Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two thrillers

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.”

Donald Hamilton
The name is relatively new, at least historiographically, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. In American criticism, it first began to show up in articles lamenting children’s (especially boys’) bad reading habits. The thriller’s climb to respectability began with progressive educators, the first shakers of the canon, who urged teachers to stop worrying, to lay off the moralistic preening over the classics, and to let schoolchildren follow their inclinations, no matter how disreputable: “For only books with ‘thrill’ are potent enough to develop the reading habit, to make pupils love books.”[1]

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,is what happens next—and next—and next, and having numerous suspense points, large or small, at which one’s anxiety increases. Being able to step through a door into that kind of experience and lose yourself there for an hour or two can be a blessing.I don’t entirely believe him, and not only because I have argued that the relief of suspense-aroused anxiety is not a literary experience. A book’s capacity to make you “lose yourself . . . for an hour or two” sounds very much like what Longinus (or Pseudo-Longinus) called sublimis (when he was translated into Latin) or (misleadingly) “sublime” in English. I’ve always thought a better translation would be “transports.” A powerful work of fiction transports you into a different life, a different place and time, instilling in you the absolute conviction that what you are reading about, what you feel in the hairs on your skin, is real and is happening to real people.

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:I parked in the drive. The door burst open, and Beth [his wife] came running towards me and stumbled into my arms. I held her kind of gingerly. If you feel a certain way about a woman, and your work involves, say, a garbage truck or a butcher shop, you like to clean up a bit before you put your hands on her. I couldn’t help feeling I must stink of blood and gun power, not to mention another woman.Personality in fiction is a point of view, a distinct and chronic way of scrutinizing the world, even a display case of obsessions and irritating habits (think of Gatsby’s “Old Sport”), but wanting to shower after murder or adultery hardly qualifies. What Hamilton substitutes instead are what he calls “tools and techniques,” the physical details that give fiction a sense of the real. He never gets a gun or a car or a hotel lobby wrong. His characters don’t have unique outlooks on life—they have unique styles of violence. The politics are murky too. Are Matt Helm’s antagonists working for the Soviets? Who knows? All you need to know is they want to kill him, which should be enough to make them evil, but he kills them first.

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 entire basis of espionage is trust. Spying could not exist without it. If such trust is imperfect or not quite complete, then it is like all other varieties of trust. Ask yourself—do you, does anyone trust absolutely his spouse, his doctor, his lawyer, his best friend, his employee, his mother? Trust is selective. In practice, the agent trusts his case officer to protect him, to keep secrets that are a threat to his life and the lives of his entire family. . . . In return the case officer trusts the agent not to set him up for capture, torture, imprisonment, and perhaps death. . . . Within an intelligence service, colleagues may dislike one another and often do, but they trust one another absolutely. It is part of the contract, part of the mystique. It is the indispensable element. Its perversion makes treason possible and all but undetectable among professional spies, but when uncorrupted it is the code that drives the system.The Shanghai factor (of the book’s title) is the difficulty for an American to know with any certainty what is true with the Chinese, which puts trust in question and absolute trust out of reach, perhaps forever. “How do I know this is true?” asks the book’s epigraph, a quotation from Laozi. Something like this is what most Americans find so beguiling about China, and may have been what drew McCarry to the subject. That, and Chinese women. The narrator has two Chinese lovers over the course of the novel; neither one resembles a Bond girl. They are whole persons who look nothing alike.

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:Thrillers are the problem novels, where action is really [quoting John Fraser] “the successful solving of problems, at times a very rapid succession of problems. And those problems form part of larger sequences of problem-solving that entail a high degree of concentration.” In this sense, thrillers are the literature of an age of science, where the hero is a character who can solve problems life throws at him by the virtue of his own intelligence and skill. Much of the tension arises out of the uncertainties that are created as a problems are identified, solutions to them attempted and unexpected consequences must be dealt with.We’re on the same page in suggesting that thrillers arose as a belief in the supernatural declined (as the “age of science,” that is, became the official ideology of the intelligentsia). But then somehow we find ourselves in different books. I have never read a thriller without feeling let down when the “problem” facing the hero was solved. Howard Jacobson says it better than I ever could:The reason [whodunits] are never satisfactory is that the resolution doesn’t justify the waiting; the answer doesn’t live up to the question; the actual reason he dunnit is no match for the millions of reasons someone else might have. Even if you haven’t guessed right, it’s entirely without human significance that you guessed wrong. There is more drama in not being able to finish The Independent cryptic crossword.The “problem” is entirely a function of the plot, in other words: what happens to a person is far less significant than how he handles it, because it is the latter which invites identification with the hero.

[1] Thomas C. Blaisdell, “Let the Child Read,” Elementary English Review 7 (January 1930): 2–5.


Aonghus Fallon said...

I haven't read any of Hamilton's books, but I wonder how much of his limitations as a writer were due to his nationality? I see from Wiki he emigrated from Finland as a young man, so that formative period - what makes an American 'American' was missing. And if you're writing about a culture from the outside, I reckon there's a tendency to fall back on generic stereotypes, if only because you lack the necessary information to create more nuanced characters.

That said, Chandler spent his formative years in England and was educated there. Philip Marlowe very much fulfils your criteria in terms of emphasis (the how rather than the what) - as it is the character's moral aspect that makes him so interesting and so compelling.

Richard Kuntz said...

You say that McCarry is the thriller writer you read regularly (and thank you for leading me to him, tho iI did not find Shanghai as strong as the Christophers), but what about Charles Willeford. You've reviewed one of his, but have you read his final 4 set in the Miami PD?
Did you read McCarry's Ark-- it got little publicity.

bruce said...

I think you underestimate the incompetence of literary writers, when they try to describe violence. Donald Hamilton knew guns and hunting and he was okay at describing homicidal acts. McCarry just doesn't and isn't.

America's post-60s governing class has a founding myth of shirking military service because, you know, they are so much better than that. This has worse effects than inept murder mystery writing, but the ineptitude still exists.