The World of the Thriller.
by Ralph Harper.
Case Western Reserve. 139 pp. $4.95.
In New Essays in Philosophical Theology Basil Mitchell proposes a parable to illustrate the difficulties in deciding what constitutes counter-evidence for a belief in God. During the wartime occupation of a country, the parable begins, a member of the Resistance meets a stranger in a bar. After they strike up a warm relationship, the Stranger reveals that he too is a member of the Resistance. In fact, he is the leader. The Resistance member is impressed and moved by the confidence placed in him and he readily agrees when the Stranger asks for his total trust no matter what happens. The two never meet again, but the member does observe the Stranger helping other members of the Resistance and he is pleased. Unfortunately, he also frequently sees the Stranger in the uniform of the occupying forces, turning in members of the Resistance, testifying against them, officiating at their executions. The friends of the Resistance member are dubious, but he remains staunchly convinced of the Stranger's good faith. The Stranger alone has the total vision of affairs that makes these seeming inconsistencies a comprehensible plan. There is, in fact, no way he can be questioned.
Mitchell aptly chooses the framework of a spy story for his theological parable, since many of the best spy stories seem to serve a human hunger for total explanation that has previously been satisfied only by the idea of God. The 17th- and 18th-century equivalent of the spy story is the tale of exotic adventure and travel, where men are buffeted by the seemingly arbitrary forces of nature. Robinson Crusoe sat on his island and saw the hand of God in his shipwreck and in everything else that had happened to him. He blessed divine providence for both the punishment and the chance for repentance and redemption. Defoe wrote amid the waning of belief in the providential theory of history and at a time when other systematic explanations were already competing for favor. Napoleon could declare by the beginning of the 19th century that fate had been replaced by politics. In the course of the 19th century, new scientific and positivistic systems offered more appealing and more practical explanations for the haphazard facts of the universe. Meanwhile, in popular polemic, theories of evolution and scientific discovery routed the belief that God's intervention and order were the mainsprings of history.
The 19th-century detective story is the appropriate offspring of 19th-century scientific thought. As observation of facts and the proper use of details in building an interpretation became the methods of a new harmony, the urge to solve mysteries became the material of literature. Poe's Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes (with his Pre-Raphaelite aestheticism), and most of the early detectives dealt in the art of the visible. Their worlds were limited systems, made up of deductively ordered arrays of facts. The solution of the mystery was to find the order in physical things, the minute linkages that must naturally lead to the solution of the crime. And these facts were always preeminently there: the purloined letter remained hidden because it was so visible; only the man who respected and carefully interrogated all facts would find it. Sherlock Holmes could divine the whole of a man's life from the tilt of his head, a callus at the base of his thumb, or a frayed spot on the inner elbow of his hunting jacket. The police procedural novel, with its loving exposition of the truths available to the observant exploiter of technological progress, had begun its long tenure. It was to limp into the early 20th century as the bastard stepchild of naturalism, without metaphysical depth, useful only for the diversions of a rainy afternoon, when enclosed worlds are congenial.
In the course of the 20th century the readily apparent reality of the detective story yielded its place in the fictional imagination to the mysterious disguises and hidden organizations of the spy story. Spies, unlike detectives, have been around for a long time: Joshua sends advance men into Jericho; Pericles sends merchants to Sparta. Literary historians speculate about the clandestine activities of Chaucer, Marlowe, Andrew Marvell, and Defoe too. The need to know what your enemy, and even your friend, is doing has been a constant for men in public life. But spying emerges as an imaginative concern only in the later 19th century with the exotic tales of writers like Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the philosophical romances of Dostoevsky, Conrad, and G. K. Chesterton.
What are the reasons behind the 20th-century vogue of the spy story? Ralph Harper, in The World of the Thriller, attempts to answer this question by invoking the philosophical and psychological categories of existentialism to show that the hero of the thriller (by which he means especially the spy story) is modern man in search of identity and control over his environment.
