Posts Tagged ‘genre fringe’

This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Some people might be wondering why I’ve chosen The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu (1913) by Sax Rohmer as a text for InSpyNoMo. Basically, if you at all consider Ian Fleming’s 007 series to be a major influence in the genre (like it or loathe it), then you have to consider a number of texts that came before it and The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu is one of them. (Another is ‘Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond.)

While undoubtedly one of the most absurdly racist series ever written, the Fu Manchu series is highly influential. In terms of actual ability, Sax Rohmer is a second-rate hack at best. His works are loaded with his own personal paranoia about the Far East, which were largely unfelt by the rest of Europe at the time he was writing, so not exactly one to read for historical accuracy. In a number of places I think there’s some evidence that suggests this paranoias spills into obsessive delusion. However, his works achieve two key things that did help shape the genre.

The stories are told via a Watson-type character, a doctor named Petrie, who is long-time friends with Nayland Smith, the true hero of the series. He acts as an aide and a sounding board to Nayland and, though he often muddles things up, he inevitably does something to enable Nayland to

First, Rohmer established the secret agent as hero. Nayland Smith, though he is never outright called a spy, is clearly a Secret Service agent, a servant of the British government sent out to gather information and take action in foreign countries against potential enemies of Britain. He’s one of those heroes who is virtually infallible, yet bares the scars of battle. He can fight and spar with as much ease and seeming grace as he does manoeuver upper-class circles. He’s brusque and taciturn, yet suave and a gentleman. He’s tough and sentimental. Smith is a civil servant devoted to the office he serves, yet he gets bored with inactivity and will often act rashly in order to speed things up a bit. In short, he bears all the paradoxes and character traits we recognise in James Bond.

(He is also hilariously described as ‘rapping’ out his dialogue, which I take to mean more ‘barking’ or ‘speaking with sharp intent’ than as a wonderful precursor to hiphop.)

Second, Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is the first truly evil mortal villain. I say ‘mortal’ because of course Dracula, et al., are all awful. But Fu Manchu is a man to fear because he is a man who seems like a god. He has built an empire around him, made up of followers who practically worship him. He has spies and consorts everywhere, virtually no move the hero makes goes undetected (and even when it does, Fu Manchu seems to maintain his one step ahead). He has the ability to infiltrate any circle, any class, and disguise himself undetectably. He is a criminal mastermind, who gains control over the minds of men and the bodies of women. The true horror surrounding Fu Manchu goes well beyond his racist roots.

Rohmer’s villain is a horrible thing to witness because he is able to shift seamlessly from a harmless old man to a baleful murderer in a matter of nanoseconds. He is horrible because he is an independent. He isn’t really attached to any government, and he’s so wealthy there’s no real need for him to commit the crimes he does. He does them largely for sport. However, the most terrible feature about him is that while our heroes wish him to be unknowable, something that is completely Other, they are all too aware that he represents all that we could become. He reminds us that evil is just as obtainable as good. Worst of all, he is uncatchable. I’ve not read the final book of the series, but as far as I can make out Fu Manchu always manages to wriggle out at the last moment, making him a perfect object a for Nayland to for ever chase after.

The portrayal of both the hero and the villain in Rohmer ultimately carved out how these character were to function in the sensational branch of the genre. Time and again we find the hero and villain held up alongside each other — seemingly diametrically opposed, yet frighteningly similar.

Fleming uses this dichotomy throughout the 007 series. Bond often remarks a grudging admiration, even affinity, for the villains he comes up against. Indeed, the villains usually possess similar character traits to Bond, holding them up against him as though reflected back in a distorted mirror.

In setting up Bond as a Super Hero Fleming takes this idea of the Super Villain and applies it to every villain Bond ever faces. Each of them is horrifying because they are so powerful and seem so unstoppable. Certainly, this can be seen in what is perhaps the most famous tribute to Fu Manchu: Dr No, whose own physical deformities (his heart is on the other side of his body) gain him wealth and power (because he seems invincible) and an entire island to rule (populated with devoted followers), and from which to take over the world (with the help of the Russians, who he will terminate once he’s in absolute power). But there, Fleming finishes the job by eventually allowing Bond to kill him and return home victorious. Perhaps, Bond’s successes are in part Fleming’s attempt to ‘correct’ Nayland Smith’s constant failure to secure the capture of Fu Manchu.

These stories are, as I said, exceedingly racist and make for uncomfortable reading because of it. As a white Canadian/British girl, I was aghast and not a little ashamed at the gross stereotyping and horrific way Rohmer paints anyone who is not white and British. He was practically fanatical in it, he intended these stories to be cautionary tales about the ‘wily’ and ‘dangerous’ East. But I don’t think it’s particularly useful to say it was a product of its time and push all that stuff under the carpet. If anything, in being confronted with such blatant prejudice the reader becomes forced to acknowledge latent racisms that continue to be present in whatever society they live in, which by default enters them into a dialogue that has the power to propagate change. And this, though clearly not what the author intended, is well worth any embarrassment felt in reading.


