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« Times Arts Frownlines 6 | Main | Artistic Problems »

September 12, 2002

Spy Novels

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Do you have any patience with the spy-novel genre? I keep giving it a try, as though one of these days I'll catch on and start grooving to it. And I never do.

I'm reading a Robert Ludlum right now. (Ludlum website here.) I've read an Ambler, a couple of Le Carres, a Jack Higgins. And it all strikes me as silly-little-boy fantasy stuff I'm being asked to take seriously.

I enjoy the apparatus: the telegrams, the mysterious communications from MI5, the former Nazis still scheming to take over the world, the dark nights at the Geneva airport, the deadly devices hidden in the heel of the shoe, that athletic blonde Nazi/Commie with the cheekbones who always seems to beat up the hero.

But, my failing, I'm sure I can't take any of it seriously. Spoofed-up or sexed-up, spy fiction can amuse me: I like the Bond novels, I enjoy "Ramba" and "Modesty Blaise."

modesty blaise.jpg
Spoof 'n' Sex: Modesty Blaise

But without the sex or the humor, I have a terrible time even paying attention. The events and conspiracies go by, and after a while I find myself taking it all as modernist collage-poetry -- all scrambled motifs, bizarro moments out of expressionist movies, and inexplicable, misterioso plots. Who's "Helmut"? Why are we in Curacao right now? That blonde woman the hero's sleeping with -- is she really his sister, or was I dozing again?

My response to the spy novel genre is so basic that it gets me wondering about genres generally -- where they come from, what purpose they serve, how they function. It's striking how some genres simply work for a reader and some don't. Why should this be? In my case, I like some crime novel subgenres, I can stand thrillers, I can make my way through some romances, but I have no interest in serial-killer novels, sci-fi, or spy novels.

These tastes and preferences -- which are so gut-level basic -- seem built into the system itself. I find myself wondering if -- convinced, really -- they're based in the organism, down in some deep physical level. Historically, genres are certainly evolved semi-biological phenomena, something like language. I'd argue that they are the language, or are at least part of the language, of narrative itself. Why not conclude that, like language, they have a basis in biology?

Which genres do you find you can go with? Which do you find you can't go with?



posted by Michael at September 12, 2002


Like you, most spy novels bore me unless they've got that extra stuff you mention. It's the same way with mysteries. If I make it to the end of a mystery, I usually smile when the mystery is solved because it's fun finally finding out whodunit. But, typically, I'm also kind of annoyed because my understanding of mysteries (or good ones anyway) is that enough of the puzzle pieces are supposed to be given to you - even if they are given in such a way that you ignore them - so that you could solve the mystery yourself before the detective does. I have no memory of that ever being the case (but then I haven't read a lot of Agatha Christie). The only spy/detective novels I've enjoyed as a whole are the Fletch novels by Gregory McDonald.

I used to like sci-fi (sorry Harlan), but anymore, the sci-fi shelves are filled with nothing but endless, mindless series and novelizations of TV shows and movies. Feh. Also, about half of all original sci-fi novels are stuck in some alternate universe where identity politics (and extreme gender feminism) have somehow become the unspoken backdrop of society, as if those ideas and conceits will ever have a chance in the real world, and thus the novels are rendered ridiculous because of the assumptions of the societies in which they take place. (If we ever do find ourselves in that dour and hateful society, the whales and Gaia herself can finally take a breath of relief, because humans will be on the way out.)

These days, I like literary novels, such as most of John Irving's stuff, David Foster Wallace (when he's not being "experimental"), and yes Stephen King. The last book I got a bang out of, enough to remember it, is Jeffery Deaver's "The Blue Nowhere," but it's probably just because Deaver wrote a "computer thriller" that stays true to how computers actually function, is informed on how parts of geek society think, and yet he still made it a fun ride. The Harry Potter stuff is great. Of course, I love Kurt Vonnegut, but he's retired, alas. My next read is "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold because I loved the excerpt available on

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 13, 2002 12:26 PM

I've gotten more interested in spy novels precisely because today they are no longer little boy stuff. With more and better spies, we could be doing a lot better in the middle east. A good spy novel should teach us how the very important world of "humin" works.

Yamdallah just seems to be expressing his preferences. He doesn't like spy novels but likes the "literary" Stephen King, with his arbitrary supernatural devices. Literature should have internal consistency and logic, and be well written, which at least one can say about LeCarre.

Posted by: nick ronalds on January 28, 2004 8:57 PM

Since the next reader is likely to zing me for it, I might as well say I meant "humint," not "humin."

Posted by: nick ronalds on January 28, 2004 8:59 PM

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