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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dilberts, Mechanics and Scouts, Oh my!

The General Subgenres of the 
Espionage Thriller 
(An Essay)



When it comes to suspense fiction, many of the most famous espionage thrillers don't fit into any particular category: Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and The Third Man, Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios, and Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate are originals that helped establish the style and a considerable amount of the substance of the contemporary spy novel.

However, just about any list of popular spy yarns shows clearly that many practitioners of the genre work almost exclusively in a handful of categories, and most of the secondary authors in the field line up behind them, essentially writing the same sorts of books.
 
For example, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels -- and the mediocre knock-offs by Kingsley Amis, John Gardner and Raymond Benson -- fall into a fantasy subgenre that could be called the "Mickey Spillane" school of spy thriller. In these tales, the emphasis is on action and gunplay, not the collection and analysis of intelligence -- or even intrigue.

Like Spillane's hero, Mike Hammer, Bond is more likely to pummel information out of a villain or simply kill him than to set up a surveillance, service a dead drop, massage a double agent for classified documents or corrupt a rival from a foreign secret service. Spies like Bond can easily donate their cerebral matter to worthy recipients when they die because they use them so little in their work. "Unfortunately I misjudged you," Bond villain Dr. No says as he prepare to feed Commander Bond to the most numerous residents of Crab Key. "You are just a stupid policeman whose luck has run out."

Stupid maybe, but a crack shot and in remarkable physical  condition for a man who bangs down vodka like soda pop, smokes bespoke cigarettes compulsively and seems to get most of his exercise by diving between the thighs of nubile young women.

The Bond novels are simply the glitziest example of this school. Other exemplars include such direct-to-paperback potboiler series as The Executioner, Nick Carter-Killmaster, The Deathmaster, Phoenix Force and others of their ilk.

On the opposite pole from the Bond novels are the cerebral novels of John Le Carre, who began as the undisputed master of the "Boy's Life" espionage subgenre. 

The "Boy's Life" thriller, like the scouting magazine of that name, concerns itself at length with the tradecraft used by intelligence agents. Only instead of being organized around lessons on how to build a fire, pitch a tent or help a little old lady cross the street, Le Carre's "Boy's Life" spy novels (such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or The Looking Glass War) detail how spies compromise each other, infiltrate enemy services and push little old ladies from the research desk of MI6 under the wheels of passing omnibuses.
 
With the two-part George Smiley series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, Le Carre took a step away from the "Boy's Life" subset and into what could be called the "Pyramid Builder" school of espionage tale. The "Pyramid Builder" moniker is derived from Vance Packard's study of the acquisitive and competitive behavior of top executives in the 1950s. Novels in this subgenre concentrate on the interior sociology and politics of spy agencies and the infighting that characterizes many of them.

In recent years, the diminution of the Cold War has forced Le Carre to look elsewhere for inspiration, so the vicious and heartless spies of the Soviet Union who later became vicious and heartless terrorists are now vicious and heartless agents of multi-national corporations, drug cartels or dealers in armaments.

I don't point out the general lines followed by these two authors to suggest some sort of rampant plagiarism or failure of imagination among writers of espionage fiction. It is more of an observation that a lot of us who write popular fiction follow certain fictional conventions, and at times those conventions become a specific subcategory of fiction all by themselves.

The best most of us can do is avoid following these subgenres too closely, and to mix them up as much as possible There are a variety of different types of espionage-and-intrigue thrillers out there in the suspense genre and certain writers are associated with each one. Here is a far from complete list of those subgenres. See how well the spy novel you have sitting on your bedside table corresponds to these coarse categories:

Popular Mechanics

Tom Clancy is heavily identified with the "Popular Mechanics" school, which concentrates on the technology involved in a story --guns, military hardware, eavesdropping gear, surveillance equipment etc. -- in an almost fetishistic way.

A couple of Clancy's books play out almost exclusively as catalogs of munitions and war materiel. The Hunt for Red October, which revolves around the defection of a Soviet hunter-killer submarine and its crew, is one of these, as is Red Storm Rising, the Clancy programmer that turns on war between NATO and the USSR.

In them, Clancy's pornographic obsession with military hardware and its capabilities are a substitute for  characterization and a sense of time and place. Clancy and and his team of researchers, ghost writers and co-authors seem to create his stories, novels and screenplays in the stacks of a reference library filled with back copies of Jane's, the catalog of military hardware.

