Gad, sir, they don’t write adventure stories these days like they used to; probably they never did. But everyone has his fond memories of thrillers—splendid specimens of sub-literature, where the good guys were systematically stacked up against the bad guys, where the decor was exotic not to say outré, and the plentiful girls just promiscuous enough to supply exotic last-minute rewards for the battered but miraculously rejuvenated hero. The ministry of terror—Boris, the sinister, cold-visaged killer, creeps catlike down the midnight corridors of the Orient Express toward the compartment where Emmie-Lou clutches the coded message to her palpitating high-ridged bosom! Roger, cool as a cucumber in the mountain hideout of the enemy, while sinister gorillas whimper with eagerness to tear him limb from limb, lights a cigarette, and says casually to aged, one-eyed Ivanov Dubrovnik: “True enough, my dear fellow, you have me. But I won’t do you much good, unless you have the mysterious brown parcel. And only I, as it happens, can lead you to it.” Talk about sang-froid!
Happy days, tender memories—best not renewed or revisited; for with only a slight twist of perspective, the tinsel droops, the terror reveals itself as stagy, and the hokum sticks out like stuffing from a chair the cat has been clawing. Incredible as it seems, John Buchan now looks cornier than Eric Ambler, who is no less corny than Ian Fleming, who in turn will have no trouble being cornier than the next guy. Possible, is it not, that this sort of book is a continuing victim of technology?—for it was written in the mood of, and is best appreciated on, a long train trip, or preferably an ocean voyage. Ah, the sunny decks of the old Ile after a light lunch in one’s deck chair (half a cold chicken, croissants, salad, Camembert, fruit, and some of the Graves supérieur)—when one’s discriminations were exercised on a choice between sleep, conversation, shuffleboard, and a thriller. Spacious days—from which the books, surviving, descending, recaptured, disappoint us with their withered and dusty air, their creaking joints. What right have they to be gaffers like us?
Contemporary redactions of the old good-guys-versus-bad-guys story are rarely so tough and able as John Le Carré’s well-heralded whizzer, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The author whose square pseudonym masks a first-rate narrative architect, has provided us with a tightly plotted, non-episodic, controlled action, worked out with few theatrical flamboyances, no picturesque rhetoric, and very little political folderol. In a novel about the so-called cold war, these omissions alone occasion considerable relief. On Mr. Le Carré’s showing, the world of the professional spy is cold, gray, impersonal, and contrived; now and then, it gives way beneath one’s feet. The indigenes, who live by angling desperately for information they cannot assess, are almost schizoid mixtures of cynicism and loyalty. Practiced professional deceivers, they may be deceived even about the reasons for their deception. Humanity itself is compromised, outraged, divided; the arch-plotters become victims of their own plots. Out of these paradoxes grows the intricate and moving climax of the novel.
Without the crude props of guns, torture, drugged drinks, and femmes fatales, its depth and precariousness render this world of professional spying intellectually dramatic. Leamas, Mr. Le Carré’s hero, is certainly a good guy, subjectively, as his East German antagonist Mundt is certainly a bad one; but Leamas, while fulfilling his historic role better than he knows, destroys on the personal level everything to which he is most attracted; and Mundt—but it would be unfair to give away so bold and skillful a plot. The book is an intricate and moving study, among other things, of history and men as its active and passive agents. Circumstances of the action don’t permit much character portrayal; a man as complexly drawn as Leamas passes major parts of his character under the hot iron. But the story is told in terse, cutting prose, and it leads inward as well as outward; Mr. Le Carré has given more thought to the problem of ends and means than our usual cheap formularies provide. His book will not yield the less food for thought because it ends on a note of unaccustomed bitterness. It’s a cold world, not just for spies but for humanity, and there doesn’t seem to be more than one way out of it.
