restricted access Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller, and: Corridors of Deceit: The World of John le Carré (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Denning. Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. 168 pp. £6.95.
Peter Wolfe. Corridors of Deceit: The World of John le Carré. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State UP, 1987. 275 pp. $31.95 cloth; pb. $15.95.

Do we need another book on the spy novel? Michael Denning, the author of Cover Stories, certainly thinks so. According to him, most previous studies of popular genres, including espionage fiction, are fundamentally flawed by their commitment to notions of a timeless and universal "great tradition." The proper approach is, he argues, to "situate . . . texts within the set of institutions—formula, style, reading public, publishing—which constitutes a genre rather than to ratify a particular canon." Denning's stance owes a lot to his studies at Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, and, in pursuing his ambitious target, he often seems to be writing to impress his former colleagues. Certainly, he makes few concessions to the less specialized reader who is expected to follow him through a set of complex propositions, often cryptically argued and couched in impenetrable jargon, and to have a thorough knowledge of a broad cross-section of formalist, structuralist, and Marxist critical theories.

Whether readers should respond to Denning's challenge is questionable. Too often they will struggle with complicated arguments only to have them collapse into confusion. Denning's self-contradictory efforts to demonstrate the centrality of the "gentleman outlaw" spy in espionage fiction prior to 1930 is a case in point. Similarly, in grasping at the difficult theoretical constructs that Denning either creates or summarizes, readers will sometimes find themselves in possession of vast rhetorical balloons that quickly deflate into fairly commonplace or even specious observations. Pages of material drawn from Lukács, Todorov, Greimas, Barthes, Propp, and Eagleton, for instance, turn out to be no more than a preface for some fairly straightforward comments on realism in the spy novel.

Readers who persist with Denning will find some reward for their efforts in the studies of individual authors offered in the later chapters. Even here, however, thoughtful analysis must be disentangled from ingenious misinterpretation. Thus, Denning's portrayal of James Bond as a product of the new ethic of consumption and leisure, a kind of patron saint of tourism and pornography, is subtle and provocative. However, it is followed by a chapter in which John le Carré's novels are repeatedly forced out of shape to meet the needs of Denning's thesis. A case in point is his contention that George Smiley's career follows a pattern of decline from a position of "absolute bureaucratic knowledge." In order to sustain this argument, Denning completely ignores the existence of the early novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, in which Smiley operates outside the bureaucratic power structure, and he underrates the extent to which the character is the unwitting tool of Control in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Looking Glass War.

If Denning is an overreacher, then Peter Wolfe is an underachiever. The task he sets himself in Corridors of Deceit is relatively modest—to introduce le Carré's novels to the general reader—and he limits himself to basic questions of theme, character, plot, and structure. Nevertheless, Wolfe's book is a failure because the author lacks the kind of competence we would expect of a senior undergraduate. His writing is consistently clumsy and sometimes blatantly inaccurate, as in his use of the neologisms "murderee" and "actional"; his arguments are generally devoid of controlling idea or clear direction; and his interpretations often reveal [End Page 293] a crass insensitivity to le Carré's nuances or, worse, a simple inability to read the surface of the text accurately. Wolfe attempts, for instance, to demonstrate le Carré's stylistic brilliance by providing an example of how one well-bred spy greets another after a long separation. Unfortunately, the exchange in question takes place between Peter Worthington, a schoolteacher, and a man he is meeting for the first time and believes to be a civil servant.

If all this wasn't enough, Corridors...