The Litvinenko Operation: Reality, fiction and the curious death of the Cold War spy thriller. November 28, 2006Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
The Litvinenko affair is a curious one as noted by Dublin Opinion. The former FSB agent, now working with adversaries of the Putin regime falls ill and then dies from what appears to be radiation poisoning. Immediately the UK press appears to decide that this poisoning is the responsibility of the Russian state security services, and practically indict Vladimir Putin (former head of said state services under Yeltsin). It’s not as if the Russians had no form in these areas – look at Georgi Markov, an Hungarian dissident allegedly done in by the Hungarian intelligence services in alliance with the KGB through the means of a poison delivered by the tip of an umbrella. This was of course in 1978.
But this is a murky world. Only this year in January we saw claims and counter-claims about a British spying ring led by four diplomats in Moscow. In a particularly theatrical flourish a ‘fake rock’ with electronic devices contained with in was produced by the FSB as proof of the malfeasance of the British.
In a way this is amazing stuff – bar Litvinenko’s death – because it seems to point back to good/bad old days of the Cold War.
And here I want to shift away from Litvinenko to something that has struck me over the past ten or fifteen years. 1991 and the implosion of the Soviet Union was arguably a good day for democracy – but quite a bad one for a particular art form, that of the thriller. A generation of writers, Len Deighton, Craig Thomas, even Ian Fleming, had utilised the seemingly existential threat from the Soviet Union as a means of shaping their fiction. Book after book was produced in which the Soviets were either front and centre or provided a satisfying foil for intelligence agencies of one stripe or another. And the beauty of it was that the Soviets, and by extension the Cold War, were the perfect adversary. One fueled by a seemingly voracious ideology, but one that was rather mysterious. The drabness of the Soviets was well known, but that’s to forget a whole host of significations that came with it, guile, intelligence, allure, technological prowess in certain areas, a seedy glamour and so on.
And many of these thrillers were played out against seemingly glamorous locations that symbolised both the elitism of the post-war world – Alpine ski resorts in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Fleming, neutral Portugal in Horse Under Water by Len Deighton, the Finnish border in Craig Thomas’s The Bear’s Tears – and a curious sort of consumerism as lifestyle as that sort of elitism was blurred as class barriers began to diffuse a little, large scale international travel moved towards the norm and living standards rose. Perhaps it’s not so surprising in that context, where jet travel was, if not quite a commodity, near to a commonplace that the plots of the Bond films became more and more absurd as they attempted to stay one step ahead of the masses and their delights.
But on the level of geo-political intrigue as played out by more serious novelists such as Le Carre, Julian Rathbone and indeed Deighton (a superb writer utterly unappreciated as such), the Soviets as leaden and gray as they were replaced by a Confederation of Independent States which somehow provided much less intellectual and ideological traction for novels. Sure, there were a raft of post-Cold War novels, with plots revolving around cleaning up the messy aftermath of agents cut adrift, or intelligence units unable to come to terms without the grand game. But these were largely tepid affairs. Le Carre moved onto pastures new, best symbolised by The Constant Gardener where the enemy is no longer in the east but is in truth here, with us somewhere in our house. The corporations are alright as an adversary, but there’s little glamour in the profit motive as generations of libertarian authors from Rand onwards have discovered to their cost. Julian Rathbone gave up writing thrillers and concentrated on entertaining and warped visions of English history. Craig Thomas vanished after a series of increasingly depressing volumes the last of which wound up in Burma depicting collusion between a Labour government and the junta there. Len Deighton wrote the puzzling Mamista about Southern American revolutionaries before a sort of Raymond Chandler style pastiche entitled Violent Ward and then too vanished.
Elsewhere it’s been lean enough times for those thriller writers who tried to engage with the new Soviet-less world, despite the ever increasing size of their volumes, as represented by the Tom Clancy’s of the world. There’s something unsatisfying about Al-Queda as an enemy. China is perhaps too far away. Our own local bit of difficulty began to be resolved a little too soon after the end of the Cold War. Some authors went the Fleming/Bond route, such as Daniel Easterman who never heard a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. His increasingly convoluted thrillers revolved around extreme Catholic conspiracies, neo-Fascist conspiracies, Russian nationalist conspiracies etc.
Still. Perhaps now the time is ripe for a renewed concentration on the traditional Russian focused thriller. Bugs in rocks in Moscow. Radioactive murder, and who knows what else? A resurgent Islam. Racism, xenophobia and fascism too. A centralising state recentralising fast. Who knows how the next Presidential elections will turn out – eh?
Really, when one thinks about it, perhaps it’s time to start writing those thrillers again.