Deighton returns to the silver screen

Len Deighton, who turned 88 this month, is enjoying a revival of interest in his work as filmmakers are turning to his books again for inspiration.

A five-part mini-series based on his 1978 novel SS-GB is about to be aired by the BBC, and there has been talk for some while of the nine Bernard Samson novels – Deighton’s magnum opus – being adapted for television as well.

SS-GB is a counter-factual history adventure set in 1941 Britain where the Nazis have taken occupation. Deighton, a highly respected writer on military history, penned the novel after carrying out painstaking research on Hitler’s occupation plans, speaking to German army generals and senior SS officers.

It provides an exciting backdrop for a murder investigation by Scotland Yard detective, Douglas Archer, who uncovers a terrible truth at the heart of the British puppet government under Nazi rule.

The world renowned author claims that he never wanted to be a writer,  but a chance introduction with the literary agent, Johnathan Clowes, turned jottings made while on holiday into The Ipcress File. This was 1962, the same year of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and a year before John le Carre published The Spy Who came in from the Cold.

The three British masters of the spy novel were about to start vying on the silver screen. But while Ian Fleming’s James Bond won hands down in general public appeal the world over, Deighton and le Carre’s anti-heroes proved the perfect antidote to those filmgoers who hated the glamorous fantasy world of 007.

Harry Saltzman, who made Dr.No, had the good sense to hedge his bets about what the paying public wanted from their British spy and produced The Ipcress File in 1965, offering  the sharp witted cockney Michael Caine as an alternative to the smooth talking Sean Connery.

The film helped to launch Deighton’s career as a major author, and more spy novels followed, including many books featuring the jaded middle-aged MI6 spy, Bernard Samson. In the 1970s he wrote Fighter, an account of the Battle of Britain, as well as deeply researched novels about the Second World War, including Bomber, and SS-GB.

His historical non-fiction has also been highly praised over the years, despite being criticised for interviewing German veterans at a time when the only point of view of the war was from that of the allies.

He also found time to become travel editor of Playboy while also writing and producing the film version of Oh! What a lovely War.

But his real passion in life was cooking, taught to him while growing up in London by his mother who was cook by profession. As a trained illustrator he also drew cartoon strips based on recipes for The Observer. Cooking books followed, including Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, Basic French Cooking, and, ABC of French Food.

Before becoming an illustrator after studying at London’s top art schools, he spent 30 months in RAF intelligence during his National Service, followed by a stint as a railway clerk, a BOAC steward, and a press photographer.

In total he wrote 27 novels, 11 miscellaneous works including films and television scripts, and 16 non-fiction books. Several of his works have been adapted for screen, three starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and a Granada Television mini-series starring Ian Holm as Bernard Samson.

But the success in his early career was to some extent helped greatly by his good friend Michael Caine who personified the working class hero probably better than the author could have ever created in The Ipcress File. Deighton admits he had no idea why he made the unnamed hero, who narrates the story in the book, a northerner, and supposes that it may have been his way of disguising the fact that he was a Londoner who spoke with a cockney accent.

Caine restored the balance by making the spy a cockney, and by also giving him a name for the audience. He was looking for the most common sounding name possible, starting with Saltzman’s first name. Caine brought Deighton’s hero to life, capturing both the time and mood of the 1960s. Deighton’s book was seen at the time as fresh and different largely because of the way the hero was insubordinate to his often untrustworthy superiors. In truth, this was a return to the wisecracking Philip Marlowe only with a cockney accent. A hero with his own code of ethics.

The success of The Ipcress File caught Deighton by surprise as he instantly shot to global fame. But he was not the only one surprised by his immediate success; his publishers, Hodder and Stoughton, had restricted the print order to only 4,000 books and were sold out in just a couple of days.

He claims he never had any intense literary ambitions despite being a voracious reader since childhood thanks to the encouragement of his father who was a chauffeur and mechanic. But luckily for us he decided to swap his day job as an illustrator to become one of Britain’s finest writers in the spy genre.

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

The poet of apprehension

Patricia Highsmith’s advice to budding writers was to begin a novel with events of everyday life that may spark off a story, and then capture the reader’s attention with invention.

Sounds simple, but it would coming from an author who turned the psychological thriller into a high art form.

