A Month of Love – or Murder

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

June. Moon. Spoon. Swoon. June brides. It’s such a romantic month that, unless you’re one of the few fortunate enough to be madly in love (as I am), it can make you want to gag. Or go into a murderous rage.

Perhaps that is why some of the most outstanding mystery writers in history turned their creative powers to the annihilation of their fellow human beings.

The great Charles McCarry, often mentioned in this column as the greatest espionage writer that America has ever produced, was born on June 14, 1930. After more than a decade as a deep undercover agent in the CIA, back in the days when the agency was really good at protecting Americans from outside threats, not merely protecting its own budget, he turned his energies to writing about Paul Christopher and other operatives of the intelligence-gathering and -interpreting community. While not literally based on his own experiences, the methodology and attitude seems (to an outsider, anyway) to be utterly accurate.

His later books, until the most recent “Old Boys,” were more political than spy thrillers. He was amused by the response to “Lucky Bastard” when it was released in 1998. Chronicling the career of a successful politician with, as he put it,”a zipper problem,” he was castigated by some reviewers in the liberal press for taking too-easy shots at then-President Clinton. He pleaded innocent to the charge. His model had been President Kennedy – admittedly another easy target – which should not have been too difficult to discern, as Mr. McCarry named him John Fitzgerald Adams.

The father of the modern spy novel, Eric Ambler, was a June 28, 1909, birthday baby. Although Erskine Childers (with “The Riddle of the Sands” in 1903), Joseph Conrad (with “The Secret Agent” in 1907), and W. Somerset Maugham (with “Ashenden” in 1928) are each often cited as the true inventor of realistic espionage fiction – not without some validity – Ambler was the first to build a body of work in the genre. There are no dinner-jacketed heroes in his work, none of the bored sophisticates of earlier writers who decided, in their spare time between dalliances with beautiful women, the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo, and a cigarette on their yacht, to save England from a foreign menace.

Ambler’s greatest novels are set in Europe when the Nazi threat loomed over England and the Continent. In such memorable books as “Coffin for Dimitrios,” “Journey Into Fear,” “Epitaph for a Spy,” and “Background to Danger,” ordinary people get caught up in unexpected circumstances and feel they cannot cope. Helpless pawns in schemes of which they are largely unaware, they nonetheless find a reserve of skill and courage to see them through. If you are a fan of the superb Alan Furst, you should not fail to add these masterful sagas to your collection.

Another author who has enjoyed a successful career writing mainly espionage fiction is Ken Follett, born June 5, 1949. After “Eye of the Needle” (1978), all his books became gigantic best sellers. As with so many overnight successes, however, Mr. Follett had published more than a halfdozen books in England under his own name and two pseudonyms, none making even a hint of a ripple on the waters of publishing. To pay the bills, he worked as a journalist and then a book editor before becoming a fulltime novelist.

One of the most charming authors in the crime-writing community, Mr. Follett is a self-described socialist. When England had a Labour government, however, he moved to France.When the conservative Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, he moved back to Britain and now lives in a fully staffed mansion on the exclusive Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames. When questioned about these choices, he smiled and said, “I may be a socialist, but I’m not a fool.”

Perhaps less well-known than the writers already mentioned is E.W. Hornung, born June 7, 1866, the creator of A.J. Raffles, the greatest thief in English literature. As the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was known to be a bit stodgy, it was believed by those who knew them both that Hornung began to write about a gentleman jewel thief partially to tweak the nose of the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Although there already had been a few books featuring criminals as protagonists, it was Raffles who enjoyed success so great that, for a few years, it challenged that of Holmes. Virtually every book about a cracksman that followed, and there were scores, compared the “hero” to the charismatic safecracker whose exploits usually found him in evening clothes, stealing to help someone in need. John Barrymore, Ronald Colman, and David Niven all starred in Raffles movies, and Graham Greene transformed him into a homosexual in his play, “The Return of A.J. Raffles,” which the Royal Shakespeare Company produced in 1975.

Lawrence Block, born June 24, 1938, also created a notable criminal in Bernie Rhodenbarr, the central figure in 10 books, beginning with “Burglars Can’t Be Choosers.”The character had the misfortune to be filmed in the truly dreadful “Burglar” in 1987, starring Whoopi Goldberg.

Darker, better-written, and more powerful are the novels about Matthew Scudder, one of the great private eye characters of the past three decades. If you can’t find a copy of “When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes” (1986), perhaps the best of them, don’t hesitate to get “All the Flowers are Dying,” the most recent and one of the strongest entries in this hard-hitting but sensitive series.

Also born this month was one of the first female private eye writers, Sara Paretsky, on June 8, 1947; the first mystery writer on the cover of Time magazine (and, if memory serves, still the only one), Craig Rice, was born on June 5 1908; and the epitome of the British hum-drum school, Freeman Wills Crofts, was born on June 7, 1879.

Read three of Crofts’s books with their obsessive examination of railroad time schedules in succession and you’d want to kill someone too – probably yourself.

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual “Best American Mystery Stories.” He can be reached at ottopenzler@mysteriousbookshop.com.

The New York Sun

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