Monday, January 16, 2017

From Russia With Books

After an iconic image of Michael Caine in The Ipcress File.
"I never intended my leading character, James Bond, to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, or get out of them one way or another. ... On the whole I think he's a rather unattractive man . . ." Ian Fleming in Conversation with Raymond Chandler, 1958. Transcript in Five Dials Magazine, Issue 7.

So far in my series looking at the top mystery novels, I've been moving my way through the top five on the Crime Writers Association (CWA) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA) lists and looking at related novels.


1. Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time
2. Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep [in Chandler versus Hammett]
3. John le Carré: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [below]
4. Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
5. Agatha Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd


1. Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes
2. Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon [or should I say Hammett versus Chandler]
3. Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery & Imagination
4. Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time
5. Scott Turow: Presumed Innocent [and legal mysteries in general].

In this post, I will look at CWA #3, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and other Cold War mysteries.

The Turkish book cover for From Russia, With Love

By the time of the 1950s, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene helped set the tone of the mature spy novel, but it was up to Ian Fleming to mix in the Cold War and mine the genre for pulpy fun. His fifth James Bond book, From Russia, With Love, sits at #35 on the CWA list and #78 on the MWA list.

At the time of its writing Ian Fleming expected it to be his last Bond novel and 007 appears to die in the end. "I am getting fed up with Bond and it has been very difficult to make him go through his tawdry tricks" [Wikipedia, citing Matthew Parker's Goldeneye]. But every Reichenbach Falls has a trampoline at the bottom and the next year Fleming started on Dr. No.

How well does the book hold up? For me, not very well. It is pleasant to see Bond not as a superhero, but as a vulnerable man who is fooled by the plot against him. And Bond doesn't even appear until one-third of the way through the book.

Author: Ian Fleming
Novel: From Russia, With Love
Published: 1957
Rank: #35 on the CWA list; #78 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 71687
Age of author at time of publication: 48
Previous novels published by this author: 4
Opening  line:  The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.
Significance: On a list of the top ten favorite books of John F. Kennedy. Generally agreed to be the best of the Bond series. Gadget-free entry to a series with a thousand gadgets.

Len Deighton in The IPCRESS File took on the spy world and made it in to a wince-inducing bureaucracy. He added in a tinge of black comedy and real world fears (nuclear testing) and sensationalism (brainwashing and kidnapped scientists). Published in 1962, it presaged le Carré's wildly successful, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Both authors went on to productive spy-writing careers.

Author: Len Deighton
Novel: The IPCRESS File
Publication: 1962
Rank: #9 on the CWA list; #43 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 79889
Age of author at time of publication: 33.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: They came through on the hot-line about half past two in the afternoon.
Significance: One year before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The IPCRESS File set a tone for a new type of spy novel: one of bureaucracies and heroes who stumble along.
Most recent novel: Charity, 1996.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a phenomenon as much as a novel. A great novel: talent. A phenomenon: timing. The Spy... certainly wasn't the first literary spy novel (The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad). Instead it made its mark by tapping into the dissonance of international politics where peace was war.

By the time 1963 rolled around, a goodly number of people were questioning the Cold War. Linus Pauling won the 1962 Nobel Prize for his efforts to ban atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1963, the USSR and the US signed a treaty to do just that. The Missile Crisis of October, 1962 raised fears of a civilization-ending nuclear exchange. In 1963, Kubrick filmed Dr. Strangelove with a screening date set for November 22, 1963 (delayed due to a Steven King novel).

In this atmosphere, le Carré released, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a work that declared both the Russians and the Western world were morally compromised. The novel worked as suspense, as a world critique, and as literature. It achieved the "total effect" which Poe talked about, we might as well have been invited to the house of Usher. A gloomy chill surrounded the Cold War. Middle-aged men who clung to remnants of patriotism made the decisions and humanity was the collateral damage. Le Carré's thriller spent 34 weeks in the number one position on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.

My favorite sort of suspense comes about when, due to well-established constraints, protagonists are forced to escape with an excruciating slowness. Rick and Ilsa and Laszlo waiting for the plane to take off; Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains passing through a nest of Nazis where even a word of suspicion will bring their doom. At both the beginning and end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, characters must make a slow transit across the East Berlin / West Berlin No Man's Zone, while fingers rested on the triggers of the rifles aimed at their backs. I'm envious. I hope someday to construct something so breathtakingly thrilling.

Le Carré has continued his spy-writing into his mid-eighties.

Author: John le Carré  (pen name of David John Moore Cornwell)
Novel: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Publication: 1963
Rank: #3 on the CWA list; #6 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 63790
Age of author at time of publication: 31.
Previous novels published by this author: two.
Opening line: The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, "Why don't you go back and sleep?"
Significance: A monumental shift in the tone of the spy novel. The game was morally ambiguous and spies were broken people. Essential reading.
Most recent novel: A Delicate Truth, 2013.

Gorky Park. Am I Martin Cruz Smith's doppelgänger? The evidence: I am Martin Hill Ortiz, same first name, Hill corresponds with Smith as a common family name, as does Ortiz with Cruz as Latino names. He writes ambitious well-crafted thrillers. I have ambition and some sort of craftsmanship and shouldn't his doppelgänger be a ne'er-do-well? 

In the 1970s Martin Cruz Smith wrote Westerns (I have one), gypsy novels, espionage thrillers starring the Pope's own spy, and more. He had written 17 novels in the ten years before Gorky Park got published. And wow. It's a great book. It vividly recreates a human Moscow. It provides with characters who are flawed but strong, weather-worn, beaten down by life but full of life. The central conceit of someone trying to undermine the Russian sable trade makes for a great McGuffin.

In high school while playing the Russian in a reading of You Can't Take It With You, I was surprised to discover that I could do a great Boris Badanov impersonation. Bad Cold War novels make all of their Russian protagonists sound like high school actors: they are all growling bears. The above novels do much better at creating real personalities. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the East Germans are the West Germans reflected in a distorting mirror. In Gorky Park, there is some of the staccato speech, but it is surrounded by a sense of self-awareness and the pained humor that comes from being under the heavy thumb of a bureaucracy.

Author: Martin Cruz Smith
Novel: Gorky Park
Published: 1981
Rank: #82 on the CWA list; #35 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 135629
Age of author at time of publication: 38
Previous novels published by this author: 17
Opening line: All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling.
Significance: As Time magazine declared: "The U.S. at last has a domestic le Carré."


Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble


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