Monday, February 08, 2010

Fresh spies

The pace of geopolitical change must make thriller writers tear their hair out. The Soviet Union is gone, and terrorism, as wise commentators point out, is not a country. What does the fight against it mean, and what is a fictional spy to do in this multipolar world?

Lots, according to Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, in whose world the collapse of the Other Side has given birth to a range of Other Sides: Chinese industrialists, Russian mafias, Islamic insurgents among them.

This fractured geopolitical scorecard is just one of the things that make The Tourist seem new, at least to this infrequent reader of thrillers. Here are a few more:

1) Frequent mention of characters' ages, many of those characters in their twenties or early thirties. This has an internal purpose, but I suspect it's also Steinhauer's way of reminding the reader that the international thriller is alive, well and still a young man's and woman's game two decades after the U.S.S.R.'s collapse.

2) An occasional wryly mocking attitude:

"Milo decided that while his coworkers devoted themselves to finding the Most Famous Muslim in the World somewhere in Afghanistan, he would spend his time on terrorism's more surgical arms."
3) An amusing poke at one of the dumbest songs of the last thirty years:

"`Why `the Tiger'?'

"`Precisely! However, the truth is a disappointment. I have no idea. Someone, somewhere, first used it. Maybe a journalist, I don't know. I guess that, after the Jackal, they needed an animal name.' He shrugged—again it looked painful. `I suppose I should be pleased they didn't choose a vulture—or a hedgehog. And no—before you think to ask, let me assure you I wasn't named after the Survivor song.'"
Do political and spy thrillers have a shorter shelf life thanks to events such as the end of the Soviet Union and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? What does it take to keep such a story fresh? What are your favorite classic spy stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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33 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

A shorter shelf life? I think it depends. If you were a reader during the period in which the thriller's action takes place, it's not hard to immerse yourself right back into it. See Helen MacInnes's Cold War novels "The Salzburg Connection" and "The Snare of the Hunter." The first has Russians, Chinese and Nazis all trying to retrieve a chest containing lists of Nazi collaborators from a lake in Austria. It was pretty clear she used Lake Toplitz and its secrets as inspiration.

The second is about a famous Czech dissident attempting to escape from Czechoslovakia.

I'm old enough to remember the 1960s, which is when these were set. If you're 30 years younger than I, maybe the idea of Soviets, Chicoms and Nazis competing for a moldy pile of papers is too farfetched.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should have said "appeal beyond its own generation" rather than "short shelf life." I remember reading "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" within the past couple of years and finding it a bit tendentious.

Readers today may still read Hammett and Chandler even if they were born or came of age years later. Do such readers still read the best Cold War thrillers? And is a good contemporary thriller the same as a good thriller from thirty years ago, except with different sets of opponents?

I wonder if Lake Toplitz gets ots of scuba divers.

February 08, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

The last time I was in my local bookstore I was glad to see shiny, new Penguin editions of Eric Ambler's pre-war novels. They were out of print in English for a few years after Ambler's death.

I think those books prove that if the writing is fresh it doesn't matter how stale the history becomes.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

I like spy stories during the IIWW in France, although I've seen mainly films on this subject. And I do have very good memories from Le Carré's books featuring Smiley. Will try to read again "The honourable schoolboy".

February 08, 2010  
Blogger R. T. said...

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD remains fascinating (even after the Cold War and the reunification of Berlin and Germany) because the notions of heroics and duplicity on behalf of either ideology or personal values will always be sources of conflict (and solid material for writers and readers).

February 08, 2010  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

My wife and I like to watch the BBC show Spooks (MI5 in America) and she'd never seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy so I got us the DVD. After about three hours she said, "Oh, are we going over the org chart again?"

I haven't read Le Carre in a while, but I did love all the Smiley books (I was in a band in Montreal called Smiley's People in the 80's). Still, I think you make a good point about Chandler and Hammett being more readable today than Cold War novels.