Stepping down a couple of flights, Von Ryan’s Express is chockablock full of intricate derring-do by cardboard supermen. Nazis are bad guys who bully or cringe; Italians are lovable but doggy; Our Boys are staunch-haunch, true-blue, all synthetic fabric (better than wool) and a yard wide. The first half of the book is a reprise of The Bridge on the River Kwai; the second half is an escape, with chase, on a railroad train. Colonel Joseph Ryan, eponymous hero, bids hard for the reader’s admiration; tough, disciplined, responsible, he may make mistakes (like getting born in the first place), but by God he’s a man. This admiration is subjected to a good many tests. I don’t mean his pretentiously chicken way of running a POW camp, against which his fellow prisoners are allowed to protest vigorously. The trouble is that the colonel is at his worst when the author thinks he’s at his best. To display a tawdry heart of gold, he is allowed to shed cheap tears, in ostentatious privacy, over a murdered adjutant. He himself murders with an efficiency reminiscent of the Chicago stockyards. The book is a sad bad silly thing, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
M. Simenon is by now such an old hand at this business of action and adventure stories that he has transcended the genre entirely, and is starting to write counter-adventure, anti-Simenon stories, distinguished by their inaction and non-adventure. Some abject dope at Doubleday decided that the best way to translate Trois Chambres à Manhattan was Three Beds in Manhattan, but not even this deplorable title can obscure the fact that we have here a love story pure and simple.
Especially simple. The protagonists are a bit shopworn for boy-girl terminology, but the story can be outlined accurately enough as boy gets girl, boy thinks he’s losing girl, girl thinks she’s losing boy, boy gets girl again, and they live happily ever after. François Combe is a French actor at the dangerous age of forty-eight; finding himself humiliatingly cocu, he flees the Paris stage and comes to New York; finding little or no work, he drifts at last into a sordid lonely lodging in the Village. Here he meets one night the rather battered and equally lonely divorcee Kay:—at about this point the novelette begins, and its progress consists largely of the two people’s efforts to trust each other and themselves. The reader is shown a pair of desperate, seedy, struggling, used-up types, shown their evasions, delusions, and pretensions, shown their psychic damage and essential instability. The deck is stacked against them from the start, and besides one is reading Simenon, whose stoic roughs are always being tested by violence, their own or someone else’s. Kay and François teeter on the edge of violence, explosion, rupture; one reads with a subliminal expectation of its coming, this page or the next, but it never does. The book has some interesting scenes of morbid jealousy (out of Proust) and some completely believable theatrical-type rat-finks; but none of these impediments ever blocks the progress of sincere and honorable love. It moves along, as steady—and, some may say, as exciting—as a Belgian barge-canal, to the end of the story.
And this, after all, is the peril of an adventure in anti-climax: that one’s carefully calculated non-effects will seem simply ineffective. M. Simenon rarely fails to be touching as the poet of urban, nocturnal loneliness; the laconic, skeptical prose and the grubby atmosphere exercise their dour, accustomed charm; above all, he talks with conviction of loneliness and the mute desperation of the heart. But his characters—who are these people over whose fate we are to be exercised? They are in fact a pair of tired nebbishes—she more than he, both too much for stimulus. The book is built on their ability to mean something special to each other, otherwise it’s just a couple of social atoms jostling momentarily together. How special do they convince us they are? Not very, I’m afraid. The stumbling rhetoric of modern love is asked to support a burden which usually is shared with some sort of demonstrated character; and it buckles under the load. They’ve got each other, Kay and François; loneliness is momentarily at bay. But that isn’t enough on the face of it to quash the lingering question, “So what?”
In adventure stories, as in baseball, an average of .333 is solid cause for satisfaction. For its sense of humanity betrayed and at cross-purposes, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold probably belongs on a better shelf than that which holds books for travel only. As for the other two—well, basically, the circumstances of my reading were all wrong. If someone will set me up in a deck-chair, on a soft day in mid-Gulfstream, I’ll be happy to try them again.
March 5, 1964