Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Handful of Thrillers, Most from the Seventies

MADONNA RED -- James Carroll

Exceptionally odd thriller tries to marry the “Catholic Problem Novel” (which always seem to down to “Those Mean Old Priests Are Trying To Stop Reform, Dammit”) with, ah, um, a thriller.

I don't know what to say. I suppose it's better than marrying the thriller with the “Jewish Writer Problem Novel”, which would probably end up with a lot of scenes of the hero masturbating fiercely in the bathroom. But it still seems like a really strange thing to do. Also a lot of genuflecting Irishims, the kind of book where JFK is mentioned and we're all supposed to bow our heads in prayer. Ridiculous, avoid.


I only read a few pages into this, so maybe I'm missing some tremendous payoff down the line, but I kinda doubt it. For one thing I've been around, y'know? I know how stories work, pretty much, and I'm pretty sure I know where this is headed. Secondly, I kinda skimmed ahead and what I saw didn't surprise me none, yo.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I can live with that.

And anyway, I decided years ago I wouldn't put up with books that weren't good. Life is short, you'll never read half of what you promised yourself, let alone what's out there, don't waste your time on crap. At it's heart book reading should be fun, not a chore. This isn't 11th Grade English and you do not have to make a report on this when you're done.

Anyhow, the general concept here is this the “spy in deep cover who has to juggle his mission against the friends and connections set up in his new country”. I have never bought this notion from the start, at least in any serious way. In it's more entertaining gonzo variants it's a plot right out of a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel, basically it transfers the “invasion of the body snatchers” type story to the spy novel. Fred the kindly old barber is really a Chinese Commie Spy? Really?

In it's more serious variants I think it's trying to move the “undercover cop in danger of losing site of his mission” trope to the spy arena. This is a more serious variant and I suspect that's the inspiration, particularly because I suspect “R Wright Campbell” is really “Robert Campbell” a guy who was once well known for tough guy novels. Like IN LA-LA LAND WE TRUST. So it would make sense, see, this would be a logical move for him.

In it's more serious variants it runs into problems immediately, though. To begin with, people do not leave their home, stay deep within another culture, and then at a predetermined time rise up and start blowing up bridges or whatever. Psychologically it doesn't work that way. The environment is too strong, the pressures to great, in the absence of careful mentoring (and it's made quite clear early on that there's no careful mentoring here) the subject will just join the new culture.

Yes, of course, moles have existed in the past and continue to do so, but don't miss the thread – these guys are converts. That's the point, and actually the interest of them. See TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY on this – the point is the mole wouldn't be so interesting if he actually WAS a Russian citizen, would he?

So, I don't really buy the premise. But let's set that aside, as much as we can, anyway, and look a little at where this comes from, like I said up top....probably the undercover cop story.

There's really only a couple of ways those kinds of stories can go. One is the “guy infiltrates Bad Guys to Bring Them Down, all the while Suffering Emotionally/Mentally/Physically”. Think Scorcese's THE DEPARTED, if you need an example. In that case, our hero is definitely an outsider, has a mission, suffers but in the end completes (or at least tries to complete) the mission.

The other way is the “both sides are rotten” kind of story, the undercover cop tale as social commentary. This is much harder to pull off, because it's a lot less clear who to root for in such stories, but usually you end up just focusing on the viewpoint character himself, who usually comes to embody all that is Good and Pure and Noble in the writer's mind. Laurence Fishburne in DEEP COVER was a version of this.

Now, it's kinda dicey in a crime story, but if you got skills you can sometimes make it work there. In a spy story? Particularly a WW 2 spy story like the above? Never.

Think about the problems Campbell set for himself. He can't make it a battle between two equally bad systems, Nazi Germany and Great Britain, because, even setting aside the fact that it WASN'T in fact, it's going to be a helluva tough sell in the story proper. WW2 stories always occur in a context, they can't help it, it's a mediated war, and one of those contexts is “Nazis are evil bastards”. If you're gonna challenge that context well.....well, good luck, I guess. It might even be an interesting book. It certainly would have a hard time out there, though. Probably.

So Campbell can't do that, he's a consummate pro and he realizes that trying to disengage the message of the 400 WW2 movies his readers have seen is a losing battle. So the Brits (actually, here the Scots) are good and the Nazis are bad. So.

So, why doesn't this guy just make a new life for himself in Scotland?

Because mind, this is a sensitive, caring, intelligent guy. This is part of the point too. A guy in his absurd position who really stayed loyal to Deutschland through all of those years, resist all the normal psychological pressures working against it, would almost certainly be some kind of weirdo – he certainly wouldn't be able to blend in under “deep cover”. But since we ill-advisedly are in this guy's head, we see that he's a pretty decent chap, all in all. So why doesn't he just give up Germany? We're even told he has nothing to keep him loyal to the country. He doesn't seem to obsess over it much, except for periodic reminders that I feel are more authorial intent than anything. So why not?

