Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Agents of Treachery - Otto Penzler, ed.

Back during the secret agent craze in the Sixties, I was a huge fan of espionage fiction and read all of it I could get my hands on: from John Le CarrĂ© and Eric Ambler to Ian Fleming and Donald Hamilton to now obscure stuff like Desmond Cory’s Johnny Fedora series and Manning Coles’ Tommy Hambledon books to the pulpier yarns like the Nick Carter series and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels. In recent decades, though, not so much. Not nearly so much.

But I did pick up a new anthology edited by Otto Penzler, AGENTS OF TREACHERY, which he claims in his introduction is the first original anthology of spy fiction. That doesn’t seem like it ought to be right, but I’ll give him this: I sure couldn’t think of another one. This volume features spy stories, most of them novelette or novella length, from some of today’s big-name writers. I thought it would be a good chance to sample some work by writers I hadn’t read before, and that certainly proved to be the case. However, in the end I found the book to be something of a disappointment.

I can’t fault the writing, which is certainly excellent all the way through. Most anthologies include a story or two I just don’t like and don’t finish, but that’s not the case here. All the stories are very well-written and very readable. I suspect the problem lies more with me. Some of them just don’t have enough plot for their length, as far as I’m concerned, and I didn’t like the endings of most of them. I realize the world of espionage isn’t all sunshine and roses, but man, these are some bleak stories. Also, a lot of them deal with modern-day terrorism, and as a subject for fiction, that just doesn’t interest me much unless it falls into more of the action/adventure category, and even then I’m not all that fond of it.

So it’s no surprise to me that the stories I liked best in this volume are more historical in nature. Stephen Hunter, an old favorite, spins a good World War II yarn about commandos being dropped behind the Nazi lines in conjunction with D-Day. Charles McCarry, whose work I hadn’t read before, contributes a very elegantly written story set in Africa during the 1950s. This is one that maybe could have used a little more plot, but I still liked it. John Lawton, another author new to me, provides a story about spying and scandal in England in the early 60s that’s surprisingly funny and has some nice twists. All the other stories range from good to okay to not-bad, mind you, but those are the three that resonated the most with me.

There are probably a lot of you who would like this book more than I did, so I recommend that if you see it, give it a try. Don’t let this old grump scare you off.


Todd Mason said...

How did the shortlived ESPIONAGE magazine strike you (to be fair, not all its fiction was spy fiction)...and is it the moral ambiguity or less stark lines of the current perplex part of what makes the contemporary spy fiction less exciting? Of course, espionage fiction always (or almost always) has been more about shades of gray than even other crime fiction...

James Reasoner said...

I remember reading ESPIONAGE but don't recall anything about the stories. I see that none of the issues are listed in the Fictionmags Index, which sort of surprises me. I agree that espionage fiction has always been more morally ambiguous. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is a good example of that from the era I was talking about in the post. I read it when it was new and liked it just fine. I think my growing dislike for bleak endings has more to do with me getting older. I like my happy -- or at least hopeful -- endings where I can get 'em.

Todd Mason said...

The first desire for the FictionMags index was to get at those magazines that had no or no particularly accessible indices, so that western pulps and 19th century generalist magazines and fringe items such as PUNK PLANET and (even) COMMENTARY were given precedence over the rather readily-available-index items, such as fairly high-profile CF and fantastic-fiction and little magazines. But those who have been interested in adding issues of such title as EQMM and the MAGAZINE OF HORROR have not been discouraged, particularly when there has been some sort of lack determined (I've done MOHs and AMAZINGs from the 1970s for the FMI in part to index the letters to the editors, for example, and books and fanzines reviewed).