Zero Dark Thirty goes into wide release next week, and viewers across the country can expect something that has been lacking from this year’s Oscar season: a movie with some meat on its bones. In terms of running time, that’s a bad thing. No movie has any right to be 160 minutes long. But in terms of storytelling, it’s a positive. This is a war movie that doesn’t hold your hand. Its first two hours are obsessed with the grit of intelligence gathering, and shot through with lingo that will be incomprehensible to all but the most devoted viewers of Homeland. But even when it’s difficult to follow, the film has two things that carry the viewer through: a strong central character, and a touch of authenticity that is, in espionage thrillers, impossible to do without.
Nobody else is telling espionage stories this compelling. For its feverish, brilliant first season, Homeland had this. But by the end of season two, the tension was gone, and the authenticity followed soon after. Skyfall was as gritty as any James Bond film since The Living Daylights, but the villain’s absurd plan meant that it was, when the credits rolled, just a very good Bond movie. For those who like their spies cold, their villains believable, and their armories gadget-free, may I suggest turning to the golden age of espionage: the Cold War.
Cold war spy fiction runs along a spectrum of ridiculousness. At the wacky end is James Bond; at the other, George Smiley. In between lie all sorts of spies of varying degrees of suaveness. But even the silliest Bond fiction is much more gritty than you realize, and everything less suave than him, well, it’s as intense as Carrie Mathison on a bad day. Here are three books to get you started, ranked from Bond’s vodka martinis to Smiley’s battered brown hushpuppies.
Moonraker, Ian Fleming. The film Moonraker exemplifies all that is evil about the Roger Moore era. Stiled, unfunny and cartoonish, it shows Bond fighting to stop a millionaire madman from destroying Earth from space. The eponymous Moonraker is a space shuttle which Bond rides to laser-town. It is an unfunny farce, if there is such a thing. But the novel is everything great about the series. It has it all! High-stakes bridge, nauseating torture, a killer car chase and a sinister plot involving moustaches. Really. Moustaches. The Moonraker isn’t a space shuttle, but a rocket capable of carrying an atom bomb across continents. That’s right—the superweapon is an ICBM. Quelle low tech.
The 9th Directive, Adam Hall. The Quiller series of thrillers, started with 1965′s The Quiller Memorandum and concluded with 1996′s Quiller Balalaika, began life as a simple James Bond rip-off. To distinguish his hero from Fleming’s superspy, Adam Hall stripped away everything that made Bond sexy. Quiller drinks no martinis, drives no Astons, and has very little to do with the opposite sex. Instead of coolness, Hall imbued his character with a remarkable tolerance for pain, and strict moral code that prevents him from killing an enemy sniper until the other man raises his weapon to fire. The 9th Directive is the second in the series, but it set the standard. Quiller is in Bangkok to prevent the assassination of an important figure called only the Person. To save the stranger’s life, he must almost lose his, oh, eight or nine times.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré. Ian Fleming created every cliché we know and love about jetsetting superspies, and le Carré did the same for labyrinthian espionage. His intelligence Circus is a dark, musty place, where deceit is everywhere and no one—narrator included—can be trusted. Some of his novels, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are so chock full of double, triple and god-knows-how-many-ple crosses that simply understanding what’s happening in a given scene can be difficult. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is not one of these. A stepping stone from his first two Smiley novels, which are more murder mysteries than spy thrillers, to his later bafflers, this novel may be his best. Although technically a spy, Smiley is far from super. He is schlubby, balding and past-his-prime—a former field agent whose current work is much closer to that of a CIA analyst. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the original Saul Berenson.