Reading what I have to think about the-book-I-just-read-that-you're-probably-not-interested-in-reading-anyway might, I started to think not long ago, get a little bit old after a while. I mean, if you're not interested in myths/folklore, noir fiction or comic books, well, the last month-plus has been a little dry for you. But what else is there to do? For a time, I tried reprinting older book reviews I wrote whilst still a gainfully employed literary critic, but that, let's be honest, might be (is) much worse. Then there was that silly post about Marcel Proust's birthday--don't ask me why. So here's the Next New Thing, a list. A short list, but an informative one (I hope). And while it might be such a massive departure from writing about detectives, let the list of my Top Five Most Enjoyable Espionage Novels of all time serve as a harbinger of better, more different things to come:
1.) The Quiet American by Graham Greene: the biggest question, as I prepared this list, was exactly how three Englishmen--Graham Greene, John Le Carre and Eric Ambler--would fit into it. Only five books, why, I could've filled it up with...well, really with just any one of their works, but that wouldn't've done, would it now? In the end, it came down to a Greene-Le Carre contest for first. With the two books being compared so very, very different, however, there was no easy way to compare them, and I began to expand just what I was looking at. I wound up balancing each author's entire repertoire against the other's, and deciding that, on the whole, I'd rather wind up reading the wrong Graham Greene book than the wrong John Le Carre (without even considering the extremely high quality of Greene's more literary works). So what's this book about? Well, it's not your typical spy story, that's for sure. Set in 1950s Vietnam, it's probably the most artful depiction of a country on the brink of war that I've ever read. The ending doesn't resolve the tension, really (the ending, actually doesn't really come at the end; temporally, the book is a wonderful, wonderful mess), as it historically couldn't have done. Oh, and the quiet American himself? Not very quiet. Greene's a great writer, so there's plenty more, espionage and non-espionage, where this came from.
2.) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre: I once read a similar list in which Le Carre's entire Quest for Karla trilogy--this one, plus The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People--were considered as a single book (and thus topped the list, since the overall arc of this story is quite amazing). I thought about doing that, then decided against it, since what I really needed to do was weigh Tinker, Tailor against another of Le Carre's George Smiley books, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I must say, Spy, if only because it was my introduction to the author, nearly won; would've won, in fact, had this book not had the personal touch. John Le Carre, real name something like David Cornwell (his son writes under the pseudonym Nick Harkaway, and recently published an excellent post-apocolyptic novel called The Gone-Away World which was highly recommended by erstwhile Temple News literary critic Peter Chomko [that's me]), was one of the confidential British intelligence agents outed by the English-born Soviet agent Kim Philby (Philby's true story is quite amazing in itself, and was also drawn upon by Greene in his masterful The Human Factor). Tinker, Tailor is based on the extraordinary Philby scandal, albeit in a heavily fictionalized manner. Still: great, great stuff. Read this, and more, please.
3.) A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: before there was a John Le Carre, there was a Graham Greene. Before there was a Graham Greene? Eric Ambler. Ambler's spy novels do, admittedly, lack some of the moral depth that you find in the more philosophical writing of the other two, but more than make up for that in pure action. An Ambler book reads like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and Coffin is the best of them that I've ever read. It all takes place, as I recall, on a boat (I should just Wikipedia it and check, but if I'm wrong, then you should read the book I'm describing), and involves at least one case of mistaken identity and that oh-so-common man who knew too much--only, when Ambler writes about him, that common man doesn't seem so common, after all. Does that make any sense? Think about any of the tropes that we're used to in our spy novels, our spy films, our spy whatever, and there's probably some primordial form lurking somewhere in Ambler. This guy wrenched the ho-hum "thrillers" of people like Erskine Childers and John Buchan into the here-and-now, and his books, while they've obviously aged, still have a certain immediacy about them lacking even in more contemporary, less well-written spy stories.
4.) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore: what's this? A comic book, on this list? You're leaving out James Bond (just pure drivel) and company for the sake of a comic book? Where's Len Deighton? Robert Ludlum? Tom Clancy? Fuck 'em all, I say, and this isn't really even a spy novel. Or is it? I'm not sure, but I'm going to start writing a little more intelligently, now. Take the cast, here--and I'll explain them, for those of you not quite up on your Victorian popular fiction. You've got Mycroft Holmes, first of all, who assembled the whole team. That's Sherlock's brother, much fatter but possibly even smarter (hard to say on the latter)? And Mina Harker, the boss of them all; she's the former Mina Murray, once infected by Dracula in that wonderful story. Dastardly Captain Nemo, he's a Jules Verne creation, from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Invisible Man is from, well, The Invisible Man, and Dr. Henry Jeckyll/Mr. Edward Hyde are equally self-explanatory. Alan Quatermain is perhaps the greatest of them all, or would be were it not for his age and late opium addiction; he's the hero of a number of H. Rider Haggard's fantastic high-colonialist boys' adventure stories, starting with She. And that, I think, is all of them. Interested, yet?
5.) The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe: you can't just read spy stories written from the good guy's perspective all the time. Every once in a while, you've got to sprinkle in one or two from the other side, and Jackal is the best of those I've read. It's set, as are many of Forsythe's works, in an interesting time period: post-World War II France, during the De Gaulle administration. Somebody's hired Europe's foremost assassin to take out De Gaulle, and the French find out about it. From then on out, it's a race to...something. The death, if you're rooting for the bad guy (and even though you know how the story's got to end, you can't help rooting for the bad guy. Call it the Wile E. Coyote effect), or the prevention-of-death, if you can't break out of your overly-moral mold. Forsythe writes popular thrillers, and this one is most definitely a popular thriller, written at a breakneck pace and without much regard for the higher literary elements. But it's also a damn good book, so what are you going to do, complain that it's not Henry James? Not everything should be Henry James, and I happen to think that this would be just the thing to read after you've plowed through (the also excellent, but very different) Portrait of a Lady.