The Book Club

Sex-Scene Screw-Ups and Low-Caliber Schlock

Dear Tony,

Glad you mentioned sex in Single & Single. I have my own favorite scene. It’s the perfect example of a common spy-fiction screw-up that comes from trying to do two things at once. Next to the genre imperative of plot is the market imperative of “the love interest.” A degree of interweaving is necessary if the second isn’t to look too obviously like sales-bait. But overfastidious thriller writers can interweave them a bit too thoroughly, so that plot gets advanced during sex acts. That is, the two lovers wind up carrying on immensely complicated discussions while in the heat of erotic distraction.

That’s what le Carré does in Chapter Nine. To telescope a bit:

Oliver’s desire for her is an addiction. A finger to her lips for silence, she undresses him. He is strung to bursting point. But he forces himself to lie apart from her …”What does Yevgeny trade in?”She turns her back on him. “It is all bad things.”“What’s the worst thing?” …Flinging herself round to him, she traps him between her thighs and lunges at him with ferocity, as if by taking him inside her she will silence him… . She screams it, loud enough for half the hotel to hear: “It is from Afghanistan! From Kazakhstan! From Kirghiz! Hoban has arranged it! They are making the new trade. Across Russia from the East.” And her choking abject cry of shame as she desperately assaults him.

But this badness is as nothing compared with the schlock of Archangel. You’re right about the plot’s implausibility. And the plot doesn’t even do the implausible things it sets out to. Let’s take Zinaida, and let’s meanwhile break our vestigial strictures against plot-revelation by disclosing what’s in the very last sentence of the book. She brings a gun to a Moscow railway station to meet the train on which Little Stalin and his apostle Mamantov are arriving.

I think Harris wants us to believe that this downtrodden prostitute, the dregs of the new Russia, is about to save the country from totalitarianism in a way that her educated betters have failed to. In other words, she’s going to shoot Stalinito. But given the hackneyed rationale running through her head–an obsession with self-reliance combined with a desire for vengeance–it’s Mamantov she’d shoot, right? It was Mamantov who killed her father, after all, not Little Stalin.

And what of Zinaida’s educated betters, Suvorin in particular? I think you were right a couple of days ago to say that he was supposed to play the role Arkady Renko does in Gorky Park. But he’s developed so superficially that he becomes indistinguishable from Alix Hoban, the cosmopolitan monster in Single & Single. All he is is nice clothes and fluent English. And have you ever seen a character discarded with less regret? Given that Suvorin doesn’t participate in the final shootout, and winds up just walking into a cabin to freeze, what was he doing (plot-wise) on that trip north? In fact, given that all he does is wear nice clothes in the opening chapters and travel north to freeze to death in the closing ones, what is he even doing in this book in the first place? I’ll tell you what he’s doing: He’s serving as a pretext for casting some new Russian heartthrob when the book gets adapted for the screen.

I agree that the evocations of Stalin are good. But aside from a few pages of excerpts from Kelso’s lectures, they stop after the first chapter. From then on, we’re dealing with airplane reading of the lowest caliber. We talked about the necessity of self-parody in spy fiction. The one thing to be avoid at all costs is the schlock writing that doesn’t realize it’s parody, and Archangel is full of it:

Twenty years of cigarettes and scotch seemed to have convened a protest meeting in his heart and lungs.


She was studying law. She was going to be a lawyer. She was going to give up [the high-priced whorehouse] Robotnik, and Moscow with it, and move to St. Petersburg and become a proper legal whore–a lawyer.

That’s tellin’ ‘em, tough guy.

I liked your comparison of the Arctic scenes to Fargo. Since the last third of the book is transparently not a novel episode but a film treatment, I’ve been trying to think of the movies it reminds me of. On the one hand, Stalinito acts more like a clone than a son, making this scene an import from science-fiction that sits uneasily in a historical novel.

On the other hand, there’s something cartoonish about this squat little Survivalist Goblin with a 65 IQ. So I’ve settled it: It’s an even mix of Rambo, GrizzlyAdams, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.