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.


  1. The Fedora novels are in the process of being republished - but only as ebooks. They're up to book 13 so far (the one after this one, which I've just finished reading). I thought this one was quite clever, in patches, with a very good climax.

    I can see why Fedora is described as the thinking man's Bond, but only because I've read all the books - there are times when there is an intellectual depth the Bond novels never had, but they pop up here and there. Which leads to the one big problem with the Fedora series, IMO - each individual book is great, and at least two are brilliant, and I would recommend practically all of them - but for wildly different reasons! They're so different from each other in plot, style, writing - and sometimes even genre (one is a Wilbur Smith adventure that has an ending that can best be described as Nigel Kneale meets Michael Chrichton). As a series, it's the worst I've ever read - as a series.

    Fleming is mocked for his rose-tinted view of the British Secret Service, but his world-building was at least consistent. For instance, this is the only book, at least so far, where Fedora's background is more than even mentioned in passing - he's usually written as a standard, if above average, Brit.

    I would HIGHLY recommend almost any of the Fedora books - but I would strongly recommend not reading them in order.

    1. I've only read two of the Fedora novels but I have a third one waiting to be read. I don't do the ebook thing but used paperback copies of his books seem to be fairly easy to find.

      It's weird to come across a series that varies so much. Now I'm definitely interested in getting hold of more of the Fedoras.

    2. Really? I've only seen a handful of his books as paperbacks; I'll keep a better look out.

      I would especially recommend the first two, 'Secret Ministry' and 'This Traitor, Death', and book five, 'Height Of Day', although they're all good in different ways. Sometimes the ending isn't quite as good as the rest of the book - they sometimes feel a bit rushed, like there was a deadline approaching!

      If they weren't part of a series, I would never have believed that they were all written by the same guy - sometimes I think he'd have been better off making them all standalones with different heroes, a la Mr Maclean

    3. PS Apologies if I posted the wrong comment - something went a bit odd in my browser!