Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On suspense

Here's an article you might have missed: it was a guest post at the group blog Jungle Red Writers in July last year. I've added some pictures, tweaked a couple of sentences, and here it is again for your reading pleasure.

What I've learned from the masters of suspense

For a lot of people, the phrase ‘master of suspense’ immediately brings to mind the film director Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps more than anyone else, Hitchcock has brought suspense into the cultural and critical fold. Many people instantly grasp the idea that he was not simply in the business of creating entertaining films, but was exploring the human condition: that he used suspense to tap into our greatest fears, and to comment on societal taboos, questions of identity and so on.

However, as soon as this argument is applied to books, other rules – or perceptions – often seem to come into play. Many people who understand and appreciate Hitchcock’s use of suspense view suspense novels as incapable of saying anything interesting or significant about life, at best providing a quick thrill.

Is it simply that Hitchcock handled suspense better than any novelist? I don’t believe so. Don’t get me wrong – I love Hitch. But today I’d like to look at three writers who have inspired me, and who I think are just as worthy of the description ‘masters of suspense’.

The Austrian writer Johannes Mario Simmel (left) was hugely popular in his day – it is thought that 70 million copies of his books were sold worldwide. In the 1970s, several novels he had written in the ’50s and ’60s were published in English translation, with covers that usually featured a spool of barbed wire and a swastika, and titles that recalled the work of Robert Ludlum: The Caesar Code, The Berlin Connection, The Cain Conspiracy...
But ignore the packaging: these are gripping thrillers coupled with profound psychological insight. There are a few commonalities: there is often a public figure trying to protect a horrifying secret, and a character who commits a crime for love. Many are set in Fifties Vienna or Berlin, and the Cold War atmosphere is palpable: Double Agent-Triple Cross opens with an attempt to smuggle people out of East Berlin via a tunnel.

But above all, these are great suspense novels. My favourites are The Cain Conspiracy, which opens with a man overhearing his brother hiring someone to assassinate him, and The Berlin Connection, which starts with the line: ‘I can remember the moment even now when I died for the first time.’ The narrator of the latter novel is a former Hollywood child star in his mid-thirties making his comeback in a film called Comeback, which is of course about a former Hollywood child star in his mid-thirties making his comeback in a film called Comeback. He has to finish the film because he desperately needs the financial security to divorce his rich wife. And he has to divorce her soon, because she’s on the verge of discovering that he’s having an affair with her daughter, which is illegal in some states (and would ruin his film career). He’s also an alcoholic with a heart condition who can’t act, so the picture’s under threat. Oh, and he’s hiding a secret from the war. You won’t be able to sit still.

My second master of suspense is someone whose name I’m not even sure about. The two novels of his I own are credited to ‘Julyan Semyonov’ and ‘Julian Semenov’, but it appears his real name was ‘Yulian Landres’ (or the equivalent in Cyrillic). Most Western readers have never heard of Landres (right), but he was a giant in the Soviet Union: his 1968 novel Seventeen Moments of Spring (also translated under the more prosaic title The Himmler Ploy) was a massive best-seller. The TV adaptation (pictured below) was even more successful, making the protagonist an icon in the Soviet Union. Jokes are still told about him to this day, and repeat runs of the series reportedly see a significant drop in crime rates in Moscow, as everyone is indoors watching it.

Set in the final weeks of World War Two, our hero is Nazi officer Max Otto von Stirlitz – who is soon revealed to be a deep-cover Soviet agent, Colonel Maksim Maksimovich Isaev. Both the novel and TV series build the suspense very slowly, with Stirlitz/Isaev looking to uncover which leading Nazi is involved in trying to broker a separate peace deal with the United States while avoiding exposure from the same men. It’s one of the tautest spy thrillers I’ve read. He had one other spy novel translated into English that I'm aware of, Tass Is Authorized To Announce... It's not nearly as good, although it offers an intriguing look at the Cold War from the other side's perspective.

My final master of suspense is a British writer, Elleston Trevor (left). Perhaps best known for his novel Flight Of The Phoenix - filmed in 1965 with James Stewart - he also wrote 19 superb suspense thrillers under the name Adam Hall. Featuring a neurotic and battle-scarred British secret agent called Quiller (the first was filmed as The Quiller Memorandum in the Sixties, pictured below with George Segal), the series combined an esoteric knowledge of everything from sleep deprivation to martial arts with sweat-soaked action.

Like Simmel, and to a lesser degree Landres, Trevor was very fond of cliff-hangers, which he built up with successive chapters until it's almost unbearable. Told in the first person, we follow Quiller as he is chased by dogs, grips the underside of trains and enters darkened hotel rooms. But unlike in a film, here we are inside Quiller’s head, and so we experience every last moment of anxiety. My favourites in the series are The Ninth Directive, which revolves around an assassination plot in Bangkok, and The Tango Briefing, in which Quiller must reach a crashed cargo plane in the Sahara before anyone else.

All three of these writers understood the power of suspense, and used it to explore themes close to their hearts: Simmel the post-war environment of Austria and Germany; Landres duty and patriotism; and Trevor the survival instinct. Each of them had his work filmed, and often to great effect. I suspect if Hitchcock had tackled them the results might have been even more impressive – and that their work would be seen in a somewhat different light.

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