Paranoid Thrillers

Robert Ludlum is the master of the "Paranoid" school, in which the spy is essentially a lone wolf targeted by everyone else in his circle, including his bosses in his own intelligence service. The Bourne novels are the gold standard for this type of spy yarn; in a Ludlum novel, the hero can trust no one -- when the villain is finally exposed, he or she is just as likely to be a high-ranking member of the hero's own outfit as the bearded head of a mideast terrorist organization or coldblooded chieftain of an enemy nation's secret service.

Other practitioners of this subgenre include Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed), Ken Follett (Capricorn One) and Frederick Forsyth (The Odessa File, The Boys from Brazil, The Fourth Protocol).

Gray's Anatomy

The "Gray's Anatomy" school of thriller closely resembles  the "Popular Mechanics" school, except that the author of a "Gray's"-style suspense novel tends to be morbidly fascinated by human bodies and how their grisly bits respond to physical violence.

The books of Lee Child are often members of this subset. In them each shot, kick and karate chop is described in obsessive detail, tracing its impact on the victim's internal organs and nervous system as he goes down, waiting for the coup de grace.

Sections of stories written by practitioners of this subgenre can read like autopsy reports, and the details about how a character dies frequently takes a back seat to the development of his or her character or the ingenuity of the plot. 

In Die Trying, his second Jack Reacher novel, for example, Child takes two paragraphs to describe the physical effect of a sniper rifle round:

"Reacher's bullet hit Borken in the head a full second and a third after he fired it. It entered the front of his forehead and was out of the back of his skull three ten-thousands of a second later. In and out without really slowing much more at all, because Borken's skull and brains were nothing to a two-ounce lead projectile with a needle point and polished copper jacket. The bullet was well on over the endless forest beyond before the pressure wave built up in Borken's skull and exploded it."

"The effect is mathematical and concerns kinetic energy. The way it had been explained to Reacher, long ago, was all about equivalents. The bullet weighed only two ounces but it was fast. Equivalent to something heavy, but slow. Two ounces moving at a thousand miles an hour was maybe similar to something weighing ten pounds moving at three miles an hour. Maybe something like a sledgehammer swinging hard in a man's hand. That was pretty much the effect. Reacher was watching it through the scope. Heart in his mouth. A full second and a third is a long time to wait.  He watched Borken's skull explode like it had been burst from the inside with a sledgehammer. It came apart like a diagram. Reacher saw curved shards of bone bursting outward and red mist blooming."

As can be seen in this two-paragraph passage, because the mayhem in Child's Reacher books frequently involves gunplay, Child's stories also sometimes draw heavily on the "Popular Mechanics" school of spy writing.


Dilbert and Working Class Hero

The "Dilbert" subtype -- and its cousin, the "Working Class Hero" -- have protagonists who work for agencies that almost invariably make the wrong call, forcing the agent to ignore the instructions he has been given by his supervisors.  In these novels, the protagonist spends almost as much time working against his own corrupt and incompetent masters as against his actual opponents, and his triumphs are rarely acknowledged. 

The novels featuring the British agent Quiller (The Quiller Memorandum, The Ninth Directive) by Adam Hall (a pseudonym for Elleston Trevor) are exemplars, though they sometimes seem a cross with the "Gray's Anatomy" subgenre: Agent Quiller works alone and never uses a firearm, so when he is forced to kill or incapacitate a foe, there is usually a detailed description of what household item he uses as a weapon and how it inflicts the mortal (or at least crippling) injury.

(This genre is sometimes referred to as the "Peter Principle" subcategory when the author spends more time demonstrating the ineptitude of the protagonist's intelligence agency than he does developing the intrigue that is supposedly driving the story. 

Lawrence Peters coined the term in the early 1970s to describe the often-noted fact that people tend to rise through an organization until they reach their point of maximum incompetence, at which time further promotions cease. 

These days Peter's term is generally used in connection with the workings of large financial businesses.)The "Working Class Hero" subset's most perfect examples are Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels (The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, etc.). 

If you take the bureaucratically challenged Quiller of Adam Hall's espionage novels and give him a working class background (and in Palmer's case, uninterrupted carping about how little he is paid) and you have the essential formula for this form, which is sometimes called the "Shop Steward" genre, depending on how much the central figure bitches about his masters' tight-fistedness.

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