That what-if moment

From time to time I read a thriller and kick myself for not thinking up such a terrific plot. It is difficult to say what makes a plot so appealing, but you know it when you see it and it’s pure magic.

Forty-one years ago an unknown 24-year old from Montana hit the jackpot when he published his debut thriller about a CIA agent who runs for his life after his office is wiped out by rogue agents while he’s out fetching sandwiches. This is a plot many a writer would sell his or her mother for.

Six Days of the Condor is the perfect chase novel and in my opinion owes its roots to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. Although the young James Grady only mentions Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as one inspiration, it should be remembered that this film was a reworking of Buchan’s ground breaking novel. I think it is possible to make comparisons not only because it is the innocent man on the run. While Buchan set his story against the fear of an impending First World War, Grady tapped into the disenchantment felt in America after the horrors of Vietnam and Watergate.

And what a perfect hero he created in Ronald Malcolm, a bookish slob, who has the perfect job of reading books for a living for the CIA. He’s the equivalent of a literary agent for spies, looking for intriguing plots in published books which are then fed into a computer to check against CIA operations. The purpose of which is to look for possible leaks in the agency.

Admittedly any writer would make more money selling the secrets to the enemy directly than publishing a book, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good plot.

In the story Ronald Malcolm insists he’s not a spy as he has no espionage training. But while on the run and against all odds, it is his broad knowledge gained from reading books that keeps him alive. The plot even has a moral in the tale.

Yet what’s so appealing about the hero is that he’s like one of us, a reader, and is therefore easy to identify with. More excitingly, he can enter the dangerous world of espionage and survive.

So where did Grady get his brilliant idea? While he was a congressional intern in Washington he would pass every morning a mysterious looking townhouse proclaiming to be the headquarters of the American Historical Association.

But Grady says he never saw anyone enter or leave the building, and like all thriller writers he let his imagination run wild. It was the classic, what-if moment. In fact, two what-ifs in his case. What if the townhouse was a CIA front, and what if the hero returned from lunch and found everyone in the office shot dead?

After the three-month internship ended Grady went back to Montana where he did a number of manual jobs to support himself while making his first stab at writing a novel. He decided to steer clear of the James Bond superhero, and focus on analysts in the CIA.

With very little to go on he invented the structure of the agency and the mythical job of an analyst who read novels all day. So impressive was this fictional concept that in later years the Russians apparently decided that they needed to emulate such a department.

He banged out the novel on a typewriter from his kitchen table in Helena, Montana, and sent off his sample chapter to 30 publishers. After many months, he received a modest offer from a publisher and then weeks later a movie rights deal from Dino De Laurentiis.

The film, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway was a huge success.

In many respects Pollack’s movie was an improvement on the book but this was largely due to the collaborative nature of film making. More mature heads with experience in producing thrillers somehow polished up the rough edges of a story written by a prodigious 24-year old. Grady graciously acknowledges this and believes himself to be one lucky author.

Earlier this year, Grady published Last Days of the Condor, the latest and possibly last of his hero’s adventures. Once again Ronald Malcolm is on the run from sinister forces within the US government.

The Washington Post praised Grady’s prose and style of writing, saying his talent has evolved since his debut book after years of experience producing novels and screenplays.

What more could a writer want? To be discovered at 24, have arguably one of the best thriller films ever made from a debut book, and fulfilling a life-long career in writing. All thanks to one moment when standing in front of a Washington townhouse and asking himself, what if?

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk

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