Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Problem with the Romantic Spy Novel

Agent Smith is NOT a nice guy.
The problem with the romantic spy novel is that (realistic) spies are not the kinds of people who should inspire commitment.

Yes, I argue on this blog that dysfunctional relationships can work as long as all the people involved know what dysfunction they're signing up for. But there are lines. And a firm line stands between ordinary-dysfunction and con-artists/grifters.

Spies--actual spies--fall into the latter category. Someone like Philby comes across not as clever, resourceful, daring, or even dangerous (in the James Bond sense) but as someone essentially hollow.
Lee, from Scarecrow & Mrs King, isn't really a spy; he's
more of a international FBI agent a la Seeley Booth.

John Le Carre's chilling depiction of spies in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (wherein the sincerely loyal-to-his-country character is sacrificed for the sake of protecting a sleazebag asset) is a far more realistic depiction than the noble secret agent who wants to protect his/her country.

A variation to the sleazebag asset is the tough assassin. The problem here is that generally speaking, tough assassins are like the mafia hitman serial killer in Criminal Minds: a fascinating character with a great deep voice  who has no soul.

Every romance writer wants to create Jason Bourne (who doesn't?)--as opposed to the schemer in the backroom. But unless the character IS Jason Bourne and has a good reason to protect himself without becoming callous, amoral, and deranged, the romance writer is stuck. (In Person of Interest, John's determination to regain his soul means creating a set of personal criteria that he sticks to no matter the cost--he is constantly watching himself--plus he already walked away from being an official "spy".)

Personally, I think spy movies should not even try to be
realistic--put the secret agent in a tank!
The end result is often spy novels that end up being (even more) unrealistic (than the average
adventure movie). In one I read recently, the spy handed the object of his assignment, the mark (and love interest), a gun within 24-hours of their meeting. At that point, I rolled my eyes and gave up on the book being anything more than a series of chases (well-written, I'll grant, but still--). A hard-headed, intelligent, resourceful, expert, non-novice, non-amnesiac spy simply HANDS over a weapon to a wild card?

Where did my suspension of disbelief go? Oh, there it is, wafting out the window . . .

I love the "but love conquers all doubts" theme as much as the next romantic. Only, please, not in a spy novel and not in the first three chapters. Even Leverage gave its grifter several seasons to "repent" (and she was a nice grifter).