Donald Hamilton, Death of a Citizen (London: Titan Books, 2013). 227 pages.
Charles McCarry, The Shanghai Factor (New York: Mysterious Press, 2013). 292 pages.
The thriller may be the only literary genre with its emotional effect in its name. The pastoral, the satire, the epithalamion—they point to the contents. The big ones (comedy, tragedy) refer to their origins. Sonnets, elegies, epistolary novels testify to how they are to be written. The thriller alone makes no secret of its aim—“to thrill and shake,” as the Bastard says in King John, “Even at the crying of your nation’s crow.”
By now, primarily through the efforts of Kingsley Amis, whose criticism was animated by the same spirit as Jim Dixon (viz.: to razz the donnish establishment, in this case out of its disdain for popular books and common readers), the thriller is taken wholly seriously by professional literary critics. John Fraser, a damn good one, has an entire section of his website devoted to thrillers. “What counts,” he says,
Why some transportation vehicles accept every passenger who boards, while others routinely break down or expel passengers in the middle of the journey, is a literary question that may never be solved. What is clear is that some must be learned to be ridden, like a horse; and that a one-for-all name for the riding experience (“escape”) is nowhere near adequate.
Donald Hamilton was the creator of the American-born rival to James Bond, although he himself was Swedish-born. His series of Matt Helm novels reached a total of twenty-seven in all. They are not as well known as Ian Fleming’s novels, in part because the cinematic versions, with Dean Martin in the starring role in four movies from the ’sixties, were laughable self-parodies. Since Hamilton’s first Matt Helm title was published in 1960, though, the books have remained great favorites with an underground readership, and now Titan Books has begun reprinting them every other month or so, in order of publication.
Death of a Citizen was the first, and it has all the nicks and scratches of having been written for a series—the background that must be pieced together, the loose ends to be tied up in a later book. Hamilton denied that he had conceived the book as the first of a series, but Gold Medal pitched the original 25-cent paperback as featuring “a new series character.” Matt Helm was an agent for a U.S. spy agency during the Second World War. He has retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has become a dedicated fisherman (“fish don’t bleed much”) and well-remunerated author of “stories bursting with violence and dripping with gore.”
The requisite femme fatale—what would elsewhere be called a Bond girl—shows up on the first page. A professional assassin with a “paratrooper’s knife somewhere in her underwear” and a “capsule of poison taped to the nape of her neck,” Tina ran with Helm during the war, murdering German Nazis and generally making life difficult for the Axis powers in Europe. Fifteen years later she is better looking and better dressed, but I’m afraid just as obvious (as the James Mason character says in a similar connection in North by Northwest).
The plot jolts into motion with the classic, perhaps the defining, thriller sentence: “It wasn’t exactly a friendly gesture, leaving dead bodies in my bathtub.” The usual intrigue, the double cross and the narrow escape, follow. I must admit that I was unable to lose myself for an hour or even a quarter. There is plenty of next—and next—and next, but the problem is his serial protagonist. Matt Helm has been called (by Anthony Boucher, the dean of crime-fiction criticism) “as credible a man of violence as has ever figured in the fiction of intrigue,” a “genuinely tough and tough-minded protagonist.” Whether he is a person, though, is another question. “It seemed very odd to be coming home, like any businessman returning from a trip,” he reflects at the end of his spy adventure:
The only thriller writer I have read with any regularity and pleasure is Charles McCarry. Eight of his novels have featured the repeat protagonist Paul Christopher, a poet and a spook for the CIA. McCarry’s novels give the sense of exploring a history—Christopher’s personal history, including his family background and political principles, are enmeshed with the country’s as well as that of the spy agency for which he works. The novels do not venture beyond the Cold War; or, that is, not much beyond the period during which McCarry himself was employed as a field agent for the CIA (1958–1967). As he acknowledges in a recent interview, he no longer knows anyone at the agency and has “no idea” how it now operates.
The Shanghai Factor is his first “stand alone” spy novel. An unnamed American spy reporting to a Washington, D.C.-based agency known only as Headquarters is living under cover in Shanghai, pretending “to be a Canadian, anti-American to the bone and proud of it.” The pretense is effective. His “progressive gibberish” makes the Chinese want to strike up friendships with him, and before long he is recruited by the CEO of a powerful state-run Chinese company and returned to Washington in a kind of counter-intelligence role. He remains loyal to the U.S.—McCarry’s heroes always remain loyal to the U.S.—but he soon finds himself in a dance with a cultured Chinese spy to see who can “turn” whom from loyalty to betrayal. There is no violence. McCarry’s plots rarely turn on violence. As the narrator says,
The Shanghai Factor may be a spy novel, but it is not a thriller at all, despite a couple of nail-biting scenes. Reading it, I suddenly understood why. The thriller lays down a substratum of realistic illusion (“a solid sense,” as Donald Hamilton said, “of dealing with real people involved in real intrigue in real places”) so that the astonishing eruptions of violence and the implausible getaway machines, which are the final appeal of the genre, are not dragged down by modernity’s disbelief in the supernatural. The children of postmodernity are not prisoners of any such disbelief, however. For over a decade now, cinematic violence has been stylized and untethered to natural constraints. Within the return of the supernatural, the days of the thriller are numbered—except among aging aficionados, who demand reprints of older classics. And except in the hands of canny professionals like Charles McCarry, who transform the genre into moral and political reflection, a hard twist on realism’s screw.
Update: A friend writes to disagree with my views on the thriller:
 Thomas C. Blaisdell, “Let the Child Read,” Elementary English Review 7 (January 1930): 2–5.