Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Better than Bond

Cory_FeramontovMy friend Emma (who is researching the spy novel) told me I should try reading some Desmond Cory. I had never heard of him, but I dutifully ordered a couple of Corys online, and waited for them to arrive in the post. Some weeks later, due to meet Emma for a drink, I figured I’d better read the Corys so I could report my impressions to her. And that way lay a lost weekend.

Desmond Cory is a very addictive writer. He writes in ‘Brit Grit’, that genre of British hard-boiled Cold War 1950s and 1960s thriller where the killings are clinical, the women are purely decorative, and the drinks and the cars are as important as the weapons. He is also a very intelligent writer, in that his characters, the novels’ structures, the settings and the plots leave nothing dangling or undone. Nothing is formulaic, nothing is left vague and woolly. Reading a Cory (and I say this after devouring the grand total of two) is like being driven very efficiently round exotic and alarming locales. The reader is taken in hand, told what to see, and expected to understand all the inferences without needing to have things explained too much.

Cory_Johnny_Goes_SouthBut much more important than all these is The Hero, Cory’s main man, Johnny Fedora. The name of course, is terrific, I can’t see how any thriller hero could fail with a name like that. His background is also good; half Irish, half Spanish, and a freelance secret service agent who appears to be the best shot on the planet. Fedora’s personality is attractive; he’s quiet and calm and polite, and unassuming. He’s not very cynical, and he’s not tortured by internal angst and external tragedy. He’s a very restful hero because we have confidence in his abilities. He’s not going to be horrible to people for fun, or out of boredom, and that too is a good thing. He’s earnest and honourable, but also very practical: ideals will not get in his way if the job demands that they don’t. The most important thing about Johnny Fedora is his inexhaustible knowledge, the things that he has to know, for Cory to let the reader know, at the crucial nail-biting moment, about how to escape from Impossible Situation A through knowing how that particular kind of explosive will work, or from Situation B through an understanding of the diet of carnivorous fish. The trotting out of this kind of esoterica is of course what makes Ian Fleming such an entertaining writer. Whether Cory copied Fleming’s techniques, or vice versa, is probably not worth debating, as it was simply the style of their period: Peter O’Donnell did exactly the same with Modesty Blaise ten years later. But if I had to choose between Bond or Fedora, I’d go for Fedora every time, simply because he feels and acts like a human being, whereas Bond is a manufactured icon of style and attitude. I can imagine Fedora having once had a mother, or a life pre-secret agenthood, but never Bond.

One of the three films made from Desmond Cory's novels, starring Michael Caine

One of the three films made from Desmond Cory’s novels, starring Michael Caine

Desmond Cory was the pseudonym of Shaun McCarthy, a professor of English literature working in Spain and the Middle East from the 1960s to the 1990s.  This explains the top quality writing style, and the attention to technical detail. It also explains the interesting attitude to politics (in the two Fedoras that I’ve read), which are utterly Cold War. The Chinese and Russians are simple, unaffected synonyms for Communists, and they are brutally, irrevocably uni-dimensionally bad. This leaves no wiggle room for those Cory characters afflicted with villainy or corruption. On the other hand, presenting robotic brainwashed fanatics as the villains certainly requires no time to be wasted on nuancing their characters or explaining their motivation. It’s a style of characterisation we don’t encounter very often now. We could read it as fascinating historical flotsam, or simply as a shortcut to ideological certainty: no need to worry about the villain in the game if we know their playing pieces are already coloured black. Set against such strident certainties, Johnny Fedora is a masterpiece of subtlety, and all the more enjoyable for that.

For more on Desmond Cory, see his website here. Kate read Desmond Cory’s Shockwave (about a plan to H-bomb Madrid) and Mountainhead (about a kind of Communist Shangri-La): his US editions often have alternative titles.

Kate podcasts weekly about the books she really, really likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “Better than Bond

  1. Hilary
    January 30, 2013

    Very tempted, next time I’m looking for a vintage read. I don’t know how I’ve managed to avoid Desmond Cory – certainly he never registered with me. I was never fully caught by the Bond books, but there was enough in them to enjoy to make me think I’d like these better. I LOVE the cover art for ‘Johnny Goes South’ – so Pan, circa 1960s!

  2. Jackie
    January 31, 2013

    From what you’ve said and the covers, it looks like these are really good at capturing the retro feeling. They sound a bit too gritty for me, but I can see the appeal.
    Really interesting point you raised about Bond. I’m trying to picture him as a child & only seeing a youngster in a dinner jacket.

  3. Skywatcher
    March 2, 2013

    The FILM version of Bond is a manufactured icon of style and attitude. The Bond of the books is a much more interesting creature; indeed, one of the fascinating things about the books is the way that Bond’s self image is shown to be very different from the actual truth. He sees himself as a tough guy who uses women to fulfil his own desires, whilst a careful reading of the books show him as a desperately needy person who is prone to fall in love. This particular habit is highlighted in the first book CASINO ROYALE, as is the tendency he has to allow his heart to rule his head, thus making him prone to make dangerous mistakes.He’s also much less of a superman: In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE he only defeats the truly terrifying psycopath Grant because he is just that bit more cunning than his opponent.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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