This kind of metaphysic of popular culture, so reminiscent of the most fascinating French criticism, is a tricky thing to handle, and Harper must be commended for his attempt. But he does not fially bring it off. His book has little organization and few insights to compensate for its lack of coherence. The rapid movement from subject to subject encourages frequent contradictions and a lack of resolution. Perhaps one reason for Harper's thematic flightiness is that he is practicing a kind of allegorical criticism in which the form resides not in the book itself but in a system of ideas and categories that exist outside it. He dwells on abstract passages from the novels he quotes and rarely analyzes the action. When it suits his purpose, he slips out of a definition he asserted absolutely a few pages before. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, for example, becomes an Exhibit A even though Harper has already ruled the detective novel out of his system. The reason, of course, is that Chandler is given to sententious and philosophically sentimental maunderings that comfortably suit the popular definition of existentialism with which Harper usually satisfies himself.
Harper's categories do have some interest, but his use of them has little grace or tact. He accumulates rather than discriminates: “The thriller world is Heideggerian rather than Tillichian. Its categories do not include meaninglessness, but rather Care, Dread, Death, Guilt, Time, and a Being-unto-Death, all the categories of contingency and resolution we find in even the run-of-the-mill detective or spy story.” Although Harper asserts that spy stories are a unique genre, he frequently describes them in terms that can apply to any work of fiction. He never quite resolves or tries to resolve the contradiction between asserting that the spy story is “one place we are exposed to what we really are” and admitting that their enclosedness (“unlike life”) solves problems and allows us to treat them as escapist.
But it is only when the spy story reaches out to force us to go beyond escape and into reflection that it succeeds as more than distraction. Concealed within the heart of the spy story, and most tales of adventure, is the theme of personal identity; it is the logical counterpoise to the search for the order of the universe. The world of detective clarity in Poe's “The Purloined Letter” has its darker complement in his “William Wilson.” And there are even less schizophrenic relations between the spy world of Dostoevsky's The Possessed and his The Double, or between Conrad's The Secret Agent and Lord Jim.
In the best spy stories the hero is an unreflective man, even less intellectual than the reader, for the hero rarely if ever reads spy stories. But a missent cable, an overheard conversation, a casual pickup, has catapulted this “normal” man into a maelstrom. He has become abruptly aware of an entire fabric of evil and abnormality that underlies daily life. The true horror of this situation—like that in much science fiction—is not in the evil discovered, but in the fact that no one will believe the hero's account of it: he is a Cassandra yelling fruitlessly into the ears of railway porters, customs officials, and hotel clerks. The world of normal authority is deaf to his prophecies.
By its emphasis on the need to discover a universal order, no matter how diabolical it may be, the spy story takes its revenge on a world of Crystal Palace optimism about the fruits of technology and the verifiability of truth. In place of the detective who perceives the relation among objects, the hero of the spy story has discovered the connections among minds, the ultimate organization that links the interests of a dishwasher in Tangiers, a bank president in Zagreb, and a Spenser specialist in New Haven. He has stumbled on a new cosmology that has preempted both the old idea of Providence and the scientific certainties of the Enlightenment and the 19th century. The god of good may have left the earth behind, but in the spy story his coeval, the Manichean god of evil, makes malevolent sense of the world. In the escapist spy novel, the new concept of order is represented by a villain who is fascinating and unique. This villain has harnessed the world to his paranoia; he has made sense of things. But for the reader to breathe easily, the villain's flaws must be obvious ones because the harmony of his universe is so apparent. His power, therefore, is usually expressed in destruction. His nature is inhuman: he has mechanical parts or hates poetry. Conventional virtue calls for his death and the destruction of his organization. Yet the nostalgia for order mourns his passing.
God's providential order was in part an attempt to explain the existence of evil in the world. The spy story usually ends with the obliteration of evil. But where evil in God's universe was described in terms of formlessness and chaos, our modern evil is a masterpiece of order. The theme of the ambiguous virtue of order is explored fully only in the novels of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, where the anti-heroes and non-villains tug helplessly at each other amid bland and uninterested bureaucracies that will exist long after the principals are dead. But the popular spy story raises no such specters. Instead it is shrouded in the nostalgia for order, even the malevolent order that the Stranger could supply, if he were content only to run things instead of destroying them.