Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale,” appeared in 1953, and Jack Higgins’s “The Eagle Has Landed” — about a Nazi plot to kidnap Churchill — came out in 1975. In the two decades between these two famous books, the British thriller dominated English-language adventure fiction. It was, as those of a certain age know, a particularly blissful time to be a youthful reader, especially if you were a teenage boy in a small, provincial town, where nothing ever seemed to happen.
As Mike Ripley writes in “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” — the title derives from a phrase used by Fleming to characterize his 007 novels — these books dealt in color and excitement and provided escape from England’s gray post-World War II years of austerity. Their heroes regularly confronted Nazis, ex-Nazis and proto-Nazis, the secret police of any and all communist countries and a variety of “super-rich and power-mad villains, traitors, dictators, rogue generals, mad scientists, secret societies” and “ruthless businessmen.” They were seldom books that asked “Whodunit?” but rather “How will the hero ever manage to survive?” As Ripley notes, a thriller is usually about a conspiracy rather than a crime.
Even now, their titles ring with a distinctly masculine poetry: “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Ipcress File,” “From Russia With Love,” “The Rose of Tibet,” “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Day of the Jackal,” “The Pass Beyond Kashmir.” Their authors — in the above, Alistair MacLean , Len Deighton, Fleming, Lionel Davidson, John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth and Berkely Mather — were nearly always male and had usually served in the war or worked as journalists or spies. Moreover, by the time of Fleming’s early death in 1964, there were dozens of fictional secret agents hoping to outdo James Bond, including Adam Hall’s unstoppable Quiller, Peter O’Donnell’s sexy Modesty Blaise and James Munro’s John Craig, hero of “The Man Who Sold Death,” a superb thriller now largely forgotten — though not by me.
A longtime reviewer as well as a crime novelist himself, Ripley writes with breezy, infectious enthusiasm. As he announces in his introduction:
“There will be little, if any, discussion of heroic mythology, social individualism, the atemporality of the appeal of the thriller, the symbiotic relationship between hero and conspiracy, or genre theory. Those debates are left to others on the ground that, to paraphrase E.B. White: dissecting a thriller is like dissecting a frog — few people are really interested and the frog dies.”
For the most part, Ripley doesn’t linger over writers who made their mark before the Second World War, even if they continued to publish into the 1950s and beyond. Consequently, you will find only passing allusions to Graham Greene (“This Gun for Hire”), Eric Ambler (“A Coffin for Dimitrios”) or Geoffrey Household (“Rogue Male”). Far more valuably, Ripley reminds us of titles meriting rediscovery. At the back of my copy of “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” I’ve scribbled a list of some I’ll be looking for: Desmond Bagley’s “High Citadel,” Alan Williams’s “Snake Water,” Peter Van Greenaway’s “The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing,” Victor Canning’s “The Rainbird Pattern,” Francis Clifford’s “The Grosvenor Square Goodbye” and Brian Callison’s “A Flock of Ships.” This last was acclaimed by MacLean as “the best war story I have ever read. ” Like many of the others, it has recently been reissued by Ostara Publishing.
Ripley usefully distinguishes between spy fantasies and spy fiction: James Bond and SPECTRE on the one hand, George Smiley and the Circus on the other. He points out books that shy away from sex, such as Hammond Innes’s sea stories, and those that stress the glamour or perils of faraway places. He examines the rise of fictional moles after the defection of traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, eventually followed by the even more notorious Kim Philby. He also reminisces about the popularity of Berlin as a setting for intrigue and calculates that 1966 was the high water mark for spy films, with 22 released that year in the United Kingdom.
Above all, though, Ripley conveys something of why these books are exciting. Adam Hall’s Quiller “neither drinks nor smokes, only works alone, and takes on the most dangerous missions for the Bureau, a very shadowy part of British Intelligence, confident that he has a security rating of ‘9’ meaning he is reliable under torture. He knows firearms and ballistics, though never carries a gun. He knows unarmed combat, but also sleep-mechanisms, psychotropic drugs, fast-driving techniques, G-forces in jet aircraft, and the personality patterns of suicides. . . . The reader is never in doubt that Quiller is always in danger, never off-duty, and never relaxed.”
In his last chapter, “Endgame,” Ripley briefly glances at modern American thrillers: Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series, the beautifully written spy fiction of Charles McCarry, Robert Littell’s award-winning “The Defection of A.J. Lewinter” and, least of all, Robert Ludlum’s international bestsellers, starting with “The Scarlatti Inheritance.”
More than 125 pages of appendixes then provide short biographical appreciations of individual authors, ranging from the world-famous, such as Dick Francis, to those who should be better known, including John Blackburn, Gavin Lyall and Anthony Price.
While “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” obviously provides a nostalgic walk down memory lane, it is also, as Lee Child says in his foreword, “a catch-up manual,” a guide to books worth reading, or rereading, today. Still, for a survey of British thrillers, why is its back-cover art — a Robert McGinnis painting of a gorgeous woman and a ruggedly handsome tough guy — taken from an American private-eye novel by Robert Kyle?
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Mike Ripley
HarperCollins. 448 pp. $27.99