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 Carré 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.
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