I always found spy thrillers enormously entertaining. I liked the action and suspense, the plentiful supply of gorgeous gals who always seemed to turn up and the exotic backgrounds.
Probably no one had the formula down better than Ian Fleming, and over the years the James Bond novels not only had more than their share of imitators; they provided the perfect template for other writers to follow. Beginning with Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, I read all of them at least once.
And as I think back, I can see why I and millions of other people were such eager consumers of these exotic stories. Take, for example, the plot of Casino Royale. M sends Bond to Casino Royale in France to play baccarat against Le Chiffre, who is the money man bankrolling SMERSH, the Russian counter-intelligence agency. Fleming was clearly ahead of his time. By the 1990’s there actually was a Le Chiffre on the world stage. His name was Osama bin Laden, and he was bankrolling a terror operation called al Quaeda. Like bin Laden, in the course of the story Le Chiffre finally gets his just desserts, but because Bond has played a role in Le Chiffre’s death, he is targeted for assassination, and this is where From Russia With Love begins.
In this story Bond’s loyalty to the Queen is tested when M sends Bond to Turkey to bring back a Spektor, a top secret decoding machine which MI6 dearly wants to acquire. But the Soviets have arranged to have a beautiful female agent not only deliver the Spektor to Bond but to deliver herself as well. The practice of using attractive women to compromise influential politicians was called the “honey pot,” and Fleming is employing a tactic in this spy story that was used by both sides during the Cold War. Not content with disgracing Bond, the Soviets have also assigned a psychopathic agent to kill Bond. However, in a confrontation on the fabled Orient Express Bond outsmarts the killer by placing his cigarette case over his heart to deflect the assassin’s bullet.
It was this movie which, I confess, made a Bond fan out of me. The film made the most of the plot, emphasizing elements of the story which best lent themselves to being filmed. First of all there was the role of sexy, attractive Tatiana, who is played by Daniela Bianchi, and the unforgettable climactic scene on the fabled Orient Express, in which Sean Connery and Robert Shaw, who was playing the assassin, face off against one another in a suspenseful battle of wills and wits.
Over the years, I particularly enjoyed Diamonds Are Forever, Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only even as I recognized how formulaic the films had become. Usually Bond had to prevent a larger-then-life villain along the lines of Blofeld from destroying the civilized world or at least a good part of it.
But while the character of Bond has proved extremely durable and the plot formula intriguing enough to allow all kinds of variations, I somewhere lost interest in James Bond, and I haven’t seen a Bond film since I saw Tomorrow Never Dies nearly fifteen years ago. And even though Skyfall, the latest Bond adventure to hit the screen, has received good reviews and probably compares well with the earlier Bond films, I doubt I’ll get around to seeing it.
Something happened to cause me to lose interest in James Bond, both the books and the films — and what happened was 9/11. After 9/11 I became interested in spy thrillers in a way I hadn’t been interested previously. I no longer read thrillers just to be entertained but rather to find out what’s really happening behind the headlines — and I have an idea I’m not alone. I think that for many readers the thriller has acquired a new significance.
Two things happened after 9/11 to change the espionage thriller. In combating terror our government adopted a variety of new methods to fight enemies and perceived enemies, doing things it would not have done prior to 9/11: sending special operations teams into other countries without informing the host country’s government; firing drones into the towns and cities of our allies without warning and without their permission; conducting secret cyber attacks against other nations’ computer networks, and carrying out renditions against suspected terrorists.
The other major post-9/11 development has been the government’s practice of releasing less and less information to the public about these behind-the-scene activities. Our government has often been accused of overusing the “classified” label, but after 9/11 its use has increased many-fold. Another good example of how tight-lipped the government has become could be the current presidential campaign during which neither candidate has said very much at all about his plans for Afghanistan, a country where, since October 2001, we have been involved in a major war.
I came to realize that an espionage novel can be much more than just airport reading — and that a coherent story, which takes place against the background of real events can provide insights and understanding for readers about what is happening in the world in a way that news reports can not. Well-informed writers, working with tidbits of information, are often able to make shrewd guesses regarding what is happening and even what is going to happen.
The story of my novel, The Rendition, takes place against the background of Kosovo’s struggle for independence, and provides readers with an understanding of our country’s political maneuvering in the Balkans. It concludes in February 2008, when Kosovo, for the first time in its long history, became an independent nation. The United States, despite the reservations of some influential government officials, recognized Kosovo as an independent country one day after it declared its independence from Serbia.
Today Kosovo, together with Albania and northern Macedonia, two countries with which it shares the same language and culture, function as close allies and provide a counterweight in the Balkans to Serbia, which has been traditionally a client state of Russia. Just how that came about is, to some extent, explained in The Rendition.
For Americans, Balkan politics have always been baffling. I like to think that readers of The Rendition will not only find the book exciting and suspenseful, but will come away from it with a clearer understanding of what has been happening in what was once Yugoslavia over the last twenty or so years.