Every writer is influenced, perhaps inspired, by what he or she has read growing up. Guest writer, M.A. Richards, author of the new espionage novel, Choice of Enemies, traces his interest in the genre back to some classic tales.
The first spy I novel I remember reading was The Counterfeit Traitor by Alexander Klein. I snuck it from my father’s bookcase when I should have been doing my homework. Years later, I watched the film version of the novel with William Holden and Lilli Palmer. First tastes are so important, especially when they are forbidden (yeah, I remember the book but not my homework assignment); they are sweet with deceit and skullduggery. Their memories linger, sometimes so deeply buried you don’t realize how fulsomely they’ve influenced you.
My debut espionage novel, Choice of Enemies, drew on influences of The Counterfeit Traitor in at least two ways: (1) a steady supply of Nigeria’s light sweet crude is the holy grail within the novel, and (2) the most enigmatic character in the novel is Mark Palmer.
Regarding the first point: William Holden played Eric “Red” Erickson, an oil executive who pretended to be a Nazi sympathizer while secretly spying for the OSS on German progress in producing synthetic oil during World War II. In Choice of Enemies, Nathan Monsarrat is a CIA deep cover operative working the oil portfolio in West Africa – to secure Nigeria’s light sweet crude for America’s homes.
Regarding the second point: Is Mark Palmer a good guy? A bad guy? Both? Concurrently? Consecutively? He plays different roles at different times in different locales throughout Choice of Enemies. Since I do not believe in coincidences, the choice of his surname surely harks back to the enigmatic character Lilli Palmer portrays in the movie, Frau Marianne Möllendorf.
Klein’s novel, although influential, was a stand alone. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were seminal influences, because they introduced not only a towering good guy defeating epic bad guys time after time, but because the books were intertwined in a series. They opened the possibilities of the development of the hero not only within a specific novel, but over a period of time in multiple situations, facing multiple challenges.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Fleming’s writing is his ability to pin a reader’s interest with a line or two of dialogue. For example, in Goldfinger, Fleming wrote the following interchange:
James Bond: Do you expect me to talk?
Auric Goldfinger: No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!
Foureen words total, far fewer than the allowed 140 Twitter characters. Far more memorable than any words I’ve ever read on Twitter. What is it, then, that makes Fleming’s dialogue so memorable? Why is this simple interchange between the hero and the villain in a book originally published in 1959 remembered so well today?
The reason lies not only in the snappy repartee between Bond, the hero, and Goldfinger, the villain, but in the depth, the fullness, of the two characters. It’s the characters who make the dialogue come alive, not vice-versa. The interchange would have been stock, if Bond and Goldfinger had not been so fully drawn. So…how does a writer create fulsome characters like James Bond and Auric Goldfinger?
In his introduction of Goldfinger, Fleming describes a physically unattractive villain with the usual mixture of modifiers, but it is the author’s one simple sentence that brings Goldfinger to life: “It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people’s bodies.” The visual description lays the foundation of a fully-drawn villain, so when he utters the evil statement, No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!, readers understand they are in the presence of a flesh and blood character, someone they would recognize on the street.
With one descriptive sentence and one memorable utterance, Fleming created a villain whose name has become synonymous with evil. Other authors, including Graham Greene, John LeCarre, and Len Deighton have also created heroes and villains readers are able to love or to despise, because they are flesh and blood. As much as I enjoy a quick read of a Robert Ludlum or an Eric Ambler thriller, the heroes in their books are interchangeable, one novel to the next.
Even villains are capable of an errant act of goodness, albeit unwittingly. Handcuffing Bond to a dirty bomb inside the gold vault of Fort Knox, Goldfinger states one of the most famous – and most enjoyable – lines in spy fiction: “Goodbye, Mr. Bond.” Ian Fleming…no hack writer. Auric Goldfinger…no cardboard character. James Bond…an epic hero.
M.A. Richards is the author of the Nathan Monsarrat international espionage novels. Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, he received his bachelor of arts degree in theater studies from Connecticut College and his master of arts degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. During a career as a Cultural Attaché in the Department of State that spanned more than two decades, he served in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Lagos, Moscow, Seoul, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. He also served at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu as the Special Advisor to the Commander. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, and Russian. Visit him at http://www.marichardsbooks.com/