If you looked at the grades I have given the various spy series in my collection, it would be an easy determination as to which is the best, i.e., the Winner. The highest grade is obviously the winner. Case closed.
Ignore the fact that the highest grade I have given goes to Jack Reacher, which I admit freely is not a spy series so cannot be counted as the Winner in a question of who is the best spy. I included Mr. Reacher because I has such tremendous respect for the character and for the genius that is the author, Lee Child.
Beyond that, though, there were four series out of the hundreds that I have studied which earned a grade not usually seen in any school - A++ or higher. They are Paul Bannerman by John Maxim, Modesty Blaise by Peter O'Donnell, Quiller by Adam Hall, and George Smiley by John LeCarre. They got the higher than normal grade because these four were so incredibly above the rest that they deserved extra credit. What make them even more impressive is the way that each series is so greatly different from the others.
Mr. Maxim took an idea that others have used often over the years, namely the idea of an agent who has retired but who will not be left alone by his past. He took it and expanded it from one agent to a cluster of them, gave them a town in Connecticut to live in peace in new lives and new activities, and then gave the world extremely dangerous and capable antagonists whose only stupidity seems to be not being willing to let them folks alone. The author gave us Bannerman, the controller who has the ability to use the skills of his people to their utmost and Susan, his eventual wife who is smart enough to hold her own with her husband and nice enough to be able to deal pleasantly with his people who have killed too many times. He lets us get to know and care about Carla, one of the most dangerous people on the planet as well as her lover who she is forced to kill. And then there is Lasko, a cop with too many years of experience and Elena, head of a criminal syndicate. And assassin Elizabeth Stride who is someone even Carla respects.
In this series, you get to know each and care for each and worry about each and enjoy when each shows that messing with them is not a smart thing to do. And you get to see Bannerman in action, a man who shows again and again that while he is not perfect, he is certainly better than every one who comes up against him. And these adventures are told with such terrific skill that the pages flow far too fast. The books end and you smile and then sigh because they are over.
Mr. O'Donnell took the concept of a real-life waif encountered by him during his military years and created from it the back story to one of spy-fi's greatest characters, a woman who learned at a too-young age to take care of herself in any situation and who, years later and wealthy enough to not have to get into those scrapes anymore nevertheless has become almost addicted to adventure. Finding retirement at her early age, around thirty, to be a dreadful bore, she agrees to help British Intelligence on occasion. Her closest companion, friend, and platonic soul-mate, Willy Garvin, a character just as interesting and worthy of his own series if Mr. O'Donnell had ever desired, was just as eager to get back into action. The greatest achievement that Mr. O'Donnell reached was to make his characters so darned good at what they do but realistic enough to make errors. When these two get hit or stabbed or shot, the reader grimaces and then, with a scowl, thinks how good the bad guys' comeuppance will be.
A reader like myself never forgets that these are fictitious characters but there are many a time while following their escapades that you can find yourself not only wishing they were real but also that you were friends. Certainly you would not want to meet as enemies.
In a genre filled to overflowing with testosterone-ridden protagonists, more than a few of which being poster children for Macho International, it is delightfully refreshing to meet an agent who is brave and resourceful without reaching for a gun or a knife at the least little sound. Quiller, the quiet oft-put-upon agent created by Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor), is a man who does not like guns and refuses to carry one. He works under the principle that if you need to pull a gun, you’ve likely lost already so he uses his brains to stay out of these situations as much as possible and, when no other choice exists, to use his intellect to find a different solution.
It is Quiller’s brain that is the most fascinating aspect of this series. He is no genius and he never has a Eureka moment but he knows his facts and he can use that knowledge to its utmost under the most harrowing of situations. To see him calculate the muzzle velocity and range of an opponent’s firearm and how it will impact on a scene or to listen to his inner thoughts as he contemplates two vehicles’ weight and horsepower when deciding which will make a turn first is to watch a true expert in his craft at work.
John LeCarre’s toady-looking, always underestimated spymaster, George Smiley, is constantly being pushed aside as being too old and too out-of-it and too cautious and too too many things, none of them good. And yet when the flashier sods and the yes-men and the sycophants of British Intelligence, not called the Circus for nothing, all manage to eventually mess things up, it is poor Smiley who is dusted off and asked to set things right. Smiley may not know woman, as his relationship with his wife points out, but he knows the spy business and he knows people and he can put both of those abilities to good use when allowed.
Without a doubt, the Karla trilogy is the most famous of the books with Smiley being at the forefront. And the book where he had a minor but important role, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, is often cited as the quintessential spy novel, for good reason. But the first two books of the series, two novels which are mysteries instead of spy adventures, are deserving of just as much attention if you really want to get to know Smiley. Both his intellect and his humanity shine brightly in both.
It is my opinion that you do not get any better than these four when you are talking about spy fiction. The delightful element with these is that they are all so incredibly different from each other. The characters are totally unique, the plots are drastically different from series to series, and the writing styles are as different as they could be. But one similarity they share is they are all so very, very good and, with a few minor exceptions, well worth reading over and over.
So which is The Winner? Got a four-sided die, anyone? I almost regret writing this article because I am duty bound to pick a winner and they all deserve to be.
Nevertheless, since I have to pick, I go with George Smiley as my grade indicates. Smiley epitomizes spy fiction.
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