‘Action’ was as close as I could come with my limited range of genres, although the obvious ‘spy’ thing might have been equally inadequate. Don’t get me wrong, this is all about a spy, but these days that has so many Bond/Bourne connotations. A natural comparison is Le Carre, not the least of which because they both actually worked in espionage. I just read Allbuery’s Guardian obiturary (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2006/jan/03/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries) - a pretty incredible story in itself, and making some powerful resonances in this book. The book works on it’s own, it doesn’t need to be biographical to give it bite, but I was really hit, for example, when I found out Allbeury’s own kids were abducted. Make the central event of the abduction of children – explored from several angles – even more striking.
The book started with what felt like a moderately (and competently painted) by the numbers hero. No self-doubt, cuts through the nonsense, badass (there was one sentence along the lines of ‘… he wasn’t interested in fighting’ – as a cold professional he just took the shortest route to winning. Ah, there it is:
His natural characteristics and his training made fear seem a waste of time. He was a hunter not the hunted. There were on niceties or Queensbury Rules in his life. Sitting ducks were there to be shot. It wasn’t competitive. Once the target was in your sights you pulled the trigger, or tightened the noose, whatever the situation called for. You didn’t get into fights because you were trained to kill not fight. Fighting was for amateurs. (p. 71)
Hey, not the most common type of hero, but a pretty common one. For all that, very nicely described. And it is a theme of the book, and perhaps a window onto real life spies who, in the field, are not going to get themselves into a lot of the dangerous situations you see in film portrayals because they will be more calmly ruthless. Reminds me of the first time I remember seeing a filmic portrayal of this sort of thing. After so many years of seeing fight scenes, the opening escape in T2, where Sarah Connor hits a guy with a broom handle, you’re like, “Woah, she could have killed him. You’re just meant to hit people so they are clearly only stunned.” But for her character it fits, “I just want to get out. What do you think this is – playtime?” Scorcese’s ‘Goodfellas’ also really stung. It showed the gulf between a guy who is fit and not going to back away from a fight, and a gangster for whom violence is just an everyday tool, and it matters that it means nothing to them if you happen to kill someone. If you’re in, you’re in. Tarantino has run with this, but probably too far (as ably contended in Elton’s excellent Popcorn). Sure, for a gangster – utterly devoid of empathy – another’s death means nothing – but viewers are in a sense co-opeted to run with this as a fun idea, but the fiction is sometimes too close, and monsters really shouldn’t be portrayed as just some wacky guys).
OK, long tangent, but my point was initially Rennie feels very Bruce Willis. I also felt a bit uncomfortable with how easily he seemed to just wander into a foreign country and find an old mate (in the phonebook! But otherwise seemingly off the grid) who can in a day or two with ease find the location of a hostage hidden by one major power and unable to be found by another. Another ‘ziff’ was the way Rennie says, “It’d be good if we could find a woman close to the suspect to help me infiltrate his family,” and then was miraculously hooked up with the closest woman to the family (“Most days I pop in for an hour or so in the evening”!), who happens to have a father who was in the intelligence service and is happy to help out. Gee, wasn’t that a lucky break! And then Renee pops in and in a few seconds is having a heart to heart with the guy about their views on Israel. I mean, the guy’s just been involved in getting a British agent abducted a few miles away – you’d think he’d want to play his cards a bit closer to his chest.
Hey, there are a lot of thrillers out there with these sorts of weaknesses. And at least there was some thought into Rennie as a killing machine, but not a mere killing machine. He has integrity. He has chivalry. He is impervious to crap, to justifications, manipulations. He’s given some good lines, some good moments – that satisfaction of dropping someone who works to entirely different rules into situations that would overwhelm others, that they can just flip in a moment (love those. Very Christlike too – as an odd comparison.) But there were weaknesses, and Rennie did just seem to do everything perfectly just too easily – like so many in the genre.
… Rennie starts having some doubts. I wasn’t totally convinced by what introduced them – seems to me the pro would have dealt with many uglier things that those of the book previously, and there isn’t enough different about this one to introduce his crisis, or, at least, his hesitation (whereas if, like Allbeury, he’d had his own daughters taken, that would be a doubt inducer. Hats off that Allbeury didn’t go the way of Hollywood – where Rennie’s daughters would have been abducted, and we’d follow his ‘Commando’ antics in rescuing her. Very cool that instead Rennie is complicit in the abduction of children himself – which feels like a pretty impressive/honest examination from a guy who’s been a victim – but doubtless also a perpetrator). Moreover the exploration of what makes sense but doesn’t often bear thinking about: if you train people to ruthlessly lie, kill, abduct – whatever – for some greater good (or select those with these tendencies), it’s such a small step for them to use these methods when it’s not for the greater good. Or for them to be able to justify applying the methods in contexts they were never originally dreamed of. Hence the appalling overreaction to Rennie voicing his hesitation. Didn’t he know who he was dealing with? These are not people with a hint of interest in anyone else’s welfare. Remorse is a distant memory, if that.
The way the novel goes there are clear baddies, and some sort of moral. But it’s not crystal clear: Rennie was still a hero at the start of the book, and in a scary world there’s still an admission here that you want some badasses looking out for you. But the question is raised that in doing so, have you simply created some more evil?
Allbeury is a very interesting writer to be throwing around these thoughts. Obviously because of his background, but also because he’s articulate and thoughtful.
In terms of setting up the moral issues, this would have been even more powerful if the abduction did actually achieve the ends it aimed for – the book still leaves room to say, “The abduction was indefensible because it wasn’t effective. But abduction may be defensible if it works.” It is good that the title highlights a central conundrum: both sides were prepared to take hostages because both sides felt the overwhelming moral high ground: our cause is so just and desperate, any means are justified.
Allbeury doesn’t tie everything up, but probably ties up as much as he managed: Rennie makes peace with himself, without solving the problems of the world. He challenges some easy simplifications that we would like to be able to think about espionage.
He does all this in a far more entertaining, less repetitive and windy fashion than yours truly.