Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Who is most qualified to write a spy novel?



Here, I think, we have the makings of a genuine religious debate.

The above-linked article mentions Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, both spy novelists who had backgrounds in actual espionage work prior to becoming novelists.

The proof is in the pudding. I’ve read several of Ian Fleming’s books: While the James Bond movies were (and are) great fun, the James Bond novels always seemed a bit hackneyed and sparse to me—more like movie scripts than novels.

John Le Carre’s novels, on the other hand, seem overwritten. Too much superfluous description and Germanic sentence structure. Get on with it, already, I want to say while I’m reading A Most Wanted Man or The Russia House.

By contrast, I’m absolutely wild about the work of Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, and Brad Thor.

None of these authors are ex-spies. Tom Clancy sold insurance before he broke out with The Hunt for Red October in 1984. Vince Flynn worked as a bartender before his first Mitch Rapp thriller took off. Brad Thor was a television producer.

To the best of my knowledge, Clancy, Flynn, and Thor never even served in the military. But their novels have an authenticity that’s won them worldwide acclaim. Their works are meticulously researched—to the extent that is necessary (more on this point shortly).

Clancy, Flynn, and Thor also brought superior storytelling skills to their books; and I think this is their major advantage. Their books were primarily written to entertain—not to inform. (Note: I keep using the past tense because Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy are both deceased. Brad Thor is alive and well, and is still writing.)

Here again, we enter the realm of a literary religious debate: I’ve never had much interest in fiction that contains massive “info dumps”. If I’m after deep information about a particular topic (and often I am) I read nonfiction.

Some readers disagree. They love the mathematical and scientific meanderings in Neal Stephenson’s thousand-page-plus novels. I’m speaking of my own preferences here.

As always, I’m open to questioning my underlying motives as well. Perhaps Ian Fleming’s work left me cold because his novels are dated. And in regard to Le Carre: I will, in the interest of full disclosure, admit that the author’s leftwing politics annoy me.

But I don’t think these are the real impediments to my being a diehard fan of either Fleming or Le Carre. Ernest Hemingway and James Michener were writing some of my favorite novels while Ian Fleming was writing You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun. (And anyone who reads this blog with regularity will know that I’m far from being a post-modernist—or even a modernist, some would argue.)

Nor are an author’s politics very important to me, if we’re talking about fiction. If I had a real bias against reading leftwing authors, I wouldn't be a fan of Jonathan Franzen. I’d also burn all the Stephen King novels on my shelf, most of which have been read multiple times.