I rather miss the Cold War. Only in the fictional sense, of course. The Cold War provided, for the writer of fiction - the Le Carres, Deightons, McCarrys, MacInneses, et al - a simplistic background which the reader too could pretty much take for granted what they would be offered. Upon this 'understood' background could be built a narrative of great complexity. Friends, enemies, institutions, events, ideologies, motivations, values: 'Cold War' was shorthand for intrigue, mystery, danger. You knew what you were getting. The fall of the Iron Curtain left a big gap. One notices it in, for instance, the somewhat desperate search for new villains in the post-80s' James Bond films. What sort of enemy can provide a genuine frisson of fear comparable to that of the deadly old poisoned umbrella-carrying nuclear nemesis? Oil oligarchs? Media tycoons? Terrorists? Frankly, I find them all a bit imaginatively tame post Soviet Bloc. In fiction. Of course.
As such, it was probably a mistake for me to read a genuine Cold War thriller next to a modern take on the topic. Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate is, quite simply, a masterpiece of a spy thriller. Brutal, plausible, frightening yet also witty, sexy and very, very cool. It is a wonderful evocation of the post-Korean pre-Vietnam Wars' 'Mad Men' era (I must track down the Sinatra film). It eerily foreshadows both the Kennedy assignations (I want to read this book now: What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by M.F. Jacobson) and the 1970s' exposés of the moral bankruptcy of US politicking.
Is Sgt. Raymond Shaw a hero who saved his unit from destruction in battle and won the Congressional Medal of Honour? Or is Raymond Shaw the perfect weapon - a deadly sleeper agent brainwashed to obey the enemy's every command by a Chinese mastermind, "[his] entire expression.. theatrically sardonic as thought he had been advised by prepaid cable that the late Dr. Fu Manchu had been his uncle". I loved this book's drunkenness on words too ("he clutched the telephone like an osculatorium").
If you liked this... Deighton. Le Carré. McCarry. MacInnes.
And then I moved onto Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, about which I'd read good things. And it was good; and it was an enjoyable read. But it just didn't have the lustre of the real deal. A Deighton, a Le Carré, the Condon: these are books of such tangled complexity that you sometimes reach the end and are still not entirely sure whether good triumphed over evil. I love that feeling of (fictional) moral discomfort that is such a marker of the gritty spy novel. Steinhauer likes to dot his 'i's and cross his 't's for the reader. The best bits were the whole 'Tourist' scenario (the travelling black ops CIA agent/problemsolver). In this computer day and age can we really believe that no one realised the hero had all those Russian connections? I mustn't give away too much, but I wasn't convinced. But, as I said, an enjoyable, escapist book but all a little too neat.
If you liked this... my next spy book will be either Alan Furst's The Spies of Warsaw or William Boyd's Restless. Check out the tempting list of spy reads at a work in progress.