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This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Strictly speaking, Peter O’Donnell‘s Modesty Blaise is not a spy, and indeed the book that bears her name isn’t really spy fiction. Much like Ian Fleming’s middle 007 series, this is the stuff of proper adventure stories, with capers and pranks and lots of bloodshed, but little actual espionage. However, it’s got some good secret agent stuff in it and O’Donnell borrows quite a bit from the crosses and double crosses we’ve seen in Dark Wanton and The Great Impersonation.

Modesty Blaise (1965) is the first novelised adventure of Modesty Blaise, which began as a comic strip in 1963. A very visual read, its beginnings are evident. The chases come off with adrenalin, the fight scenes are described vividly, the humour is so physical it’s almost slapstick; it’s a bit like reading a picture, and I suspect that’s just what O’Donnell was striving for. I first came across her in ‘The Giggle-Wrecker’, a short story from O’Donnell’s 1972 collection Pieces of Modesty. The story is pretty implausible, though by far more ‘espionage-y’ than this one, but there was something intriguing about Modesty and the sort of odd buoyancy of dangerous adventure that filters through.

Modesty is a hardened ex-con with a heart of gold and fists of steel, who, against impossible odds, can outwit the most wily criminal and outfox the most deadly killer. In this first book, she and her right-hand man, Willie Garvin, are pulled out of retirement to help the British government ensure the safe passage of a consignment of diamonds. Rumours of plans for a heist have been swilling. The suspected gang is ruthless, and if the rumours are true, they can be sure that the leader will stop at nothing to get at securing his haul.

Most of the book is merely groundwork, introducing Modesty and Willie to the reader, as well as to the other characters. It turns out neither Modesty nor Willie are at all what the reader or the other characters were expecting. It isn’t until we’re three-quarters of the way through that the plot begins to come together, and it’s at this point when Modesty and Willie’s abilities as secret agents begin to take effect, as they set up their entry into the gang as rivals for the diamonds. Although the ending is unsurprising (they win), how they actually run the race is well-played out and engagingly timed.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel (and the comic strips) is the portrayal of the men that surround Modesty. We often see them struggle against the clear strength and intelligence Modesty possesses, and the juxtaposition of a hardened killer encased in a voluptuous female form. She’s stylish and quite feminine, yet once on the job she ceases to be a woman in the sense they understand.

Her ability to operate with strict military unemotionality unsettles them, as does the authority that she assumes. This is particularly true of the men who either want to sleep with her (such as Paul Hagan, whose own feelings of protectiveness towards her nearly gets them both killed) or who don’t believe women can ever really be anything but the stereotype of femininity they expect of all women (such as the Right Honorable Percival Thornton, who heads the department that sends her). Perhaps the thing that they find most discombobulating of all is the fact that, as Lauren Henderson notes, unlike her male counterparts, Modesty has nothing to prove.

In this respect, it’s particularly interesting that bith the comics and the novelisations were written just as the Second Wave of feminism was beginning to gather (The Feminine Mystique was published the same year Modesty was born as a comic; The Female Eunuch came 5 years after this novel). She might have big boobs and she might use her body to get something out of someone, but much to my surprise, Modesty provides a stronger female role model than I think had ever been seen before. The blurb on the back cover my my edition quotes The Observer, which raves, ‘Before Buffy, before Charlie’s Angels, before Purdy and Emma Peel there was Modesty Blaise’, and after reading the story I reckon the likes of The Bride and Æon Flux ought to be added to the list, too. Spy fiction might not owe anything to Modesty Blaise, but iconic female heroes owe plenty.

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This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as one of the founding fathers of detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes is practically synonymous with Detective, Watson with side-kick. However, there are a fair handful of their adventures that are actually early examples of the spy genre. In particular, ‘The Naval Treaty’ (1893), ‘The Second Stain’ (1904), ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’ (1912) and ‘His Last Bow’ (1917) feature, if not actual spying then certainly themes of espionage. In the first three, Holmes acts as detective for cases of international intrigue; national, rather than personal or familial, security is at stake in each. If he fails, the country is at war and various members of Government publicly denounced.

In ‘His Last Bow’, in order to protect British military and defence secrets from foreign spies, Holmes actually turns agent himself, feeding false information to the Germans on the eve of World War I. Unlike the previous three, here Holmes’s famous powers of deduction remain largely untouched. Instead he infiltrates an England-based German spy ring via the guise of a disgruntled Irish-American. Although a good story, as a spy story ‘His Last Bow’ is flawed. The reveal scene seems unnecessary; Holmes could have easily revealed to Watson and the reader alone. Many argue that a ‘real’ spy would have left von Bork, the German ringleader, to escape back to Germany and continued to feed him misinformation once war was declared. Holmes, instead, reveals all and thus undermines two years toil and an entire network of British agents.

