Friday, August 29, 2008

The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels: Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg (ed.)

The name of Leslie Charteris jumped out from the cover: it was both attractive and worrying. Attractive because any Saint adventure is unlikely to be uninteresting; worrying because the Saint is more a detective than a spy. The suspicion got stronger when I opened the book and noticed that the first story was The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans – one of those rare stories featuring the Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft. I succumbed nevertheless, or more truthfully, because I saw these names. Add to Charteris and Holmes Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, a bit of James Bond and Modesty Blaise and an Erle Stanley Gardner piece (though not featuring that crack lawyer Perry Mason), and I reckoned it fair to expect some reasonable pulp here, even if I hadn’t read anything from any of the other authors featured in this collection.

To begin with, my suspicions were not misplaced. None of the twelve stories featured in the collection involve espionage, at least in the sense you would perhaps expect in the full-length Ashenden novels or the John le CarrĂ© ones. Yes, most of the stories involve a spy, but they don’t involve spying. And in the case of Holmes, the spy is not even the protagonist.

If Octopussy is not the weakest Bond adventure ever, then I would be hard put to understand the legend of 007. I remember the film being very different from the short story featured here, and the reason is not difficult to see. There is just no action worth a spy in the tale – Bond hardly does any spying, any racing or any death-defying stunts. And, horror of horrors, 007 doesn’t even kill Major Dexter Smythe.

The anti-climax in the Modesty Blaise starrer The Giggle-Wrecker, while funny, is just too daft to be believable; The Danger Zone suggests that Erle Stanley Gardner is clearly lost without Perry Mason; the Ashenden tale, The Traitor, is almost a family drama in its poignancy; and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans is certainly not one of the better Holmes adventures, notwithstanding the presence of the almost unbelievably impressive Mycroft – the villain is captured and exposed a bit too easily.

The biggest disappointment of the collection has to be the Saint caper, The Sizzling Saboteur. But for the absence of techno-gadgetry and the aggressive cavorting with women, I rate the Saint a more interesting character than Bond. But in this novella, the real Saint just doesn’t show up. And the bartender being the “butler” as it were, while admittedly a nice twist, did bring down the intensity of the narrative, lacking as the bartender did the organisation to be a real threat to the Saint.

And then there are the one that make up the numbers. John D. MacDonald’s Betrayed is unbelievably amateurish, Cornell Woolrich’s Tokyo, 1941 too full of maudlin patriotism and Edward D. Hoch’s The People of the Peacock just has too many elements to make for a coherent tale.

Three tales in the collection could perhaps have progressed to a passable level if they had been treated as full-length novels: Bruce Cassiday’s Deep-Sleep, John Jakes’ Dr. Sweetkill and Michael Gilbert’s The Spoilers. However, the format (more short story than novella in most cases in the collection, except perhaps the Charteris one) makes them hurried, and all three fall into the same trap: a weak villain organisation though an unmistakeably strong villain.

Bill Pronzini and that other great aggregator, Maxim Jakubowski, did for a living what people like me do on the side – read crime fiction. They have spent most of their working life providing such collections. The usual trend with these collections is that they tend to be a mixed bag – some average works from well-known names, some hidden gems and some indifferent authors peddling some inane ware. But Pronzini and Greenberg are much more consistent in their pick here – all the selections are consistently disappointing.

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