National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5.

Avallone, Michael.  Shoot it Again, Sam.  New York: Curtis, 1972.

One of the most prolific novelists of the post-war era. Michael Avallone wrote novels, usually published as paperback originals, in almost every popular genre and under a veritable catalog of pseudonyms.  He wrote so much that even he could not keep track of everything he had written.  Today almost all of his work is out of print, and if he is remembered at all, it is for the three and half dozen novels he wrote about his fictional alter-ego, Ed Noon. In the mid-1950s, Noon appeared as a sort of Mike Hammer knock-off, a hard-boiled private detective used to hard knocks and strangely attractive to curvaceous women in trouble.  In the 1960s, the popularity of the James Bond novels and films and of other espionage series convinced Avallone to transform Noon into a special agent for the president and then into a more general intelligence operative.  By the time the Noon series fizzled out in the early 1980s, Noon was fighting alien invaders.

The Noon novels are notable for their irrepressible, though sometimes tortured, verbal gymnastics (the Noon novels are told in the first-person; so Noon cracks wise both in the dialogue and in the exposition) and for their wildly inventive and sometimes very nearly deranged plots.  These strengths (and excesses) are very evident in Shoot It Again, Sam (1972), probably the best of the novels in the series that can be placed in the espionage genre.  At the behest of the president, Noon travels with the mortal remains of a beloved film hero on a coast-to-coast rail trip to its final destination, a Hollywood cemetery. All of the novel’s characters are modeled on readily recognizable film stars, but their relationships are surreally contrived. For instance, the dead film hero is clearly modeled on John Wayne, but one of his former wives is just as clearly modeled on Lauren Bacall and his son on Peter Fonda. It is as if People magazine were a family photo album and all of the celebrities in the photos were actually blood relatives or intimates. Then, as the train nears Hollywood, the story suddenly accelerates through the surreal to the nightmarishly fantastical. The corpse sits up in his coffin, and Chinese spies disguised as Jimmy Cagney, Clark Gable, and other Hollywood icons seize Noon and brainwash him into believing that he is Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade. In this persona, he is sent off wearing a pair of weaponized shoes with which he is supposed to assassinate the president.

 

Buckley, William F., Jr.  Stained Glass.  New York: Doubleday, 1978.

Known primarily as the founding editor and publisher of The National Review, as the host of the long-running PBS show Firing Line, and as a conservative political columnist, William F. Buckley, Jr., also produced a very creditable series of spy novels featuring C.I.A. operative Blackford “Blackie” Oakes.  In addition to his general knowledge of the American political scene and his ready access to people in power, Buckley was able to draw on his firsthand, if relatively brief, experience as a C.I.A. operative.  For eight or nine months, he served with the agency in Mexico.

In the Blackford Oakes novels, Buckley sought to be entertaining while also making the case that the C.I.A. is an essential asset in the preservation of the American way of life and in American efforts to communicate and extend democratic values to peoples in other parts of the world.  Buckley therefore emphasized the high degree of professionalism typical of those engaged in intelligence work and the moral imperatives that drive their work.  In Buckley’s view, criticisms of the intelligence community’s excesses threaten to obscure its absolutely necessary contributions to the American victory in the Cold War.  And, although the Oates novels are set primarily in the Cold War era, their implications resonate in the ongoing effort to discourage terrorism.

The Oates’ novels are rich with Buckley’s trademark verbal gymnastics and his incisive observations about political figures.  In Stained Glass, Oates is engaged in the effort to constrain Count Axel Wintergrin, a German politician who has cleverly developed a public persona as an “anti-Fuhrer,” but who is pressing dangerously hard for a reunification of West and East Germany.

 

 

37 thoughts on “National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: 4-5.

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  9. You should read The Burlington Files series – the first, Beyond Enkription, is the best espionage novel I’ve ever read. I say novel but it is and it isn’t a novel but it is brilliant in parts. Just Google their websites (yes they have a real and a fictional one) and read their first book which at 400 pages or so is massive.

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