (generic tough American agents taking on generic tough Islamic terrorists isn’t exactly something that stands out from the crowd).

And that’s a pity because this book (I suppose the entire series) deserves to stand out.  In a world where everyone trends towards the bland and politically correct, Flynn goes the other way.  In this book, the smarmy whistle-blowing moralistic do-gooder gets caught in the very first scene and locked in a basement awaiting death…  by the good guys.  You have no idea how I cheered.

Sadly, apart from being violently antisocial onstage (as opposed to offstage), the good guys are otherwise from central casting, and that’s the reason I won’t necessarily recall the book.

But I’ll probably pick up another. I like it when the heroes defy social norms in ways that would cause raised eyebrows.

So yeah, beach reading or plane reading, but I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His latest science fiction novel, Outside, is anything but cookie cutter; you’ll remember this one.  Check it out here.

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

An Unexpected Classic

We’ve all heard the premise that, if you were to perfect a time machine, the first thing you’d be obligated to do with it would be to go back in time and kill Hitler before he gained power (as always, the XKCD take on this is likely the greatest ever).  But that’s what people think in the 21st century.

But what about in 1939?  We know that a lot of Americans saw Fascism as a great thing, but how about the rest of the world?

Rogue-Male-by-Geoffrey-Household

Well, at least one British novelist was pretty clear on the subject.  In 1939, Geoffrey Household wrote a slim volume entitled Rogue Male which deals with exactly this subject.  It’s the story of a British gentleman hunter who braves the wilds of Europe to attempt to get the most dangerous game of all into his crosshairs: the most well-defended dictator in Europe.

Though Hitler is never named (remember, 1939 was pretty much appeasement-era Britain, and Household probably preferred not to be shot for treason), not much is left to the imagination.  It can’t really be anyone else.

So we have the answer to our question, at least in one very specific case.

The book itself is probably more significant because of the audacious and unsubtle way it deals with the Hitler issue, but otherwise seemed unremarkable to this modern reader.  I suppose, though, that such an iconic stand more than justifies its status as a classic.  And, of course, the fact that it literally starts with a cliffhanger…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me was, that as someone who isn’t an expert on the history of the international thriller (except for The Thirty-Nine Steps), I actually stumbled onto this one.  On the same day that I grabbed The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, I picked up a seventies paperback (see image) with the most lurid pink lettering ever.  Were it not for the cover blurb, I would have been convinced that this one was one of those suburban wife-swapping tales from the decade that taste forgot (“Rogue Male” would have worked rather well as a title for one of those)…  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Recommended for students of the genre, for anyone interested in cultural expressions around WWII unsullied by modern revisionism or just fast-paced thrillers.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a tight thriller that deals with the coming issues of post-humanity.

Inscrutable Seventies Spies

The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin by Brian Freemantle

Brian Freemantle was not a name I was familiar with, but the book–an old paperback from the seventies–was sitting, unloved, in my parents’ library, so I grabbed it and tossed it into my TBR pile.  Eventually, The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin cycled through and I read it, not without some misgivings.

While I will be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly classic literature to rival The Great Gatsby for the title of the greatest book of the 20th century, I found it fun, fast-paced and refreshing.  A kind of James Bond story with an anti-hero in the place of the polished secret agent.

The trick seems to be that it’s only about a couple of hundred pages long, enough to give us the good elements of a spy novel: danger, death, sex and betrayal, without the bloat that seems prevalent in all of today’s fiction.  It’s unfortunate that the American public seems to enjoy buying its books by the pound–they’re missing out.

What it doesn’t have is beautiful, drawn out descriptions, fully fleshed out secondary characters aware that they are the hero of their own story or deep reflections of the condition of man.

It a whole heck of a lot better for it, and drives home the point that genre fiction seems to have lost its way over the past few decades.  Readers aren’t drawn to a thriller of this sort to explore the inherent diversity of the modern world.  Most people don’t consume science fiction to ponder the politics of the Western World (and that’s why, in an age when the highest grossing films are all mindless SF blowouts, the written SF genre is dying a slow death) and they don’t read murder mysteries to get an up-to-date moral treatise about the state of a post-truth world.

Unfortunately, critics don’t seem to understand any of the above, and attack novels who fail to pass their silly postmodern standards despite being perfectly good manifestations of their genre.

This is why I always try to pick up books–even ones I hadn’t heard of–from earlier eras.  They remind us of what we’ve lost in this useless obsession with making everything literary.  The humorless drones of postmodernism have managed to take all the fun out of… well out of everything.

