Aaron Smith, Edward Snowdon, Espionage, Game of Thrones, Ian Fleming, James Bond, John Lecarre, JRR Tolkien, Liam Neeson, Nobody Dies For Free, Spy, Spy Genre, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, Tom Clancy, True Blood
The last time I did a guest post here at Lurking Musings, the subject was horror and some of the ways in which I find it to be a rewarding genre to write within. I’m still writing horror stories, with a few new ones coming out this year, but I’ve never been one to stick to the same thing all the time, so today I’m here to talk about a different genre and how I became interested in it and how all the pieces recently came together for me to participate in it.
There are certain things that I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually do once I took my first steps on the road of being a writer. Looking back on my life and the interests I’ve always had, the sort of books and movies I’ve enjoyed, I had to eventually write something in the espionage genre. On one hand, I’m surprised it took this long, but on the other, I’m glad it did. I didn’t rush into it. I waited (though not consciously) until the pieces came together and the time was right, and I’m quite happy with the result.
Looking back on my life, I can pinpoint the exact event that made me a lifelong fan of the spy genre. It was a flood.
The year was 1984, I was seven years old, and we lived in Paterson, New Jersey, just across the park from the banks of the Passaic River. It was April and it rained constantly. That grimy old river could only take so much and it overflowed, vomiting dirty water up into the park, drenching the baseball field, submerging Totowa Road, intruding on our street, and filling our basement to within an inch of coming onto the main floor. In fact, it was so bad that the mayor of the city had to come in a rowboat and coax the old lady next door out of her house! We had to get out of there.
So we packed our suitcases and escaped. It was me, my parents, my four-year-old sister and my toddler brother. We ended up spending a week at my grandparents’ house. Grandma and Grandpa had something we didn’t. At the time, they were still pretty new and quite expensive: the amazing technological wonder known as the VCR!
My father, happy to be in the presence of one of the marvels of the modern age, wasted no time running out to the local lawnmower shop/ video rental place (I’m not making that up. Somebody actually ran that very odd combination of businesses, as there weren’t too many places yet that concentrated solely on renting out movies) to get his hands on something he’d been wanting to see but had missed when it ran in theatres a year earlier.
So, despite the protests of my violence-hating mother, that night I encountered a character who would become one of my favorite fictional heroes: Bond. James Bond. The film was Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond movie, which was a remake of Thunderball and not part of the Eon Productions series, but it featured Sean Connery, making his return to the role after more than a decade away, so it certainly counts as a real Bond movie in my book.
That was it. I was a lifelong Bond fan, not just of the movies but of the original Ian Fleming novels and some, though not all, of the continuations written by later novelists.
Bond was my gateway drug into the world of spy fiction and I discovered many other such characters over the years, in books, in movies, and on television. There were the books of Tom Clancy and John LeCarre, the Jason Bourne movies, and Taken, starring Liam Neeson.
Eventually, I started writing seriously and began to have work published. I wrote in genres including mystery, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and even did some war and western stories. Occasionally, one of my stories would include elements of the spy genre, but it took a long time before I finally set my sights on penning a true espionage novel.
It was a convergence of three events that I think—now that I look back on it—finally got me to try writing in the spy genre. I found a big bargain and managed to acquire the first twenty James Bond movies on DVD for under a hundred dollars, so I was able, for the first time in my life, to watch them all in order and relive many of my favorite 007 moments. I discovered a wonderful British series called Spooks, which ran for 86 thrilling episodes and turned out to be one of the most addicting and also heartbreaking TV series I’ve ever watched. And I said—and I have no idea where this particular combination of words came from—“Nobody dies for free,” which I immediately knew was going to eventually be the title of a spy novel. So the ball started rolling and it didn’t stop until I’d written the book.
But, strangely, for all the years that I loved the spy genre and all through the time it took me to write Nobody Dies For Free and then go through the process of editing it and eventually seeing it published, it never occurred to me to really sit back and ponder the question of just why stories of secret agents and clandestine missions have been so popular for so long. In writing this blog entry, that’s the very question I’ve decided to attack, and I’ve come up with four answers that I suspect are quite valid. I know they apply to me and I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about it once they’ve read this little essay.
Secrets and Scandals
When it comes to most aspects of life, but especially when the government is involved, many of us understand the need for some degree of secrecy. Certain things must remain classified, for the more we in the public sector know, the more those who are currently considered our enemies also know. But despite this, many of us wish we could personally know everything. The recent Edward Snowden business is evidence of this. We want to know exactly what our government (and all the other governments in the world) are doing, especially the dirtier business. Realistically, we can’t have access to this information. But in the world of the spy novel or movie, we can. For the time it takes to watch a film or read a book, we are insiders, seeing the world in all its intricate ugliness and backstabbing brutality as we share an adventure with the protagonist. Human beings are curious creatures who can’t resist an opportunity to inspect the president’s dirty laundry or sneak a peek at the sins of the king. Spy fiction satisfies our need to be part of the shadow realm.
