Tuesday, May 16, 2017

How British Thrillers Changed the World

By Michael Gregorio
Mike Ripley has a serious mission in life.

In his monthly column for Shots, “Getting Away with Murder,” he reports on the latest crime-fiction releases. But Ripley invariably reminds readers as well of at least one or two—sometimes half a dozen—thriller novels that once took the world by storm.

Now, in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from “Casino Royale” to “The Eagle Has Landed” (HarperCollins UK), this author-critic’s lifelong love of the genre is laid out on the table ready for devouring. An entertaining history of popular literature, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang charts the early flowering of the British adventure story in the 1950s, its evolution into the spy-fantasy novel (which culminated in Ian Fleming’s best-selling James Bond series), and its transition into the more measured espionage fiction which arrived with the Cold War. The book’s title comes from a letter that Fleming wrote to Raymond Chandler in 1956: “You write novels of suspense—if not sociological studies,” remarked Fleming, “whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.”

Fantasy versus sociology?

Things are not quite so simple, as Mr. Ripley indicates, laying out in these pages the grim history of post-war Britain, a time when the fighting had been won but the Empire was shrinking, and food rationing was a fact of life. He suggests that the evolution of thriller fiction followed the shifts of British social history more closely than any other popular literary genre. As anyone familiar with his Shots column (or with his Fitzroy Maclean Angel novels) would expect, wry humor is never in short supply here, as “The Ripster” recounts a host of fascinating tales behind the blockbuster novels and the best-selling authors who wrote them, noting in one instance: “When it came to villains, you couldn’t beat a good Nazi.”

This is an authoritative survey for readers who would like to learn more about the growth and development of thriller fiction, but might not know just where to start their research. I was amazed by how many titles Ripley references, and more surprised still to realize that I had already read quite a number of the books. Growing up in England during the 1950s and ’60s, it was inevitable, I suppose. The paperback was new, and the writers were many.

It’s inevitable, too, that a wide variety of these fine works have been all but forgotten over the years.

Thanks to Ripley’s efforts, however, history is being set straight and works long neglected—many of them out of print—will likely find new fans in the 21st century. Count me among them: I am currently reading and enjoying a host of classic thrillers mentioned in Ripley’s book. In addition, I asked the author to answer a few questions about his interest in the genre.

Michael Gregorio: Do you remember the first thriller you ever read?

Mike Ripley: I couldn’t swear to it, but the first adult thriller was possibly Hammond Innes’ The White South [1949], set in the (now) politically incorrect world of whale haunting in the Antarctic, followed quickly by Alistair MacLean’s HMS Ulysses [1955]. I was living in a small mining village in Yorkshire, would have been 10, and [was] about to leave primary school.

I do remember, at public school aged 12, reading [Fleming’s] Thunderball and Dr. No in quick succession, followed by [Len Deighton’s] The IPCRESS File, probably when the film came out. I was 13 when I read [John le Carré’s] The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—I still have the 1965 Pan paperback, priced five shillings (25p)!

MG: What makes a thriller memorable, in your opinion?

MR: What makes a thriller memorable? Any (or all) of the basic ingredients: jeopardy—both personal to the hero/heroine or to a larger entity such as a city, a military installation, an economy or a state; suspense—the idea of a deadline, or a ticking-clock; an exotic location, or somewhere where man is up against the natural elements; conflict—violent action scenes; a hero/heroine who is human and could get hurt, although at times displays almost superhuman qualities and could be just as cunning and ruthless as the villains.

MG: Who is the greatest thriller writer of all time?

MR: Impossible to say, so I’ll chicken out of picking one. But any decent short-list would include John Buchan (“old school”), Geoffrey Household (“the romantic and noble rogue male hero”), Eric Ambler (spies and shady goings-on with a left-wing slant), Ian Fleming (spy fantasy), Len Deighton (a stylistic mold-breaker), John le Carré (spies, betrayal and the English class system), and Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes (of the “adventure thriller” school). I have stayed very much in my comfort zone here, ignoring other types of thriller and many excellent non-British writers.

MG: Who is the most accomplished writer of thrillers today?

MR: The most accomplished? Difficult question. In totally different fields and styles, I’d go for Alan Furst, Ben Pastor, and Philip Kerr, who all root their thrillers in the history of World War II; Martin Cruz Smith, who can range over history and different locations; and when it comes to the strong, silent hero who rides to the rescue, one has to include Lee Child, who writes “classical modern” thrillers (if that makes sense). And this brutally ignores the writers of some brilliant crime thrillers, police thrillers, psychological thrillers, etc.

MG: Would you describe your “Angel” novels as thrillers?

MR: Angel? Well, comedy-thrillers maybe. They are not “whodunits” so much as “how does he get out of this” stories, often “how the hell did he get into this.” I hope they have some suspense and believable action and heroics, and therefore provide a few thrills, but their main purpose is to tell jokes. I guess I am not so much a writer as a frustrated stand-up comedian.

(Editor’s note: Ripley’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang will go on sale in the United States this coming September.)

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