Terry Hayes, the writer behind Mad Max 2, From Hell, Dead Calm and other many cult classics of the 80s and 90s gives us a run down of his top three spy thriller books ahead of the publication of his own debut, I Am Pilgrim…
You bring them up as best you can.
You change their nappies, sit by their cots in the small hours, rock them to sleep, try to teach them about narrative structure.
It isn’t easy.
I’ve got four children – the oldest is twelve now – and I’ve spent countless hours reading to them and then listening as they dog-paddled across the endless oceans of their first books. I don’t mean to complain, but am I the only one who thinks that by the twentieth book, Zac Powers gets a little repetitive? How many adventures can one mouse have Never too many, according to the creators of Geronimo Stilton.
But I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously. I have tried to explain to the children that, in my view, character and plot are the two sides of the same coin; beginnings are easy and endings are hard; a writer is like a smuggler – he has to convey important information without the reader ever seeing it. How can you pay a big moment off without setting it up? But, on the other hand, if the reader sees it coming you might as well put honey on it – you’re toast.
Despite my best efforts, I found that I was failing: narrative structure and its related aspects were heading into the same mental basket as algebra. I know I can’t be the only parent who has confronted this.
Luckily, help is at hand. I hit on a brilliant idea – no longer would I sit with them, read books together and stop every few pages to discuss its inner mechanics. Instead, I would use a much easier story-telling tool: movies.
“You mean like The Avengers,” my six-year-old asked hopefully when I told him about the idea.
Patiently, I explained that The Avengers and narrative structure aren’t even on nodding acquaintance, let alone speaking terms. No, we would watch brilliant films – Bridge On The River Kwai, Gone With The Wind, the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, the first Star Wars, Philadelphia Story, High Noon, Casablanca and so on.
We viewed them on DVD, I was armed with the remote, and every few scenes I would stop and point out character moments, themes being set up and discuss the ever-elusive narrative structure. They kept moaning about the constant interruptions and begging me to be quiet. Little rascals, I knew they were just joking.
We settled into a pleasant rhythm until, one night, I slipped the disc in – as usual, its title unknown to anyone except me – and we all settled back to watch. The terrific opening credits of the first Alien unspooled and the kids were pleased – they like science fiction, the two boys especially because there is always the imminent prospect of shooting, explosions and general mayhem.
Then we got to the famous “chest-buster” scene and all four of them ran screaming from the room. Worse still, as you can appreciate, none of them heard how this important event tied-in with the plot dynamics and the effect it had on further story developments.
Several weeks later my wife allowed me back into the house.
After reviewing that Friday night’s movie options, I decided that The French Connection might be suitable. The winner of five Oscars, it was a thriller based on real-life events about an attempt to smuggle a large amount of narcotics from Marseille to New York. It would also, my wife reasoned, give her the opportunity to discuss with the children the issue of drugs, the importance of law enforcement and the value of basic common sense. The latter was probably the most important thing, she said, and looked at me sharply for some reason I couldn’t quite comprehend.
The movie, made in 1971, not only had a terrific screenplay and a great cast, it was also shot in the style of documentary realism – a ground-breaking creative choice at the time. But, probably, the most memorable thing about the film was a hair-raising chase between a car and an elevated train roaring overhead.
It was directed by William Friedkin – two years before he won another Oscar for The Exorcist – and that gave it one other advantage as a Friday-night special: I had worked with Billie on a film at Paramount. Apart from making some inspired choices about material, he had shown outstanding professional judgement in one other area – he had married a woman who became the head of the studio. For that reason we had every expectation that the movie we were working on would be made. That was until another memorable Friday night when it was announced that his wife no longer held the job. It was hard to tell what left the lot faster – her car or our project.
Nevertheless, the kids always enjoyed hearing some inside connection to a movie – they liked nothing better than if I pointed at the screen and said: “I know that person.” So we settled down – the kids with their trainers on and the doors open, just in case I had another shocker in store – and I had high expectations for a successful night.
It lasted all of twenty minutes.
The problem wasn’t that they didn’t like the actors, follow the story, or object any more than usual to my use of the pause button and its attendant explanations. No, they were bored.
What had once been ground-breaking choices – the subject matter of the film, the down and dirty realism, the no-holds barred car chase – had all been so successful that they had been copied countless times. First, in other movies and then on TV. The kids watched what was on the screen and said – we’ve seen all this before.
And so they had. But back in 1971 there hadn’t been anything quite like it. Now, though, the original – the five-time Oscar winner – looked just like one of the multitude of knock-offs. It was, truly, a victim of its own success – yes kids, the remarkable soon becomes the ordinary.
While we sat there in the dark – watching Popeye Doyle and Cloudy Russo work the dark side of New York – much to everyone’s relief, I forgot about the remote and the running commentary. I got to thinking about how it is really difficult to divorce a creative work from its time and era.
