The not so secret agent

Oct 16 2013, 15:13 IST
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SummaryTom Clancy brought the spy genre full circle

Meet John Patrick “Jack” Ryan, Sr, KCVO (Hon). Certified public accountant and stockbroker turned academic turned CIA operative turned national security advisor turned POTUS (twice!). He is, of course, independently wealthy. He got his Royal Victorian Order saving the Prince of Wales’s life from Ulster Liberation Army terrorists. While on vacation. En famille. Presumably in the snack break between Buckingham Palace and the Tate Modern.

Jack Ryan is, of course, Tom Clancy’s most famous fictional character, secret agent and militarist extraordinaire, and much beloved of Hollywood, which loves both blockbusters and blowing up entire city blocks. Sadly, as a friend lamented recently, with Clancy’s death, we shall never see Ryan becoming Grand Panjandrum of the Intergalactic Council. This is both our and Hollywood’s loss.

I may be bloodcurdlingly wrong, of course. A movie prequel about Ryan’s pre-CIA days is all set for release this Christmas. The French video game company, Ubisoft, had already purchased the use of Clancy’s name five years ago, to be used in conjunction with games and related trifles (such as books and movies). So fans need not fear, the Clancy conveyor belt continues to beat on, boats very much with the current, ceaselessly into the future. Like all great Fordist modes of production — and many bestsellers, the literary world’s equivalent of the genreless blockbuster — this one too has a specific set of narrative ingredients, mixed according to fairly specific recipes, with very specific kinds of characters and dialogue. So the chef ceases to matter. This is the McDonaldisation of espionage fiction.

In some ways, Clancy’s video-gamish military-espionage thrillers are a signal that the spy genre has come full circle. In the early-20th century, the spy novel was primarily a novel of adventure and international intrigue. Kipling’s Kim, for instance, concerns the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” for strategic dominance in Central Asia. Conrad’s The Secret Agent is about secret agents, yes, but also about psychology and anarchism and exploitation. G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is really about the nature of suffering and identity. Robert Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, which Ken Follett called “the first modern thriller,” began an enormous boom in the spy/invasion novel genre. And John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, featuring the stereotypically stiff-upper-lipped Richard Hannay, surely a blueprint for all the Jack Ryans to come, taps significantly into the British paranoia of invasion during the First World War,

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