At the age of 29 she wrote her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, a plot that captured the imagination of one generation after another. It was adapted as a film by Alfred Hitchcock a year later in 1951, and then re-used in several other adaptations in one form or another, including films, television, theatre as well as in other novels.

Highsmith’s book in my opinion was superior to Hitchcock’s version, which proved to be his comeback film after a couple of flops. Hitchcock chose the novel because it had the right type of material for him to work with. He was confident at the time that no other director would have spotted the book’s potential as a film. But converting the prose into a suspenseful script proved much harder than he imagined. Big names like Dashiell Hammett and John Steinbeck turned down the opportunity to work with him. He finally got Raymond Chandler to produce a script, which proved to be a disaster, and in the end Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, came to the rescue with the help of other scriptwriters.

The story begins with an everyday occurrence of two strangers sitting on a long train journey chatting. Then the tempo rises when Guy and Bruno discuss carrying out murders for each other to solve their problems. Such random acts would make it almost impossible for the police to connect them to the victims.

On reading Strangers on a Train it reminded me more of Crime and Punishment than a contemporary thriller of its day. The two men could be one man, conflicted with guilt. Good at odds with evil.

The guilt of Guy when Bruno suddenly murders Guy’s wife without his agreement is palpable. But if that is not enough Highsmith adds more tension when Bruno blackmails Guy into honouring his part of the bargain of murdering his father. And if that is not ratcheting it up enough, a private detective gets wind of their pact.

In her book to help young aspiring writers, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, she explains she always likes to thicken the plot by bringing in new complications to freshen up the story. It certainly works well in the case of Strangers on a Train.

Her next book The Price of Salt, later retitled Carol, was also a big hit and was written under the pen name Claire Morgan. The story of a young shop girl falling in love with a married woman was recently adapted by Phyllis Nagy into a successful film in 2015.

Then in 1955, Highsmith created the wonderful psychopath anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley. She went on to write several more Ripley novels and then continued writing more novels exploring characters with a dark side.

My particular favourite The Cry of the Owl (1962) was a psychological thriller that she didn’t care much for. It was apparently based on her own experience of stalking a woman, the same one that inspired her to write The Price of Salt. There have been three film/television adaptions of the book, including one by the renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who was of course a great admirer of Hitchcock.

Highsmith didn’t see herself as a crime writer and preferred to be called an entertainer. According to friends, she didn’t suffer fools but her troubled life tended to follow her wherever she went.

She moved to Europe from the US in the early 1960s and surprisingly enjoyed a higher recognition there than in her native country. She eventually settled in Switzerland in the 1980s where she remained until her death in 1995, aged 74.

The Times once named her number one in their list of the greatest ever crime writers, although her ranking elsewhere is inexplicably much lower.

She completed 22 novels and eight books of short stories, but she admitted rather candidly in her handbook on writing that the possibility of failure was always ever present for the author. It is difficult to believe that she had suffered failures of her own, but she viewed every failure as teaching her something.

Highsmith was an admirer of Graham Greene and he reciprocated by describing her as “the poet of apprehension.” He said that she “created a world of her own – a world claustrophobic and irrational, which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.”

 

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

Last night I dreamt I went to …

During the summer I took refuge in a second hand bookshop in Lyme Regis to get out of the pouring rain and found myself weaving around the higgledy-piggledy assortment of shelves, lazily scanning hundreds of titles to read.

The aptly named Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street stocks metres of books in every direction. It also has a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a cosy fire, and if you are a slow reader they can put you up in overnight accommodation. It’s a book lover’s paradise. (http://www.lyme-regis.com/)

For some reason I felt myself being drawn to the back of the shop and to a particular shelf where I found the book I’d been longing to read but never got around to doing so This was a sign, I thought, and grabbed the second-hand paperback off the shelf before anyone else suddenly took a fancy to it.

The well-worn book in my hands of Rebecca was published by Pan Books in 1978 under a fourth print run. Daphne du Maurier’s classic suspense story was first published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz and became an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print and according to the publishers Virago it still sells around 4,000 a month.

I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca many times and was curious to know why Hitchcock didn’t think much of his movie that brought him his first fame in Hollywood. I was rather hoping by reading the book it might shed some light on why he had taken this harsh attitude towards his movie.

The 1940 film was Hitchcock’s first in Hollywood and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Hitchcock was a close friend of Du Maurier’s father and wanted to make Rebecca several years earlier, but was unable to afford the rights to the novel. He’d already turned her novel Jamaica Inn into a film and would later direct her short story The Birds into one of his best known movies.

