Are spy novels any good these days?

Are spy novels any good these days?

Are spy novels any good these days?

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 13 2004 6:36 PM

Operation Spy Novel

The belated age of the thriller: Absolute Friends and Paranoia.

The time seems ripe for a revival of the spy novel. The genre flat-lined in the '90s: the first victim of the Cold War's demise. But now all the ingredients are back, encased in different labels—terrorists instead of Communists, the fear of dirty bombs instead of hydrogen ones—but otherwise all too pungently familiar. The prospective plotlines could be torn right off the front pages—and, in a way, that's the problem.

John le Carré, the master of the craft, whose career tumbled along with the Berlin Wall, has rushed back into action. His new book, Absolute Friends, is billed as a tale of personal loyalty and political commitment in the new age of terrorism, counterterrorism, American pre-eminence, and pre-emptive warfare.

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But that's not really what it is at all.

The book does start out that way, but after the first 100 pages, le Carré resorts to the technique that he fell back on in The Secret Pilgrim (his first and worst post-Cold War work): the flashback. The middle half of the book, plus some, is a long reminiscence in which our two main characters, Ted Mundy and Sasha (the "absolute friends" of the title), veer uneasily from adventurous revolutionaries to spying for Mother England from the 1960s through the '80s, the Cold War's peak years—and, we can't help but notice, le Carré's too. It's an opportunity (an excuse?) for le Carré to tromp through old stomping grounds, and he lays out the nifty techniques of spycraft and the inner anguish of the secret life with gusto. Certainly it's his best-written work since The Russia House.

But when he snaps out of his reverie and returns to current affairs, he's at a loss. There's a cartoonish mysterious tycoon who may or may not be linked to Arab terrorists. The scheme for which he recruits our two protagonists is so silly—such an obvious cover-story for something more nefarious—that you don't know whether to lose interest in the characters (for suddenly being stupid enough to go along with it) or in the author (for devising such a vapid plot twist).

By the story's climax (which I probably shouldn't reveal), the real bad guys (and you need only know of le Carré's recent political pronouncements  about the war in Iraq to imagine who they are) turn so evil, so cynical, and so all-knowing that disbelief can no longer be suspended. The final twists are needlessly complicated. They depend on one of the characters making a particular set of moves—and other characters knowing, way ahead of time, precisely what moves he's going to make. I don't doubt that le Carré's bad guys—or their real-life counterparts—are morally capable of planning the final acts of treachery. But they'd need to have omniscience or second sight to pull it off. In short, le Carré commits the fatal error of conspiracy theorists: He accords his devils godlike powers.

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One problem here is that, like the aging Willy Loman, le Carré doesn't know the territory. His classic works—The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley's People, and The Perfect Spy—seemed (and still do seem) so authentic, in part because le Carré (under his real name, David Cornwell) really was a spy. In the late '50s, he ran Eastern bloc deserters for MI-5. He knew what the drop boxes looked like, what the rainy nights on the border smelled like, what the fear and ambivalence felt like. His descriptions had the frisson of truth because he built them from a foundation of experience. Here, he clearly has no firsthand knowledge of the present struggle's players; nor does it appear that he's done much research. He lets his imagination run tetherless, and, as might be expected, it spins out of control.

Meanwhile Joseph Finder's new novel, Paranoia, raises a proposition: If the political thriller is on the decline, perhaps the business thriller is on the rise. Think of the public fascination with the machinations of Sam Waksal and Martha Stewart.

Finder and le Carré have some traits in common. Both writers are former intelligence officers and—though Finder belongs more to the plot-driven school of Forsyth and Ludlum—he borrows le Carré's technique of making his settings seem real by employing the vocabulary of an esoteric tribe. Just as le Carré invoked—in many cases, invented—the lingo of MI-5, Finder draws on the lingo of Silicon Valley. He thus makes his bid for putting a 21st-century spin on the spy novel itself—and why not? Just as the Cold War dominated the Western world when le Carré started churning out his tales, so computers, mega-mergers and stock-market roller-coaster rides dominate discourse today.

Yet Paranoia, a fiendishly fast-paced book, shares many of le Carré's weaknesses: plot twists that are needlessly and improbably complicated and bad guys who are inhumanly omniscient. In the end, the novel turns on a godlike figure knowing, six moves ahead of time, exactly what our feckless hero is going to do, say, and even think.

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Finder's hero/narrator is Adam Cassidy, a lowly employee of a high-tech corporation who gets caught hacking into the firm's financial accounts and is offered a choice: life in prison or he can go to work for the company's main competitor (after taking a crash course in espionage), infiltrate its inner circle, and steal the blueprints to its super-secret "Aurora Project," which is poised to transform the world as dramatically as the transistor and the microchip. During the training sessions, the boss gives him so much inside dope about the competing firm and its top executives—both sides seem to know so much about each other—you wonder why the story needs a mole to begin with.

In the novel's final pirouettes, as with those of Absolute Friends, disbelief can no longer be suspended.

The central problem with both books—and perhaps with the spy novel, generally, whether it involves political spies or corporate spies—is that modern reality has trumped invention. Faced with the 9/11 hijackings, the WMD scam, the Valerie Plame affair, the David Kelly affair, and the David Kay affair—or with the convoluted scandals of Enron, ImClone, and Halliburton—what is the modern spy novelist to do?

When le Carré published The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963, he could shock readers by showing how the West and the East practiced the same tawdry tactics in the name of national security. When he published Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in '74, it was compelling simply to portray the intrigue of agents and double agents. Now all that's taken for granted. Cynicism is so deeply embedded that a contemporary spy novelist needs to make readers dizzy—to toss up triple and quadruple agents, surprise endings within surprise endings—to grab the reader's attention at all. In the pursuit of the ultimate cliffhanger, the author goes over the cliff.

Today's newspaper readers know quite a lot of inside dope about this once-cloistered world. What they don't know, they can infer, extrapolate, or fantasize well enough on their own. Which is why, if someone ever does write another great spy thriller, it will likely be found on the nonfiction shelf.