The Writers Who Came in Late: Modern British Murder Mysteries and the Timeless Classics of Fleming and Le Carre, Compared Essay
Updated: Dec 24th, 2018
Murder mysteries and spy flicks will never get old. It is truly fascinating how a genre that was supposed to be taken very lightly from the very beginning has grown such a huge cult following and became a thing in itself. Moreover, one has to admit that spy flicks seem to have a certain development arch. What seemed thrilling several decades ago has become completely dated now, which means that modern detective novels need both develop new means to stay fresh and at the same time keep that air of timelessness to retain its devoted fans.
Although modern British detective stories differ greatly from such doubtless classics as Casino Royale and The Spy Who Came in Late, they still manage to suck the readers in with strangely surreal characters and details, creating a kind of a fairy tale for the adults and, therefore, providing its readers with a pretext for another moment of escapism.
Starting appropriately with the analysis of the main characters, one will have to mention that Fleming was not the first author to introduce the conflicting dynamics between the antagonist and the lead character; the tradition of developing an anti-hero as the element that is supposed to balance out the protagonist goes back to the traditions of the Greek drama.
Therefore, other ways to introduce the dynamics between the two characters must have developed over time. However, the staple of a good spy versus the bad spy had stuck in the British detective literature for quite long after Fleming developed the conflict between the impeccable Mr. Bond and le Chiffre, the villain: “Like the gentleman you are, you very kindly gave me a note explaining the circumstances so that I would have no difficulty in cashing your cheque” (Fleming 107).
Also featured in Le Care’s novel, the tension between Leamas and Mundt has set the stage for a time-honored tradition of drawing a clear line between the positive and the negative character: “It was odd how soon Leamas had realized that Mundt was the writing on the wail” (Le Carre 9).
Though the given feature of detective novels seemed rather interesting at first, its novelty obviously faded out as time passed; the audience clearly wanted the characters that were more dimensional. Despite an evident development of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in modern spy flicks, sadly enough, there is still a tangible tendency in glorifying the protagonists and dragging their opponents through the mud. The villain is no longer the representative of the “Red Russia,” like in Fleming and Le Carre’s novels.
Nevertheless, the modern British writers tend to make the antagonist as unlikable as possible, thus, creating a foil for the leading character development. Which is even more upsetting, the antagonist often has no character arch, even a clichéd one; the plot is, therefore, reduced to the traditional good versus evil battle.
Needless to mention, Bond has spawned a series of nonchalant detectives with a lust for gambling, incredible fighting skills and amazingly attractive looks. Unlike Le Carre, who allowed his character to be less noticeable, Fleming made James Bond “tough”(Fleming 20) and “pretty good with the cards or he wouldn’t have sat in the Casino in Monte Carlo for two months before the war watching that Roumanian team work their stuff with the invisible ink and the dark glasses” (Fleming 20).
However, in contrast to character arches in Fleming and Le Carre’s works, character development in a number of modern detective fiction works have become more complex. Present-day leads are allowed to be bitter and even controversial, though nonetheless likeable.
Still, readers like the modern characters for the features of their conflicting personalities, which stands in sharp contrast to Le Carre’s and Fleming’s perfect characters. Adding negative features to the leading characters, modern writers flesh them out and, thus make the detective genre evolve towards a complex psychological drama.
To its credit, The Spy Who Came in Late features a different idea of the war between the two states or, in a broader sense, the conflict between the seemingly “good” and the seemingly “evil.” A major breakthrough in the history of detective novels, the idea that the people on both sides of the conflict are actually people would be taken as the basis for the further development of the genre in the late XX and at the beginning of the XX century.
Another popular cliché, a damsel in distress, is, thankfully, disappearing from the pages of modern detective stories, giving ways to female characters with personalities. With all due respect to the Bond series and Le Carre’s debut triumph, it is necessary to admit that their female characters were pretty bland even at the time.
Bond’s girl remains only Bond’s girl; in fact, hardly anyone even remembers her actual name. Certainly, she does say a few lines now and then and even appears the member of the evil Soviet organization in the end, her main characteristic, however, is the fact that she is in love with Bond. The same, unfortunately, goes with Le Carre’s novel.
Though these are not exactly damsels in distress anymore, they still are clearly dependable on their men, and their motivations are rather confused, as a sharp contrast to the cool-blooded speculations of Bond and Leamas. The fact that Vesper I The Spy Who Came in Late gets kidnapped does not add her character either; succumbing to the above-mentioned damsel-in-distress syndrome, she clearly represents a stereotypical female character of the time, which is rather offensive to the present-day feminists.
Finally, the issue concerning a man versus the system is worth bringing up. As it has been mentioned above, Le Carre was the first to consider the idea that the world of espionage is not a one-man show and that in political games, the life of an individual is absolutely worthless.
A rather gloomy idea, it might have not suited the format of the spy flicks of the 50s and 60s; however, it seems increasingly popular nowadays, and, perhaps, Le Carre is the one to thank for it. In a sense, Le Carre’s novel is even more existential that the endeavors of modern British detective novelists; in fact, in modern fiction, the conflict between an individual and the system is often ignored – perhaps, for the sake of keeping the focus on the tension between the leading character and his opponent.
Although The Spy Who Came in Late and Casino Royale were written half a century ago, the game rules that they set still remain in their places, dictating younger writers what to write and the younger audience what to enjoy. Though the given phenomenon can be viewed as rather negative in that it does not allow the writers to go beyond the detective writing clichés, it at least shows how great the above-mentioned works are and how much credit they deserve.
Even though some of the ideas have quickly become overused, the rest of the plotlines allow much room for improvisation and imaginative twists of plot. Therefore, it can be considered that the modern British detective stories have finally started developing in a different direction, yet they still take much from the old-time classics, mostly in terms of plot and characters, which hardly anyone can blame modern writers for.
Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale (James Bond). Las Vegas, NV: Thomas and Mercer, 2012. Print.
Le Carre, John. The Spy Who Came in Late. London, UK: Penguin Books, 2012. Print.
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