It got off to a bad start when the producer David O. Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville had worked on. Selznick who was busy producing Gone With the Wind at the time was renowned for loving and understanding books. He’d insisted that the film faithfully adapted the plot of the book, including scenes and dialogues.

Here was a monumental clash of artistic differences – the producer seeking a literal approach versus the director’s visceral approach. It led to extensive re-writes, but Selznick got his movie and won Best Picture for the second year in a row after winning the same award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The black and white photography also won an Oscar and was put to good effect to convey the darkness of the book.

It might not have been the film that Hitchcock wanted to make but without Selznick’s interference some commentators doubt that it would have been so successful as Selznick brought a solid structure to the story, something that Hitchcock would eventually adopt in his later works.

Adapting the gothic melodrama to screen no doubt helped Hitchcock expand his repertoire from his trademark of sharp shocks to more moodier themes which eventually established him as an all-time great film director.

Hitchcock captures well the shy girl (Joan Fontaine) who suddenly enters the rich world of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and Manderley, his beautiful mansion by the sea. Mr de Winter’s immature bride acts at first passively towards the large household of servants led by the pernicious housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), who instils the idea that she is not worthy of replacing Rebecca, the late Mrs de Winter. From that moment on she is tormented by the ghost of Rebecca until she grows up to confront her demon and learn the truth about her death.

Du Maurier’s novel is a study of a new wife’s jealousy of her husband’s first wife who eventually goes on to discover that everything she had built up in her head is completely wrong. Echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, possibly, but as Du Maurier admitted it was a story about a fairly common theme. In reality, it was based on her own marital experience.

Both the book and Hitchcock’s film were well received by the public. The toxic combination of jealousy and suspense has led to several versions of the story reaching the stage, television, radio, Bollywood, and even the opera.

The book is apparently read and re-read by fans the world over with many of them seeing something different in the characters each time. It is easy to understand its popularity just by reading the first opening sentence, one of the most memorable in classic fiction. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

 

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

My favourite gumshoe

When it comes to detective stories there is only one writer, and one book, for that matter, that hits all the buttons. The writer is Dashiell Hammett, and his book, The Maltese Falcon.

As a teenager I enjoyed Raymond Chandler and his wisecracking PI, Philip Marlowe. Nothing could surpass him, I thought at the time, for enjoyment in detective fiction. But that all changed when in later life I read Hammett’s The Thin Man, and then the mother of all detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon.

Up to that point, I didn’t think Chandler could ever be possibly dethroned in my head. But after casting my eyes over The Thin Man, considered a lightweight novel, compared to Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key, I realised how wrong I was.

The Thin Man, which was the last of his five published novels, also happened to be a very thin book indeed. But that is the beauty of his writing. He was so efficient in his prose that the story revolves around a few characters in walking distance of each other. There is humour and a general ease in style that makes it effortless to read again and again and again. The husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles and their witty banter led to a spate of films and set a blueprint for comedy between the sexes ever since.

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better I browsed The Maltese Falcon in a small London bookshop during a lunch break and forgot to return to the office. These are the most cherished moments in finding that right book that fits you. Time just seems to stand still when they get into your hands.

The Maltese Falcon marked a step-change in detective fiction. Its hardboiled style and darker approach to crime, dragged readers away from the cosy upper-class detectives created by mystery writers from the Golden Age. The British whodunits were being passed over for the grittier American urban crime thriller where the hero was working class.

Hammett’s Sam Spade, the dry-witted gumshoe, would a decade later turn into the more defined Philip Marlowe created by Chandler. Both characters would become the template for all future pulp fiction private detectives until they were eventually replaced by cops in police procedural thrillers.

The Maltese Falcon had the requisite MacGuffin, a femme fatale, crooked chancers, and of course a hero with his own code of ethics straight from the Knights of the Round Table. The plot is linear and not overly complicated, unlike those of Chandler’s, and there is humour too. But it is the directness of his writing, using a third person point-of-view, which allows the action to speak.

Of course, Hammett had one advantage over Chandler in that he had been a real detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, although not much is known about his job there. Hammett, certainly had a harder upbringing than Chandler, having to leave school at 13. Both were born in the US with unreliable fathers, but Chandler thanks to his Irish mother was classically educated at Dulwich College in London, a private school whose pupils included the authors P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester.

