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.
My 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.
But 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.
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.