The world is a mess. It always has been and it probably always will. Most people seem to have mixed feelings about the countries in which they live. I’m glad to have been born American, I respect what the ideals behind the nation’s founding stand for, but that doesn’t mean I have to like everything my government does. For example, I’m currently quite irritated by the fact that the president’s new health care system is going to cost me several thousand dollars in wages this year. If I polled a thousand other Americans, I’m sure I’d get hundreds of different complaints about the way the country is run and how it interacts with both its allies and its enemies. And I’m sure my friends in Europe and Japan and Canada and various other places have conflicted feelings about their own countries. But I think most of us want our nations to be the best they can be. Spy stories, with their heroic government operatives, give us this courageous, honorable (and sometimes ruthless in that honor) side of the nation’s activities. Regardless of party affiliations or political opinions, we can all root for a James Bond or a Jack Ryan to do the right thing and act in the best interests of his fellow citizens, rising above the political mess to save the nation and maybe even the world.
A Socially Acceptable Mythology
Fans of certain genres of fiction are lucky to now live in a time when Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and True Blood are among the most popular series on television, when superhero movies are hugely successful, and when some of the world’s most popular authors are writing about vampires and teenaged wizards. But this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t so long ago that people of certain ages might be laughed at if they publicly admitted enjoying Star Trek or comic books or the works of JRR Tolkein. So I’ve come to suspect that one of the reasons for the success of the spy genre for most of the twentieth century may have had something to do with the way it contains the very same elements as classic adventure fiction and mythology but puts it in a setting that seems to be a bit more adult-oriented, thus making it all right for a grown man in the 1950s and 60s (including President Kennedy) to be seen reading Casino Royale or From Russia With Love. As for those elements I just mentioned, let’s look at some of the basic ingredients of some of the most popular science-fiction and fantasy stories and compare them to what you might find in a secret agent movie.
Someone is chosen to go off on a quest to stop a great evil from causing harm to the world. They’re sent by an older, wiser person, usually an intermediary between them and a king or other such ruler. They are given some sort of special weapon which will aid them in their mission. They travel through many exotic locations, encountering strange beings, until they finally come face to face with the great evil and its frightening minions.
So was I just talking about Frodo Baggins being guided by Gandalf to put an end to Sauron’s plans, with a ring in his possession as he travels from the Shire to Rivendell and eventually to Mordor, meeting Aragorn and others along the way? Or did I mean James Bond being handed a mission by M, given a gadget-enhanced car by Q, and sent across the globe from London to Istanbul to the Caribbean to the Swiss Alps to face various henchmen with the help of a few beautiful women and Felix Leiter, until he finally confronts Blofeld in a final showdown? Or I could have meant the plot of Star Wars, or an episode of Spooks. The façade shifts, but the classic storytelling elements remain the same.
The Hero in his Prime
If you really want to narrow the types of heroes in fiction down to the least number of possible types, I’d say there are three. On one hand, you have the young hero being thrust toward destiny and fumbling his way along the path while struggling to make sense of the new point of view that’s been forced upon him. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Neo from The Matrix.
On the other hand, you have the old wizard/ guide, an older character, maybe worn out from decades of trying to keep evil in check, but possessing great experience and wisdom. Obi-wan Kenobi, Merlin, Gandalf, Van Helsing.
And then, smack in the middle of the two extremes, you have a balance between age and youth, action and experience. These are characters old enough to know how to handle a dangerous situation, but still young enough to do the fighting themselves rather than sending in a young apprentice. Captain James T. Kirk, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Batman, to name a few examples. This might be the sort of hero who readers and viewers most often dream of being. In the spy genre, particularly the more action-oriented espionage stories, this is the category into which many of the primary protagonists fall: James Bond, Jason Bourne, the Saint, the Mission Impossible characters, and the various lead field agents throughout the 10 year run of Spooks.
So there we have four big ideas about what might be responsible for the ongoing popularity of the spy fiction genre. As I said earlier, I hadn’t really thought about those things until I started to write this essay, but I now realize that I included all those elements in my own spy novel, the recently released Nobody Dies For Free. I hope readers of my book will enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed some of the other spy stories I’ve mentioned here today.
After years of loyally serving his country in the CIA, Richard Monroe wants nothing more than early retirement and a peaceful life in Paris with the only woman he’s ever truly loved. But when an assassin’s bullet takes his happiness away, Monroe embarks on a quest to find the man responsible for the tragedy. Monroe is soon recruited back into the clandestine services, but with a difference. Now he’s a lone agent reporting to a supervisor so mysterious that the official agencies don’t even know he exists. In his new position, Monroe will deal with situations too delicate and too dangerous for the CIA or FBI to handle. On his first assignment, he discovers a connection between the mission and the criminal mastermind behind his wife’s killing. Business becomes personal again and Richard Monroe sets out to teach his enemies a brutal lesson: NOBODY DIES FOR FREE!
Nobody Dies For Free is available in print or for Kindle or Nook.
For further information on Nobody Dies For Free and all my other books, visit my Amazon author page at http://www.amazon.com/Aaron-Smith/e/B0037IL0IS/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1374366653&sr=1-2-ent
Or visit my blog at http://godsandgalaxies.blogspot.com/