Aug 1, 2007

Book Review: In Secret Service

Mitch Silver’s debut novel, In Secret Service, has a premise that should appeal to a lot of James Bond fans: a lost Ian Fleming manuscript contains secrets that various factions are willing to kill for, and endangers the life of the brilliant modern-day researcher into whose possession it falls. Regrettably, it fails to live up to that brilliant concept.

With two storylines going–one past, one present–and a historical puzzle to be solved, it’s clearly a product of the post-Da Vinci Code publishing industry. The rush to buy anything that fits that formula has resulted in a few wonderful novels, like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and a lot of forgettable ones, like In Secret Service.

Silver’s heroine, Amy Greenberg, inherits an unpublished manuscript–a confession of sorts–by Ian Fleming by virtue of her grandfather having been assigned to drive Fleming on one mission at the end of WWII. Of all the people in the world, why he chose to bequeath his lengthy letter to Amy is never adequately explained. It’s merely a convenient plot device.

Amy collects her inheritance from a bank vault in Ireland, starts reading it, and by doing so attracts a few would-be assassins. In order for the Da Vinci Code formula to work, it’s crucial that the present-day hero work hard to solve the riddle of the past. Kostova did a great job juggling three separate narratives in The Historian, with each one fueled by a search for answers. Dan Brown may not be a master of prose, but he, too, is a great storyteller, and figured out how to use a great historical mystery to propel his modern-day hero’s journey, forcing Robert Langdon to unlock a series of intricate puzzles in order to move forward. Silver neglects to do any of that.

We’re told that Amy Greenberg is a world-class researcher, like Langdon and Paul, Kostova’s primary hero. She even thinks to herself that Fleming is lucky his manuscript, rich in historical details, fell into the hands of such a master researcher, but unlike those other academic heroes, Amy never actually does anything! She doesn’t have to solve puzzles or figure out the meanings of obscure references to get from A to B. The Fleming character has done all the research for her already, and she is simply handed a fully assembled puzzle. All she has to do is read it. Silver grasps at straws to throw occasional obstacles in her path to keep her from finishing it in a single sitting, but there’s really no convincing reason that she couldn’t have finished the entire manuscript (as it’s presented in the book) during the course of her flight back to the United States, even if she is scared someone’s out to get her.

All that Amy does the entire course of the novel is receive a package, read, get on a plane, read, switch seats, read, get off the plane, read, and then finally flee from a succession of hitmen in the last fifty pages or so. Only at the very end does she finally take any sort of action of her own devising, and at that point it’s too little too late. The ostensible heroine of the novel is completely superfluous. The only point of even having a present-day wrap-around story seems to be to force the story into that Da Vinci Code mold.

The tale that unfolds over the course of the supposed Fleming memoir (entitled "Provenance"), however, is a different story. Fleming’s own adventure is compelling and interesting. Unlike Amy, he has a clear goal and he goes after it, figuring things out, overcoming obstacles and deciphering clues. In Secret Service would have worked much better had it abandoned its attempt at the hot structure of the moment and just told the story of Ian Fleming uncovering the details of a Royal scandal.

"Provenance" begins with a fascinating background on Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward VIII abdicated the throne of England in the 1930s. I felt like I was learning something here, because I don’t really know much at all about Edward VIII, but the author admits in his afterward to taking so many liberties (some extreme, even irresponsible!) with the historical figures that I can’t be sure what was true. Fleming then embarks on his own adventure, determined to learn the truth about a secret treaty between Prince Edward (as he became after relinquishing the crown) and Adolf Hitler. Even if it’s all hogwash, these sections move quickly and show promise in the first-time author.

Unfortunately, entertaining though "Provenance" may be, it doesn’t read like Ian Fleming. Granted, many readers will neither notice nor care, but Bond fans will. At times, Silver comes close to getting Fleming’s voice right, but then gets too caught up in his own narrative and loses Fleming. For example, when Silver’s Fleming laments his ill health (in 1964, the time he’s writing this lengthy letter) and imposing mortality, it would have been a nice touch to use Fleming’s own vivid description of heart disease as an "iron crab." Arguably, it’s probably more difficult to keep in the voice of a well-read author than that of your own original character, but that Silver fails only calls attention to the fact that his characters themselves aren’t well enough differentiated. (Kostova managed admirably in switching between three distinct voices of different genders; Silver seems to have trouble with his female protagonist, leading to cringe-worthy sentences like this one: "It would be a hoot to see the faces on The Girls when she told them they’d be wearing matching dresses....")