I can see where these critics come from, though rarely do fictional spies ever behave the way spies might in the real world. What seems to me more interesting is that in later spy-fi, we find the villains doing the reveal, which ultimately enables the hero to restore order. (And, of course, it doesn’t do for the spy-hero to win too easily, nor for the spy-hero to boast to the villain that he has succeeded. As the invisible hero, he must instead finish the job and make sure there’s enough time for the paint to dry before morning rush-hour begins.) I wonder if this ‘blunder’ by Holmes is actually where we find the story’s lasting, if distorted, effect.

I have yet to read this properly, but this article by Esme Miskimmin looks like it might offer some useful insights into Victorian views of criminality and the criminal underworld.

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This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Set during the early, bloodthirsty years of the French Revolution, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) tells the tale of young Lady Marguerite Blakeney, the ‘cleverest woman in Europe’, wife of Sir Percy Blakeney, a lazy foppish ‘nincompoop’ of the English nobility. Once the star of the Comedie Francais, Marguerite is French-born, a republican whose careless remarks caused one of France’s most noble families to be sent to the guillotine. Her husband only hears her side of it after they are married and, though they make a good public show, they have been estranged ever since. Yet Marguerite often feels she would be bored with him even if they were talking. His ‘inane’ laugh and foolish habits make her marriage feel more like a prison sentence and she can barely contain her contempt for him, even publicly.

So, instead, she daydreams about the Scarlet Pimpernel. For many months, London society has been swept with whispers of the adventures of this elusive hero and his band of anonymous young men who risk their lives, ‘for sport’, to smuggle French aristocrats out of the hands of the revolutionaries and across the Channel to safety. They manage to work in plain sight without being seen, and the only trace they leave is a note of explanation signed with the drawing of a small red flower. Marguerite, as with everyone, is entranced by the daring of the Pimpernel’s exploits.

Then, one night Marguerite is blackmailed Citizen Chauvelin, a French envoy and spy. His agents agents have stolen an incriminating letter that proves her beloved brother Armand is not the republican he claims, but really one of the Pimpernel’s most trusted French connections. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand’s life for her help against the Pimpernel. Feeling she has no one she can turn to, certainly not her idiot husband, for advice, she reluctantly agrees. At a ball held by Lord Grenville in London, Marguerite discovers information about the Pimpernel’s next move, information that would enable Chauvelin to uncover the Pimpernel’s true identity.

That same night, Marguerite finally admits to Percy the situation she has got herself into and the danger her brother is in, and begs for his assistance. Despite their estrangement, Percy clearly does still love her and promises to save him. The next morning, in case you couldn’t see it coming, Percy unexpectedly leaves for France and ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’ finally works out that he is the Pimpernel. Horrified by her actions and desperate to save him, Marguerite races to Calais in an attempt to warn her husband of the trap that awaits.

Hereafter comes a series of disguises, chases, captures and clever plots which see Chauvelin outwitted, a gaggle of French aristocrats rescued and Percy and Marguerite happily reconciled and sailing back to England.

It is perhaps Baroness Orczy’s most famous work, though perhaps unsurprisingly it was a good few years before she could get it published. Politely, it’s not the best piece of fiction. Orczy’s devotion to the aristocracy, insistence on some truly appalling lower class dialects, and endless sartorial landscaping are laughable and awful at the same time. The ‘twist’ can be spotted a mile off; the wits of ‘cleverest woman in Europe’ leave much to be desired; and while the various prejudices rampant throughout may be in keeping with its time, they are nonetheless pretty galling.

However, I did still rather enjoy it. When I allowed myself to be thrown into the spirit of things, the melodrama was no worse than what you’d find in most soaps. The innumerable tiny white hands and sprays of sparkling garnets, the broad Mechlin lace-bedecked chests and braying laughs punctuate an otherwise engaging premise. Blakeney comes out almost Bondian as the suave, efficient secret agent who sweeps through enemy territory to risk his own life in order to save the lives of others. Orczy does successfully paint a terrible picture of revolutionary France, ‘Every man nowadays was a spy upon his fellows: the most innocent word in jest might at any time be brought up as proof of aristocratic tendencies, or of treachery against the people.’

Two things that interest me in particular are the depiction of the French commoners and the emphasis on the power of the written word. (Very quickly now, because I have to leave in a minute.)

