Undercover: The Thriller Memorandum, Part I (03/11/76)

The fan of spy thrillers soon learns certain tricks that help distinguish the good of the genre from the bad. Any book described as “the best of its kind since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” will not be, but it may be literate. A thriller set anywhere but in the United States or Europe will emphasize sex and violence at the expense of plot, dialogue and believability, not to mention decent writing. Any volume over 350 pages indicates an author madly in love with himself who hopes to be considered either a serious novelist or Harold Robbins. Anything with Arabs in it is a waste of time.

The problem with spy thrillers, though, isn’t in the junk of the genre—in Fredrick Forsyth’s stuff, for example. It’s in the classier material—almost all of which derives from John Le Carre‘s work.

In opposition to the flashy, monied James Bond stories, popular when he began to write—stories John F. Kennedy found so attractive (had he failed in his bid for the presidency in 1960, JFK could easily have taken over the Sean Connery role in the movie versions)—Le Carre presented the low-rent spy thriller. His seedy world of incompetent bureaucracies, petty rivalries, bland brutalities, and narcissistic intelligence officers playing out fantasies of World War II glory 20 and 30 years too late simply proved too convincing—and it robbed the old-style spy thriller (noble hero with beautiful woman at his side, fighting for truth, honor, and the free world) of its reality. After Le Carre, any spy story with clear-cut heroes and villains had to be read at least partly as a comic book.

Ian Fleming’s theme was the triumph of the master race (the English, that is); Le Carre’s is the triumph of pointlessness, the ultimate futility of action. Such a perspective, in the Sixties and Seventies, has not proved hard to imitate, or even to imitate well. Le Carre, however, unlike most of his imitators, has never attempted to inflate his material, to weaken his theme of pointlessness by passing it off as existential agony.freemantle2But at the same time, Le Carre has stripped the spy story of any convincing moral dimension. Today, only a writer aiming for a naive audience continues to pretend that “our side” is morally superior to “their side.” Even in the case of Nazi-hunting books, such as Brian Freemantle’s sizzling The Man Who Wanted Tomorrow (Stein and Day, $7.95), it is incumbent upon the writer to make clear that the pursuit of an ex-Nazi by an Israeli agent turns the agent into something of a fiend himself. In spy stories played out on a larger field—i.e , capitalists—one fights not for a good, but for position. Again, the struggle is “existential”; the CIA fights the KGB because it is there.

The only moral good that has survived Le Carre’s demolition of the good guys/bad guys premise is that of a solitary individual doing his assigned work well without the slightest consideration of any general context in which questions of good and evil might have any fundamental meaning; the idea, if you can call it an idea, is that there is something admirable even in a man who has become a superb torturer, provided the man is not a sadist but simply devoted to his work, like, say, a medieval philosopher interested in the question of how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. The only difference is that in this case the question is one of how many pins can fit into a man.

Now, as moral dimensions go, this is cutting it thin; which is, presumably, Le Carre’s point. In other hands than his it has led to the glamorized cult of professionalism that now dominates spy fiction—it has led back, that is, with a lot of sleight of hand about seeing the world as it is, to James Bond in world-weary drag.tearsShort of this, the best spy stories orient the reader’s admiration toward he who is most clever, or most fed up (“alienated”), which usually means the writer. Robert Littell’s The Defection of A.J. Lewinter (Popular Library, $1.50) is perhaps the best example; an extremely tight account of a small war of deception between American intelligence and the KGB, it is set up, in a way that is almost self-parodying, as a chess game. One of the finer spy stories published in the last few years, it is, in the end, empty. Charles McCarry’s gripping The Tears of Autumn (Fawcett, $1.95), about a CIA man who tracks down the real murderers of JFK, is basically similar—the quest is not made for anything so old-fashioned as justice, but for the agent’s intellectual satisfaction. Warmed-over existentialism drips from the book; the CIA comes off as equally divided between thugs and philosopher kings, the latter being those who must suffer, in the dark nights of their souls, knowledge of how the world really works—as opposed to politicians, the fools who only pretend to know. In such a light, JFK’s assassination seems almost a matter of his getting his comeuppance for having believed in James Bond.

“They all read those paperbacks about secret agents,” says one of the philosophers of JFK and his crowd. “WolkoWicz [here, JFK’s favorite spook] carries guns and talks like a gangster. They were talking about Castro in one of the planning sessions [for the Bay of Pigs]——what to do with him after Cuba was liberated. Wolkowicz took out his revolver, removed a cartridge from the cylinder, and rolled the bullet across the table. In the Cabinet Room. That was when his star began to rise.”

Now, this is pretty fine—the sort of seemingly offhand intrusion of political reality that gives the spy thriller its kick. The kick would be harder if the smugness of the man who tells the story were any less than that of those he describes which, really, it isn’t. With no authentic moral perspective, the writer of the spy story becomes obtuse to the failure of his own inevitable attempts to provide one.

Rolling Stone, March 11, 1976

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