Chandler published his first novel The Big Sleep in 1939, introducing Philip Marlowe some nine years after Hammett’s Sam Spade. But the detective’s first person narration brought more immediacy in his story as well as more scope for humour and style.

Farewell, My Lovely followed a year later and soon Marlowe was hitting the big time on the silver screen. It was not long before Chandler turned his hand to scriptwriting, just as Hammett had done many years earlier.

His self-styled similes became his stock-in-trade as a writer and brought him much admiration in the literary world, something that was less apparent in the UK with regards to Hammett’s work.

The British-based Crime Writers’ Association ranked The Maltese Falcon at No.10 out of the top 100 crime books, while placing Chandler’s The Big Sleep at No.2 and Farewell, My Lovely at No.7. But the Mystery Writers of America ranked The Maltese Falcon as the best of all time mysteries, ahead of Chandler. Over the years, the US association has ranked Hammett’s book at No.1 or No.2.

Hammett’s influence is everywhere from Chandler to Le Carré, to Elmore Leonard and even Len Deighton. While he may not have been the first writer to create a hard-boiled detective, he was innovative and original, justifying his classic status.

My only gripe with Hammett was that he gave Sam Spade only one outing in full-length fiction. That was a very mean thing to do in my book.

 

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

It’s no laughing matter

One of the main gripes of the author behind the popular ITV detective series, Grantchester, is that the producers take out all of the jokes from the novels on which the show is based upon.

James Runcie, son of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is the author of Grantchester Mysteries, six novels about a crime-fighting vicar, stretching over a twenty-year period starting from the 1950s.The novels have been adapted for television, starring James Norton and Robson Green.

The author told an audience at the recent Crimefest in Bristol that the jokes are stripped from the novels by producers because they are trying to get a varied tone on the television show. “It needs to be truncated to fit the allotted time, and the jokes come out,” he explained.

Runcie made his remarks during a panel session to illustrate the current plight of the comic crime fiction writer.

The sad fact of the matter is that there is no money in comic fiction writing in Britain, forcing writers to quit the subgenre altogether.

Runcie said that writers get paid more for scaring people than making them laugh. Yet there is black humour when crime goes wrong, he pointed out. “Even at funerals when families come together they say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but there is a loving humanity about it,” he said. However, a novel with no humour would probably be less sympathetic to the subject, in his opinion.

“Comedy is always considered flippant, but it’s harder to be funny than sombre,” he went on to tell the audience. “A world without humour is not worth living.”

The television and radio comedy writer, Nev Fountain, who has recently moved into serious thriller writing with his new book Painkiller, agrees that there is humour in every aspect of tragedy, sometimes involuntary.

“Spike Milligan’s war diaries are dark and the funniest parts are when the soldiers are together and talking about death,” he told the audience. “Humour shows intelligence. It’s not difficult to switch to writing serious books because when you write dialogue, you just leave the jokes out.”

Fountain maintains that while it is easy to write revulsion and horror, it is far more difficult to write comedy banter. The only must in such writing, he says, is to take death seriously, and making sure it does not turn into a pantomime.

While there appears to be only room for a few comic fiction writers in the market, there seems to be no limit to the number of writers in serious crime fiction, he says.

Ruth Dudley Edwards, whose satirical crime novels targets academia, the civil service, the House of Lords and the Church of England, says the lot of a funny writer, is not funny. She agrees there is no money to be made in comic fiction, which she thinks is strange when there is demand for the genre.

She asked the audience why readers didn’t want to pay for it. Clearly, the audience did want to pay for it, judging by their positive response. Their only problem is that they can’t find it in the bookshops.

At least that seems the experience in Britain, because in the US it is not too difficult to find crime fiction and TV crime shows with sprinklings of comic relief.

American writers of detective novels are given licence to crack jokes and have punch lines. They seem to have no reservations about mixing death and comedy.

British agents and publishers are wary of taking on manuscripts with a sliver of humour as they think it is risky because humour is open to interpretation.

Cosy mysteries series from the UK in fact do well in the US, and the jokes on shows like Vera are understood on the other side of the pond.

Humour can also be used to great effect to offset the grimness in many books. In fact, a hilarious dialogue can sometimes save a book or a film. And who doesn’t like film noir with wise-cracks? The trouble is finding the right balance.