The depiction of the French commoners is strangely sympathetic, given Orczy’s otherwise blind admiration for the aristocracy (not completely surprising, she was one herself), and if not sympathetic then certainly revealing. Brogard, keeper of the Calais in Marguerite finds herself in, is surly, rude and utterly sneering towards anything that might think itself above him. The equality Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite has given him means that he can treat anyone, particularly those who were once his social superiors, as badly as he pleases, ‘as any free-born citizen who was anybody’s equal should do’. He behaves as the sacres aristos once did to him. In this way, Orczy seems to be offering an unconscious criticism of the very aristocracy she seems to go out of her way to defend. If the equality of the French common folk offends, it is because it betrays the model of equality between ‘free-born citizens’ they have usurped.

As with many novels in the genre to come, incriminating papers and the interception of notes passed between accomplices plays a heavy part throughout. In fact, the thing that gets the entire plot moving is the small sheaf of papers Chauvelin manages to procure, which both confirm his suspicions about the Scarlet Pimpernel and, as an added bonus, provides him with ammunition against Marguerite and her brother. Marguerite bargains for not only her brother’s life but also possession for the offensive letter. She succeeds in detecting the Pimpernel’s inner circle by observing a group of men discreetly passing notes. She is able to confirm this by interrupting Sir Andrew in the act of burning his note, to get rid of the evidence, and covers herself by teasing him, saying the note is from his lover (not unheard of in balls at the time). At the end, Blakeney is able to complete his mission by arranging for a decoy note to be left behind, so fooling Chauvelin and allowing for their escape. Notes, thus, are evidence that are both necessary and dangerous; they are emblematic of the secrets they might betray, yet remain reliably unreliable.

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This post was originally part of InSpyNoMo.

Not infrequently my brain will fill in or substitute details for things until I become quite convinced that what I thought was there really is what’s there. The discovery of the truth is either hilarious or disappointing. In this case I have been convinced since I put this book down that it was called The Shades of Sleep, which I think rather mysterious and almost supernatural. It’s not called that at all, and while it doesn’t change the story itself, I have to admit a bit of me crumbled when I learnt the truth.

The Shapes of Sleep (1962) by JB Priestley is more an international detective story than a spy spy story, even so it feels like a proper example of the genre. The spy in question is Ben Sterndale, investigative reporter and cynic. He is a spy insofar as he doesn’t believe the bullshit he’s fed by powerful people, and can work out enough of what’s really going on to produce hunches that get him into trouble. Yet his investigating does indeed require him to delve into the act of espionage and in this story, it brings him face to face with actual secret agents.

He’s hired by an advertising agency to find out who stole an important document from one of the director’s desk. The document was sold to the director who, since the theft, has begun to realise it was probably stolen in the first place and really just wants out of the situation before the major shareholders find out what he’s done. Sterndale’s initial lead is in hospital (following a car ‘accident’) and before he dies cries out about the shapes of sleep. Though Sterndale isn’t quite sure what that means, he decides to follow his next to Germany, to find out. There, a number of coincidences gets him caught up with a group of British secret agents who believe he’s a dirty Commie and would have had him arrested if not for their leader who is probably the only real spy in the plot. Major Churston-Spenser is actually a sort of free agent, who fakes loyalty to three sides and plays them off each other. His only real interest is to make enough money selling phoney secrets to be able to escape the South America and retire.

In any case, Sterndale eventually uncovers the fact that the man at the heart of it all is one Professor Voss, experimental psychologist and communist who had been working for some time in West Germany as a double agent for the Other Side. He had been working on a method of sending subliminal propaganda messages via certain shapes. Voss kills himself once he begins to feel his secret is out, leaving Sterndale to scoop a vital sheaf of paper which document how it can be put into practice.

The obvious thing of interest here, of course, is that Sterndale is sent out by an unsuspecting ad agency to find a tool that would allow that agency to psychologically manipulate the public into believing whatever the ‘shapes of sleep’ made them. This all suggests a deep-rooted distrust, distaste even, in the media and the power of hidden propaganda on the average citizen. As far as Sterndale reckons, the ad agency has no more claim to this power than the Other Side (and through a series of convenient events neither actually gains possession). He clearly dislikes the secrecy propagated by the Cold War and how susceptible it makes us to ‘behaving like hypnotised sheep’.

What is also interesting is what results after the traditional thriller angle peters out, two chapters from the end. We are suddenly left with a genuine Socratic dialogue in which the position of women in society and how the relationship between the sexes is effectively a series of infiltrations coming in from either side in an attempt to understand each other. No conclusion is really reached, but it’s clear that Sterndale (and perhaps Priestley?) is left wondering whether men haven’t spent most of history crapping all over the human race.

The correlation between equality between the sexes, advertising and propaganda is an interesting one, particularly today. This isn’t quite what Priestley is getting at, certainly, but when you think about the depiction of women in advertising, of male-female relationships, the depiction of a heteronormative world, of the ‘alternative cultures’ within a heteronormative social landscape, you have to wonder if these shapes of sleep haven’t been put to work after all.

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