So-called midstream fictions of international intrigue or of American politics—and of the filiations between them—have become almost as dependent as the movies themselves on certain formulae. There are no test-market audiences or focus groups for fiction (if one exempts Tom Wolfe’s repeated trial runs in the pages of Rolling Stone), but those who compose and confect thrillers often write as if there were. Conventions are, if not iron, at the very least inelastic. And the effect upon style is almost inescapably a flattening and also a sentimentalizing one. When I had put down two out of these three offerings, I found that they hadn’t contained a single adhesive or memorable line or passage. Nor had they exerted the least upward pressure on my sense of outrage or engagement. And the satirical or ironic element was absent altogether. Was this always so? It took gratifyingly little time to recall, and to locate, the following excerpts from those political classics which once aspired—as do the latest ones—to be a cut above the market for mere pulp:
Although you could do no more than “deplore” a number of slaughtered children, there was in existence means of preventing one particular aspect of the principle of expediency from doing too much damage. Most international crimi-nals were beyond the reach of man-made laws; Dimitrios happened to be within reach of one law. He had committed at least two murders and had therefore broken the law as surely as if he had been starving and had stolen a loaf of bread.
(Eric Ambler,A Coffin For Dimitrios)
“He’s ready to sell out,” thought Gorman in surprise. He was not surprised by the duplicity—he had known Camaratta for many years—but by its speed. The candidates had barely had time to declare themselves: it was a record in quick treachery, even for Camaratta. There were other possible interpretations of the clumsily circumspect phrases, but in these matters Gorman trusted absolutely in his instinct, and he had not the slightest doubt of what was happening: Camaratta was about to sell his candidate down the river. Nucatolla’s slight, swarthy, foolishly trusting body was even now on the slab, marked ready for delivery: to himself Gorman thoughtfully said: Enrico, me bucko, out you go. Precisely what had led up to this betrayal, he did not know; he had heard of no discontent in the Nucatolla camp. Still, there needed to be none; Nucatolla at best had no great strength, and the situation was ripe for the well-known Camaratta double cross. The bay was clogged with the bodies of innocents who had at one time or another put their faith in the laughing promises of this squat manipulator.
“When you come right down to it, there are only two points that really count.”
Skeffington held up two fingers. “One,” he said, ticking the first, “’All Ireland must be free.’ Two,” he said, ticking the second, “’Trieste belongs to Italy.’ They count …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.