This post was originally a part of InSpyNoMo.
Adam Diment wrote four novels featuring Philip MacAlpine between 1967 and 1971. He was only 23 when the first novel came out and very much a part of London’s Swinging Sixties scene, which makes his novels quite perfectly situated for studying the Cold War through somewhat unbiased eyes (though unbiased only in terms of international politics. It’s either wildly ahead of its time with its ironic portrayal of stereotypes or it bears a heavy dressing of the ‘affectionate’ racism and misogynistic views of its day).
I read the second novel in the series, The Great Spy Race (1968), over the weekend and it’s got me thinking. The hero, Philip MacAlpine is essentially a long-haired, pot-smoking, tail-chasing, fashion-obsessed James Bond. He works for an unofficial Intelligence organisation on behalf of the British government; he’s been trained in various armed and unarmed combat; he has a cantankerous boss who plays god with the lives of his agents. However, while MacAlpine has a taste for good food, fast cars and high living, there’s a certain reluctance about him. He seems genuinely anxious about upsetting his downstairs neighbour, a vile old woman who is forever berating him about making too much noise (if only because she’ll never stop badgering him otherwise). When ambushed in his flat, his reactions are automatic, but he still runs off in a panic rather than finish off his attacker. And when he (possibly accidentally, it’s not clear) shoots Petite, an ageing, slightly deaf, retired old-school assassin, and the last obstacle in his bolt for freedom, MacAlpine is horrified.
‘I ran over to him, my knees very weak and vomit rising in my throat. He might be a killer but he was still an old man and half mad. [...] “I’m sorry,” I said idiotically. Then I stood up and flung the Schmeisser as far as I could. Exhaustion was flooding in again and I wanted to cry.’
There’s nothing emasculating about this scene, simply a raw honesty that betrays the realities of a rather nasty line of work. As with mainly book usually wedged into the pulpier side of the genre, The Great Spy Race reveals a truth that more considered pieces, such as those by le Carre or Greene, seem to need to work harder to achieve.
At the moment my primary spy-fi sources are Len Deighton’s Secret File series and the early entries in Adam Hall’s Quiller series. Though both can be seen as largely reactionary series in response to Ian Fleming’s 007 series, from a psychoanalytic perspective they’re positioned along two seemingly opposing lines of inquiry. Roughly, in Lacanian terms, Deighton’s hero chooses language as the source of meaning and thus subjectivity, while Hall’s can be seen choosing jouissence, in which the Self (or identification of the Self) is reflected in desire.
Nonetheless, in either we find traces of the other. Both detail minutely, clinically the abuses of the body to allow the hero to become absent from the pain, and thus survive; both dwell in records and lulls in activity as stopping points to remind them they still exist, and thus continue their work. Both seek to situate their idenity within something they cannot quite reach and do not quite trust.
To this extent, I think Diment’s series might end up being incredibly useful. The use of slang, the various pursuits of flesh, the pages-long tangential breaks detailing firearm specs and all that can happen in a split-second automatic reaction, the use of humour rather than cynicism in otherwise dire situations — even the unfiltered awe of the high security rankings of those in Archives — are all indicative of the type of quest for the subjectivated self I think the landscape of the spy genre explores.