Wednesday 3 May 2017

Think you know a lot about British Thrillers? Think Again!

The cover illustrations beautifully hint at the material discussed by Ripley
Author and friend of the Deighton Dossier Mike Ripley - he of the Angel series of crime novels - has produced a super new reference work on the golden age of the British thriller which readers of spy fiction will find informative and revealing, very much a book that deserves repeated dipping into.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang - wow, what a cool title, straight off - is an authoritative exposition on how, to use its subtitle, "Britain lost and empire but its secret agents saved the world."

From the first Bond novel Casino Royale to the publication of The Eagle has Landed in 1970s, Ripley pinpoints these three decades as the period during which British authors - famous (Deighton, Fleming, Le Carre, Dick Francis ) and those now often overlooked by the current generation of readers (Lionel Davidson, Adam Hall, Gavin Lyall) - captured the imagination of readers worldwide in the post-war era with their tales of derring-do, spycraft, murder, and other written word adventures which, in the pre-Internet age, fuelled the imagination like very little else.

Ripley is clear in his foreword that this is not a bibliography or a collection of biographies but rather a readers' history of the thriller novel. Through diligent research - including a number of interviews with many of the authors reference, including his friend Len Deighton, to whom the book is dedicated - Ripley explores why it was British authors which led the development of the genre during this golden period, how they shaped the development of the thriller genre in such exciting ways, and what impact these books had on the cultural and collective consciousness of British and global readers.

Inspiration for the books came from Ripley's remembrances of his experiences as a child in the sixties, when he voraciously read every thriller he could find in his local library. In exploring this golden age, Ripley asks a number of thoughtful questions and provides, through a superbly detailed narrative illustrated by some great cover illustrations, some surprising and nuanced answers.

Not least, in the first chapter, he explores exactly what a thriller is, looking at the experiences of the first major flowering in inter-war period with detective thrillers from Sayers and Christie setting the stage for authors to come, and then explores in subsequent chapters how the genre - and the numerous sub-genres - have evolved and grown into the publishing phenomenon we know today.

1953, and the publication of Casino Royale is Ripley's starting off point for the Golden Era (Chapter Two is superbly titled, 'The Land Before Bond', emphasising what a looming presence Fleming's character has since become in the thriller genre). Before then, thriller heroes were, he writes, "upright, square-jawed, patriotic, honorable and always kind to women." The implication being, of course, that Bond set the template for a new kind of thriller hero who would capture readers' imaginations.

Particularly interesting chapters in the book are those which look at the thriller genre and British dominance thereof in the context of the steady loss of Empire in the second half of the century. The British were having to cope with a changed world order, over which the Union Jack no longer reigned. Without 'Imperial'-style heroes on which to build stories - such as those of Rider Haggard or John Buchan - authors needed to come up with something fresh which reflected the new realities of both the global order and the lives of their readers. If heroes couldn't defend the British Empire, what would they do now? Take on the Russians and the master criminals, it would seem.

In another chapter, Ripley tellingly notes that as the horizons of British readers expanded, as air travel made overseas travel now and places that until then had only been read about could now be visited relatively easily, authors' own horizons were expanded. Thrillers were now being set in South-East Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe - who needed grimy old London anymore?

As one might expect, the contribution of Len Deighton is well covered by Mike Ripley in his book (and the DD is pleased, to, that this blog and website is referenced in the notes to this book - thanks, Mike!). 1966 is almost 'peak thriller' for Ripley as in that year four novels by Deighton, Le Carre, Adam Hall and Derek Marlowe marked out Berlin as the capital city of spy thriller-land. Ripley obviously explores the development of Deighton's Harry Palmer - the 'anti-Bond' in the 1960s - but looks further to consider the impact that Deighton's novels had on the wider industry, exploring in some detail how Ray Hawkey's white book covers changed the concept of what a thriller book could look like after 1962. The development of 'spy fantasy' as a peculiar development of the genre in this period is identified by Ripley as he uncovers the gems that the 'sixties delivered to readers.

I like too how Ripley, in the chapter 'The Spies Have It, 1963-70', juxtaposes the developments of the spy thriller genre alongside the real development in the Cold War at the same time, highlighting how readers could read about the factual action in their newspapers each week, and then delve into the latest spy fiction as each new blockbuster was published. The paranoia and suspicion which real spies faced was also being reflected in the increasing uncertainty and moral ambiguity of their fictional counterparts.

Moving into the seventies, I enjoyed particularly this description of Deighton's Spy Story, which was - unsuccessfully as it happened, despite a script by Deighton - turned into a 1976 film which "sank like a submarine that's left the hatch open." Also, given the recent BBC TV series, it's good to see Ripley remind readers of how refreshing SS-GB was to audiences in the seventies when the book came out, only 30 years or so after the war.

Any reader who's familiar with the thriller genre is encouraged to check this book out - it's an easy read and every page offers something you didn't know before!

This book is by Harper Collins (ISBN 9780008172244) and costs £14.99 as a digital download.

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