Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Spies South of the (US) Border and Across the Pond: The Hydra Head & Bernard Samson

A lot of the discussion of crime and espionage fiction here, and elsewhere, in recent weeks, has dealt with the USA and Europe. Let's broaden the scope, at least for a moment:

The Hydra Head (THH) was written by Carlos Fuentes, the celebrated author of The Death of Artemio Cruz and many other books. The Hydra Head manages to combine a dreamlike, fantasy quality with the urgency of a life and death spy thriller. Set in Mexico, it treats Mexican oil as the axis for spymasters and puppets to dance around. The dance can be deadly, the story is gripping. Originally published in 1978, you might have missed this one the first time around, and I strongly recommend that you read it now: many of its scenes pop readily into my mind about 20 years after reading it. There were real surprises for me (who is a spy, who is not?) and the writing, like a hand held up to block the sun, allows flashes of light or periods of darkness, depending on exactly where and how hard you look. It can be unusual for a "straight fiction writer" to delve into the world of espionage, crime or a similar genre. We can be glad that Fuentes, a writer of the highest quality, did.

I have another book about Mexico to discuss, but, unusually for this blog, I can't work from memory and need to find it first! A little fact checking is in order (title, author, etc.).

We find in THH quite a counterpoint to Mexico Set, the early and often funny book that follows Berlin Game and falls near the beginning of the series by Len Deighton consisting of three full trilogies plus a bookend. Mexico Set seems largely about the "angry man", spy Bernard Samson, and his incompetent boss. However, Bernard is no Harry Palmer of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, even if the sarcasm immortalized on film by Michael Caine seems familiar. Bernard, however, is considerably less crass than Harry, though they have some demons in common (an annoying level of competence being one of them).

Bernard's boss (is it Dickie? I'm sure it's Dickie) certainly seems the classic fool, a man of a certain (in)breeding.

Meanwhile, Mexico herself is only a backdrop for failure in the story, like the namesake of the great movie Chinatown.

The titles of the Deighton mega-series follow a kind of patter: Berlin Game, Mexico Set and London Match; Spy Hook, Spy Line and Spy Sinker; and finally Faith, Hope and Charity.

Just like the patter of that familiar children's rhyme, "Ring Around the Rosie", Deighton's series starts out innocuously enough, in the Game/Set era, but ends with a plague upon all our houses. Wait until the purpose of a particular dental construction becomes clear- that is a horrific moment.

Winter offers backstory and "more-story" that link up obliquely with the Bernard Samson/Len Deighton 3X3, or nonet, and go all the way back to before WWII.

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