Campbell never really gives me a good answer to that, in the pages I read, and I felt no need to read further. THE SPY WHO SAT AND WAITED is the kind of bad popular book that is sometimes mistaken for good. On some level it's very carefully written: it's a pro's job, the scenes are very carefully delineated, I wouldn't say the prose ever really distinguishes itself but it's fussy in a reliable craftsmanlike sort of way, intelligent as far as it goes, you won't hate yourself reading this. But taken as a whole it's a badly written book, and that's because the whole idea is, to put a fine point on it, stupid. It's a stupid premise. I could never suspend my disbelief that it could ever work, and the bad choice of viewpoint character ensured that the whole setup was just insane. When you're sneering at the book's main character that's not a good sign.

THE THREE JUST MEN – Edgar Wallace

THE FOUR JUST MEN is that rarity, a political thriller which is literally about politics – that is, about the ways we organize, decide, and conduct ourselves politically. It's a very unique book and if there's only one Wallace you read, it definitely should be that.

The sequels really do not match it. THE COUNCIL OF JUSTICE is a political thriller in the more standard tradition of the time – “basic action thriller with political overtones that skews conservative and does have some fascist overtones, frankly, like it or not”. BLACK GANG sort of stuff. While not nearly as snazzy as THE BLACK GANG, COUNCIL is good on that level and worth reading. THE JUST MEN OF CORDOVA I don't remember a gosh-durned thing about, except that it's set in Spain and Wallace apparently really liked Spain. I wouldn't take my failure of memory as a recommendation. THE LAW OF THE FOUR JUST MEN is a collection of stories, and they vary in quality as most short story collections tend to do. I would describe the book as “pleasant, but minor”.

Leaving THREE, the last one. And apparently Wallace decided to leave the characters with a bang. We're pretty far afield here of the mysterious grim men of FOUR, here the remaining three (one of 'em dies in FOUR...oh crap, is that a spoiler?) have been pardoned and actually work a detective agency in their spare time, where, as this book opens, they are apparently just sitting around waiting for the plot to start.

Yes, this is a straightforward pulp adventure novel, and on that basis it's quite entertaining. It has all of the standard Wallace elements: damsels in distress, a corrupt member of the aristocracy, a fiendish plot to defraud said heiress, a mysterious murder full of mysterious mystery, and best of all a memorable villain. The problem with turning the Just Men into just pulp heroes is that they were most effective in narrative terms when they were mysterious – Wallace, to keep the series going, ultimately had to characterize them, and while he did a professional's job they do lose some of their luster in comparison.

But accepting that, it's very entertaining. The best thing Wallace does here is two fine villains – a henchman who on the run from ahem “certain unspecified things” in Germany and, when he's not a psychopathic killer, is a master of disguise, and, best of all, the lead bad guy, Oberzhon, a guy who's just a marvelously entertaining collection of tics: he only sleeps in a chair; he rarely eats solid foods – there's a reference to him boiling down an entire ox and sipping that and there aren't enough exclamation points in the universe to indicate how awesome that is; he relaxes by reading the lesser Germanic philosophers (extra special points to Wallace by making sure we understood – the lesser.) There's a priceless sequence where he attempts to court a woman he, uh, kidnapped (don't ask) and he does it in a ponderous Germanic way which is the kind of thing they really gotta film, it's crying out for the movies.

Add to that a good-for-the-time mystery, for once; some cool stuff from the Just Men; and one really excellent fight sequence – we've spoken here before about how hard it is to do action properly, the fight with the snakes in the cellar is really masterfully done, very well choreographed. Not a necessary book like FOUR JUST MEN, but if you like Wallace this is one of his better efforts, and is the only other installment of “the Just Men” series that I would recommend.


Earlier we talked about one classic kind of bad book, THE SPY WHO SAT AND ATE A HOAGIE or whatever it was called, which was “the character study that springs from false assumptions, and thus is unbelievable on it's face”. RIMRING is another classic kind of bad book, “the thriller which is really a travelogue”.

The bio in the back of the book tells me that Hart-Davis spent time in the Himalayas, which I guess accounts for his setting, yo. He obviously loves the area, and the descriptions are nicely done. But this is all done in the service of an extremely hackneyed thriller plot: The Ex-Spy Who Is Roped Back Into The Business, The Evil Commie Opposition, The Simple But Good Natives, The Evil Cutthroat, The Love Interest, The Secret Idol, etc. The intent, I'm pretty sure, was to do a classic adventure, but you don't do a classic adventure by forcing the tropes of a classic adventure onto a modern setting: this ensures laborious stage-setting (where you're carefully told how sheltered the native populace is, how rural the environment is, where the Improbable Throwback From Another Era is carefully placed, etc.) and in general just makes the whole thing seem as contrived as it really is. Instead, you need to just move the tropes into the modern era. They're hardy things, they can stand them. To not do that is to betray a lack of faith in your story telling ability proper, it suggests that really you don't think you can TELL a good adventure story by itself, that you gotta rely on the old tropes to stand in and deliver for you. (Ie, the Mysterious Idol is now code for “the prize”, instead of being, well, the prize.)

There's two ways to look at a book like RIMRING. Either the thought was “hey, man, you know the Himalayas and that's a classic setting for an old timey adventure story” (that's what I think happened) or “I want to tell a classic adventure – hey, I know the Himalayas! – wait, where's the typewriter...” (the old “tell what you know” fallacy). Either way it results in bad books, and any given installment of Edward S Aarons's “Assignment” series, which almost always took place in exotic parts of the world that he knew only through the local library, is simply superior to this kind of well-intentioned mediocrity.