British humour is renowned the world over and travels well like its rock music. It’s virtually a brand that tells its audience to prepare for rib-cracking laughter.

One of the major stumbling blocks about comic books, it is argued, is that written comedy is difficult to translate well. But in an increasingly English-speaking world, cultural references present translators with less problems than in the past, and one only has to look at the acceptance of Woody Allen in France to realise the divide is not so great.

That’s not to say there aren’t limits to how faithful a translator can be to the original text to get a chuckle. To cater for the humour-challenged Germans, the publishers of the German edition of James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries decided to tackle the problem head-on. Over a span of 20 pages it spelt out fully why his book should make them laugh. Now that’s hilarious, isn’t it?

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

It’s all in the genres

The London Book Fair closed the other week in a bullish mood with reports of some eye-watering deals for a number of thriller writers. It seems that the good times are back, judging by the number of publishers bidding at auctions for big titles and the frenetic activity in selling the rights for these books across the continent of Europe.

There was quite rightly a lot of attention on thrillers at the fair and one debut writer in particular appears to have hit the jackpot after giving up her job last summer to take the Faber Academy writing course.

Chloé Esposito looks set to become the next big thriller author after receiving over £2m in advances from UK publisher Michael Joseph and foreign rights sales, according to reports at the London Book Fair. There is also talk of Hollywood being interested in her Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know trilogy.

Pitched as “a heady mix of sex, lies, twists and murder,” it’s a story of sibling rivalry where the protagonist is described as “Bridget Jones gone bad.” There is apparently a nod in the direction of anti-heroes, Amy Dunne and Tom Ripley.

The first of the trilogy, Mad, is due to be published in June 2017 and looks set to become a hit like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.

Esposito says it is her first novel, although she had previously written “hundreds” of unfinished books. Her agent, Simon Trewin at WME, claims that it is “a thriller with a high concept,” and went on to describe it as the “American Psycho for the Gone Girl generation.”

No doubt this high concept thriller will lead to a round of similar novels reaching the market in the years to come, possibly adding another subgenre to thrillers.

In recent years, the domestic noir genre has grown in increasing popularity. Publishers and agents have been scouring female writers to come up with more domestic noir, which was grafted on the back of the classic detective genre by turning romantic women’s themes into darker stories.

Ian Rankin, the bestselling crime author who created the Rebus series, made the point recently that publishers are no longer just focused on publishing the next big book or author, but an entire genre. He claims that British writers are facing more competition than ever as publishers are turning their sights on finding the next success to Scandinavian noir.

More publishers are trawling their nets in foreign waters hoping to come up with a new cultural setting for crime readers to enjoy. Suddenly, there are more thrillers being stacked on the shelves of bookshops from around the world. This may be a good time to be a translator, but perhaps not a British thriller writer.

The majority of today’s crime novels are far from the roots of the classic thriller of the last century as they are filled with violence, horror, torture, misogyny, and sadomasochism.

Ann Cleeves, the crime writer, believes that publishers have encouraged such writing in a bid to keep up with the success of Scandinavian noir.

But she believes readers have tired of such genres, and supports her view with the recent trend towards traditional crime novels, citing the success of the British Library’s classic crime series, which reprints books from the 1930s with iconic covers from the golden age of thrillers.

While she admits that some of these books are beyond their sell-by date in entertainment value, publishers should be taking note what the readers are saying through their purchases.

That may be true, but given that Esposito’s new book promises “loads of sex and violence,” don’t expect any sea change soon.

Ian Rankin and Ann Cleeves will be speaking at Crimefest in Bristol, 19-22 May 2016. http://www.crimefest.com

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

Double O Vision

It seems we’re getting a double dosing of 007 at the moment and both of them quite diverse in nature. Anthony Horowitz, the bestselling author, has recently published a new Bond book that takes the debonair spy back to 1957, while on the silver screen 007 has been re-booted again into a cold-eyed killer.

So Bond lovers can take their pick. Go back in time with Horowitz’s Trigger Mortis, which is set only two weeks after the events of Goldfinger, or stick to the future with the latest action-packed Bond film Spectre where the traits of the original hero has been photoshopped by political correctness.

