May 27, 2006

Reflections on the spy novel

What did the fall of the Soviet Union do to the spy novel?

I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon reading a pretty bad one, The Talbot Odyssey by Nelson DeMille. The plot concerns the attempted takeover of the US by the Russkies, who are set to deliver an electromagnetic pulse that will cripple communications in the US. Then they'll install a puppet president and the US will become just another Soviet satellite state.

It's a stupid story, but the first 50 pages or so, the set up, were amusing enough. Then it got stupid. And I thought: Is it stupid just because of the notion of the Soviets doing us in with an electromagnetic pulse or is it stupid because of the notion of the Soviets doing us in, period?

The book was published in 1984. Now its portrayal of Soviet efficiency and military might seems foolish. In the same way clothes from 1989 look comical, yet clothes from 1935 look fabulous, the disintegration of the Soviet Union is too fresh. And, with 20:20 hindsight, our cold war fears seem foolish.

Then again, Nelson DeMille is no John le Carre. I thoroughly enjoyed his Smiley novels and I'm pretty sure they're still good reads. DeMille's probably no Eric Ambler either. So I'm going to give the old-timey spy novel another whirl, inspired by this, a tribute to Ambler's first novel, Epitaph for a Spy.

I'll report back later.

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