Fortunately, despite attempts at revisionism, they are still far from succeeding in removing the old stuff from circulation, or sanitizing and applying revisionist theories to everything.

Here’s hoping they fail, and the old dinosaurs come back into vogue.  If you’ve already read James Bond, then Charlies Muffin is a good place to continue!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion is an action packed romp that should remind you of what science fiction used to be… and that’s a good thing.

Another Busy Dead Guy

The Janson Command - Paul Garrison

A couple of months ago, I discussed how Tom Clancy seems to be busier than ever now that he’s dead.  Well another highly productive dead guy is Robert Ludlum, whose The Janson Command I recently read (review: it is a fun book.  Not likely to be on college curricula in 500 years’ time), and which got me thinking.

Of course, Ludlum and Clancy share a target audience which I would assume is mostly male and mostly uninterested in the finer points of, for example, the works of the Brontë sisters.

I would also imagine that their audience is aging.  The importance of violent men who live in the shadows and hurt people who need it seems to be lost on the younger generation.  I’d say the core audience for these is probably people who remember the Cold War.

Then again, I might be wrong.  There’s a series of blockbusters about Jason Bourne which I assume are not being watched only by the graying crowd…

Who knows.

The truth is that I joined both of these men with their careers already in progress, in about 1990 if I remember correctly.  Even then, Ludlum was already considered a master of the spy genre, creating the template for the bestselling novels of that type that followed.  Clancy, of course, had recently become a trillionaire with The Hunt for Red October and had written what was by far his best book: Red Storm Rising (seriously – if you read only one Clancy in your life, make sure it’s this one).

Ironically, there was already a dynamic at work between the two men: the passing of a torch.  Clancy had conquered most of the older writer’s thunder, a good chunk of his audience, and younger readers who wanted to move on from the old LeCarré-meets-dynamic-writing style perfected by Ludlum.

I say ironic because, by keeping the two alive as brand names and forcing up-and-coming thriller writers to write in universes already created, the presence of the zombies on the bookshelves is keeping the next torch-pass from happening.  And no, Dan Brown isn’t the same.

I wonder how long it will take for a new name to come into its own the way they did.  No one has come close so far, but when they do, I think these zombies might crumble to dust.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and blogger who isn’t dead (or is he?  How can you be sure?).  His latest novel is a comic romp in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

The Collaboration Effect

I recently read a thriller by Tom Clancy and Peter Telep entitled against all enemies, which got me thinking about collaborations between colossally famous writers and relative unknowns.

The book, entitled Against All Enemies is a good one.  It pits a classic Clancy-esque lone wolf hero against everyone from the Taliban to Mexican drug cartels.  How cool is that?  (Answer: it makes for a very entertaining book which is definitely better than this one).

Tom Clancy Peter Telep Against All Enemies

It’s a successful collaboration which, having read some of Clancy’s later solo efforts, makes one think that Telep did most of the writing.  It also makes one thankful.  Clancy had, either because no one dared to edit his work in his latter years or simply because his writing had deteriorated, become a bloated bore in books such as The Teeth of the Tiger.

But basically, these aren’t collaborations between two bright stars.  For a brilliant example of that, check out Good Omens.  No, these books are built this way for the simple purpose of bringing a steady revenue stream to a needy publisher.

Simply stated, before his death in 2013 Tom Clancy was (and if he’s anything like Robert Ludlum, he still is) a cash cow for his publisher.  But for whatever reason, Clancy couldn’t push out all the books the publisher wanted.  Enter the “created by Tom Clancy” and “Tom Clancy’s Op Center” or whatever.  A similar (albeit not identical) approach works really, really well for books sold under James Patterson’s name.

These books sell.  They adhere to the brand and they give customers what they want.  People know what they’re getting with these. So… are they a good thing or a bad thing?

The people who say “no” will argue that the time wasted with these is time that could be better spent reading the classics.  Or the newest truly deep modern novel which finally explains the human condition.

I beg to differ.

I ascribe to the  school of thought that says that anything that gets people to read is a good thing, even if these books are essentially brain-off beach reads.  That’s fine.  Reading is reading and it isn’t staring at a cel phone to see if anyone has posted something a little less stultifying on Facebook.

And, now that Clancy isn’t writing them, they seem to be reasonably decent books, too.

And besides, afer reading The Stranger, I was ready for something a bit more entertaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, which, if you like a good thriller, should be right up your alley.

Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege.