I’ve just finished watching the final episode of a spy series, ‘The Bureau’, which is from France. I liked it so much that I actually cheered during one scene, as the central character gasped with relief when an agent was saved from some Libyan insurgents. The body count was significant, but I, like our hero apparently, barely gave that a thought. The important thing was that after many close shaves, written about and filmed with exquisite attention to tense dialogue, plots and sub-plots, something a bit better than bad has more or less prevailed.
Why do so many of us lap up crime and spy thrillers, with endless offerings in film, books (fiction and non-fiction) and even live theatre? When I go to bookshops in airports, about 50%-60% of everything for sale is from these genres. I, of course, literary snob that I am, only choose authors I think are very good writers, who don’t use too much gratuitous violence, and who offer me characters that I find intriguingly likable, or at least compulsively watchable/readable. And of course, in my case, a political positioning that is either middle-of-the road or a little left of centre. A number of American authors fail me on this, writing as if it is unarguable that American ‘free world’ values and resourcefulness will always prove to be just that little bit better than everybody else’s in the end.
Maybe political is the wrong word here—maybe it is philosophical; about my hunch that the world is inevitably full of shades of grey and not black and white. So I crave subtlety of characterisation and narrative that muddies the difference between the good guys and the bad. Making it possible for insightful readers ( like myself of course) to spot the fine shades of virtue that justify our hero’s chicanery and occasional violence as necessary to coming out alive, often barely, believing he or she has contributed to some small incremental gain for civilisation. It helps if the protagonist has doubts all the way through, only in the end being prepared to draw the line in the sand that they can’t or won’t step over.
At a literary festival, I once asked a panel of crime writers about why their heroes were so often dysfunctional losers in every aspect of their life except crime fighting. I prefaced the question by saying that these were exactly the characters that drew me in, and I was interested in their views on what this was all about. A couple of the authors needed interpreters, so something may have been lost in the exchange, but none of them were very keen to explore this. Bored even. I was a bit disappointed, because to me, it is obviously such an important ingredient in these genres. Maybe so obvious that they thought my question was dumb.
Our hero never succeeds for long in relationships, with lovers, or even with their own children. They often drink and smoke too much, and spend much of the plot trying to control this. Essentially they are loners, and most of their colleagues are wary of them; impressed in some ways because of their record of success, but confused or straight out-furious at their refusal to be loyal team players who will always stick up for the tribe. This mixture of brilliance and anarchical tendencies means that they have risen through the ranks to where they are in on the planning around weighty matters, and in contact with people like politicians and criminal masterminds. But they are not allowed to go higher. Inspector, even chief inspector, but never superintendent. Major but never colonel. Team leader but never director. Many spend parts of the story suspended from duty while they are investigated for insubordinate or morally questionable behaviour. Will they get their badge and gun back? Of course they will, but what a frustrating and winding track back it is. Will their white-anting nemesis in the force get the good kicking they deserve (rarely fatal of course, because they are needed in the next book or film)? Yes they will, and if the author has done well, we will just love it.
The superior officers in these scenarios will usually contain one long-standing loyal supporter. He or she closes the door and says something like, ‘You might have gone too far this time lonesome hero—I’m not sure even I can protect you this time.’ Or, ‘OK, you have 48 hours to get this done; after that you’re on your own.’ Because of course the supporter is surrounded by colleagues and higher masters who can’t wait to get rid of our irksome hero. The supporter is a loser in some ways too—not likely to get to the very top, because of their tendency to forgive misbehaviour and even tolerate some disloyalty in the greater cause. But they are usually a bit more stable than our hero, because they have to remain a rock. They do have a loving partner, and the pair often think of the hero as the son or daughter they never had (or, in another frequent trope, lost tragically).
So here we have her or him. At an AA meeting, after being shot, beaten up and/or threatened with dismissal, unable to trust most of their colleagues, but within an ace of realising what is going on with the crime or terror threat they have precious little time to solve. Smashing the bottle of scotch, flushing the ciggies down the toilet, saying ‘Some other time darling’ to a sexually tempting distraction, and crashing through all the barriers to triumph yet again, by the thinnest of margins. If it all seems more or less plausible, and the writing/cinematography/acting is great, I, and millions like me, will be back for more, and more, and more.