I’ve read neither the new book nor seen the new film as I’m not really a Bond fan. But I do remember the excitement of seeing the first James Bond films with Sean Connery, who created on screen a new hero who was likeable to both men and women. This had more to do with the skills of the scriptwriters and Connery’s appeal than to Ian Fleming’s writing.

The early films had a certain degree of wit that eventually disintegrated into self-parody once Connery passed on the Bond mantle.

When the first few films hit the cinemas with their exotic locations and glamorous women we schoolboys couldn’t wait to get our grubby little hands on Fleming’s books to read all the naughty bits.

But after recently reading some of the books again out of curiosity I found them, like many other people, misogynistic, snobbish and jingoistic. That may not be a surprise given the era when they were written. But what was odd about many of these books was the absence of humour, especially as Fleming was known to be a quick-witted man.

Yet anyone who can come up with a character called Pussy Galore has not lost his sense of fun completely. When Honor Blackman played lesbian Pussy in Goldfinger she didn’t like the book’s subtext that only James Bond could change her sexual orientation. But as Blackman tried to convince herself at the time, perhaps Pussy was not what she seemed.

Horowitz features Pussy in his new book and at one point she nearly comes a cropper when she’s painted in gold, the same fate of Jill Masterton in the original Goldfinger. But Bond on cue rescues her and wipes away the gold so that the pores of her skin can breathe again, although no one can die from being suffocated in paint.

Fleming may never have won the literary admiration he longed for, but there is a great deal of perfection in the opening of From Russia with Love and for that matter the rest of the book that makes it a wonderful read.

He once advised young writers that when writing a thriller it is best to put down their words as quickly as possible and to never look back at what they had written. The key was to avoid re-examining the work from the previous day which would inevitably lead to a general disgust of the words on paper.

The enduring popularity of Bond for more than fifty years is hard to explain. Originally, Fleming wanted an ordinary man, surrounded by exotic characters. He wanted a boring name for his character to reflect that and chose the name of an ornithologist.

Who knows whether the secret agent will still be around in another fifty odd years? It will depend on whether readers and audiences tire of the man with a licence to kill. Even Fleming wanted to dispatch his hero as he didn’t feel he could keep the adventures going on forever as he struggled to give new impetus to the character. Others have managed to take on that burden with vigour, resulting in several continuation books and 24 official Bond movies.

But as James has dodged so many bullets in his lifetime, it seems highly likely he’ll keep on dodging them for a long time to come.

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

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?

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Celebrating Agatha

Agatha Christie fans will be rubbing their hands with glee this year. Not only has a new Poirot novel been published but a whole host of events have been planned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of The Queen of Crime Writers.

A number of events are being organised during the International Agatha Christie Festival in her birthplace of Torquay in the UK this September while fans from around the world are being encouraged to post letters describing her importance to them. (http://www.125stories.com)

Next year will also see the performances of a few new adaptations of her plays while Fox is remaking the Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. It will see the welcome return to the screen of Hercule Poirot, the fastidious Belgian detective.

Poirot, one of Christie’s best known characters, appeared in 33 of her novels, one play and in more than 50 short stories published between 1920 and 1975.

But this year saw the first Poirot book to be written since her death after the Christie family estate gave permission for a continuation novel.

The family wanted a writer who could be trusted and given a free rein. The choice of the crime writer Sophie Hannah seemed like a match made in heaven as far as the family was concerned. Hannah had read all of Christie’s books by the age of 14 and, perhaps more importantly, had become a respectful aficionado. She had already nine psychological thrillers under her belt and was considered suitably experienced enough to pull off the tricky task of reviving Poirot.

Hannah made a conscious decision not to imitate Christie at all in her new book, The Monogram Murders. Out went Captain Hastings, and his narration, along with Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. In came a new narrator, Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard detective.

The result got the immediate thumbs up from Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson and head of the family estate. He said that The Monogram Murders was recognisably a Poirot book even though Hannah had brought her own style.

She claims to have brought all the elements of a Poirot novel: an enjoyable simple-to-read mystery with a complex puzzle to solve. Three bodies are found in separate rooms of a hotel behind locked doors. Only clue; monogrammed cufflinks found in their mouths.

Hannah says that the main difference between contemporary crime fiction and the golden age of detective fiction is that modern writers allow readers to witness events while in the past, writers relied on more overt story telling – clues are pointed out but not explained immediately.

What would Christie have thought of the concept of a new Poirot book? According to her grandson, she was against continuation stories during her lifetime, but not just for her own work, other writers too.