The Olen Steinaur books look very good an are on my list to read.

Also, I liked Robert Littel's novels (especially The Amateur and The Defection of A.J. Lewinter), but I haven't read The Company yet.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger R. T. said...

David Downing's books (SILESIAN STATION and ZOO STATION) are also particular good examples of recently published espionage/thriller books with a focus on Nazi Germany on the eve of WW2. As for the viability of such books, characterization and themes trump time-sensitive settings; if era of setting alone made books perishable (i.e, without much shelf-life), we would be hard pressed to explain the endurance of many world masterpieces of literature (i.e., ILIAD and AENEID, to name just two).

February 08, 2010  
Blogger L.M. Quinn said...

Like some of the comments already made, I still can read "Tinker Tailor" and "Smiley's People" with great pleasure. Simley and company are unforgettable characters.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I ought to read some Eric Ambler. Aside from "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" and two John Buchan novels, I've read little spy and thriller fiction in recent years.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jose et al., I read "The Spy WHo Came in From the Cold" about two years ago, and I liked the stark prose. There was no romance to these spies. But that very starkness made the book seem a bit dated. Maybe he was just working on developing his themes in that book and saved the character development for later novels. I posted some comments about the book here.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., the post to which I link in the comment immediately above quotes the following passage from "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.":

"Ashe, Kiever, Peters; that was a progression on quality, in authority, which to Leamas was axiomatic of the hierarchy of an intelligence network. It was also, he suspected, a progression in ideology. Ashe the mercenary, Kiever the fellow traveler, and now Peters, for whom the ends and the means were identical."

That an intelligent, even chilling observation, but it has the feeling of an early effort. Later spy novelists, probably later Le Carre novels even, would not have had to make such an observation because the reader would have been accustomed to mercenaries and scary zealots, and the action could have delivered the message. Maybe the moral world Le Carre depicted in this book was so new that he laid to lay it out explicitly for readers to able to take it in. I won't say the passage had dated badly, but I will call it a bit of a museum piece, albeit a valuable one.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, that title change makes sense Spooks would not fly in America.

I wonder why the classic detective stories may be more durable than the classic Cold War stories. More to the point, will the classic Cold War novels enjoy a resurgence in a few years, when new generations of readers can see them with fresh eyes?

Eastern and Central Europe are not much written about in crime and espionage fiction, other than East Berlin. But I think they are Olen Steinhauer's fictional world, perhaps more so in his earlier novels.

"Smiley's People" -- was the title an unconscious (or conscious) echo of the smily faces popular at the time?

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., David Downing's latest, "Stettin Station," is on my list. It was one of the books that inspired the post previous to this one.

Since you bring up the ancient world, Virgil's wartime Trojan Horse is one example of fictional wartime espionage that has had a long life.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

L.M., I first became interested in Le Carre after seeing Alec Guinness portray Smiley on television. That and the comments here lead me to suspect that Le Carre may have worked harder on developing his characters after "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Ian Fleming's spy thrillers will continue to have a long shelf-life due in large part to the successful film series based on the novels, but when new readers move to the novels from the films, I believe they are pleased to discover that the novels are far more dark and complex than the films.

Fleming's thrillers are rich in atmosphere and suspense and they offer compeling characters, a fast pace and abundant action. Fleming also offers vivid describtions of new and exotic places, people and things.

Fleming's contemporiares Raymond Chandler, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman all believed Fleming's books were classic thrillers.

Although James Bond fought the good fight against criminals as well as the Soviets, I believe his spy thiller "From Russia With Love," the best novel in the series, will have a long shelf-life due to the great characters and the great story.

The Bond character, less flip and silly than the film Bond, does not show up until half-way throught the thriller. In his place we are introduced to the back stories of three terrific villians.

There is Red Grant, a moon-influenced psycho killer, Kronsteen, the "Wizard of Ice," a chess-playing Soviet master planner, and Rosa Kleb, an ugly, squat lesbian and truly vivious Soviet SMERSH Colonel.

On Bond's side is another interesting character, Darko Kerim, a former circus strong-man, who is the head of the British Secret Service's Turkey station.

Lastly, we have Tania, the Soviet Corporal and beautiful bait the Soviets use to lure Bond to Turkey.

The film version of "From Russia With Love" added the international criminal organization SPECTRE, as the producers in 1963 didn't want to offend the Soviets. That addition muddled the plot, although I believe the film is still the best in the film series.

Fleming's Cold War spy thrillers will be read for many years, I believe, due to Fleming's great characters and great stories.

February 08, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

If you ever get around to Ambler, Peter, you might start with 'The Light of Day,' even if it is a caper story rather than espionage. The book was filmed as Topkapi, which you might have seen. No doubt you were there as well.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, this is as good a time as any to link once again to Ian Fleming’s 1958 interview with Raymond Chandler, which you first told me about a year and a half ago

Thanks again for that, and thanks for a salutary reminder that the books are not the films. On the other hand, the movie, with their greater emphasis on comic-book-type villains, may be less topical than the books and perhaps better able to resist the vicissitudes of geopolitics.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I was there, though I have an alibi for when the dagger was stolen.

I remember finding Peter Ustinov's mugging a distraction in the movie. Thanks for recommending the book, though. I was going to ask for some suggested Ambler reading.

February 08, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

solo, I dunno. Given the theme of Peter's blog, maybe A Coffin for Dimitrios would be better. After all, the protagonist is a mystery writer himself.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Good gosh, I didn't know the protagonist wrote mysteries. That sounds like fun, a heady brew of geopolitics, self-reference, and in-jokes. Thanks.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Peter, I'm in agreement with many of your comments above. I think that as with all 'great' crime fiction it is just as true for spy fiction that character is the most important factor. In this regard I have recently enjoyed following the work of Marshall Browne and Charles McCarry (mentioned before in earlier threads) whose characters are just as or even more interesting than the circumstances they found themselves in. I'm a long time fan of John LeCarre for this reason. Exploring history through the eyes of a character who you can believe in makes the reading very worthwhile. Ludlum's Bourne series was a thrilling roller coaster ride - a wonderful source for making great action films, but I found it hard to invest much interest in the characters. So I wasn't one of those people who lined up to buy the next installment.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, Olen Steinhauer pays explicit tribute to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I'm beginning to see why. And, while I'm not sure his protagonist is more interesting than the circumstances he finds himself in, I will say that the complicated geopolitics that I mentioned at the outset become less important as The Tourist go on. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that even from the beginning the politics were just background.

This is by way of saying that you might like the book.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Yes, I've been meaning to read Olen Steinhauer's books for some time now. I've always suggested him to people who asked me if there were any new espionage writers to read. My piles of TBRs look ominous but I'll move him closer to the top. Thanks for the recommendation.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one that I have re-read several times and it launched me on the dubious path of book collecting. Le Carre's books take up a good bit of space.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Steinhauer's first four or five books (I haven't read them yet) seem as if they might offer a history of mid-century middle Europe. I'll be eager to see how he portrays the history through spy stories.

The Tourist is apparently the first of a new series about the American CIA spy Milo Weaver, who lack a fixed base of operations. That's why he's a tourist.

One oddity: Two of Steinhauer's books have had inferior titles grafted onto them for their UK editions. 36 Yalta Boulevard became The Vienna Assignment, and Liberation Movements became The Istanbul Variations. His British publishers must love their Robert Ludlum.

I mentioned The Tourist's tribute to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the plots are similar in broad outline, I think. If you're a Le Carre nut, I'd be eager to hear your opinion of The Tourist.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Yes, The Vienna Assignment is too bland a title, nowhere near as good as the original.

Peter did you ever see any of the spy novels written by "Phillipe Van Rjdnt" of Montreal? One was called, The Tetramachus Collection. These titles always make me think of Robert Ludlum novels, which I guess Phillipe - actually his name was Oleg Michaelchuck - was going for.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

I've always hated the doubling up of titles - I find them insulting to readers (we'll catch you coming and going!), but that may just be my view. It certainly makes life more complicated than it needs to be.

John, we have a couple of writers down here in Australia who have taken up the Ludlum challenge, too. John Birmingham has written a trilogy (the Axis of Time Trilogy) which is a futuristic thriller series. I haven't read them as it isn't really my thing, but they have been very popular. He's a good writer with a lot of strings to his bow. I'm more likely to ready his journalism. Matthew Reilly is another Aussie author writing who similarly has become a big hit with his fantastic techno-infused romps. When I did a search on Amazon, there seems to be a number of authors cashing in on this phenomenon. [I can feel the vortex of this train of thought starting to pull me towards a very deep.......]. I think I enjoy the historical view better than the futuristic which is a bit too scary for me!

February 09, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I'd second Linkmeister's recommendation of the book that I'd know as The Mask of Dimitrios. If Ambler's work has held up better than other espionage it might be because his protagonists were usually ordinary men caught up in dangerous situations rather than professional spies. I like the leanness and tautness of his writing, made possible by keeping his books relatively short. I find that thrillers that run to four hundred pages or more are rarely lean and taut.

I've only read one le Carre which was a tedious book called The Night Manager. I probably caught him on a bad day.

I used to like Ludlum once; then I left kindergarten.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I brought up Steinhauer's titles some time back in a post on title changes. Some changes have obvious logic behind them, such as the odd circumstance that led Soho to publish Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove as Moonlight Downs in the U.S. Soho already published Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels, including Diamond Dust. Soho may habe been overly cautious, but I could understand its thinking.

Same with Asa Larsson's novel Sun Storm, published as The Savage Altar in the UK. The American title is clearly superior to its overheated British counterpart. What's interesting, though, is that the U.S. title refers to a mood-setting motif in the book, while the UK title refers to a major plot element. (The French publisher, Gallimard, stuck closer to the American strategy and came up with Horreur boréale, a clever play on aurore boréale, French for Northern Lights -- the Sun Storm of the U.S. title.)

So I can find reasons even for title changes I don't care for. But I can think of no reason for the changes to Steinhauer's titles except to create a deliberate echo of Ludlum's.

I don't know The Tetramachus Collection, but its multisyllabic overkill is a clever jab at the Ludlum The+adjective+article formula, I'd say.

ruc-tion /ˈrʌkʃən/ [ruhk-shuhn]
–noun a disturbance, quarrel, or row.


I mention this because that's my v-word, ruction, and a fine one it is, too.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, see my comment to John. Your countryman Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove (He may be your neighbor. I think he lives in Victoria) was likely changed because of its similarity to another title on its U.S. publisher's list. The U.S. title, Moonlight Downs, was a pretty good one though the U.S. cover reflected only a small part of the story.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, that could be a good point about Ambler's appeal. Even The Tourist, while about a professional spy, has much to say about that spy's family life -- his life as a regular guy, in other words. The book, at just over 400 pages, is not the leanest and tautest, but there is good stuff in it.

The movies based on Ludlum's Bourne novels enjoy highter critical standing than the books do, I think.

February 09, 2010  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Yes, I know there are some good commercial reasons for adding an alternate title. It doesn't change the fact that most people will be led to think the second one is a different book. It is so irritating to discover that you've already read it. I've noticed that many overseas titles take some time to reach the bookshop shelves in the US, so American readers may not experience this problem as regularly as we do in Australia.
For this reason I am a great fan of Lucinda Surber and Stan Ulrich's site: Stop You’re Killing Me! They point out double titles very clearly in their indexes. It's a terrific resource on many levels.

February 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant The+adjective+noun, of course, when I mentioned the pattern of Ludlum's titles.

February 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That could well be a valuable resource, yes. Thanks.

February 10, 2010  

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