Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Monday, January 4, 2016

El Condor Pasa

So, a friend of mine went to see the new Star Wars movie and came away more depressed than excited. She said that seeing her cherished idols old, tired, and (in her take) disengaged made her feel old, tired, and disappointed. I didn't share her response, and wasn't even sure I understood her. Then I read James Grady's Last Days of the Condor and got some insight into her reaction.

Back in 1974, Grady write Six Days of the Condor, a story about an CIA analyst (emergency codename: Condor) who gets caught in the middle of an internecine clash after rogue agents wipe out his unit. The protagonist is a failed academic who was recruited by the CIA after he wrote about Nero Wolfe instead of Don Quixote for his comprehensive exams (he had failed to read Cervantes); he uses the skills he has learned from years of analyzing mysteries and spy novels for potentially leaked or useful information to evade capture and survive against skilled professionals for six days. The inexperienced guy with native intelligence and some specialized knowledge holding his own against trained and veteran agents was a  ripping yarn that spoke loud and clear not to a young, more than slightly academic reader of mysteries and spy novels.

The book was made into a movie a year later called Three Days of the Condor which has little to make it memorable it other than some kinky and problematic Robert Redford-Faye Dunaway sexy time. Grady also wrote a pedestrian sequel called Shadow of the Condor, in which our hero become a real field agent, but it is so inconsequential as to be non-canonical.

No, it is Last Days of the Condor that really closes the circle for our wayward agent. Only now instead if the brash tyro, Condor is the weary veteran, "retired," under surveillance, and kept in a drug-induced haze to make sure he doesn't reveal the wrong secrets to the wrong people. When he gets caught in the middle of another bloody intramural conflict, he has to shake off the fog and call upon all his now-formidable skills to survive and unmask the threat.

I had a few problems with this book. First, Grady's sex scenes, as in both previous books, still manage to be kinky (if less problematical) and uninteresting at the same time. It's as if he adds them in because his publisher or agent thought it would be a good idea.

Second, Grady buys into the idea that trained spies are superhuman killing machines with Sherlock-level powers of deduction and attention to detail, and civilians are clueless, defenseless sheep. If LeCarre's Smiley gave us the spy as an ordinary man, Grady's characters - now to include Condor - demonstrate quite the opposite. While this allows for some great set pieces, it eventually becomes hollow spectacle.

The overarching plot is also too spectacular. While the action in Six Days was driven by nothing more than a small band of opportunistic drug smugglers within the CIA, the Big Bad in Last Days is a world-threatening combination of a Bond villain and the Forbin Project. Can't even spy stories be small anymore?

But the biggest disappointment in the novel is the overriding weariness of the whole thing. No one in the book seems thinks that any of their actions mean a thing, that anything is ever going to get better, or that the distinction between right and wrong is even discernible. Heavens to betsy, maybe it would have been better to stay drugged.

As I read the story, I thought of my buddy the young Condor, using his book-learned street-smarts to stay one step ahead of the bad guys and Do the Right Thing.

Or maybe Condor was never that earnest; maybe that was me.

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