However, Hannah speaking at the recent Crimefest convention in Bristol defended the continuation novel on the grounds that “the whole point of the exercise is to get people back to the originals.”

The experiment has gone so swimmingly well that Mathew Prichard teased delegates with the possibility that Miss Marple could soon have her career resurrected as well.

Christie may not be everyone’s cup of tea with some critics claiming she was just a creator of puzzles. But Hannah firmly dismisses such arguments, pointing out that Christie’s novels had both “wisdom and insight.” She claims that Christie more than any other writer in her genre was always seeking to expand the boundary.

Hannah reckons that because Christie was so good at delivering pleasurable writing that some people automatically rule her books unworthy. Prichard concurs, claiming that Christie never thought of herself as a good writer and was content to tell people that she just wrote stories. She only wanted to entertain, he said.

So what is Hannah’s favourite Agatha Christie novel?

“I’ve a list of favourites. But After the Funeral is the one that struck me as the best all-rounder. Dysfunctional family, a fussy wife, and Poirot being used in a different way. Above all, it is Agatha Christie’s best example that when the solution is revealed by Poirot, everything rearranges itself and we can look back and see things differently. The perfect showcase of what Agatha Christie does best.”

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Who kicks best ass in thrillers?

This was the deeply philosophical question posed to a panel of top British thriller writers at the recent Crimefest conference in Bristol.

Well actually, I have paraphrased the question for the sake of brevity. But basically, the panel, which included Lee Child, was asked to choose between thrillers that used brains or brawn to get their story across.

Lee Child, the British writer who created the bone-breaking ex-US Military Police hero Jack Reacher, said without hesitation that brains are what every reader likes. In Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs there was no brawn, he told delegates. It was all brain provided by the incarcerated Hannibal Lecter.

The same could also be said for Sherlock Holmes, he added, even though Holmes was a great fighter who knew how to box and use a walking stick in defence. “People respond to the deductive process… and it’s brains that always wins.”

Lee Child said it is hard to come up with deductive ideas. The process is to start with a good opening scene and figure out as you go along. There is a temptation to go back and make the route a lot easier. But he said he tries not to do that. He has to solve the problem of say a highly complicated lock rather than just ditch the idea altogether.

In his forthcoming Reacher novel, which is out in September, Child raises an ethical question when his hero kills three bad guys entering the house. The woman he has just saved notices one of the men is still alive and Reacher pushes his finger hard on the artery of the neck. She asks him why he’s doing that and he replies to cut off the blood supply to the brain. The woman argues he can’t do that as the man was still alive, opening up an ethical discussion with Reacher who points out to her that it was okay when he tried to kill the man the first time, but not the second?

Zoe Sharp, author of the Charlie Fox thriller series, was a brawn supporter. She was so fed up reading about female characters being hopeless and always twisting their ankles that she created Charlie who is basically “a guy in nylons”. Charlie is a self-defence instructor from a failed military background who works in close protection.

British crime and mystery writer Chris Ewan favoured brains. He said he much preferred deductions and dilemmas in a plot as he found them exhilarating to figure out. Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Siguroardottir prefers to write “creepy stuff” and not to make anything random.

Tom Harper, the thriller writer and moderator of the discussion, pointed out that action sequences are done so well by Hollywood that it is hard for novelists to ever compete.

But Zoe Sharp disagreed that Hollywood does it better. A street fight normally only lasts 30 seconds and boxers are exhausted after two minutes, she said. Yet in films these scenes go on and on, making it hard to believe.

Lee Child said the story has to be influenced by action, but admits that Hollywood sometimes gets it wrong. “We’re all swimming in the same river, tv, films, and books. We have to use visuals correctly in writing. When writing I have a rule: write slow stuff fast and fast stuff slow. It works well.” He felt Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher movie got the balance about right with the fights as they were not overly long.

He also revealed to delegates that the trademark Reacher scene, where he is confronted with five men about to attack him, came from an incident in his childhood. Reacher reasons that if he takes out the tough one first and two others, the remaining two would run away.  This theory was based on empirical evidence, apparently. While walking home from school one day, the 10-year-old Lee Child was confronted by five kids in an alley. He decided to hit the leader hard. And guess what? The others ran away!

So the final verdict by the panel? Well it was always going to be brains before brawn.

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