A Trope Is Born

Image result for the 39 steps book coverTitleThe 39 Steps
Author: John Buchan
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 120
Rating: 3 of 5

John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and its various movie adaptations were influential in developing the modern version of the “innocent man on the run with maybe a dash of political intrigue” plotline. The danger of reading a book that invented (or at least popularized) a literary/cinematographic trope is that by now you have probably read/seen the trope many times before, and some of the imitations surpass the original. Reading this was like reading a stripped-down less-glamorized version of North by NorthwestThe Fugitive, The Bourne Identity, etc.

During the first chapter I was afraid the plot was going to rest on extremely racist presuppositions (a bit like Sax Rohmer’s  Fu Manchu / “yellow peril” books), but the author quickly toned down the anti-Semitism. Overall, it was a fun, escapist adventure story (that had obviously been originally serialized), but that’s about it.

Also, I’m using this for my “Classic With a Number in the Title” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Oh what a tangled web…

Title: Our Man in Havana
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Thriller / Espionage
Pages: 222
Rating: 4 of 5

This spy novel isn’t quite an outright farce but it shows the ludicrous side of the intelligence game. When a British expatriate who works as a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana is practically forced to become an agent of British intelligence he has no idea how to proceed. Acting on advice from his German friend he simply makes up agents and intelligence and soon “our man in Havana” is one of the British intelligence community’s more valuable assets. The web of deceit (and bewildered bumbling ineptness) that follows is by turns humorous and tragic (I won’t tell you which note it ends on).

Overall, this was an enjoyable book (much more so than LeCarré´s copycat Taylor of Panama that had a much grimmer tone). Not only is the story entertaining, but you are treated to a backdrop of pre-revolutionary Cuba…not a very edifying spectacle, but interesting. This is definitely worth a read as relatively realistic spy fiction (as opposed to the James Bond secret agent style) or even just as a man-trapped-by-circumstances kind of classic.

Blackwater & Whistleblowing

Title: A Delicate Truth
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Thriller/Espionage
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

You don’t read anything by LeCarré to get warm happy feelings. He unflinchingly portrays the seediness, cynicism, and brutality of the (under)world of British intelligence. His novels set during the Cold War are frequently depressing but brilliant. This book, with a more current setting is unmistakably LeCarré, but doesn’t measure up to the likes of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The book centers around an attempt at whistleblowing after a questionable operation to grab a high-level jihadist is conducted jointly by British special forces and an American-owned private security firm (which is basically Blackwater if it were owned by a far right Evangelical Christian). It wasn’t bad, but the characters’ motivations and lack of professionalism (and much higher level of profanity than usual) didn’t really grab me. Additionally, the people from the Blackwater-like mercenary group sometimes seemed more like caricatures than believable characters. Overall: not a complete bomb, but not his best work.