Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Desmond Cory's Undertow

Englishman Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (1928-2001) was the author of many books including the sixteen Johnny Fedora spy novels written between 1951 and 1971 under the pseudonym Desmond Cory. Undertow was the twelfth of the Johnny Fedora series, appearing in 1962, and was the first of five novels to feature KGB master-spy Feramontov. 

Undertow is set in Spain where McCarthy had lived for a time.

The hero, Johnny Fedora, is in fact half-Spanish and carries something of a personal  grudge as an indirect result of the Spanish Civil War. Fedora works for the British Secret Intelligence Service and his duties include assassination. This “licence to kill” might make him sound like a James Bond rip-off but the first of the Johnny Fedora novels actually pre-dates the first of the Bond novels.

The Johnny Fedora novels had the reputation of being somewhat in the James Bond mould but perhaps slightly more cerebral.

For a rather short novel Cory takes quite a while to set things up. Once the action gets going though it’s pretty relentless and pretty exciting.

Johnny Fedora and his friend Sebastian Trout are retired British Secret Intelligence Service officers on holiday in southern Spain. In fact they’re staying at the palatial house of Johnny’s new (and very rich) Latin American girlfriend. They spend their time relaxing in the sunshine. The very last thing they’re anticipating is to find that their neighbours, an eccentric elderly marine biologist and his beautiful young German assistant, are Soviet spies. They’re also not expecting to find a young woman floating dead in their swimming pool. Or to be caught up in an elaborate operation by the Spanish secret police.

Johnny is certainly not expecting to find himself in a life-or-death contest with the most feared of all KGB killers, the sadistic Moreno. Moreno has spent eight years in a Spanish prison before escaping. What Johnny Fedora doesn’t know is that the Spanish secret police engineered his prison break.

It’s an interesting setup for a spy novel because it’s a three-cornered contest. There’s something important that the Russians are looking for, something from the past and only Moreno knows where it is. The Russians want it, but the Spanish want it too and so do the British - or at least Johnny Fedora wants it, although at this point he’s acting as a lone wolf.

The plot has the necessary twists and turns and it’s quite skillfully constructed.

It’s all very much in the James Bond mould. There’s the exotic setting, there’s some glamour, there’s a touch of sadism, there’s sex and there’s some fairly graphic violence. Feramontov isn’t as colourful as Fleming’s villains. On the other hand the cold-blooded sadist Moreno would be quite at home in a Bond novel, and the German-Russian spy Elsa would make an ideal Bond girl. It’s perhaps not quite as stylish or as glamorous as Bond but Cory is a fine writer and he certainly knows how to handle action scenes.

Johnny Fedora himself is an ice-cold professional killer but as the Spanish secret police chief points out he’s not like Moreno. Johnny kills without hesitation if he feels it’s necessary but he doesn’t have any strong emotions about it. It’s just part of the job. Moreno on the other hand enjoys it. Johnny makes an effective hero, cooly calculating and quietly determined. He’s capable of anger but it’s a cold anger that is more a strength than a weakness.

Although Johnny Fedora has been described as the thinking man’s James Bond I’m a bit dubious about that. I don’t see this novel as being any more intellectual than Fleming’s Bond novels. Undertow is however a very entertaining Cold War spy thriller and is highly recommended.

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