Silver’s Fleming sounds much too familiar, even a bit of a Bertie Wooster-ish twit at times. He certainly doesn’t sound like a journalist, which Ian Fleming was. Even the published letters of the real Fleming that I’ve read aren’t as familiar as Silver’s version. He picks up on Fleming’s self-effacing humor, but doesn’t get it quite right. He also hones in on Fleming’s schoolboy-like obsession with sex, but that too seems off to me. Silver’s Fleming dwells unnecessarily on penis size, the only explicit reference to which that I can think of in the author’s works is a joke scribbled on the wall of an American restroom in Diamonds Are Forever. The real Fleming seemed far more interested in myriad sexual deviances and strange fetishes than in genitalia. I assumed that the explicit references to the length and depth of Edward's and Simpson’s respective organs were shoe-horned in as a point of historical curiosity, but they turn out to be among the many details Silver admits to fabricating in his afterward. Bizarre.

Finally, the whole conceit of the novel (and I’m going to drift into vague, minor spoiler territory here, so potential readers beware), that Fleming would feel compelled to reveal to the world a secret that could potentially destroy the Royal Family seems off base. This is, after all, the man who penned On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, who created a literary hero staunchly devoted to Queen and Country. I suspect Fleming himself shared those devotions, at least enough so that he wouldn’t want to bring down the Monarchy. Ultimately, Ian Fleming seems the wrong vessel to choose to deliver this message, but he’s an interesting figure, and the James Bond connection is sure to lure in curious browsers.

The book also loses credibility from serious Bond fans for mixing up (probably intentionally, since Silver seems to have at least read Fleming, as well as a few biographies of him) the Bond of the books with the Bond of the movies. "Ian Fleming" writes, in "Provenance": "Q lives. The real-life counterpart of the quartermaster in the Bond books is alive and well and counting the days to retirement in the basement of Whitehall." Of course, while Q branch exists in the novels, as does an armorer named Major Boothroyd (named after a real person), the character referred to by the letter Q is an invention of the movies, and not one that Fleming would likely take credit for.

In Secret Service succeeds neither as an Ian Fleming pastiche nor as a Da Vinci Code-style historical mystery, but it is a fast read. The storyline in the past was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, and worked better as soon as I resigned myself to accept it on its own merits and not look for clever Flemingisms. Had it been the sole story, I might have fully enjoyed the novel. As one cover-quoted author points out, Silver's enthusiasm for his own material is palpable, and that zeal goes a long way. In Secret Service is a failure, but a promising one, and the writer's second novel might fare better.


David said...

Thanks for another great review. I don't think I'll seek this one out. I have a couple of the Quinn Fawcett novels Honor Among Spies and Death To Spies which I haven't gotten around to reading yet. Must do that soon. The pile of books just keeps getting bigger.

It is strange this fascination with Fleming as an action / spy character. Or is it simply a way for people to write a Bond style story (or movie)without breaching copyright?

We've had two films...Spymaker with Jason Connery which I guiltily admit to enjoying...Golden Eye with Charles Dance (great casting) but lacklustre story...and at least 3 books from Quinn Fawcett...and now this adds to the list.

Forgive the sarcasm, but when John Le Carré and Len Deighton pass away, do you think that their exploits in the Secret Services, before becoming successful authors, will be elaborated upon?

And let's not forget Stella Rimington!!!

Tanner said...

Good points! Personally, I'd love to see looks at Deighton and Le Carre's intelligence careers, but I doubt they'll prove as popular. I think it's a combination of what you say, the desire to write a Bond story while avoiding copyrights, and a general fascination with the fact that the man who created James Bond actually worked in intelligence. People want to believe that that means that Bond is what spying's really like, and the fiction featuring Fleming perpetuates that notion. In fact, of course, his intelligence career was pretty mundane, and mostly based at Whitehall or on diplomatic trips with his boss. People would love to believe that he was actually an active field agent, though, so they want to read, write and buy such stories. (The new W.E.B. Griffin novel teams Fleming up with David Niven for a wartime spy adventure.)

My Fawcett books have suffered the same fate as yours, relegated forever to a pile of books to be read. One day I'll get around to them!

I liked both Fleming TV movies, although I haven't seen either in a very long time. Spymaker was basically an attempt to make a Bond movie with the son of the original Bond, but not the copyright, but it had a great supporting cast. Golden Eye (which I think was called Goldeneye in its original US TV broadcast and retitled for that recent DVD to avoid confusion with the Bond movie) stuck closer to the facts, and Dance was a dead ringer for the younger Fleming and thus an excellent choice for the role. George Lazenby introduced it when it first aired here after Licence To Kill was in theaters.