Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It was very cold in '63.

I have been meaning to spend more time in the spy genre. This will include time spent with Eric Ambler, an investigation into Alan Furst, tracking down the (out of print?) novels of Richard Condon, and of course, sitting at the feet of the spymaster, John Le Carre.

I read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold many years ago and picked up a fresh copy at Aunt Agatha’s for a re-read. I am no less impressed now than I was then. Le Carre must be regarded by many as one of the best in the genre; certainly, he is also admired because his work transcends genre into capital-L Literature. Not only does Le Carre write realistically about the experiences of spies (although even he thinks his plots are fantastic), he writes about the actual psychological and spiritual damage that is experienced as a result of a life in espionage, the anxiety of duplicity:

A man who lives a part, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play actor or a gambler can return from his performance, the secret agent enjoys no such relief.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold makes the point that in a Cold War, the weapons are people, the scorched earth and ruins the lives of the participants, physically or otherwise. The novel’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, thinks this is acceptable – better for a small group of tradesmen to be degraded or destroyed than for actual bloodshed on a massive, international scale or, God forbid, a nuclear exchange. His lover, Liz, doesn’t see it that way. “They’re more wicked than all of us…” she says of the spy masters. “Because of their contempt.” Contempt for humanity, for love, their employment of people and their human weaknesses as a means to an end, often a very grim end.

The other spy novelist I’ve spent time with, that covers similar ground in that he covers the psychological landscape of the espionage agent, is Adam Hall and his recurring character, Quiller. Quiller kinda wears me out, to tell the truth. Hall has great narration, dialogue and pace but a Quiller novel in my experience is a somewhat exhausting ride in that it’s like watching a chess game and being privy to the racing thoughts and changing stratagems of both players and, in fact, the pieces. I recommend, as does my man at Aunt Agatha’s, starting with The Tango Briefing if you’re going to dip into Quiller.

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