Of course, great stories – on film and in pages – survive and transcend nearly anything but I’m not sure you can ever recapture that incredible frisson of widespread excitement when something first exploded on the scene. Perhaps it is like Tom Wolfe said – you can never go home again.
So, in nominating my choice for the best three spy-thrillers ever written, I very much bear
in mind that if you were to read them for the first time today they might not have quite the
same detonation as when they were first published. Like The French Connection – to say nothing of Star Wars – they have been copied and riffed-on countless times.
In truth, I find the task is a little like trying to describe to teenagers today what San Francisco in 1967 – the summer of love – was like for a generation which had been born under Eisenhower and Macmillan. You sort of had to be there. But, anyway, here goes.
1. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
The novel was first published in 1963 – a time when spy novels were defined by James Bond, the Beatles were about to have their first number one single, and a strange new TV show premiered on the BBC. It was called Dr Who. Into this strange cultural mix – a period of touching innocence and brewing social upheaval – appeared the story of an intelligence agent called Alex Leamis. It was a great tale but, more importantly, it was the first truly realistic spy novel – written by a man who, himself, had served as a British intelligence agent in Germany. No wonder it was considered revolutionary at the time, and while le Carré has often said it had no basis in fact – otherwise his superiors in the covert world would never have allowed it to be published – that didn’t matter. It was a novel and what it had was something far rarer, far more difficult to achieve. It had credibility – you believed every page, every word of it. The spy thriller, the espionage novel – up until then so much the operational field of James Bond and his ilk – would never be the same again. Not content with that, the novel also succeeded in setting-up the themes which would occupy le Carré for so much of his distinguished career – betrayal, the exhaustion of Empire, faded men trying to cling to some kind of honour, and an intriguing world steeped in terrible moral ambiguity. Is there any better writer in the English language alive today? I often ask myself. I know that he eschews literary prizes but, honestly, can’t somebody pull off a wonderful double cross – or, better still, an inspired triple – and get him to Oslo for the Nobel Prize? George Smiley, where are you when we really need you?
2. The Day Of The Jackal, Frederick Forsyth
Published in 1971, the novel was set primarily in France and its power and success were probably due to two serendipitous events. In the first place, Forsyth – who, to say the least, had led an unusual and varied life – had been working in Paris as a foreign correspondent when there were a number of attempts to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Several year later Forsyth decided to use just such an event in his book and his writing of it carries with it a sense of almost eye-witness clarity. It was hardly surprising – he had personally reported from the scene of the most spectacular of the attacks and was there so quickly that the smell of cordite must have still be fresh in the air. The second event was that the author had worked as an in investigative reporter and he decided to use exactly those skills and devices in crafting his fictional tale. It gave it depth and a verisimilitude that most writers in the genre can only dream of. Apart from everything else, there is one other reason it deserves – in my view – to be on the podium. I mentioned earlier that endings are difficult – well, Jackal has an absolute killer, one that makes the book stay with you for weeks, if not years.
3. The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum
It is strange how great thrillers seem to come along once every decade. Then again, three US Presidents have died on the Fourth of July so I frequently remind myself not to read too much into things. Bourne was published in 1980 and was the first in what became a hugely-successful series of books – and then movies – which placed Jason Bourne firmly in the pantheon of fictional spies. I also said earlier that beginnings are easy but I don’t think any thriller – espionage or otherwise – has ever had a better start than The Bourne Identity: a man gets hurled off an exploding boat in the Mediterranean, is dragged unconscious out of the water by local fishermen, is taken to the home of an expatriate doctor and manages to survive. But Jason Bourne has a problem – thanks to a head injury he has no idea who he is or what he was doing on the boat that exploded. His only clue is a piece of microfilm, removed by the doctor, which has been surgically embedded in his thigh. It contains the details of a Swiss bank account. So starts the character’s – and the reader’s – wild journey of discovery. What an opening, what a set-up! For my money, the rest of the book doesn’t quite live up to this first blast but, then, in all fairness – I’m not sure anything could.
So, there they are – my three candidates. Some people may agree but most probably won’t. That’s the great thing about books, they are like beauty – it’s all in the eye of the beholder. For me, though, the trio have an additional significance: as I Am Pilgrim approaches publication a number of early reviewers and readers have been kind – or deluded – enough to draw some comparisons between it and the works of le Carré, Forsyth and Ludlum.
Who knows if others will agree – history will tell, I guess.
Nevertheless, it has given me an excuse to try and instil in the children one more thing, a lesson even more important than the dreaded narrative structure. To my mind it applies to anyone who has written a movie or novel – or pursued a host of other human endeavours. The thought is commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton and he certainly put it best: “If I have seen further,” he said, “it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” I don’t know if I’ve seen anything, I tell the kids, but I know where I have stood. Giants, indeed.
Terry Hayes, for Waterstones.com/blog
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