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Archive for the tag “spy novels”

Robert Goddard: pastiche and parody

The Ends of the Earth: (The Wide World - James Maxted 3)The Ends of the Earth: by Robert Goddard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of Robert Goddard’s spy trilogy. I’ve just finished reading the second and third books one after the other, so will comment on the series as a whole rather than on each volume separately.

It’s quite an enjoyable read, even though it has more plot holes than a colander and more loose ends than a bowl of spaghetti. It’s not up to Goddard’s usual standard, where the books are more carefully and believably plotted. Most of his best books are written to a formula in which a mystery in the past influences events in the present. There are echoes of that here, but in this book the “present” is itself in the past, as the main action of the story takes place immediately after the First World War, during and following the peace conference at Versailles, though it is influenced by events that had taken place nearly 30 years before.

But in most of Goddard’s other books the protagonist is usually an ordinary person who gets involved either accidentally, or in an unsuspecting way. Here, however, the protagonist is James “Max” Maxted, wartime flying ace and and James Bond-type swashbuckling hero. The second volume starts off reading like a sequel to The Thirty-nine Steps, which was set before the war, and this one is set after it. One of the characters even mentions The Thirty-Nine Steps. Perhaps the mention of the book is a hint that Robert Goddard is self-consciously writing a pastiche and a parody of the spy story genre, with hints of John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum. Perhaps the real challenge to the reader is to work out which bit is imitating whom. And perhaps in some parts he’s even parodying himself.

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A gun for sale

A Gun for Sale: An EntertainmentA Gun for Sale: An Entertainment by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spy novels seemed to flourish in the Cold War, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps they were revived by the James Bond romances of Ian Fleming and given more impetus by the more serious and realistic novels of John le Carre, but they had been around for quite a while before that, and this is one set in the period of tension leading up to the Second World War. It’s only about a third of the length of many of the Cold War spy thrillers, but that, if anything makes it more readable and more sharply focused. In looking for a postwar novel in the same genre I suppose the one that comes closest is The day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

It’s not just a spy story, it’s a crime novel as well, and perhaps even more so. In that respect the contrast with postwar crime novels is quite marked. I’d just finished reading Blood on the Tongue, which is set in much the same area of England, and what stands out is the difference in police procedures. In the prewar novel, the police circulate numbers of stolen banknotes to shops and railway booking offices in a town the size of London with remarkable efficiency for pre-Internet days. and everyone throughout the country is aware of the description of a wanted man. This makes it very easy to trace the suspect. In post war crime novels, the police have suspects, but can’t find them, and when they do find out that they are not the perpetrators. They discover the real perpetrators by chance as often as not.

I suspect that the recent ones are more accurate, and the pre-war ones give an exaggerated idea of police efficiency and resources. Back then they never seemed to discuss the budget available for their investigations, though Graham Greene does have some digs at differences in medical treatment for people of different classes.

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